EU must up its game in Karabakh, say experts in Brussels
21 April 2016

Following heavy fighting in Nagorno-Karbakh earlier this month, policy experts and MEPs, debated what the EU can do to help at a meeting in the European Parliament on Thursday.

Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the worst violence for two decades, began on April 2. It left dozens dead and many more wounded. A ceasefire was brokered on April 5, but since then, both sides have claimed numerous violations by the other side. 

The European Union must take a more active role, said Amanda Paul of the European Policy Centre (EPC) and Dennis Sammut of LINKS, who recently co-authored a policy paper together on the topic.

The discussion in Brussels was chaired by Ivo Vajgl MEP, a former foreign minister of Slovenia. Finding a solution in Nagorno-Karabakh is critical because a bigger outbreak of violence could lead to a humanitarian crisis, he said.

Panellists expressed their support for the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK), a civil society initiative.

Armenian and Azerbaijani representatives were also present, as were EU officials. Razvan Rab, the European External Action Service’s political officer for relations with Armenia, emphasized EU support for the Minsk process peace plan under the so-called ‘Madrid principles’.

His comments were echoed by Lawrence Meredith, director of the EU’s “Neighbourhood East,” noting the positive recent precedent of talks between Kosovo and Serbia.


“If you have a security vacuum, Russia wants to fill it”, said Paul, who described the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh as the most volatile and dangerous it has been for years. More died in a few days than did in several years before April 2, she said, adding that the status quo is “gone forever”.

While Russia was quick on the scene, with foreign minister Lavrov and prime minister Medvedev visiting Yerevan and Baku, the EU acted like a “rabbit trapped in the headlights,” she said, with the situation as it stands remaining extremely dangerous. 

“Both sides have procured very high level weaponry, on the ground and in the air,” said Paul. Russia sells arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, though as Russia\'s ally in the Collective Treaty Security Organisation, Armenia buys arms at discounted rates. 

Both Paul and Sammut said the EU should not expend undue energy debating who was responsible for starting specific incidents, because both sides have committed violations and both sides are responsible for killing. Rather than getting bogged down in historical details it is best to look forward, said Sammut, who also emphasized the importance of person-to-person contacts.

“Civil society over the last few weeks has been under a lot of pressure from nationalistic sources that have accused people who engage and work for cross-community dialogue as being traitors,” he said. As the biggest player in the region overall, the EU is the best partner for civil society in Armenia and Azerbaijan, so EU engagement is vital, Sammut added. 

Although the two policy analysts were unwilling to get drawn on who started the latest clashes, Paul did say the status quo clearly favours Armenia more than Azerbaijan.


As a result of this imbalance, Azerbaijan wanted to score a morale boost by winning back territory, which it successfully did to a small extent for the first time since the 1994 ceasefire, said Paul.

MEPs also played an active part in the discussion. Norica Nicolai, from Romania, disputed the role as both “peacemaker and warmonger” played by Russia. “The territory [of Nagorno-Karabakh] belongs to Azerbaijan,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Buglarian MEP Angel Dzhambazki, condemnded the role being played by Turkey, Azerbaijan’s close ally. Eldar Mamedov, a political advisor to the Socialists and Democreats group, also criticized Turkey’s role, accusing panelists of overstating the role of Russia at the expense of Turkey, noting that unlike Russia, Turkey did not call for an immediate ceasefire at the beginning of April.

However, according to the two panellists, focusing on Russia is important because, as has been shown in Crimea, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Syria, the country plays a very active role in the region’s unsolved conflicts. (Paul, like others on Thursday, criticized the term “frozen conflicts” as inappropriate when there have been so many deaths are still routine.)

This makes is all the more important for the EU to up its game, Paul and Sammut said.

“At the international level there is no other player that can play a counterpart to Russia in this region, because the United States is clearly not interested in engaging in another conflict on the European continent in an effective way,” said Sammut, arguing EU involvement is not just important, but absolutely essential. “Unless the EU engages with the resolution of the conflict, it’s very difficult to see how a change can happen,” he said.

An Azerbaijani policy analyst, Vugar Saidov, stressed the importance of choosing words carefully when discussing Nagorno-Karabakh, noting that the word “enclave” is not accepted by the Azerbaijani side. Armenian representatives firmly countered some of the points made by Saidov and other speakers.


While the two governments do indeed share much of the blame for the status quo, realistically speaking, there will be no solution without two external factors, according to Sammut: a change in the international context, and a change in the way society engages with these issues in the two countries. 

“The EU must start with what it has already,” he said, praising the work done by Herbert Salber, the EU’s Special Representative for the South Caucasus, though adding the EU does not have sufficient resources to tackle such a huge and deeply rooted conflict.

In their paper published two weeks ago, Sammut and Paul also said the EU should be represented in the wider Minsk Group, such as through the EU member state holding the rotating EU presidency, a suggestion repeated at the Brussels round table.

They also expressed their support for inter-parliamentary initiatives between the EU and Armenia and Azerbaijan, such as Euronest.

In their paper, Sammut and Paul also suggested appointing EU military liaison officers in Baku and Yerevan, ensuring member state positions on Karabakh are better synchronised, and bringing the Karabakh conflict into closer focus, both in the EU’s dealings with Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in dealing with other stakeholders such as Russia, Turkey and Iran.