Much has been made of the fact that the European Union is now playing a key – some say crucial – role in the process of establishing lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, breaking what appeared to be until recently a Russian monopoly over the process. Some erroneously characterise this as another example of unhealthy big power rivalry. In fact it is a natural process: the EU is helping two friendly partner countries in its neighbourhood avoid a new war and settle old problems so that peace can return to their lands and to the region.
Up to the second Karabakh War of autumn 2020 conventional wisdom had it that the international format to manage and resolve the conflict was the OSCE Minsk Group, and particularly the co-Chair trio: France, Russia and the United States, and that seeking other avenues, a process that diplomats quaintly called “forum hopping” was ill advised. Yet this Minsk Group monopoly was only an illusion. In fact right from the start, way back in the early 1990s a second “more efficient” channel existed: the Russian channel. For decades Moscow played the Minsk Group, of which it was a co-Chair, like a violin, bringing them to the limelight when it suited it, and ignoring them when that worked best in its interest. It is true that there were one or two moments when the Americans, or less so the French, tried to take the bull by the horns and push the process forward, for example in Key West in 2001. But these were fleeting moments. For most of the time the Russians called the shots, mostly behind the scenes. At the crunch moment, in September 2020 when the second Karabakh War started, the co-Chairs were nowhere to be seen. Some half hearted attempts at interacting with the sides impressed no one. It was clear that it was Vladimir Putin who was – this time very visibly – doing the heavy lifting. In the early hours of 10 November the Russians finally cut a deal with the Armenians and Azerbaijanis: the fighting stopped; a defeated Armenia was spared the humiliation of seeing Stepanakert being run over by Azerbaijani forces; Azerbaijan got most of its land back; and the Russians got what they had long wanted – a military presence in Karabakh in the guise of a peacekeeping force. None of the three countries at this point had time to think of the Minsk Group. It has since faded away into historical oblivion regardless of some wishful thinking. But the Russian-brokered deal, whilst to be lauded for ending the heavy fighting left a very tense and unstable situation, and certainly so far no peace.
During the 2020 Karabakh War the EU was “actively supporting” the largely inert Minsk Group. However by the summer of 2021 the folly of this became evident.
It was at this point that the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, travelled to the South Caucasus in the middle of the summer. It was not one of those whirlwind visits often undertaken by European politicians visiting the South Caucasus – breakfast in Baku, lunch in Tbilisi and dinner in Yerevan, and then quickly back to Brussels. Michel allowed himself time to do some sightseeing, but more importantly to get to know better the local leaders, and crucially gain their trust. This investment paid off, allowing the EU to emerge as a key player. It is true that Michel was knocking at an open door. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan at this point were very comfortable with the way the Russians were managing things. Now that even the veneer of the Minsk Group had disappeared Russia shamelessly positioned itself to be not a mediator but an arbiter with vested interests. This did not suit either Armenia or Azerbaijan. The emergence of a second negotiating format was in their interest, and they embraced the Michel initiative warmly. Since then, Michel has hosted three meetings of president Aliyev and prime minister Pashinyan, and a fourth is being prepared. The soft spoken Michel could not be more different the macho Putin. Russia is outraged its monopoly is broken, but cannot do much about it, except breathing down the necks of Baku and Yerevan. But that they are used to and seem to be somehow able to manage.
The two processes are therefore here to stay for a while. Some argue that this may end in confusion. Some warn again about forum hopping. The sides shamelessly present themselves in their media as reluctant brides with two suitors. But these are small costs to pay for the alternative, which is, to put it crudely, Russian hegemony over the South Caucasus.
Now that there are two processes ongoing it is also possible to explore the different roads they can lead towards peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in a wider spectrum, between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
The declared objective is the signing of a final peace agreement. That should remain the case, but between that and the present state of play there is a huge political distance to travel – a journey that is hazardous given the heavy burden of history, and the fact that over the last three decades many sons of Armenia and Azerbaijan have shed their blood in what outsiders see as a senseless conflict. The journey may therefore have to be made in stages – all leading to the final objective.
Developing trade relations, intensive people to people contacts, establishing diplomatic relations in stages, facilitated travel between the two countries including direct air travel – are all important steps that can and should be taken in the process of normalising relations. Most of them can be agreed and start giving results in months not years. The process can be supported by an intensive programme of confidence building measures that will help build trust at various layers of society.
There are issues that will take longer. Given the experience of other situations, including in the South Caucasus, the demarcation and delineation of borders can take years, if not decades. The sides need to accept the present status quo as the temporary border, and respect that until such a time that the Commission established to deal with this issue is able to finalise its work.
There is then the question of the future of the Armenians of Karabakh. Given this was the original casus belli it is no surprise that this remains a contentious issue. We have all heard the maximalist position of the sides, which they repeat ad nauseam, assuming I suppose that they think that all of us are deaf and had not heard it first time round, or worse, mistakenly thinking that by repeating their position often enough it will become a fact. In truth what is needed is flexibility and creative thinking to ensure that enough of the demands of both sides are met for a solution to be not only possible but also sustainable. Such a solution will inevitably require two elements: a recognition of Azerbaijan’s legal rights over Nagorno-Karabakh and ensuring the safety and dignity of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh through legally enshrined provisions. There is no formula that one can take off the shelf to satisfy both equally, but if the sides and the international community put their minds to it, and approach the matter with enough flexibility, a solution is possible.
The journey towards peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan is long and hazardous, but there are many roads that can be taken to reach the final objective. The leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan should not hesitate to explore all of them and use them to start giving to their populations concrete benefits from peace. That will make the journey to a final peace treaty increasingly shorter and easier.
Dennis Sammut is Director of LINKS Europe and Special Advisor to the Joint Armenian-Azerbaijani Liaison Group on confidence-building measures in support of lasting peace in the South Caucasus.