EU's engagement with Karabakh is important for peace and humanitarian reasons, but Baku's acquiescence remains necessary
16 February 2017

In this op-ed Dennis Sammut argues that the EU needs to find ways of engaging with Nagorno-Karabakh, but to do so meaningfully will require that it has a role in the peace process, and Baku's aquiesence is always going to be necessary

The Azerbaijani Government keeps a list of people that it says visit Nagorno-Karabakh without its permission. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but has been out of Baku's control for nearly 25 years. Those on Baku's black listed are barred from entering Azerbaijan, regardless of the reason they visited Karabakh. Recently Azerbaijan took the matter one step further. It extradited one person who was on the list from Belarus to Baku, where he faces prosecution. The case of Alexander Lapshin, who holds multiple Russian/Israeli/Ukrainian citizenship promises to be a landmark case with considerable diplomatic and legal implications

Read more here

The problem of how to engage with territories that have seceded from other states but remain unrecognised by the international community has tested diplomats, particulary in the last two and half decades, when such states appeared on the European continent after the Soviet Union collapsed.

The European Union, and its member states have agonised on how to deal with this  phenomena. On the one hand they do not recognise Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transdniestr and Nagorno-Karabakh as independent states, and do not want to do anything that in anyway can be seen doing so. This, by the way was also their position with regards to Chechnya in the period 1992-99, when the territory was outside of Moscow's control. In all cases however the EU has also puzzled about how to maintain contacts with the population in these territories, that are, under international law, part of other countries. In the case of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Trandniestr a policy of engagement without recognition has evolved. In practise it existed since the mid 1990s, but it got better articulated after 2008. As regards Nagorno-Karabakh no such engagement has ever been in place.

Why is Karabakh different? There are two main reasons: first, unlike with the other conflict situations the European Union is not directly involved in the conflict resolution process. There is therefore less justification for such engagement. The second reason is that Baku has shown less flexibility on the matter than the governments of Georgia and Moldova. Here the governments, after some persuasion, understood the value of acquiescing to such engagement. The de facto authorities in Sukhumi, Tskhinvali and Tiraspol knew this acquiescence was necessary, and were also flexible enough to accept it. The relationship has never been easy, and is far from perfect, being constantly at the mercy of day to day events. But it allows some space for interaction.

Why in the case of Karabakh engagement is necessary too?

The case for engaging with Nagorno-Karabakh is quite solid. Most of this engagement can take place with civil society, but some form of engagement with the de facto authorities of the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is also necessary.

There are a number of humanitarian reasons for this engagement, including the ability to monitor the human rights situation, as well as investigate claims of violations of international humanitarian law. The matter was on 8 December 2016 discussed in the European Parliament in the presence of Armenian and Azerbaijani parliamentarians.

A second argument regards the impact of international isolation on the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh and its implecations for the peace process. Azerbaijan believes that isolation will break their will, but there is little sign that this is true. In many cases in other circumstances evidence suggests it leads to a hardening of positions. Let us be clear, this international isolation of Nagorno-Karabakh is far from being absolute. Members of the Karabakh Armenian elite travel extensively in the world, often with Armenian diplomatic passports, and all Armenian Karabakhis can travel freely to Armenia, and often do. But not all elements of society can do so, and in many ways Karabakh Armenians remain a society isolated and under siege.

A third argument is related to the process of implementation of an eventual peace process. It is true that at the moment hardly anyone on either side is confident that a peace process is likely to succeed soon. The only talk in Karabakh and elsewhere is of war. Yet there is also a danger that this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If tomorrow a peace deal is struck neither side is ready for it, but the least ready part is the Armenian population of NK.

Addressing the political context of engagement

Engagement cannot happen in isolation. Before the issue of engagement can be taken to the next level two things need to happen.

The first is that the European Union needs to be recognised as an interested partner to the OSCE Minsk process on Karabakh, with a supporting role for the co-Chair countries in areas of humanitarian intervention and confidence building measures. Murmurs that this can happen once there is a peace agreement, and EU cash will be needed for post conflict rehabilitation, are no longer adequate and a formalisation of this role sooner rather than later, is appropriate. This supporting role can be integrated in the current format without the need to change the form or mandate, but it will require the agreement of both the three co-Chair countries, and the two sides in the conflict.

The second is that Baku needs to be persuaded to acquiesce to the engagement, and Stepanakert needs to be aware of this. Persuading Baku will require work, but in the right circumstances can be possible, as all sides should be able to see some benefit.

All this may take time, and will depend on events on the ground. The current toxic atmosphere between Armenia and Azerbaijan that has spilt over from the mountains of Karabakh to the corridors of the OSCE Permanent Council and the Council of Europe is hardly conducive for such initiatives. But there are some practical steps that can be pushed in the meantime, and which can be implemented using already existing mechanism and frameworks.

(1)    The initiative of the European Parliament to focus on the human rights and humanitarian dimension of the conflict should be taken forward. A European Parliament fact finding Mission, with the participation of the relevant EU institutions and some civil society representation should visit the conflict zone before the end of 2017, and prepare a baseline report.

(2)    The issue of access to the conflict region needs to be addressed, even if at first through a temporary solution. Working through the good offices of the EUSR for the South Caucasus a "lavender list" of 50-60 persons who need to travel to Nagorno-Karabakh as part of peace-building and humanitarian efforts should be agreed with the Azerbaijani Government, and the de facto authorities in Stepanakert, in a way to allow their unimpeded travel without further formalities for a defined period, of say two years.

(3)    The EU should agree with the sides, and convene, directly or through the EPNK - the EU's civil society programme  on Karabakh, a planning meeting on confidence-building measures that would be inclusive, status neutral, and technical in its approach, and that can work in parallel to the ongoing political process.

(4)    One or two areas of urgent humanitarian intervention can be identified, and a mechanism agreed for channelling urgent assistance based on an agreement with all interested parties.

(5)    Demining and decommissioning of unexploded ordinance is a huge challenge for future generations in the conflict region. The EU should offer to lead on this issue, working according to a time table mutually agreed with the sides. In the first phase it may not be possible to do more than assess the problem, but the more awareness of the gravity of this problem, and of the obstacle that this presents to any eventual peace process and normalisation, the better.

The discussion on the European Union's engagement with Nagorno-Karabakh needs to be taken forward in a frank and open manner.

In the EU itself, there are those who think the Union has enough problems on its plate at the moment, and Karabakh is too complicated and potentially a risky engagement. But with the EU in the process of having contractual relations with all three South Caucasus countries, that, we are assured, go way beyond trade, this black hole is starting to emerge as a risk in itself.

There will be suspicions of these ideas on all sides, which need to be addressed through clarity and transparency. In doing so the European Union should highlight the need of putting at the centre of its priorities in the region the fate of the people that have been directly very negatively impacted by this conflict, on both sides, for nearly thirty years, and who deserve the right to hope, aspire and work for a better future for themselves and their children.


Dennis Sammut  ( is the director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research). He contributed this op-ed for Caucasus Concise, a weekly electronic newsletter published in association with

For further reading on this subject please refer to Amanda Paul and Dennis Sammut paper "Nagorno-Karabakh: Time to bring peacekeeping and confidence-building back on the agenda", published by the European Policy Centre in September 2016 (read here); and Tom de Waal paper  "Enhancing the EU's engagement with separatist territories"" published by Carnegie Europe in January 2017 (read it here)

photo: Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh flags at a border that does not quite exist (picture courtesy of La Stampa, Italy).