The role of the Sarsang Reservoir as a confidence-building measure in support of the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was discussed at an event held in the European Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday, 31 May 2017. Speakers and participants in the meeting stressed the importance of confidence-building measures as tools in support of a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as well as the importance to ensure water resources for communities in the conflict affected region.
Opening the event, Mr Ivo Vajgl MEP, who also chaired the meeting, said that the initiative was motivated by a truly genuine desire to contribute to the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh and alleviate the suffering of those who were affected by it. Mr Vajgl said that he had just returned from a fact-finding mission to the region as part of a delegation from the Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, and he was acutely aware of the complexities of the region. He noted that civil society seemed able to communicate better with each other than the politicians, but that the European Parliament had to play its role to support the resolution of the conflict.
There followed a panel discussion with the participation of Torsten Ahern, from the office of the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus; Marina Nagai from International Alert; Dr Tracey German from Kings College, London and Dr Dennis Sammut from LINKS (DAR).
Torsten Ahern said that the European union takes seriously the current situation, which has seen an increase in incidence of violence on the line of contact, the deployment of heavy weapons, a regional arms race, and a demonistaion of the other side. The EU noted that there was no positive outcome from the last meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Moscow. The EU was aware that a renewal of the conflict can have devastating humanitarian consequences. The EU continues to support the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group co-Chair, and calls on the sides to adhere to the cease fire, engage positively with the efforts of the co-Chair, and prepare the populations for peace.
Torsten Ahern said that the EU Special Representative travels to the region frequently for meetings with the leadership of Armenia and Azerbaijan and other stakeholders. The EU was supporting the EPNK programme for engagement with civil society and bridging their contacts with the peace process. Their work is not easy and they have to navigate a difficult environment. The speaker said that the EU was ready to do more, and had the resources to do so. Some work on Sarsang could be supported through the existing EPNK framework. Ahern said that lessons could be drawn from experiences in the Georgia and its breakaway regions. This has shown the benefit of taking out the political dimension when dealing with some issues. This was not always possible, but sometimes politicians saw the benefit of the initiatives and back away and let them take a life of their own. There was always a nexus between facts and propaganda that needed to be taken into account. Statements and resolutions in international fora were not always useful, and the sides should be discouraged from forum hopping.
Marina Nagai said that the issue of the Sarang Reservoir was first a humanitarian issue, and it brought a focus on communities on the ground that were struggling on a daily basis in difficult conditions. Grass root communities often had a more pragmatic approach to issues than the politicians. Sarang was also a potential confidence building measure. Water security could become part of the conflict transformation dynamics leading to their joint management. In many cases resource management can help bring the sides together. In this regard the European Union had an important role to play. It was still seen as a force for good and could play a role in the initial stages in the process of planning and information sharing, to increase awareness among the affected communities, and eventually integrate water resources as a factor in the peace-building process.
Dr Tracey German said that in the prevailing situation around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where there was a deep sense of insecurity and an increasingly unstable context water could be an important factor that linked policy makers with the communities on the ground. There were already some modest examples of co-operation on regional issues, supported by the EU, for example the work of the Regional Environmental Centre (REC), ongoing since 1999, and similarly some work done by NATO with the OSCE in the framework of their Environment Initiative network. The speaker said that water and environment can contribute to creating a better context for the resolution of the conflict, although at the moment the overall atmosphere was far from constructive.
Dr Dennis Sammut said that this was an important and timely meeting. The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly report of December 2015 raised important issues regarding the Sarsang reservoir, and although the report could have been drafted differently its overall message was still important. Whilst forum hopping had to be avoided, it was still necessary to maintain a focus on the conflict and its consequences in the international community. Not to do so would increase the risk of escalation of violence. Dennis Sammut spoke on the importance of confidence-building measures in the context of the Karabakh conflict, and said that timing and sequence were of the essence, as was buy-in from all stakeholders, referring to the report published on this subject in September 2016.
In the case of the Sansang reservoir Dennis Sammut said that any engagement will have to go through four phases: (a) A needs assessment mission on the ground and its report; (b) Agreeing the modalities of engagement with all stakeholders; (c) The process of physical rehabilitation of the reservoir and other installations; (d) post rehabilitation management. This was an endeavour that would be costly, possibly running into tens of millions of euros, and will require a long term commitment. In theory a number of players could play the leading role: China had the resources, but it did not have the political will; Russia would probably like to lead, but it has too much political baggage, and in any case probably was not willing to fork out the funding; whilst it was the EU that was best placed to engage with such an issue. It had the experience, could potentially find the resources, and had enough political will to engage. This will however depended on the willingness of the sides in the conflict to accept this role for the EU, and to agree to proper modalities. Armenia and Azerbaijan have not yet expressed themselves clearly on this issue. On the other hand it was essential that other stakeholders who need to be involved are also engaged. This includes the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh where engagement needs to be clearly distinguished from endorsement.
Opening the discussion, Ivo Vajgl said that whilst visiting Armenia and Azerbaijan last week as part of the EP Foreign Affairs Committee he had extended an invitation to both Armenian and Azerbaijani MPs to participate in the event. He thanked Mr Javhanshir Feyziyev MP for attending from Azerbaijan. He said that unfortunately no Armenian MP was present but they had sent him a statement, which he quoted from in which the Armenian side reminded that the Sarsang issue had initially been raised in the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group but at that time Azerbaijan had refused to engage on the subject.
Mr Javhanshir Feyziyev MP (Azerbaijan) took the floor and welcomed the initiative of the meeting. He reminded that the Sarsang reservoir had been constructed in 1976, and that the last technical inspection was conducted by Azerbaijan in 1993. The reservoir was considered essential for the livelihood of 500,000 people, both Azerbaijanis and Armenians in Karabakh and in the surrounding areas. The reservoir was also important for irrigation. Mr Feyziyev said that since coming under Armenian control problems were arising: there was a deficiency of water to Azerbaijani areas in summer when they were most needed, and unexpected surges of water in winter. Both were creating a serious ecological problem, There was lack of communication between the sides on this issue. Water was being used as a means to put pressure on the Azerbaijani communities close to the line of contact. He said however that there was room to agree some political framework for dealing with this issue if there was a constructive Armenian approach. He said Azerbaijan was willing to accept all offers of support on this matter, including that of the European Union which was a valued partner. It was also ready to invest its own money in this venture for the benefit of all the population - Armenian as much as Azerbaijani.
Counsellor Armen Israelian from the Armenian Embassy said that the Minsk group was part of the OSCE because the solution of the Karabakh problem lay in the long-established principles of the OSCE. He said that it was not a co-incidence that the Minsk Group had reflected on the Sarsang issue in 2014, but the Azerbaijani side at that stage refused to engage, instead taking the issue to the Council of Europe, and using it as a cover up for military aggression. The PACE report was issued without the rapporteur visiting Armenia. he also said that the co-Chair countries had expressed their displeasure at the Council of Europe decisions
Another Armenian diplomat rejected the assertion that no maintenance of Sarsang had taken place since 1993, saying that inspections were held in 2011 and 2013 by international experts and no damage was found, and no emergency situation exists. Armenia was not against confidence-building measures, it was the Azerbaijani side that was rejecting them.
A number of other speakers raised issues and put questions to the panel. Panellists reiterated the importance of an inclusive process and of keeping in mind the welfare of conflict affected communities. It was emphasised that confidence building measures can never be a substitute for a genuine peace process, simply a tool to support such a process. Issues of status and of withdrawal from territory was an issue for the peace process.
Closing the meeting Ivo Vajgl MEP thanked the panel and all participants for their contribution, and said that the European Parliament will remain engaged with the issue and will continue to play its role for the resolution of the Karabakh conflict.
This report was updated on 1 June 2017.
photo: The Panel discussing Sarsang Reservoir and other confidence-buildinbg measures in the context of the Karabakh conflict held at the European parliament on 31 May 2017 (picture courtesy of the EP Press service).
Veronika Movchan, Ahmad Alili and Eduard Abrahamyan discuss the option in a panel chaired by Dennis Sammut.