EU Must Intervene in Nagorno-Karabakh


It is now 17 years since Armenia and Azerbaijan began a full-scale war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a south-western province of Azerbaijan. And it is now 15 years since a ceasefire was agreed, with Armenian forces in control of the territory. But it is a ceasefire that it is poorly observed. There are regular shoot-outs across the line of contact, regular explosions of mines, and more than 30,000 troops in combat-ready mode.


The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is, then, far from frozen. Indeed, Nagorno-Karabakh is probably a more dangerous ‘frozen conflict’ than those in Moldova and Georgia. Both sides continue to compete in an arms race, making the region the most heavily militarised in Europe. Azerbaijan is currently spending $2 billion (€1.4 bn) on military procurement, which is more than the state budget of Armenia. In both countries, the animosity is very evident, and hate-full propaganda appears each day. Peace remains a distant prospect, with the ‘Minsk Group’ talks being held under the aegis of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) producing no visible results.

Leaders in Baku want Nagorno-Karabakh to remain in Azerbaijan and they want Armenian troops to withdraw from the seven occupied regions. Yerevan is asking for the right to self-determination. And although the August 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia should have demonstrated that war is a bad solution, Baku is growing increasingly impatient with diplomatic efforts, which are producing no results.

A role for the EU

A war over Nagorno-Karabakh would have devastating regional consequences. It would destroy the region’s fragile stability and it would undermine and seriously threaten the security of energy supplies from the Caspian to the international markets, including the prospects of the southern gas corridor connecting the EU gas market with Caspian producers. Turkey and Russia might find themselves supporting opposing sides, while Europe and the US would be hard pressed to intervene. The price of a conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh would be extremely high for the European Union, as it has been in the case of Georgia – and so it is surprising how little attention Europe is giving to the conflict.

While the EU is actively engaged in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniester and now also in Georgia, through the Geneva process, it has no direct role in Nagorno-Karabakh. Although there is an EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus, Europe has taken a back seat to the Minsk Group, where France has its own representative.

There is also a lack of knowledge about the conflict within EU institutions and reluctance on the part of some member states to see the EU become more deeply involved. At the same time, there is growing recognition of the strategic importance of this region, not least in terms of energy security and diversification – the major pipelines from the Caspian to the west are mere 15 km from the ceasefire line, and several pumping stations are exposed and vulnerable to attack. Furthermore, there is a good chance that, if hostilities resumed, the EU would be asked to deal with the aftermath (as was the case in Georgia last year). And, if a peace deal were struck, the EU would be well placed to oversee the deal’s implementation, given its experience in other conflicts. It would therefore make sense for the EU to stake out a greater role for itself now.

Tasks for the EU

Firstly, the EU needs to integrate itself into the Minsk Group. If Europe is to become the main implementer and guarantor of a peace deal, Europe also needs to be a part of the deal-making process. That means France will have to trade in its seat, and the new EU representative in the Minsk Process would need a clear and strong mandate, with room to negotiate on behalf of the twenty-seven member states.

Secondly, Europe needs to decide whether it supports Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity or not. There will also come a time when Brussels will have to ask the Armenian government to withdraw its troops from the occupied territories, and use leverage – including the threat of suspending talks on a free-trade agreement and an association agreement – if Yerevan refuses. It is impossible, on the one hand, to laud Azerbaijan as an indispensable strategic ally in the quest to improve Europe’s energy security while, on the other hand, to fail to support Azerbaijan in its efforts to regain control over its territory. Countless UN resolutions, NATO declarations and Council of Europe positions have reaffirmed Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.

Finally, the EU’s experience from the western Balkans can also be relevant in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. Once the peace framework is agreed, the EU could engage in de-mining projects, since the region is one of the most heavily mined in the world; send a mission to evaluate the security situation and damage on the ground in the occupied territories; appoint a deputy to the Special Representative who is a respected expert on the conflict trusted by all sides and thereby able to facilitate contacts between the communities of Nagorno-Karabakh and help identify solutions; bring together youth groups to work on diverse projects such as restoring historical monuments damaged during the war. The EU is also well placed to take the lead in peacekeeping and reconstruction.

The EU’s new Eastern Partnership cites as its goal stability, security and prosperity in the Eastern Neighbourhood. Without the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict this will never be achievable and the region will remain a ticking time bomb. Therefore the EU needs to show that it has learned its lesson in Georgia and become an active peacemaker in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Borut Grgic is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Amanda Akçakoca is a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre.This article previously appeared in European Voice as “Another Peace Role for the EU.”

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