War or peace in Karabakh? In Brussels experts discuss 2016 escalation, and future scenarios
04 April 2018

Risks of further violence in and around Karabakh remain high, but experts also see some opportunities for peace in the domestic and international context

The second anniversary of the April 2016 escalation of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh was marked by an expert dialogue meeting organised by the European Policy Centre (EPC) and LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research) in Brussels on 4 April 2018. The 2016 incidents resulted in hundreds of Armenian and Azerbaijani casualties, and marked the most serious escalation of violence since the 1994 cease fire.

The panel, chaired by the EPC's Amanda Paul, included David Shanazaryan from the Regional Studies Centre in Yerevan, Zaur Shiriyev from the International Crisis Group, Professor Andrey Makarychev from the University of Tartu in Estonia, and Dr Dennis Sammut from LINKS

Representatives of the diplomatic missions of Armenia and Azerbaijan, joined representatives of the EU institutions, missions of EU member states and other diplomats, and media and civil society representatives for the discussion during which the question of whether a repeat of 2016 was possible, or whether the time was now right for a breakthrough in the peace negotiations was considered.

David Shanazaryan said that Armenia blames Azerbaijan for the April 2016 escalations, and after that the Armenian position has hardened. Armenia, as well as the leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh now insist on exchange of territory in return for an agreed final status. After 2016 Armenia learned the importance of a multi vectored foreign policy which quickly led to the signing of a new comprehensive agreement with the EU. This was a strategic decision, and the agreement with the EU recognises the three principles of the Helsinki final act, including the non-use of force, the respect for territorial integrity and the right for self determination. Armenia would welcome if Azerbaijan signs a similar agreement.

On the ground Armenia had learned lessons. There were now new monitoring systems that would make a surprise attack impossible, and stronger fortifications. April 2016 showed that despite great superiority in terms of equipment Azerbaijan could not inflict a defeat on Armenia.

David Shahnazaryan said that the risk of a new war was high, since the sides have never been so far away from agreeing a peaceful solution. The speaker argued that at this time when there was this great mistrust between Baku and Yerevan the EU should increase its work with people to people contacts. It should also consider assisting the sides with  re-establishing a military hotline that existed before, but is no longer operative.

The speaker welcomed the fact that the Minsk process remains one of the few diplomatic frameworks where Russia and the United States can still co-operate, and said this could provide a stimulus to the peace process.

Zaur Shiriyev said that Armenia and Azerbaijan do not agree on the narrative of what happened in April 2016, but the region has since seen further militarisation. The two presidents have met three times since, and their foreign ministers six times. Baku had assumed that after April 2016 thee would be sustained international attention to the conflict. This however only lasted a few weeks. It also hoped for tangible results from the negotiations, based on the principle of return of lands in exchange for the opening of borders, something which has not yet materialised. Baku also hoped that Russia will lead the mediation effort and bring them to a conclusion. However the Russians now seem to have down graded their involvement in the negotiations from the president to the foreign minister.

Zaur Shiriyev said that the impact of April 2016 on Azerbaijani society should not be underestimated. Society was now more than ever convinced that war was the only solution to the conflict. The speaker said that there were some practical steps that could be taken. First the re-introduction of special presidential envoys to work on the peace process should be considered. This would create continuity in the contact between the sides in-between presidential summits and foreign minister meetings. Shiriyev said there should also be more emphasis on the human and humanitarian side of the conflict, including the fate of detainees and missing  persons. At the moment both sides hold two persons from the other side. The speaker hailed the role of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and its work on these issues.

Andrey Makarychev spoke about Russia's engagement and perception of the conflict in its foreign policy discourse He said that there were three levels of engagement. At the official level the position was very cautious and rather hollow in meaning. There were those who spoke on behalf of the Kremlin emphasised Russia as a guardian for peace, helping to keep a balance between the sides. A third group of "geo strategists" indulged in wider speculations, connecting events in Nagorno-Karabakh with events in Crimea, and sometimes accusing Azerbaijan of punching Russia in the face by causing the April 2016 escalation. This third group was also prone to conspiracy theories based on the role of "unfriendly outsiders".

Andrey Makarychev said that Russia needed to face some hard realities including the fact that attitudes in Armenia had changed after April 2016, and whilst Armenians had not become anti-Russian they had become increasing sceptical of Russia's friendship. One could also see disappointments from Armenia's membership of the Eurasian Economic Union. Both sides in the conflict were also trying to project a narrative of events in Crimea and Ukraine drawing parallels to Nagorno-Karabakh and this created some discomfort for Russia.

Andrey Makarychev warned against overestimating the relationship between Russia and Turkey. The nature of the two governments enables them to find some common ground, and Russia has taken some satisfaction in creating discomfort for the relationship between Turkey and its western allies. But the impact of the Russian Turkish relationship on the South Caucasus is unlikely to be very high.

Dennis Sammut said that over the last twenty five years the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has transformed from a largely localised ethnic and territorial conflict into a complicated geo-political conflict.  The stakes are now much higher; with a shift in the military capabilities from old tanks and Kalashnikovs to modern weaponry, missile systems, drones and heavy artillery. The two countries between them have spent around 40 billion USD on defence in the last decade. The political elites in Baku and Yerevan are now dependant on their Karabakh narrative. The two societies are now much more belligerent towards each other. Whilst some prefer to be silent, only very few are ready to challenge the war narrative. The speaker said that the region now is increasingly important for Russia as it pursues its assertive policy way beyond the near abroad. The South Caucasus is no longer a buffer zone. It is central to a new, hugely important theatre of operations - the southern region that stretches from the Caspian to the Black Sea and has Crimea as its centre, to which have been added the new facilities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the upgrade of the facilities in Gyumri and the Syrian theatre of operation, including the expansion of the naval and air base at Tartous. The Caucasus is the centre piece of Russian power projection towards the Mediterranean, the Near and the Middle East. This shift can also be seen in the decision to move the Russian Caspian Flotilla southwards from Ashtrakan to Makhachkala. On its part the west is now also a stakeholder in the region and will not be able now to stand idle in case of widespread conflict

Dennis Sammut said that for any progress in the peace negotiations a certain amount of alignment is necessary between three factors: Armenian domestic politics; Azerbaijani domestic politics and the regional and international situation.  Whilst over the last twenty years of efforts to resolve the conflict, the international context was to a larger or lesser extent conducive the domestic political situation in Armenia and Azerbaijan never seemed aligned enough, and at all times either one side or the other could not muster enough political will to push through with the peace initiatives. However, for the first time, in the next months we will see in both Armenia and Azerbaijan the conclusion of long political and constitutional processes that will leave Ilham Aliyev and Serzh Sargsyan in a stronger position than they have ever been. As long as the international situation allows it, we may in the next months see more intensive diplomatic negotiations, and one may even express optimism that important steps will be taken in the course of this year. If these efforts fail, then of course there will be a counter reaction, which is why the risk of renewed conflict remains high, said the speaker.

With regard to the role of the European Union Dennis Sammut said that as things stand today neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan want the EU to be more directly involved in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as they don't see it relevant to the issue. Instead they constantly ask the EU to support their maximalist position, and claim hurt and offence when this is not done. However for the EU the risks from a renewed Karabakh conflict are real so it has no alternative but to engage. This is also recognised in the EU Global Policy Strategy.

The EU can up its game and this can be done in a number of ways. A re-assessment of its overall engagement with the South Caucasus region in now opportune.  It is best that Nagorno-Karabakh is discussed in this framework; not in isolation. The European Union needs to introduce a regional approach to its relations with the countries of the region. This was abandoned when it was felt that it was too difficult and cumbersome. Whilst a lot of things can only be done at a bilateral level, there must be a space carved for a regional dimension. Given the EU's new contractual relationship with two, hopefully soon three countries of the countries in the region its interests in the region are now deeper, and more clear than ever. This situation needs to be reflected in its engagement with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and conflict settlement process. Interaction between the EU and the Minsk Group co-chair countries needs to be formalised and upgraded, to include regular consultations on the issue at least at Deputy Minister level. The areas where the EU can add value to the work of the international community on the resolution of the Karabakh issue have also started to crystallise. These include: (a) design, development and implementation of confidence-building measures; (b) preparation of societies for a conflict settlement based on compromise; (c) engagement and capacity building of civil society actors in the conflict region and wider society; (d) post conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation. This work now needs to proceed more systematically. The EU needs to develop a capacity to communicate directly with the political elites, society leaders and the mass of citizens in Armenia and Azerbaijan, including the conflict zones, and instruments for this action need to be developed. All this will require a more robust mandate for the EUSR for the South Caucasus; a redesign of the EPNK framework and an analytical process led by think-tanks to generate new ideas.

Answering a question from the representative of the Armenian Embassy, Dennis Sammut said that EPNK had done a lot of good work, and individual activities were useful  in many respects, including in keeping lines of communications open between different stakeholders from both sides at various levels. Some good work was also being done on confidence-building measures and on capacity building. The speaker said that there was some disappointment that EPNK had not become larger than the sum of its parts, but the context in which the work was being done was very challenging and the governments on the two sides had not exactly cheered on the work. It was important that some format is found to continue the work, responding to the changing context, and becoming more ambitious in its objectives.

source: The policy dialogue "Nagorno-Karabakh, two years after the four-day escalation" was held at the EPC in Brussels on Wednesday, 4 April 2018. The event was an activity of LINKS (DAR) and EPC in the framework of the European Union's EPNK initiative

photo: Speakers at the policy dialogue held at the EPC on 4 April 2018, from l to r Professor Andrey Makarychev, Dr Dennis sammut, Amanda Paul, Zaur Shiriyev and David Shahnazaryan (picture courtesy of EPC twitter feed, 'epc_eu)