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The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: A challenge for the EU’s role in the South Caucasus

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The recent unprecedented escalation of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan along the Line of Contact (LoC) around the Karabakh region brought back the questions of what kind of challenges the Nagorno Karabakh conflict posses to the EU and how EU’s lack of direct involvement in the peace process risks the European interests in the region.

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The South Caucasus, home for Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia is generally considered as the European Union’s immediate neighbourhood. Given to its proximity, any instability in the South Caucasus may also have direct impact on the EU. Therefore, the EU highly values stability and security in the region. In this respect, the two-decades old Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict and fragile status-quo resulted from this conflict is often singled out as the biggest threat for the South Caucasus stability.

While both sides blame each other for starting the fighting, it is still unknown who and what triggered the re-escalation of violence along the LoC in which neither side refrained from using heavy artilleries and modern weaponry. The “four-day war” resulted with mass casualties including civilians from each side, making it the bloodiest since the 1994 ceasefire. When the clashes broke out Federica Mogherini, chief of the Union’s foreign and security policy was quick to make a statement calling both parties to stop fighting, followed up by phone calls with Armenian and Azerbaijani Ministers of Foreign Affairs. Mogherini also reiterated Union’s support to the peace proposals of the Minsk Group and its Co-chairs (Russia, France and the US) under the auspicious of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that has international mandate to mediate the conflict. The fighting has finally come to a halt after Russia engaged in an intensive ‘shuttle diplomacy’ with Russian leaders making a series of phone calls with each of their counterparts from both countries. Though, tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains high and intensive skirmish continues on a daily basis.

On the one hand, it is clear that possible full-scale war in the Karabakh could have devastating effects on both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and would likely cause with another wave of mass refugee movements towards the EU. The conflict also challenges the functioning of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) where disagreement between Yerevan and Baku often comes to a light, preventing the South Caucasus countries to increase their regional cooperation.

On the other hand, the recent four-days clashes has given Moscow an opportunity to, once again, demonstrate its ‘mediating power’ in the region’s conflicts. Observations suggest that while the West, in particular the EU has shown little interests towards the conflict, Russia has been putting great diplomatic efforts to persuade sides to agree on the peace plan proposed by Russia in Kazan in 2011 (or its similar peace plan).  According to the plan, Armenia would withdraw from five occupied territories and then status of NK (which is the most serious contention in the peace negotiations) would be determined. Many suspect, formerly failed Kazan accords put forward by Russia would also entail deployment of Russian peacekeepers in the NK in order to ensure peace and non-escalation of the conflict. Dilemma before the EU is that Russian mediated plan while could potentially end the conflict, could also undermine the EU interests in the region and subsequently reduce its role. It is also an open secret that if this plan is achieved, in return Moscow expects Azerbaijan to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

Russia has been long working on persuading Baku to join these organisations. In his recent visit to Baku on April 7 as part of the trilateral meeting (scheduled well in advance than the escalation of violence on April 2) between ministers of foreign affairs of Azerbaijan, Iran and Russia, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov has confirmed Moscow’s intention of seeing Azerbaijan in these organisations: “Azerbaijan is not a member of CSTO and EEU. I hope this can change”.

Should Azerbaijan become a new member of the EEU/CSTO, it would have serious geopolitical implications on the EU’s role in the region. In such a way that the EU has prioritised hydrocarbon projects from Azerbaijan free of Russian political control. By aligning Azerbaijan, Moscow might put itself to a position to manipulate energy flow to Europe, which could give Moscow additional leverage to use this as a political tool vis-a-vis the EU. In addition, Azerbaijan’s EEU membership would also cause a signifiant disturbance in the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey cooperation, which may have a potential impact on Georgia’s western orientation, as well.

The NK conflict will continue to remain as the biggest threat to the regional stability in the foreseeable future. Therefore, putting the matter to bed once again is not an option anymore, if the goal is to secure a permanent peace. In this regard, the EU can play an essential role instead of leaving the leadership to Russia for negotiating its own peace plan that could also potentially undermine the EU’s interests. As Dennis Sammut  notes that the EU has capabilities and reasons to be much more active in the conflict resolution process. This claim is particularly true given to the fact the EU’s neutrality in the conflict. According to Sammut , an ultimate solution to the Karabakh conflict requires a transformational change to modernisation, good governance and prosperity in both countries, and thus in typical European politicking, the EU can be the best party to accompany Armenia and Azerbaijan on this path.

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