Bringing peace to EU’s ‘new neighbours’
Bringing peace to EU’s ‘new neighbours’
Upholding the Ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia
Upholding the Ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Bringing peace to EU’s ‘new neighbours’

A FROZEN conflict on Europe’s periphery presents a serious challenge for negotiators and an important test for EU foreign policy.

But if the European Union can rally behind a joint position, Brussels could have a key impact in ending the long-simmering feud between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The 1992-94 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the small, mountainous province left more than 30,000 dead and in excess of one million displaced.

The bloody conflict began when both countries were still republics within the Soviet Union.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s mostly Armenian population had long been unhappy with their inclusion within the boundaries of the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic. Historical debates over ownership of the territory only came to the surface, however, in the last years of the collapsing Soviet Union.

In a non-binding February 1988 referendum, Nagorno-Karabakh voted to link the territory to Armenia and the result sparked violence, including anti- Armenian pogroms, which were probably assisted by Soviet intelligence.

Vocal nationalist movements in both republics took increasingly extreme positions, triggering mass demonstrations and refugee movements in both directions in 1988-89.

In December 1989, the Supreme Soviet of Armenia voted to incorporate Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan immediately declared this null and void. In early 1990, new pogroms erupted in Baku and low-level clashes took place in Nagorno-Karabakh.

As both Armenia and Azerbaijan proclaimed independence in late 1991, an internal Soviet conflict became a major international dispute.

In 1992, Armenian military forces seized the territory and occupied the surrounding parts of Azerbaijan.

Internally unstable and lacking military capacity, Azerbaijan was badly defeated on the battlefield, and hundreds of thousands fled the conflict zone.

As a result of Russian mediation, a ceasefire was signed exactly ten years ago last week, leaving Armenia occupying not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself but also a significant portion of south-western Azerbaijan.

Since then, peace talks have been facilitated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and ad hoc body the Minsk Group, co-chaired and largely dominated by Russia, the US and France.

Heading mediation for Nagorno-Karabakh, Paris has often argued that it represents a unified European approach. The mandate of the EU’s special envoy for the Caucasus, Finnish diplomat Heikki Talvitie, has so far been limited to assisting the Minsk Group. The Paris high representatives consider this to be sufficient ‘Europeanization’ of the policy.

It is not. Considerably more could be done to forge a genuinely joint EU position and this is a surprisingly realistic possibility. Unlike many EU foreign policy issues, it seems there is little if any dissent among France’s major partners in the EU over Paris taking the lead for the Union on Nagorno-Karabakh.

The UK, Germany and Italy seem satisfied with the improved cooperation and information-sharing they receive from France.

If the EU could state clearly and regularly that Paris is acting on its behalf in its role as co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, it would add significant extra weight to the Nagorno-Karabakh talks and make it easier to reduce the number of group members from its current 11 to a more efficient five: Armenia, Azerbaijan and the three co-chairs.

The Union should also make clear its willingness to support a peace deal financially.

EU rehabilitation programmes for damaged areas should continue, but they need to be better focused on boosting growth in these regions as a means to encourage refugees to return.

More generally, aid to Azerbaijan and Armenia should be conditioned on progress in peace talks, or at least on regular contacts at the highest level.

In addition, the EU should fulfil its longstanding promise to open a Commission delegation in Baku.

Azerbaijan’s economic significance alone justifies such a permanent presence, and the move would give the EU more credibility on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Another useful step would be to make sure the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is prominent on the agenda of every EU-Russia summit, including the one coming up this week (21 May).

The EU has the financial weight to offer Russia some compensation in return for goodwill on the issue and it is in Russia’s interest to have stability on its southern flank.

Of course, after ten years of talks and failed peace plans, these changes are not going to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh problem overnight, but they would give new momentum to the talks.

At the very least, if France and the EU acted more consistently, it would give more credibility to the long-standing European proposal for the reopening of the Baku-Yerevan railway line in exchange for the Armenian withdrawal from several Azerbaijani districts - a practical step towards normal relations between the two countries.

The European neighbourhood policy presented by Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen last week (12 May), offers privileged partnerships and an l800-million cooperation fund to states now finding themselves on the outside of the current club of 25 and its hopeful applicants.

It is expected that, as recommended by the Commission, these ‘new neighbours’ will soon include Armenia and Azerbaijan.

If this intended neighbourly spirit is to mean anything at all, Brussels should more actively support efforts to resolve the bitter dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.


Former Project Director, Caucasus
Former Programme Director, Balkans

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.