The South Caucasus with too many conflicts for its size of territory and number of population posits both challenges and opportunities to EU actorness in conflict resolution. Among other conflicts in the region, the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict stands out as a main threat to peace and stability both for the countries of the region and the neighborhood. It has all the potential to turn into a full-fledged war and drive the entire neighborhood – Turkey, Russia, Georgia and Iran – into the storm of unprecedented events. It just suffices it to mention that the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and Baku-Tbilisi-Kars gas pipeline pass in few kilometers distance of the contact line and borders between Armenians and Azerbaijanis where almost each day the outdated ceasefire is violated for several times. The long lasting ceasefire does not guarantee that no war can break up between Azerbaijan which has spent extensively for the buildup of the army and Armenia which hosts the Russian military base in the region. With such potential of causing large scale violence in the neighborhood, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict should have deserved the attention of the European Union.
Nevertheless, the EU does not have any intention to help the sides reach an agreement. The position of the EU, as provided in the Action Plan signed with Azerbaijan and stated by many EU officials, is that the EU could only support reconciliation and reconstruction works after the conflicting sides reach an agreement. Unlike the Union, France is one of three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group which is tasked with a mission of finding a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict along with the US and Russia. In October 2014, French President François Hollande brought his Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts together in Paris for the negotiation of the conflict. French Presidents offered the conflicting sides to sign a framework treaty. Although Azerbaijan was likely to agree on this, the Armenian side rejected it on the basis of Nagorno-Karabakh opposing the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the seven adjacent district of Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite all the efforts, France cannot play the role of the EU or compensate for the lacking concerted EU action.
The 2003 European Security Strategy states the importance of taking “a stronger and more active interest in the problems of the Southern Caucasus”. Though, since that we have not seen any serious action by the European Union towards the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, except the funding of few NGOs. Since 2010, the Union funds a consortium of five European organisations implementing peace-building projects with little or no influence on the whole process – the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement over Nagorno-Karabakh. In addition, several European capitals also fund such kind of civil society projects. Yet, for a number of reasons, these projects have not born any tangible fruit yet. Many argue in Azerbaijan that EPNK is just for the sake of saving face for the EU. Others argue that the EU does not provide the necessary political support for the projects it funds. Yet, much also depend on the local context for the implementation of such projects.
Looking for the reasons of the EU staying away, some called it negligence, others hesitation, a third group lack of capacity. The last argument seems less realistic as the EU has developed significant capacity in addressing conflicts in the last two decades and already gained successes in the Balkans. It has gained extensive experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia. The Union has also some experience in Georgian conflicts. But, obviously, the EU does not have the mechanisms for influencing on the conflicting sides as it has (had) in the cases of the Balkan countries. Nevertheless, this does not mean the lack of capacity but not less.
Rich with hydrocarbon resources and as a door to the Central Asia, the South Caucasus has neither deserved negligence by the EU. Moreover, as already discussed above, with potential of causing sheer scale of violence in the neighborhood, the EU cannot ignore the conflict, simply.
The arguments about hesitation in terms of entering the backyard of Russia seem more convincing than the others. The Ukrainian revolution and the following annexation of Crimea by Russia have sent sharp messages to the EU in terms of how Russia can destabilize the neighborhood and potentially, the EU. After these developments, it would be more difficult for the EU to involve directly in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, if there is such will. Thus, we can conclude that hesitation in this issue simply has grown. Nevertheless, in parallel to the increasing hesitation in this sense, the necessity of the EU involvement as a mediator in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has increased, too. No one can guarantee that Russia would never intervene in the South Caucasus in the case of escalation of tension on the contact line between Azerbaijan and the Armenia controlled Nagorno-Karabakh or on the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia or that it cannot organize an appropriate situation justifying (in a Russian way) its intervention in the region. These risks are on the table. Instead of simply calling for the stability in the region and merely funding confidence building measures, the EU needs to establish its mechanisms for working with the conflicting sides and a political platform where it could bring leaders together. This is not a role France could assume on its own. A concerted and serious EU action towards the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is needed as it has never been before. However, this does not mean that a new political platform should be an alternative to the OSCE Minsk group format but run in parallel to the negotiations going in that format. Obviously, it is this hesitation in the capitals that explains the lack of institutional impetus within the EU to address the Nargorno-Karabakh conflict, seriously.
Nagorno-Karabakh – a small piece of land between Armenia and Azerbaijan – was the part of short lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic of 1918-1920 and the Soviet Azerbaijan of 1920-1991. In 1991, the autonomous region unilaterally declared its independence from Azerbaijan. Until the break-up of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory both Azerbaijanis and Armenians lived together in the region. Despite all international mediation efforts shown since the signing of the ceasefire between the conflicting sides in 1994 the conflict remains unresolved.