A role for the EU in Karabakh: conflict transformation anchored in a regional long-term strategy for the Caucasus



There are many arguments as to why the EU should be more engaged in the peace process of Nagorno-Karabakh. Most of these arguments take a rationalist cost-benefit analysis and conclude that the EU has developed a set of clear interests in the South Caucasus region, which require increased and more strategic engagement. The EU has invested a great deal of financial resources and political capital in developing the South Energy Corridor, making any large scale resumption of war in the region a threat to these investments and to the Union’s access to the Caspian energy reserves.

The EU has also promoted the deepening of political and economic relations with the region in the context of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). Under this new policy framework, the Union has sought to make a direct contribution to regional stability and development, promoting and supporting a set of political and economic reforms, which it hoped could work as indirect contributions to conflict resolution. Even if direct engagement in conflict resolution was never a goal of the EU as such, after the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, the Union’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) has been activated, leading the EU to deploy a Monitoring Mission to Georgia and finally consolidating the EU’s presence in the field of conflict resolution. Thus, not only have EU interests in the region become more clearly articulated, its increased presence has also raised expectations, that the EU’s contribution to peace and prosperity will be more effective.

This rationalist approach, driven by the urgencies of policy advising and agenda setting, has nevertheless overshadowed other important contributions and reasoning for EU engagement in the Karabakh conflict. Such contributions underline the transformative potential of European integration for the war-torn societies of the Caucasus. The possibility of imagining a future where these societies could prosper in peace alongside its European partners is naturally driven by Europe’s contemporary history of peacebuilding and reconciliation – for which the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2012.

This vision has been pursued practically at the level of elites, with the EU institutions hoping that increased interaction with policy-makers in the Caucasus and among them, could lead to processes of socialization into more democratic and peaceful interactions. Considering the limited prospects of integration with the EU and the reduced number of venues for interaction, this level has produced rather unpromising results in the short-term. But this approach has also been preferred to guide EU relations with civil society actors. There have been a number of EU-supported initiatives to allow for the study of other successful cases of conflict transformation elsewhere in Europe, which could be used in the South Caucasus. Moreover, the prospect that by perceiving themselves as Europeans, people of the Caucasus will also attach less importance to issues of territory and sovereignty and will enjoy the benefits of interdependence and open borders, has a far greater potential.

Both perspectives offer limited insights as to why, despite these promising analyses, the EU has remained conspicuously absent from the Karabakh peace process. What seems to be missing is an assessment of how the EU is perceived on the ground and of the added value that its presence might bring to achieve peace. We look now at the changes in EU efforts to achieve peace, especially since 2008, and then contrast this with local perceptions regarding the potential for the EU to build peace. The focus on a transformative ample process offers new insights onto the possibilities and limitations of the EU’s actions and favors an adjustment of expectations.


EU (lack of) engagement in Karabakh: achieving peace?

The EU’s official position regarding the Karabakh conflict has been articulated most clearly in the bilateral ENP Action Plans negotiated with Armenia and Azerbaijan. In these political documents guiding the deepening of EU relations with the two countries since 2006, the EU states its “continued and strong commitment to the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, drawing on the instruments at the EU’s disposal, and in close consultation with the OSCE”. The documents further add that “The EU is ready to consider ways to strengthen further its engagement in conflict resolution and post conflict rehabilitation” (EU-Armenia ENP Action Plan, 2006, p. 3. Similar wording is used in the Action Plan with Azerbaijan). The specific measures envisioned are focused mainly on supporting the OSCE Minsk Group, namely through the work of the EU Special Representative (EUSR) for the South Caucasus, on increased support to people-to-people contacts, and on the availability to contribute substantial assistance to post-conflict rehabilitation processes. Thus, EU engagement could cover three major areas: support to the official mediation process, promotion of confidence-building measures, and assistance to reconstruction in a post-conflict scenario.

Until 2008, this framework, although providing the right diagnosis, was not fully developed and used to the benefit of EU and local partners. In the absence of the from the Minsk Group, the support to the official mediation process has been often limited, due to the poor coordination and information sharing between the EUSR and the French representative in the Minsk Group. The fact that the current EUSR for the South Caucasus is a French diplomat, Philippe Lefort, could in principle make this easier, although his mandate has been extended to deal also with the peace negotiations for the conflicts in Georgia, which traditionally has taken attention away from the Karabakh process. The EU has also made an erratic use of the ENP to link assistance and closer political relations to advances in conflict resolution. EU conditionality, both positive and negative, has had very little, if any impact in the advance of the peace negotiations. This could be revised.

A further possibility to influence the peace process is through closer coordination at the multilateral level, both with the Minsk Group co-chairs and with other relevant regional players, such as Turkey. During 2011, this coordination was particularly visible with a clearer division of work emerging in the South Caucasus. Whereas the EU took the lead in mediating the Georgian peace processes, Russia was particularly active in promoting a series of high level meetings between the Armenian and the Azerbaijani presidents, and the US took the lead in supporting the process of rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey. Despite this remarkably active period, neither of these processes produced significant changes to the status quo. Better articulation with the US, Russia and Turkey, making more effective use of EU leverage tools in the framework of the ENP and Enlargement policies could have contributed to significantly different results.

These poor results, however, have reinforced the belief that the EU is not a significant interlocutor and mediator for regional conflicts. Moreover, the EU’s leading role in Georgia now places the onus of positive results on the Union and on its ability to make full use of the EU Monitoring Mission and the Geneva Talks to achieve a lasting solution for the conflicts. Even if this understanding is inherently unfair, since ultimately it is Georgia and Russia who are the primordial players in these conflicts, the image of the EU as lacking the clout to impose a just and balanced solution to the Georgian conflicts has not been missed in Armenia, Azerbaijan or in Karabakh. The ability of the EU to promote a different understanding of local actors’ interests has also been rather restricted. Prospects of closer integration with the EU have only a limited appeal in the Caucasus as long as the conflicts remain active, and the same is true of the EU’s interest in deepening integration with the region, undermining the processes of socialization at the elite and popular level.


Perceiving the EU from the ground: better suited to build long-term peace?

The promotion by the EU of confidence-building measures (CBMs) among the parties to the Karabakh conflict has become common place. Considering the lack of support for the full integration of the EU in the Minsk Group, the Union’s more visible presence in the South Caucasus should be capitalized towards making its contribution to conflict transformation clearer and better structured. This would require that an overall medium to long-term strategy be defined by the EU towards the South Caucasus, and especially towards achieving sustainable peace agreements for the protracted conflicts in the region. Although this comes across as being a sensible position by the EU, there are important sources of grievance towards the Union and its member states, which have undermined its position both as a strategic partner and as a neutral mediator and peace supporter in the region. In a way, the EU is also being drawn into the highly politicized process around Karabakh.

From the Azerbaijani governmental elites’ perspective, the EU’s reluctance to openly support the principle of territorial integrity – as it has done in the Georgian case – and its decision to recognize Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, in early 2008 against Serbia’s wishes, shed many doubts about the EU’s commitment to Azerbaijani perspectives and interests on the Karabakh conflict. From Baku’s perspective, the EU’s desire to support democracy and conflict transformation in the Caucasus needs to be balanced by its strategic interest in the Caspian energy reserves. As one official has put it, “does the EU want a pipeline or does it want regional cooperation in the Caucasus”? In that sense, an overall strategy would certainly go a long way toward facilitating the prioritization of EU interests in the region. This view is, of course, disingenuous to the extent that it portrays energy security as divorced from conflict resolution processes. As the Georgian war in 2008 illustrated, these protracted conflicts represent real risks of violent conflict, affecting local communities and the strategic interests of external partners and investors. Linking both aspects will remain an important source of leverage for the EU.

Inside Azerbaijan, however, perceptions of the EU vary. If the government has grievances, despite EU efforts to deepen relations with the country, civil society actors perceive EU engagement in the framework of the ENP as too government-centered. This approach, they argue, although important, needs to be balanced with more politically-active and conflict-sensitive activities at the level of civil society, including cross-regional activities. The EU itself has acknowledged this need and the limitations of its “too-balanced” approach to the region. The Eastern Partnership (EaP), established in 2009, with the aim of deepening relations with the Eastern neighbors of the EU, creates new opportunities for civil society engagement that could be relevant for conflict transformation, but it is still crucial that these be linked to the official peace process. The EU’s preference for institutionalized and bureaucratic approaches also conveys an image of reluctance and weakness in a context where politics are polarized and conflicting.

In Armenia, the EU also faces important criticisms. At the official level, deepened cooperation with the EU in the framework of the ENP and the EaP is seen as an opportunity to gather financial support and diversify political relations. If for the Armenian authorities, the current status quo on Karabakh is more favorable than for Azerbaijan, the lack of relations with Turkey represents an important limitation in the foreign policy and economic options of the country. In this regard, the inclusion of the EU in Minsk Group is also not favored by Armenian authorities, but regarding relations with Turkey, there is a great deal of frustration towards the EU. In a certain way, the Armenian authorities seem to expect the EU to achieve for them important benefits which they are not willing to make concessions for. As one researcher in the region has put it, the EU needs to support activities that “will push the false Armenian moderates out and make room for the true ones”.

At the level of civil society, the expectation is that the EU will contribute to make the regional peace constituencies stronger, and limit the political use of the conflict by all forces in Armenian politics to avoid democratization. However, the EU is often accused of being primarily concerned with its own security interests, which focus more on migration controls and creating a stable (not necessarily democratic) buffer zone in its periphery. It was only after the war in 2008 that the EU was perceived as seeing the status quo of the protracted conflicts not as frozen, but rather as highly unstable. These however, run the risk of being refrozen, as the region falls again into a situation of managed instability.

Considering these perspectives on the EU’s presence in the Caucasus, the way the EU relates to the de-facto authorities in Karabakh is also fundamental. In fact, there are increasing doubts in Brussels and other European capitals about the ability of the Armenian authorities to “sell” any peace agreement to Karabakh, considering they have been kept outside the negotiations. EU direct contact and interaction with the populations and de facto leaders in Karabakh could work as a means to make them part of the solutions, and not just part of the problem. The EU’s strategy of “engagement without recognition”, in place in Georgia towards the separatist authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and devised by the former EUSR for the South Caucasus could be used as a positive formula for Karabakh as well, with or without Azerbaijan’s consent. Moreover, although the EU is often perceived as the only acceptable peacekeeper in a future context of implementation of a peace agreement, the Union needs to make the case for its ability to provide Karabakh with credible security guarantees. The outcome of the EU’s presence in Georgia works as a stark reminder that, in the absence of Armenian support, Karabakh cannot in all honestly rely on the international community to assure its survival as a de facto independent entity.

Since the war in Georgia in 2008, EU leaders have begun to regard the conflicts in the Caucasus as sources of instability and the political will to do more has been effectively developed. This has been translated into an increased security role for the EU in Georgia and more active cooperation with the Russian and American partners in the case of Karabakh and in the relations between Armenia and Turkey. On both fronts however, the EU took the back seat. The EU has also begun to overcome Azerbaijani opposition to any type of engagement with Karabakh and under the Instrument for Stability has been developing CBM at the civil society level including civil society actors from Karabakh (see Laurence Broers, 2012). There has also been some level of coordination and joint planning with the OSCE on how a potential peacekeeping operation might be developed. These are welcomed developments, but remain far too limited in terms of making any real difference in the process of achieving peace. They are also poor responses to the generalized discredit of the EU as a relevant security actor in the Caucasus and which the war in 2008 further consolidated.

One way out of this current status is the use of the ENP and the EaP as anchors of the region to the European sphere of influence, in line with the transformative approach enunciated above. What this means is a closer and clearly benchmarked approach to reforms in the region, framed by a medium-long term strategy of how the Caucasus might come to share a security community with its European partners. What this concept entails is a sharing of views – a community – rooted on shared practices and increased interdependence, which would lead to shared expectations of peaceful change and would give these countries a clearer role in the post-Cold War European order. The borderline position of the Caucasus has been a formative element in regional identities and can hardly be completely overcome. But by providing a vision of how the region could be strategically and ideationally linked to the European integration project, of the interests the EU and its member states have and how they want to advance them, the EU would empower democrats and reformists in the region and would create true incentives for peace. This would also force other regional actors, not least Russia, to rethink what its role could be in this restructured regional context.


Broers, Laurence (2012) “Turks, Armenians and Azeris: Mirrors and Memories”, Caucasus Edition, November, nº 1.


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