The Pressing Task of Advancing Peace Talks in the South Caucasus
The Pressing Task of Advancing Peace Talks in the South Caucasus
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 11 minutes

The Pressing Task of Advancing Peace Talks in the South Caucasus

The EU is sending a mission to monitor the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2023, Crisis Group explains what else the EU and its member states can do to avert another war and revitalise peace talks.

A long-running deep and bitter conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh continues to drive violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The South Caucasus neighbours have fought two wars over the mountainous enclave that is home to a majority ethnic Armenian population – once in the early 1990s and again in 2020 – and the threat of a third war is very real. Although the two sides have engaged in serious talks about a comprehensive settlement, with support from the European Union (EU), these discussions did not stop an increasingly strong and confident Azerbaijan from seeking to improve its battlefield position. In three bursts of major fighting over the course of 2022, Azerbaijan gained ground in and around Nagorno-Karabakh and also challenged Armenia along its own border, moving troops into Armenian territory. Recently, a weeks-long blockade by Baku-backed Azerbaijani activists of the Lachin corridor, the only road to Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, has left as many as 120,000 people there without medical and food supplies. Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts have stalled, and the EU has approved the deployment of a two-year monitoring mission to try to keep war from breaking out along the neighbours’ increasingly contentious border.

To avert another war and get peace talks back on track, the EU and its member states should do the following:

  • Most urgently, and via high-level diplomacy, the EU, in close collaboration with member states, should seek to persuade Azerbaijan to ensure free movement through the Lachin corridor so as to stave off a humanitarian crisis in Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh.
  • The EU, as the best-positioned candidate to mediate between Azerbaijan and Armenia under present conditions, should redouble its efforts to set the goals and pace of negotiations – with the active engagement of member states. In particular, Brussels should encourage a direct dialogue between Baku and de facto authorities in Stepanakert. All should avoid framing mediation efforts as part of the Russian-Western standoff over the war in Ukraine.
  • As Brussels prepares to deploy the new two-year civilian monitoring mission to the region, it should prepare a flexible mission mandate that permits monitors to play essential roles in fostering communication and coordination between the two sides, as well as with Russia’s presence in the area. While Armenia has made clear it will cooperate, Brussels should also seek Azerbaijan’s buy-in so that EU monitors can have necessary access on both sides of the border.
  • Both for humanitarian reasons and as a signal to all parties of its good faith, Brussels (already the largest donor to South Caucasus countries) should provide additional funding to assist persons from both sides who have been displaced by fighting, including through vocational training, and support demining efforts. In developing an assistance package for displaced persons, it should include support for projects that promote inclusion of women and challenge stereotypes about their roles.
Azerbaijani servicemen stand guard at a checkpoint at the Lachin corridor, Nagorno-Karabakh's only land link with Armenia, as Azerbaijani environmental activists protest what they claim is illegal mining, on December 26, 2022. TOFIK BABAYEV / AFP

A Tumultuous Year

The past year has been marked by both violent clashes and significant diplomacy between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The crux of the conflict between the two neighbours concerns the area known in Soviet times as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, a mountainous enclave whose residents are majority ethnic Armenian, and that is currently administered by de facto authorities in Stepanakert. Armenia and Azerbaijan have waged two wars over the enclave. In the first, fought in the early 1990s, Armenia gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent Azerbaijani territories. Although exact numbers are contested, well over 400,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis were displaced from the adjacent territories and some 40,000 from Nagorno-Karabakh itself. In addition, hundreds of thousands of Armenians from throughout Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis from throughout Armenia fled their homes during the fighting. In the second war, fought at the end of 2020, Azerbaijan reclaimed the adjacent territories, as well as parts of the enclave, and demonstrated its growing military edge over its neighbour. Russia brokered a peace deal to end the 2020 conflict and has inserted peacekeepers in the enclave, and guards along the not fully demarcated border between the two countries.

But neither Russia’s presence nor peace talks – which began in late 2021 – were enough to prevent three bouts of major fighting from erupting in 2022. The first two series of clashes, in the spring and summer of 2022, enabled an increasingly confident Azerbaijan to improve its military position vis-à-vis Nagorno-Karabakh. The third – which occurred over the course of two days in mid-September – saw Baku send troops over the border to take positions inside Armenia, where they remain. As the year drew to a close, talks faltered, and the parties missed an end-of-2022 deadline both had previously accepted for concluding negotiations.

The blockade is badly hurting people in Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh.

The most recent manifestation of tense relations between the two sides is a blockade of the Lachin corridor, which links Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, by dozens of individuals who claim to be private citizens protesting gold mining in the enclave, but who appear to have Baku’s backing. The blockade is badly hurting people in Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh. In Stepanakert, which is home to roughly half the enclave’s population, shelves in shops are bare and locals queue for hours to buy scarce cheese and potatoes produced in nearby villages. Schools have shut their doors, lacking food, and residents say they can no longer find painkillers, much less medication for diabetes, cancer and other illnesses. In late January, many locals resorted to using wood stoves to heat houses due to the disruption of energy supplies. The International Committee of the Red Cross (the only international aid organisation present on the ground) has been able to deliver some supplies, though these have fallen far short of needs.

The EU, the United States, Russia and UN Secretary-General António Guterres have called on Azerbaijani authorities to disperse the activists blocking the corridor. But Baku has demurred, blaming Russian peacekeepers for the obstruction and denying that traffic of essential goods has halted. On 10 January, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev praised the people camping on the road. State-owned media has covered the blockade extensively and favourably. Azerbaijani officials are quick to deny claims that have emerged about the worsening situation in the enclave, with Azerbaijan’s parliament dismissing them as “baseless”. Baku’s specific objectives in allowing the blockade to persist are unclear, but so long as it continues the humanitarian situation will worsen. At present, Baku appears to have insufficient incentive to back down.

Beyond the immediate suffering it is causing, the blockade aggravates tensions around what is already the most contentious issue between Armenia and Azerbaijan – the future of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku says it views residents there as Azerbaijani citizens, with no greater or lesser rights and privileges than other citizens. Azerbaijan committed as part of the 2020 peace deal brokered by Moscow to guarantee the security of traffic through the Lachin corridor. But the blockade has shown how this arrangement leaves the enclave’s residents exposed and foreclosed any short-term prospect that they would willingly reconcile themselves to Baku’s rule. While Yerevan acknowledges that the territory will be under Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction, it insists on special rights and guarantees for the area’s ethnic Armenian residents, something Baku rejects out of hand. Indeed, Azerbaijan will not even allow the topic to be included on the formal agenda for peace negotiations.

The Diplomatic Track

The blockade is also making it more difficult to come back to the table for peace talks. While several parties have been playing a mediating role in these talks, the EU has increasingly emerged as the lead outside actor. This is partly because other formats and actors appear to be losing influence and credibility. For many years, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk Group chaired by France, the U.S. and Russia was the primary forum for peace negotiations, but it is now largely defunct. Russia, the dominant regional power and until recently principal mediator, is distracted by its war in Ukraine and resented by Azerbaijan for its peacekeeping presence in Nagorno-Karabakh – which Baku has increasingly come to view as a slight to its sovereignty. Moscow brought Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders together in Sochi on 31 October 2022, but it could not extract concessions from either. Moreover, both sides have criticised the Russian peacekeepers since the blockade began, with Armenia saying they are not doing enough to help traffic pass through the Lachin corridor, and Azerbaijan saying they are stopping it, as noted above. Citing the blockade, Armenia’s foreign minister pulled out of a meeting with his Azerbaijani counterpart that Russia was to host on 23 December.

By contrast, at least until recently, EU diplomatic efforts have gathered strength – even as fighting has sporadically flared. Led by EU leaders, especially European Council President Charles Michel, with support from member states, the EU hosted the two countries’ leaders for a first-ever summit in Brussels in December 2021. When hosting another such meeting in Brussels in the spring of 2022, the EU announced the launch of a new bilateral diplomatic track in which Baku and Yerevan have worked to develop a draft agreement. The EU’s emergent role has not gone down well in Moscow, which could be problematic. At first, Russia was content to look on, believing the EU’s initiative would support its own efforts, but it has since come to perceive the EU’s diplomacy as part of an effort to curb Russian influence in the South Caucasus. The Kremlin has proposed its own draft peace agreement, separate and in several places contrasting with that being drafted by Yerevan and Baku as part of the EU-supported track. Cracks between Russia and the West have also surfaced elsewhere. A late December push by France to get the UN Security Council to issue a joint statement on the blockade failed, as Russia and Western powers argued about whether to include language about the Russian peacekeepers.

What the EU Can Do

The EU and its member states, already grappling with the devastating impact of war in Ukraine, have every reason to strive to avert another conflict on the continent. Among other things, renewed fighting would create great hardship for the local population, add further stress and uncertainty to the European security environment, and complicate energy trade with Azerbaijan at a moment when the continent is increasingly looking for sources outside Russia given strained relations amid the latter’s war in Ukraine. Accordingly, the EU and member states should seek a peaceful settlement of the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan through the following steps.

First, the most pressing task for Brussels is to seek an end to the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh. The longer it persists, the more difficult things will get for the enclave’s residents, and the more likely it is to become a flashpoint. The EU should follow up on its calls on Baku to clear the sole road to Nagorno-Karabakh with more insistent, higher-level diplomacy, including travel by senior officials to the region. The specific involvement of member states could help, as did the involvement of Austria, Lithuania and Romania, which helped launch the EU’s mediation efforts after the 2020 war. Brussels and member states should also work with Washington to encourage the U.S. to throw its weight behind these diplomatic efforts. (While transatlantic cooperation on the region has been good, a new sense of urgency from Washington to work closely with Brussels on restarting stalled talks would be welcome.)

The EU should try to jump-start the stalled peace negotiations.

Secondly, the EU should try to jump-start the stalled peace negotiations, which have been overshadowed by the September fighting and the crisis over the Lachin corridor. In particular, it should push for direct talks between Stepanakert and Baku, as it did (along with the U.S.) when negotiations were advancing in 2022. It should articulate to Azerbaijan the importance of keeping space open for talks on the security and rights of ethnic Armenians, given their sense of exposure after 30 years of conflict and the brutal 2020 war that killed and displaced thousands. Notwithstanding the friction between Moscow and the West over Ukraine – and Russia’s resentment of Brussels’ role in South Caucasus mediation efforts – playing up these tensions will only harm efforts at dialogue. It is therefore vital for the EU and its member states to avoid statements and actions that frame mediation efforts in the region as another front in the Russia- West standoff.

Thirdly, Brussels should focus on ensuring that the new, two-year EU civilian monitoring mission, soon to deploy on at least the Armenian side of the border shared by it and Azerbaijan, has the means and mandate to be effective. This is the area where the greatest number of deadly incidents have taken place since the 2020 war, as illustrated in Crisis Group’s visual explainer. If properly constituted, the mission could provide a flow of information beyond the region to outside actors, giving them more of an opportunity to serve as a check on resurgent tensions, and facilitate contacts between Baku and Yerevan. But as Brussels prepares to deploy its monitors, it still needs to work out many operational details and turn its attention to eliciting Baku’s cooperation, absent which the mission will lack access to both Azerbaijan’s territory and certain areas of the border zone, which would be too dangerous to monitor absent arrangements with both sides. To set the stage for a successful deployment, Brussels should press for Baku’s permission to afford access on both sides of the border, and commitments from all relevant parties that the monitors can speak to all with a presence at the border, including – ideally – the Russian border guards. A good model can be found in neighbouring Georgia, where the EU mission helps create bridges among Georgian officials and their de facto and Russian counterparts present in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is a tall order given the state of relations between the neighbours, as well as between Russian and the West, but it is well worth trying.

Finally, in order to succeed in its mediation role, the EU must be seen as an honest broker by both sides. Carefully allocated assistance, even in small amounts, could go some way toward burnishing the bloc’s image, in addition to providing an obvious benefit to the region. The EU’s quick disbursement of €300,000 in aid for ethnic Armenians displaced by the heavy fighting in September provided a lifeline to women, children and elderly people – some of whom were fleeing their homes for the second or third time. Azerbaijanis have likewise appreciated the EU’s demining activities in the territories Baku won back in the 2020 war and support for displaced Azerbaijanis. Brussels should continue these programs on behalf of both parties, including those that have promoted the inclusion of women in demining. In its assistance package for displaced persons, it should support projects that contribute to dispelling gender stereotypes and provide tailored vocational training.

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