oDR: Opinion

At this time of tension, EU needs to remember Nagorno-Karabakh

A message to the EU (and the US): despite a possible escalation in Ukraine, don’t forget the other major conflict in the region

Yervand Shirinyan David Amiryan
22 February 2022, 12.47pm
Azerbaijani military equipment near Fizuli, December 2020
(c) Aleksandr Kazakov/Kommersant/Sipa USA. All rights reserved

The 44-day war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 left thousands dead, but it did not put an end to the longest-running conflict in the South Caucasus. What is worse is that the grim situation in Ukraine threatens a renewed large-scale conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The status quo has changed dramatically and the two sides can no longer be treated as equal sides to the conflict. Today, Armenia, having lost the war, is being subjected to aggression.

In this context, a much more engaged EU (and US) is necessary.

First, it is critical to pressure Azerbaijan to move away from its aggressive approach and instead embrace negotiations on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group. The message should be unambiguous: the use of force is not an option and will be met with consequences.

Second, the EU could push for – and support – a monitoring mission along the border. The EU’s common security and defence policy (CSDP) mission has been used in similar contexts and could go a long way to stabilise the situation on the ground. Such a mission could enable the creation of a demilitarised zone in Nagorno-Karabakh, creating a conducive environment for determining the border. In parallel, the EU should push for a border delimitation and demarcation process, ideally under the OSCE.

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Last but not least, decisive measures should be taken for the return of Armenian prisoners of war (POWs) who are, more than a year later, still detained in Azerbaijan. Despite many statements calling for the return of these POWs, Azerbaijan still holds dozens of them, in violation of international humanitarian law.

Erdogan and Aliyev in Shusha (Shushi), Nagorno-Karabakh, June 2021
(c) Azerbaijan President Press Office/TASS/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

Also, earlier this month, Azerbaijan announced plans to erase elements of Armenian culture in Nagorno-Karabakh, such as Armenian inscriptions at religious sites. An outcry ensued internationally, but the situation warrants more drastic measures, including targeted individual sanctions as well as conditions attached to aid, particularly in light of the EU’s recently approved aid package to Azerbaijan of 2 billion euros. 

The need for these actions can be explained by the complex situation in the region. Active hostilities have largely stopped, thanks to the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh following the 9 November 2020 trilateral statement brokered by Moscow. However, the situation remains far from peaceful. There are still numerous localised incidents, in addition to larger instances of armed clashes, such as the ones on 16 November 2021 and 12 January 2022.

Stalemate amid continuing tension

The 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan significantly altered the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. First, Turkey’s active role in the conflict and the support it gave Azerbaijan, including the recruitment of Syrian mercenaries, significantly increased its influence in the region. Second, the institutional framework for settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the OSCE Minsk Group, has been undermined. Emboldened by his victory, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has been publicly stating that the conflict is over and refusing to engage with the Minsk Group.

There is a real threat of ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh

This begs the question what will happen to the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh once the Russian peacekeeping mission finishes in less than four years. Given the brutalities documented during the war, the state-promoted Armenophobia in Azerbaijan, and post-war incidents that target the Armenian population, there is a real threat of ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Another important consequence of the war is the change in the de-facto borders between the two countries. In some locations, the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces are only a few hundred metres away from each other. This has had a major impact on the rights and livelihoods of local communities. Residents of border communities have been taken captive, their crops set on fire and their cattle stolen.

Recent meetings between Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and President Aliyev, two of which were mediated by the EU, have produced only modest results. One outcome is that there is now a direct line between the defence ministers of the two countries, to prevent border skirmishes. The two countries also agreed to take steps towards unblocking railway connections.

One of the most important unsolved issues is where the border goes. Russia has proposed the creation of a border demarcation committee (which it would lead), but no progress is yet in sight.  

The explosive situation in Ukraine could have devastating consequences for the Caucasus, including a new conflict. Despite a personal ‘friendship’ between presidents Putin and Erdogan, Russia has been increasingly annoyed by Turkey, which has not recognised Russian control of Crimea, and because it has provided Ukraine with armed drones. There has also been recent tension between Azerbaijan and Russia, particularly over Russia’s peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan and Turkey will be tempted to use force again in the region, especially as their earlier actions did not generate adequate international condemnation.

The EU has the tools to prevent the worst. It now needs the will.

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