Pundits said on Monday (18 April) that the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh was potentially very dangerous, and complained of the EU’s absence from efforts to defuse the tensions.
Dozens of people were killed in four days of shelling starting on 2 April, with rocket exchanges between Azerbaijan’s military and Armenian-backed separatists over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, prompting fears of an all-out war.
A ceasefire was agreed on 5 April at a behind-the-scenes meeting in Moscow between representatives of the warring sides.
Speaking to a public event organised by the European Policy Centre (EPC), Neil Melvin, Senior Researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said that there was a “surprising lack of response” on the EU side to a very serious military confrontation.
He said it should be very safely assumed that the events from the first days of April could be a precursor to much worse confrontation to come. The 5 April ceasefire is not likely to hold, he said.
“The four-day war, or as some people called it the April Fools war, hasn’t come out of the blue. What we’ve seen is the worst violence in Nagorno-Karabakh in two decades,” Melvin pointed out. He added that it was difficult to say what exactly triggered it, but that tensions had been escalating since at least early 2014.
Analysts explained that Nagorno-Karabakh had started as a localised conflict, and then became an inter-state conflict, and had the potential to become an international regional conflict, and a war by proxy, in which Russia and Turkey have big stakes.
“This time we see an unprecedented level of Russian engagement,” Melvin said, adding that this country was the first to react to the resumption of fighting, while the international organisation only reacted at the level of statements.
Russia staked out its claim yesterday (7 April) to be the lead player in brokering a settlement to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, a role it hopes will enhance its clout in a region where it competes for influence with Washington.
“Russia styled itself as the lead mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” he stated, insisting that the aim was to create the impression that Moscow “calls the shots” in the South Caucasus. The absence of a significant US response left the field open for Russia to be the power broker.
“The EU needs to make up its mind – is it going to be an actor in the South Caucasus, or isn’t it,” Melvin stated. At the moment, on the EU side there was “very little political commitment” and there was no planned visit of high-level EU diplomats, he commented.
This “minimalist” position in his view should be changed. Melvin argued that he would like to see an EU Troika of foreign ministers travel to the region to serve as a counterbalance to the Russians, and reinforce the French position in the historic Minsk process, in which the US, Russia and France serve as mediators.
In the absence of such action, he said Russia would achieve a “Pax Russica,” a peace deal based on Moscow’s terms.
Dennis Sammut, a member of the Advisory Council of the EPC, and the Director of LINKS, said the EU position, which amounts to “We support the Minsk group,” is no longer acceptable.
“The region is too close to Europe. What happens in the South Caucasus has direct implications for the EU in all kinds of ways and we need to engage much more intensively”, he said.
He quoted EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini speaking in the European Parliament last week, when her last comment was “Yes, we will do more,” and then she paused for a second and added “If necessary”.
“My message is: Yes, it is necessary,” Sammut said.
Jacques Faure, former French Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, also stressed the role of Turkey and expressed concern at the statements of the country’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said that Ankara is on the side of Baku.
Amanda Paul, Senior Policy Analyst at the EPC, said that the European Parliament could be praised for having stronger positions on Nagorno-Karabakh than the Commission and the Council.
British S&D MEP Richard Howitt (Labour) said the EU should associate formally with the Minsk group process, and that the Union should also engage more with Russia diplomatically. He complained that there were no mechanisms to find out what is actually happening on the ground.
Howitt also put Nagorno-Karabakh in the wider picture, stoking the risk of a wider Christian-Muslim confrontation, Azerbaijan being predominantly Muslim, and Armenia predominantly Christian.
Pope Francis will visit Azerbaijan and Georgia in the autumn, the Vatican said on 9 April, one day after combatants in Nagorno-Karabakh agreed to cease fighting that has killed dozens in the past week.
Howitt also referred to the volatile situation in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, saying that it confirmed the general impression that the EU is retreating from the neighbourhood.
“We just burned our fingers over Ukraine and there’s now a lack of ambition, and de facto acceptance that Russia is going to reassert its influence in the region. There are enough people who don’t agree with that,” Howitt said.
The status quo around Nagorno-Karabakh has been seriously challenged with the fighting taking place since Saturday. The EU can play an important role in changing the situation and assuring its security interests in the region, writes Licínia Simão.
The war in Syria should be a sober reminder to countries in and around the South Caucasus, and further-flung stakeholders, about what can happen when a local conflict explodes into much wider one, writes Irada Guseynova,