Note from author: This paper presents part of the argument of my master’s thesis with the title of ‘The shortcomings of the EU’s involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Resolution’

Nagorno-Karabakh is a holy land and historical heritage claimed by Azerbaijan and Armenia, which has been the source of a lengthy tug of war rather than a celebration of a peaceful coexistence. Ongoing peace-making efforts for almost two decades under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group remain fruitless and scepticism over the performance of the geopolitical actors prevails. The EU’s involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution is a relatively new development, considering the enacted European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) Action Plans in 2006, and is still far from being a credible mediator. Its role appears to be more formalistic as opposed to being crucial.  It has taken a double-standard approach of pursuing a clear strategy - proposing two opposite solutions, territorial integrity and self-determination. This shows the EU's lack of interest in the specifics of the conflicts within its own periphery. Albeit, the EU demonstrates a clear willingness to promulgate a more substantial presence by means of ENP, Eastern Partnership and ongoing negotiations over Association Agreements. Despite not having a direct role in the peace talks, it fully supports the current mediation efforts and has called for a peaceful settlement.

The EU has a choice of two patterns of engagement in the South Caucasus: a geopolitical approach or one that prioritises policy convergence under the motto of Europeanisation. The latter is of a long-term nature and hence involves a more incremental development with foreseeable positive outcomes in the policy-making of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Strengthening a geopolitical role of the EU in the region, a more short-term solution, may enhance the public perception of the EU in the South Caucasus, yet the implications for the parties involved would remain uncertain. The EU is not regarded as a full geopolitical actor in the region. And this is a bittersweet truth. Yet, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is highly geopoliticised. A widespread belief in conflict-affected countries is that 'a great game' should be dictated by 'great powers', for example, by the co-chairs of the Minsk Group. The EU is awarded with a secondary role, constrained to its soft diplomacy. What can become a boost for the geo-politicisation of EU’s role is the potential replacement of France with the EU in OSCE Minsk Group to counterbalance the key regional players Russia and the USA. It could be contentious, though, to infer that the EU's direct presence in the Minsk Group would invoke a different pattern in the peacemaking process or, some would point to a risk for the EU to be directly involved in the most dangerous conflict of the region. Some would argue that the EU as a co-chair might cause further complications for both Armenia and Azerbaijan. The main concern relates to the lack of a common voice within EU, given its inter-institutional discrepancies and differentiations as well as rotating presidency. This argument certainly has plausible grounding and echoes a conventional view on the legitimacy deficit of the EU and its non-affirmed identity as a geopolitical actor. Besides, a potential presence of the EU as a co-chair will not break but rather may alter the dynamic in the Minsk group, where more tools and instruments of transparent negotiations, intrinsic to the EU's policy-making style will be delegated. This in turn would lead to a subsequent revision by Armenia and Azerbaijan of their own foreign policy strategies.

Leaving aside a hypothetical boost of the EU's direct geopolitical role in the conflict resolution, it is the second pattern of its engagement – Europeanisation – that the EU has already stepped up in the South Caucasus. Europeanisation, a distinctive, yet not always effective approach to conflict resolution in third countries entails conditionality, deriving from external incentives model, and a social learning of socialisation approach. Whilst by applying conditionality, be it through the 'carrots' or 'sticks', the European policy-makers seek to achieve the required changes in the domestic structures in a third country, social learning advocates an internalisation of the EU norms by the domestic actors who would consider these norms both legitimate and intrinsically valuable.

Europeanisation has the potential to establish functional and robust democratic institutions in Armenia and Azerbaijan that should incrementally foster an inclusive, consociational style involving a guaranteed group representation. This should be better propagated to Armenia, Azerbaijan and their diasporas, the majority of which find their second home in liberal democracies. European External Action Service (EEAS) emphasise the EU’s commitment, in close consultation with the OSCE, to develop post-conflict scenarios for Nagorno-Karabakh as a basis for future EU engagement. For the EU, this is a principled and pragmatic matter, as ‘it would help turn into action our readiness to support confidence building measures now and to provide rehabilitation and reconstruction assistance once a settlement is achieved’ (Daniilidis 2012). EEAS assess conflict transformation as its good practice implying its relevant experience and acknowledged the importance of “establishing contacts across conflict divides and eventually for underpinning a future conflict settlement and readiness to further promote the engagement of civil society in confidence-building and contacts between the populations on both sides”. According to EEAS, the role the EU envisaged for itself in the region as being a ‘preferred partner for modernisation and integration’ (Daniilidis). These statements reflect the adherence of the EU to the socialisation approach, involving intergovernmental persuasion, interaction or transnational exchange of societal actors. Social learning and lesson drawing models that are based on a ‘logic of appropriateness’ which ‘nudge’ the states towards Europeanisation, specifically in case of domestic dissatisfaction with the status quo (Schimmelfennig and Sedelmeier 2005).

The EU's ubiquitous commitment to encouraging democratic reforms is promising and ambitious, its core instrument being civil society reform. However, it is too premature to acknowledge whether the EU's normative power success and confidence-building measures have been taken on board by Armenia and Azerbaijan. Indeed, the 'nudging' concept of social learning has little chance of being welcomed in the states like Armenia and Azerbaijan, where the vast implications of the contagious Soviet legacy are still felt throughout. Civil society reform in both countries is far from complete. The notorious Armenian presidential elections in 2008, a deteriorating track record of human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, where law-making leads to suppressing rather than strengthening civil society reform, is a brazen challenge to social learning advocates. Supporters of conditionality, despite recent attempts to strengthen the 'more for more', 'less for less' approach, are still far from achieving concrete results in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The conventional wisdom and practice suggest a unilateral or, at best, a complimentary application of a top-down conditionality and a bottom-up social learning, however, it is argued here, it is the intersection of the two that may reinforce the effectiveness of each model. For example, one possible intersection may occur with the application of negative conditionality, e.g. infliction of sanctions that can directly generate an incentive for strengthening a social model. Such proposition, conceivably, involves an element of audacity, yet, in the Europeanisation discourse, it has a potential not be cast aside.

Whilst positive conditionality (Tocci 2007) relates to the promise of a benefit in return for the implementation of a condition imposed under contractual arrangements, negative conditionality, in contrast, purports a practice of infliction of economic and political sanctions by the EU in the event of violations of the contractual obligations. Positive conditionality has gained unanimous appreciation amongst scholars (Borzel, Kelly, Emerson, Schimmelfennig, Sedelmeier, Tocci, Young), it is eagerly promoted by Brussels and provides a comfort zone for open discussions.  The generalised perception of EU conditionality that it uses more ‘carrots’ than ‘sticks’ and cannot rely only on treaty-based sanctions that in turn undermines negative conditionality, which is always treated cautiously leaving it to enjoy its status of acknowledgment. When it comes to ENP Action Plans, Kelly (2006) and Young (2001) consider the application of conditionality to be less straightforward in the ENP than in the Enlargement policy.  They refer to the Action Plans’ agreement in a joint manner rather than unilaterally imposing, to legislative and regulatory ‘approximation’ rather than ‘alignment’ with the acquis.  Noteworthy is the democratic conditionality of fundamental political principles of the EU - the norms of human rights.  Authoritarian and autocratic governments, which do not prioritise their human rights agenda, can minimize the role of political conditionality in the Action Plans.  This is believed to be the case for Armenia and Azerbaijan.  Such governments see compliance with the EU’s democratic standards as being politically costly and regard it as carrying a significant risk of weakening, or completely giving up, the methods of sustaining their political power (Sedelmeier 2011).

It is broadly accepted that only with a potential of the eventual membership conditionality would gain its credibility. However, due to the absence of such an offer under the ENP framework European policy-makers must look for other potential incentives and monitoring tools the EU can propose - ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’, strongly advocated ‘more for more’ and ‘less for less’ approaches cry out for a far more clear definition in the Action Plans. None of the countries are overwhelmingly seeking a full integration or enthusiastically internalising the European norms. Policy convergence and the European integration in general under the ENP as a technocratic tool is sensible and is a promising pattern to follow to establish functional and robust democratic institutions in Armenia and Azerbaijan that should incrementally foster an inclusive, consociational style in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution. However, with no sensible and vaguely defined conditions, this process would be regarded less feasible and less prioritised by Armenia and Azerbaijan. Only by proposing tangible incentives for both countries will the EU's leverage to influence the conflict dynamic increase and thus, improve the chances of encouraging the parties to find a compromise.

The EU is reluctant to position itself as a punisher even when third countries do not meet the requirements of a principal clause, such as a democracy clause. Therefore, sanctions are used only in response to major security threats.  To date, the EU has not suspended or terminated any of the agreements with third countries. The EU’s appeal to negative conditionality, despite being very limited, is found in practice and generally takes the form of verbal condemnation, reduced financial aid, negotiation and delays.  It should also be noted that stronger sanctions, if they appear, are more likely to be imposed on less resource-rich countries that would make resource-rich Azerbaijan less anxious and alarmed about the potential EU sanctions. The EU incessantly demonstrates its deep concern over the violations yet no suggestion of a sanction has been put forward.  While the Council is the most cautious EU body with open criticism, the EP, notwithstanding its constrained power within the Common Security and Foreign Policy Framework (CSFP) framework and its primarily consultative function, is the most vocal and transparent nexus amongst the institutions and shapes a general trend, attitude of the EU towards the policies, implemented in Armenia and Azerbaijan, yet the particulars may be varied significantly within the institutions. Overall, the EU institutions do not regard sanctions as a facilitating mechanism in modifying the behaviour of Armenia and Azerbaijan, instead, positive conditionality and the social learning model are still considered to be a preferred option. The explicit preference of positive conditionality by the EU institutions comes from the treaty-based statements prioritising cooperation and engagement over punishment and coercion.

However, it is believed here, by the use of sanctions, and, in particular, targeted sanctions, the EU can and should reinforce and exert its influence, thus yielding positive changes in the Europeanisation process in Armenia and Azerbaijan. This argument is strengthened in light of the alignment with European standards and democratisation overall. When the conditions, set out in the ENP Action Plans for Armenia and Azerbaijan, are not met in full, the restrictive measures can be applied within the general framework of the CFSP, Article 11 of the TEU[i].  The Council may decide to impose sanctions against third countries, entities or individuals.  It acts as a reminder of the commitments undertaken not only under bilateral agreements with the EU but also under international conventions such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[ii] and the European Convention of Human Rights.[iii]  As per number five of Basic Principles on the Use of Restrictive Measures, the Council[iv] is committed to using sanctions as part of an integrated comprehensive policy approach which should include conditionality, political dialogue, incentives and, as a last resort, use of the coercive measure in accordance with the UN Charter. Within the period of January 2006 to May 2012 the lists of restrictive measures, being based on Article 215 TFEU[v] and adopted on the decisions in the framework of the CFSP, indicate that out of all Eastern Partnership Bloc only one state, Belarus, has faced sanctions by the EU and which have not yet been lifted[vi].

The types of sanctions the EU can implement are diplomatic sanctions involving expulsion of diplomats, severing of diplomatic ties, suspension of official visits, economic, trade, financial sanctions involving arms embargoes, freezing of funds, bans on export and imports, prohibition of financial transactions, suspension of cooperation with a third country, boycotting cultural or sport events, restriction on admission involving visa and travel ban[vii]. A good compromise between punishment adherent and ‘carrot’ indulger may be reached by the application of targeted sanctions, which are also called smart sanctions. Targeted sanctions have gained more pertinence and appeal more to the EU officials due to targeting specific persons, groups and entities responsible for the policies, actions and behaviour, thus minimising the adverse effect on those who are not responsible. If speaking in the present time, targeted sanctions policy, if applied in case of violations of contractual obligations, surely would have a dwindling effect on the EU’s reputation within the Armenian and Azerbaijani political elites, perturbed by a licentiousness of the EU’s intention behind, and thus, prompting to remind the EU of their own leverage - be it through a slacking of energy cooperation or altering foreign policy framework. It also remains questionable whether the public opinion in Armenia and Azerbaijan at present would support the EU’s fidgetiness. The only segment gleefully welcoming the targeted sanctions could be opposition blocs, which are yet far from being consolidated and unified in both states.

It seems there is no room for targeted sanctions policy at present. It seems negative conditionality will be cast aside, and thus, only positive conditionality will remain in a position to generate an incentive for strengthening a social learning model in Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, as per foregoing, hitherto the latter scenario has not brought any fruitful and tangible results. Nevertheless, targeted sanctions may be a given a space in the long run. Namely, given a growing trend of the rapidly increasing use of social media as a platform of raising awareness of any position concerned, a campaign for the imposition of targeted sanctions may be driven by opposition movements or civil societies - both may appeal, call for or support targeted sanctions in an attempt to throw a challenge to their ruling government in case of its failure to comply its contractual obligations under the ENP Action Plans. The effectiveness of such campaign will considerably depend on a mass mobilisation of the parties willing to generate a shift in the policy-making of their states towards democratisation, establishing a rule of law in every policy aspect, building robust democratic institutions which ultimately will be able to provide a roadmap to a more constructive conflict resolution, apply the EU's renowned inclusive approach involving a guaranteed group representation in conflict resolution, foster peoples-to-peoples contact and an open dialogue between conflict-affected parties. This, in turn, would raise the EU’s stake in the haggard dilemma of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.


Daniilidis, D. (2012) Re: the EU’s involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution. [Denis.] [sent on 31 July 2012].

Kelley, J. (2006) ‘New wine in old wineskins; promoting political reforms through the ENP’, JCMS, 44: 1: 29–55.

Schimmelfennig, F., Sedelmeier, U. (2005) The Europeanization of Central and Eastern Europe. New York: Cornell University Press.

Sedelmeier, U. (2011) ‘Europeanisation in new member and candidate states’, Living Reviews in European Governance, 6: 1.

Tocci, N. (2007) The EU and Conflict Resolution: Promoting Peace in the Backyard, Routledge.

Young, R. (2001) ‘European Union Democracy Promotion Policies: Ten Years On’, European Foreign Affairs Review, 6: 355-373.

[i] See Guidelines on implementation and evaluation of restrictive measures (sanctions) in the framework of the EU CFSP

[ii] See Universal Declaration of Human Rights at

[vi] EU Commission, Restrictive Measures in Force 2012(Article 215 TFEU) at