Written by Juliette Helfi
The botched border-drawing process that put a majority-Armenian enclave under Azerbaijani rule in the first years of the USSR laid the foundations for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The conflict erupted in the dying years of the Soviet Union and led to a full-scale war soon after its collapse in 1991. The 1994 ceasefire agreement jointly brokered by Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was viewed by optimists as paving the way for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Subsequent inconclusive mediation by the OSCE and the Minsk Group failed to overcome a no-peace, no-war entre-deux that turned the war into a frozen conflict. The second Karabakh war during the autumn of 2020 abruptly changed the existing status quo.
It is in this context that a few months after a Russian-brokered ceasefire had put an end to the 44-day second Armenia-Azerbaijan war (International Crisis Group, 2022a) (but failed to stop serious infighting resurgences), that the European Union (EU) accepted a direct involvement in the mediation process between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the second half of 2021: “The EU is committed to be an active player to promote conflict resolution in the region” (Borell, 2021).
In this article, I will delve into the complexity and multidimensionality of this bold move in a conflict epitomising the South Caucasus geopolitical flashpoint taken up by the EU. First, I will outline the peace mediation role of the EU as a feature of its Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Then, I will introduce the European Union’s assets in the mediation process in the South Caucasus to assert itself as an alternative. Next, I will analyse how multiple mediators have failed in solving this intractable conflict. Finally, I will critically evaluate the EU’s mediation approach and its ability to ensure a successful outcome.
The European Union as a mediator
The preservation of peace and security lies at the core of the European Union’s values (“EU values”, n.d.), and is best showcased in its mediation efforts. It inspired the process which started with the European Coal and Steel Community, and ultimately led to the Union’s creation (“History of the EU”, n.d.). As Robert Schuman, one of its founding fathers, stated in 1950 “world peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it” (Schumann, 1950). The legacy of Schuman’s words—the need to firmly unify the nations of Europe—can still be traced to present EU policies.
Inserting itself in a post-World War II international system grounded on rules and multilateralism which aims for peace, democracy, and economic development, the EU—despite its weaknesses—has asserted itself as a major global political actor. These philosophical tenets of the European Union have pervaded all spheres of policy making, constituting a compass to navigate through the reefs of the emerging multipolar world. Particularly, its foreign policy conveys European principles such as democracy and human rights, insisting on political conditionalities when cooperating with other countries, thus enjoying normative power. Being a global actor for peace, the EU and its member states contribute to one quarter of the UN Peacekeeping budget (Monteleone, 2019).
Yet the EU’s ability to project its peace mediation and security abilities has been disputed of late. Internal challenges in the form of democratic backsliding, rising populism, and Brexit have all undermined the EU and its legitimacy abroad (Grimmel and Strasheim, 2021). External elements such as the US presidency of Donald Trump, and the rise of China have forced the EU to postpone its “ambition to take on a more forceful geopolitical role” (Grimmel and Strasheim, 2021). Active in many regions of the world to consolidate peacebuilding efforts, the EU has, however, generated conflicting results, most notably in Sahel, questioning its foreign policy modus operandi.
In the context of this challenging peacemaking environment deriving from a shifting geopolitical landscape, the implementation of the new concept on EU mediation is intended to offer a more “assertive stance for the EU in the practice of mediation” (Council of the European Union, 2020). It should help release the potential of the multitrack mediation approach that is the trademark of EU peace mediation (Panchulidze and Bergmann, 2021). Specifically, it buttresses the move to become directly involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement.
The EU’s normative influence in the South Caucasus
Historically, the European Union has resorted to different tools to advance its cooperation agenda in the South Caucasus region. Commercial deals and agreements being brokered as part of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and the Eastern Partnership (EaP) have contributed to the strengthening of bilateral ties with Armenia and Azerbaijan (Sukiasyan & al, 2022).
These frameworks which aim at diffusing EU’s normative power in the region also provide opportunities to cooperate in areas more immune from confrontation. Yet, this soft power doesn’t come without strong headwinds: the image of Europe among Armenians has been negatively affected after its perceived ineffectiveness during the 2020 Karabakh war (Sukiasyan, 2022), while Baku has used the bargaining power its potential gas supplies offer to resist social and democratic reforms usually spurred by EU’s foreign policy objectives. (Kamilsoy & Zamejc, 2022).
It is against this backdrop that the EU declared itself ready to help with conflict transformation, offering paths to reconciliation and peaceful co-existence (Borell, 2021).
Mediating an intractable conflict
For the past three decades the EU’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been indirect, as a plurality of international actors have taken on a negotiator’s role to find a way out of the war. From 1992 on, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by Russia, the United States, and France has endeavoured to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Initiatives such as the 1994 ceasefire and the Madrid Principles (2007), both outlining a plan to settle the conflict, have failed to encounter success (Broers, 2021).
Detaching itself from the Minsk Group to negotiate individually with Azerbaijan and Armenia, Russia aimed at consolidating its influence in the South Caucasus. Russia’s role in brokering the November 10, 2020 ceasefire, and the ensuing deployment of a Russian peacekeeping contingent exemplifies Russian leveraging abilities (Yonge, 2021).
However, the war in Ukraine weakened Russia’s position and ushered in a new mediation moment where the EU increasingly emerged as a key actor after February 24, 2022. Other actors such as Turkey and Iran demonstrate an interest in the conflict mainly for the diplomatic and political influences they can gain from it (Abushov, 2019). The entangled mediation process in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict shows how multilateral and competing mediating efforts can jeopardise negotiations.
These mediating failures are partly explained by asymmetries and conflicting interests that hamper multilateral mediation management’s efficiency (Vukovic, 2016 p.212). They also shed light on the intractability of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. ‘Intractable conflicts’ are conflicts that are not amenable to third party peace mediation interventions (Biermann, 2008). In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, this stalemate is best exemplified by the tension in International Law between territorial integrity and self-determination (Gudeleviciute, 2005). In Nagorno-Karabakh’s case, should territorial integrity prevail (hence supporting Azerbaijan’s view) or should self-determination prevail, (hence backing Armenia’s view)? As long as this question stays pending, a comprehensive peace agreement looks like a distant hope.
The EU as a new mediator in Armenian-Azerbaijani talks
The war in Ukraine has shuffled the deck in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, opening up new opportunities in the mediation process. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia marked a watershed moment in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Escalations around Nagorno-Karabakh while Russia was launching its attack on Ukraine paradoxically sparked fears of restarting the conflict as well as renewed prospects for peace talks (International Crisis Group, 2022b). The EU seized this opportunity to deepen its mediation in the conflict, stressing that it can only be a facilitator in the negotiation process and will not replace the necessary political will in Yerevan and Baku to spur peace discussions (Borell, 2021).
In the pre-Ukraine war period, the EU exerted its influence through different channels, providing humanitarian aid and actively supporting civil society initiatives such as the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement over the Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK) conflict (European Consilium, 2012). Adjusting its strategy to the uncertain geopolitical context, the EU is applying its peace mediation roadmap with pragmatism. Its intervention is criticised for being limited in scope, as EU officials are aware that Russia will go to great lengths to derail any deal under auspices from the West (Avedian, 2022). In the present confrontational context, Russia labels Europeans’ appeasement efforts as an act of interference in their sphere of influence, downplaying these efforts to “pseudo-initiatives” while usurping Russia’s mediation achievements (Zakharova, 2022).
Tangible results stemming from the EU’s mediation are visible and contribute to revitalising diplomacy between the actors. The setting up of a hotline between Azerbaijan and Armenia’s Ministries of defence, as well as the exchange of war prisoners between the two countries, and information-sharing about landmines’ location on the frontline are positive developments. Trilateral meetings between Armenia’s Prime Minister Pashinyan, Azerbaijan President Aliyev, and the European’s Council President Michel over the course of 2021 and 2022 showcased signs of pacification. Sensitive questions such as border delineation, however, remain blocking points that stymie substantial progress.
Given its bilateral agreement with both belligerents, the EU can yield its bargaining power and economic leverage to move the mediation process forward. However, it seems unrealistic to believe that the EU will be a gamechanger in negotiations that have been at a standstill for many years. Dialoguing with Russia is key, but unlikely in the current geopolitical context. Consequently, in order to seek a path out of the war, the EU will have to coordinate with international actors such as Turkey and the United States to sustain multitrack talks, encourage dialogue, and capitalise on the current momentum. At this point, a durable solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not yet within reach.
involvement of the EU in the ongoing multi-faceted peace process of the thorny Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could prove to be a life-size test of the newly adopted concept on EU Peace Mediation, restructuring the tools to implement a bolder EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Taking place in a geopolitical hotspot with a crowded field of mediators, dealing with a notoriously intractable conflict, a disappointing outcome may not signify a demise of the concept. The EU has realistically limited the scope of its initial engagement in this testing environment. Having to navigate conflict resurgences between the involved parties and an intricate web of stakeholders, the EU has positioned itself as a facilitator.
The EU is willing to take the risk of initiating a process that may not yield far-reaching success as it accepts a limited role in the mediating ecosystem of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. This perspective, in accordance with its newly-devised roadmap, has enabled the conflicting parties to progress on the burning quarrel over the demarcation of their state borders. This involvement of the EU as a distinct actor in this peace-making process calls for cautious optimism. It is nonetheless a constructive attempt to appease a neighbourhood where peace is long overdue.