The European Policy Centre (EPC), a leading think tank in Brussels, recently convened a special discussion focused on the issue of European Union engagement in the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  The event, which was held on June 17, 2013, featuredtwo presentations, by Richard Giragosian and Zaur Shiriyev, offering an Armenian and Azerbaijani perspective on the issue.  Hosted by EPC analyst Paul, each speaker briefly outlined his view on EU engagement, based on two separate policy papers that each speaker prepared for the EPC.[1]

The presentations were then followed by a lively discussion, with reaction by three prominent officials:  Philippe Lefort, EU Special Representative to the South Caucasus, Bernard Fassier, the former French Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, and Herman Herpelinck, Group Secretary General of the Belgian Senate.

Most notably, the Armenian and Azerbaijani speakers were in strong agreement over the need for greater EU engagement, noting that the EU was still very much a peripheral player regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, seemingly content with supporting the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group and financing a number of confidence and peace-building projects. However, the speakers each agreed, greater EU engagement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is both an imperative and a necessity.

As Richard Giragosian stressed, the conflict is the only one in wider Europe in which the EU has no direct role whatsoever, which is dangerous for both Brussels and for people in the region who strive for peace.  Giragosian, the Director of the Regional Studies Center, an independent think-tank in Yerevan, went on to warn that there are several factors necessitating greater EU engagement at the moment: not least an increasing risk of “war by accident” based on miscalculation and threat misperception, where small skirmishes can quickly spiral out of control.

He called on the EU to adopt a new policy approach based on ‘more for more’ but also on ‘less for less’, punishing bad behavior as well as rewarding reform and progress. For too long, the West has looked for balance and parity in a region where it may be counterproductive to do so, he argued. If one or both sides fail to meet minimum expectations of behavior, there should be less tolerance, and if necessary, less parity, he added.

He argued that the EU needs to adopt policy recommendations which emphasize the need to “cease and desist” and remind all parties to the conflict that there is no military solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, which will only be solved by political and diplomatic means.

Presenting the Azerbaijani perspective, Zaur Shiriyev, from the Centre for Strategic Studies in Baku, argued that the EU must increase its involvement in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, for the following reasons: (1) energy: sending Azerbaijani gas to Europe would reduce the EU’s dependency on Russia, (2) Russia is trying to pressure Azerbaijan and Armenia into joining a customs union and a Eurasian Union: these countries face a dilemma and must choose between the Russian or EU orbit. But Azerbaijan is becoming a more independent player in the region and is becoming more independent from Russian influence, and (3) declining US engagement.  He went on to add that regional cooperation in a multilateral format is a crucial pillar of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, arguing that the EU must capitalize on the ‘stick’ of the Association Agreements while it can.  And he closed by sating that the EU must become more visible as a conflict resolution player if it wants to boost its image in the region.

Philippe Lefort, EU Special Representative to the South Caucasus, argued that the debate on changing the format of the Minsk Group misses the point: “it took a long time to finalixe the format, and changing it would be dangerous in itself,” he said. There is no alternative plan, no better format and no more logical or rational solution than the existing Madrid Principles, said Lefort, stressing instead the importance of inducing the players “to take the risk of peace”.

Stressing that he was expressing his own views and not those of the French government, Bernard Fassier, the former French Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, offered the EU three pieces of advice: Try to develop a fresh impulse for promoting democracy in both countries; more effectively link EU assistance and programs in both countries to the condition of both governments ending their belligerent rhetoric and propaganda; the EU could pressure Azerbaijan and Armenia to adopt more realistic military budgets, and urge them to develop the poorer areas of their countries instead.

Herman Herpelinck, Group Secretary General of the Belgian Senate, argued that the conflict needs to be transformed over the long term – and that only collaboration, politics and diplomacy can improve security. He warned that often the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is described as pre-war rather than post-war, and stressed the need to adhere to the Madrid Principles. “The EU is engaged in preventing the conflict from spiraling out of control,” he said.

Thus, there is an even greater imperative for a more assertive role for the EU in the South Caucasus region and in the Karabakh conflict more specifically, especially as the fifth anniversary of the Georgia-Russia war approaches.  Moreover, given the rising tension and escalation of clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh, there is an increasing danger of a return of renewed hostilities or even outright war.  And as tension mounts, backed by a steady increase in threats of force to “resolve” the deadlocked Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the deteriorating security situation in the South Caucasus necessitates greater EU concern and action.

Unlike the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, the escalating risk of renewed hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Karabakh has been obvious for sometime.  And with no excuse for ignoring these distressing signs of a danger of war, the international community must adopt a more assertive campaign to pressure all sides to “climb down” and de-escalate tension.

At the same time, the European Union (EU) is best placed to respond, based on a policy of strategic engagement centering on the EU’s unique role as an important transformative power.  Such engagement would also rest on the EU’s unique values-based approach, offering a decisive value-added contribution to security and stability in the South Caucasus.  For the EU, its role as a transformative power is based on its reliance on “values as influence,” as the nature of its values-based appeal stems from the relevance of its founding principles and its commitment to democracy and human rights.

The current outlook for the Karabakh peace process remains fairly bleak, with no real expectations for any breakthrough.  Given the lack of progress, neither the format nor the framework seems to inspire much confidence.  Against this backdrop, as several leading analysts have also recommended, the EU needs to commit to addressing the Karabakh conflict.   But while any such EU diplomatic engagement must be careful to stand behind the OSCE Minsk Group, there are several ways to engage and bolster the mediation effort while not harming the mediation mechanism.  And in light of a wide array of areas and aspects of mediation, dialogue and confidence-building measures that have not been fully explored or adequately attempted, the EU offers an impressive “toolbox” of measures and instruments that can only fill the void in terms of bolstering and building on the diplomatic efforts to mediate the Karabakh conflict. Moreover, at the very least, such EU efforts may only contribute to a more strategic focus on “conflict transformation,” as an essential prerequisite for eventual conflict resolution.