The Karabakh war ended but its impact continues. Poverty, destruction, displacement and hostilities are just some of the obstacles to creating durable peace. What are the chances and opportunities of bringing the EU back into the region? Can the EU and its member states contribute to the prevention of further violence and improvement of relationships? Expectations, conditions and methods for strengthened EU engagement were discussed at the FriEnt / FES event on cooperation in the South Caucasus.
The Karabakh war ended with the signature of the ceasefire agreement on 9. November 2020, but a peace accord is not in sight. Many issues remain unresolved, including the future status of the disputed region, and a stable peace and wartime recovery are far from being reached. Russia brokered the ceasefire agreement, whereas the OSCE-Minsk Group as well as the EU and its Eastern Partnership failed in conflict prevention and contributing to a just and sustainable peace in the region.
What are the chances and opportunities to bring the EU back into the region? And what can the EU and its member states contribute to the prevention of further violence and to an improvement of relationships in and between the countries and societies? How can reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan be encouraged? What is needed to ease the dire humanitarian and economic situation without deepening the divide?
These questions were raised in the event “Peace & Reconciliation after the 2020 Karabakh-war – Expectations for more EU engagement”, which was co-organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and its offices in Berlin, Tbilisi, Yerevan and Brussels, and the Working Group on Peace and Development (FriEnt). The online event took place on 17. March 2021 with senior level representatives from the European parliament (EP) and the European External Action Service (EEAS), government representatives from EU member states, and around 50 participants from civil society, think tanks and governmental institutions from Europe, the South Caucasus and the US. Aims included the provision of updates on the current situation on the ground as well as current EU activities and plans, increasing the attention for peacebuilding needs and opportunities for more and concrete EU engagement towards Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Karabakh conflict, and enhancing conflict sensitivity in all actions planned for and with actors in the region.
After the war, the humanitarian problems in Armenia persisted and increased due to the wintertime and the Corona pandemic. The housing problem developed out of the destroyed infrastructure in Karabakh also impacted Armenia as thousands of displaced persons from Karabakh and the adjacent regions stranded there. This refugee crisis resulted in a much higher poverty rate, especially in the receiving, mostly rural areas, where the majority of households already live below poverty line. The capital Yerevan similarly experiences economic difficulties, which were further deepened by the Corona crisis, and continues to face unresolved housing and unemployment issues. Uncertain human security and housing matters for returnees to Karabakh are a permanent concern. The atmosphere amongst the Armenian people is poisoned through the major feeling of being losers of the war and being threatened by the enmity of its neighbors. The future seems to be very fragile for big parts of the society and the impression that greed and grievances are not being addressed has led to a broad radicalization. While some parts of the society advocate peace and a realistic adaptation to the actual situation, others focus on revenge and militarization.
In Azerbaijan, the number of war victims in the military sector and amongst the civilian population is immense and the suffering persists here as well. Return of IDPs from the war in the 90ies to the now regained regions is unrealistic due to the damaged infrastructure. Also here, but on the background of a winner-mentality, Azerbaijan faces similar core problems, such as hate speech and aggression, and refrains from addressing any of these issues. The civil society is cracked down, human rights defenders and journalists are persecuted, and corruption, money-laundry and bad governance prevail. This poses one of the major obstacles to peacebuilding and conflict transformation within the country and to cross-border initiatives and advocacy work. Support from western countries and especially the EU is in dire need and should be enhanced to prevent further provocations between the belligerents. More attention should be put towards preventing a new escalation of violence between the countries. The EU should use ‘carrot AND sticks’ and elaborate clear conditionalities for any kind of support within the two countries, based on the values of human rights, democratization, non-use of force and anti-aggression, provocation and hate speeches.
Considering both country perspectives, a new escalation of violence and war is a realistic scenario. Prevention therefore should be the primary focus of the EU cooperation. As stated by the speakers: It is a ‘Do or Die -moment’ – if the EU does not engage now, it will lose its credibility within the South Caucasus. War and peace in the European neighborhood would then be handled exclusively by other actors, such as Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
Also from the EU perspective, the situation requires much more EU- and multilateral engagement and efforts. Action and presence in the region are in dire need. Although the EU already disbursed € 6,9 Mio for Humanitarian Aid through ICRC and undertook diplomatic efforts for the release of captured persons/prisoners of war, there is much more that needs to be done. A certain “Eastern Partnership fatigue”, however, has been observed during the last years and the 2020 Karabakh war was no wake-up call. In parallel, political representatives from Armenia and Azerbaijan equally did not show high interest in investing in fruitful and positive relationships with one another, but rather continue to deepen the divide. Furthermore, respective lobby and advocacy from diaspora groups resulted in a negative and contradictory impact at the international level. From the EU perspective, the engagement for peace needs to be increased and strengthened also from within the countries and its societies. If there is no clear message and movement asking for durable peace and constructive relationships, it will be impossible for external actors to generate durable peace.
Some clear expectations and recommendations for the EU and the international community with short- and long-term perspective were formulated:
The EU should directly increase its support to humanitarian aid, psycho-social support, trauma-rehabilitation and reconstruction, and secure a conflict-sensitive approach in all of its programmes.
The EU should call in for a donor conference, where also clear conditionalities on the basis of their own norms and values should be agreed upon to regain trust and acceptance amongst the population.
As the situation in the region was never ‚frozen‘ and the post-war situation is highly fragile, the EU and its member states should immediately increase efforts at all levels and presence in the region to prevent a new escalation of a new war around Karabakh.
The EU and the international community should follow up on and prioritize support for good governance and rule of law, civil society participation and democratic principles, empowerment of change agents and influencers, as well as political support for the adoption and implementation of National Action Plans on Women, Peace and Security/UNSCR 1325.
The EU and all other actors should ensure active involvement of displaced persons, refugees and returnees from Armenia, Azerbaijan and the conflict region Karabakh in all measures for peace and reconciliation.
Priority should be on increasing human security in and around Karabakh and the EU should push for a timely meeting within the OSCE-Minsk Group and an active involvement in mediation and peacebuilding for Karabakh.
Incentives for cross-border activities and economic cooperation are central issues but do not automatically lead to a peace process. So more and specific engagement is needed to link those programmes and activities to peacebuilding and re-establishing constructive social relations. The EU and its member states are expected to put more attention and means towards this direction.