European Union Should Play Stronger Role in the Armenia – Azerbaijan Conflict

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By Vasif Huseynov :

The recent military escalation started on July 12 on the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan has drawn extensive international reaction. The Spokesperson of the European External Action Service (EEAS), sharing a statement on July 13, called the warring sides “to strictly respect the ceasefire, devote energy and resources to fighting the coronavirus pandemic, meaningfully re-engage in substantive negotiations under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs and prepare their populations for peace.”

This time, as in the so-called “Four-Day War” between Armenia and Azerbaijan in April 2016, the EU chose to stick to its policy of political support to the OSCE Minsk Group (MG) that is the main international institution tasked with the coordination of negotiations between the two conflicting sides and co-chaired by the EU member France along with the United States and Russia. This political approach by the EU constitutes a stark contradiction to the role and attitude it demonstrates with regards to other ethno-territorial conflicts in the Eastern Neighbourhood.

The European Union would have been expected to play a bigger role in the settlement of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the two states that take part in the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) programme targeting the former Soviet states in Eastern Europe and South Caucasus. This role would also be in line with the previously declared agenda of the European Commission of President Ursula von der Leyen who had pledged to lead “a geopolitical commission”.

There are, indeed, a number of reasons for the European Union to undertake a more influential role in the resolution process of the Armenia – Azerbaijan conflict and some instruments to be mobilized towards this end.

First and foremost, the EU should protect its interests in the region more assertively by taking into account a number of potential repercussions of the recent escalation for its geopolitical interests in the eastern neighbourhood in general, for its energy security in particular. As it has been widely reported in the regional and international media, the potential implications of the recent clashes extend beyond the three-decades old conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and bear a key importance for the regional interests of the EU.

Above all, Azerbaijan’s Tovuz district where the recent clashes took place is a region that hosts major energy pipelines (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and Southern Gas Corridor) and transportation routes (Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, East – West Highway) connecting Azerbaijan with Europe through Georgia and Turkey. Any instability in this part of Azerbaijan would deal a serious blow to its connection with its Western partners with overarching consequences for both sides. This would also ruin all the investment and resources the EU has invested in the development of these bonds with Azerbaijan.

Not less importantly, the recent clashes run the risk of dramatic geopolitical expansion of the Armenia – Azerbaijan conflict as the skirmishes occurred on the internationally-recognized borders between the two countries which allowed Armenia to seek the involvement the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

As, unlike the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, the location of the recent clashes falls under the jurisdiction of the CSTO, Armenia could theoretically trigger the collective defence article of the Alliance. An emergency meeting of the CSTO was thus announced upon the phone conversation between Armenia’s Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and CSTO Secretary General Stanislav Zas, but later that meeting was cancelled for unknown reasons.

There has, however, been no visible attempt by the European Union to affect the process and avert its escalation to the above-mentioned potentially dangerous stage. Nor has the EU attempted to play a role in the conflict resolution process before equivalent to its aspired geopolitical weight. Is this so because of the lack of instruments or leverage?

NO, there are actually a wide range of such means the EU could mobilize in order to play an impactful role in the region contributing to the resolution of the regional conflicts and establishment of peace and security. If this is so, how could then the European Union play a stronger role in the Armenia – Azerbaijan conflict?

First of all, the office of the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and crisis in Georgia can be expanded and empowered. Quite contrary to the conflict in Georgia where EU’s Special Representative holds a formal mediating role participating on behalf of the EU in Geneva International Discussions, it does not have a similar role in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Underestimating the potential the EU holds to affect the conflicting parties and giving in to other external players involved in the region, the EU has minimized its influence on the process. This approach has starkly depreciated the mandate of the EU Special Representative’s office and led it to playing a negligible role since it was formed in 2003.

It is important for the EU to take note that all the conflicts in its Eastern Neighbourhood are inherently interconnected, and a selective approach with respect to them wouldn’t produce the expected results.

Second, ideally it would be most productive if the EU can take over France’s seat in the Co-Chairmanship of the Minsk Group. Unfortunately, due to plenty of reasons, it is not possible under the existing circumstances.

The EU can, however, urge France to play a more active and assertive role in the OSCE’s Minsk Group. Any revitalization in the Minsk Group would be an important development because the conflict-affected people have apparently lost their hope and trust in the work of Minsk Group, as recently pronounced by Azerbaijan’s leader President Ilham Aliyev. On July 6, in one of his last media appearances before the start of Tovuz clashes, President Aliyev openly criticized the international mediators in the negotiations, declaring that the peace process has become “pointless”.

Last but not least, being the main trading partner of Azerbaijan accounting for around 36.7 % of its total trade and the second biggest export market of Armenia sharing also around 20 % of the country’s total trade, the EU can use this leverage in the relations with the conflicting sides and urge them to abide by the international law as repeatedly called for in the resolutions of the European Parliament and other EU documents.

For example, on 10 June, around a month before the Tovuz clashes, the members of the European Parliament reacted to the construction of a road that would directly connect Armenia and the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region and issued a joint statement characterizing the project as a violation of the international law. Concluding that the project is an attempt to “consolidate the illegal occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding territories”, the statement urged “the authorities of Armenia and Azerbaijan to conscientiously take their obligations in negotiations on a peaceful settlement of the conflict within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan”.

The EU is, however, expected to do more than only making statements and mobilize its instruments and leverage to help the sides reach a breakthrough. This is important, as otherwise the repetition of recent clashes all of a sudden and more violently would become unavoidable, endangering peace and security in the wider region.

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