This is a translation of an article published in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet (February 16, 2018).
With a war still raging in Syria, an increasingly aggressive Russia, the threat of terrorism and growing refugee flows, it’s no surprise that forgotten border conflicts Caucasus is not on the top of the agenda of the international community. However, the long-standing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan deserves more attention than it has received, and this for a number of reasons. Therefore, I recently decided to visit Armenia and the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh has been isolated from the rest of the world since 1994 when the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended with a ceasefire. Peace talks have been held regularly in the context of the OSCE Minsk group, where both of the countries are included together with Turkey, France, Germany, Sweden, Czech Republic, Belarus and the United States. So far, no dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan has led to a peaceful solution of the conflict, which to a large extent is due to a lack of trust between the parties.
The prospects of lasting peace in the region are therefore remote. Two years ago, in April 2016, the two countries went from skirmishes to war for four days when Azerbaijan started a field offensive. Experts argue that the aggression was intended to break the status quo, as Baku is dissatisfied with the current situation in which the inhabitants govern the region in the form of the Republic of Artsakh, without any Azeri influence.
The background to Azerbajdzjan’s claim of the region dates back to the early 1920s. After the Soviet invasion of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, promises were made of a union between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. However, despite the overwhelming number of Armenians in the region, Josef Stalin decided that Nagorno-Karabakh should be a part of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. During the fall of the Soviet Union, a majority of the region’ decision makers voted for a union with Armenia. Azerbaijan refused to accept it and the conflict escalated into a full-scale war between 1991 and 1994.
24 years later, there is still no peace is in sight and Nagorno-Karabakh have remained completely isolated. The European Union lacks any representation in the region and no visits are made due to the Azeri lack of tolerance when it comes to visits to the conflicted area.
The diplomatic isolation of the region leads to suffering inhabitants, inter alia when students from Nagorno-Karabakh are being prevented from studies in other European countries. Parties in the parliament of the capital Stepanakert, who are trying to build a knowledge base for democracy development, are not supported by international organizations and have limited opportunities for exchange of views with other political parties in Europe.
According to international law, the situation is complicated. The UN Security Council has called on Armenia to withdraw their troops. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore the fact that, while both Armenia and the Republic of Artsakh move in a democratic direction, the presidential Alijev family have been running Azerbaijan with an iron hand since 1993. The conflict also has geopolitical consequences. When Armenia was in the process of signing a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU in 2013, the country suddenly had a change of mind and preferred only to be part of the Russian-based Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Russia had exerted heavy pressure on Yerevan and, among other things, done arms sales with Azerbaijan. Given that the Azeri defence budget corresponds with the state budget of Armenia, it is difficult to see any other explanation for the Armenian turn than that the country had to choose between Azeri military dominance or closer ties with the EU.
The fact that EU and Armenia now have negotiated a partnership agreement, CEPA, tailored specifically not to violate the country´s commitments under the EEU, is to be seen against this situation. The CEPA agreement is a positive step in the right direction that deepens our relation with Armenia, but it is clear that a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would reduce the security vulnerability of Armenia.
I am an advocate of dialogue, which is why I personally went to visit Nagorno-Karabakh. After my visit that took place in January, I´ve seen that its residents do their very best to build a functioning social system, despite the isolation and the permanent threat of a military conflict. The five parties in the region’ parliament are in agreement about foreign policy issues, but disagree about much else. Also, fundamental changes to secure the independence of courts have been implemented and the Ombudsman and his office are very active in carrying out the question about citizens´ rights towards the authorities.
However, it is clear that further commitment from EU and Sweden is necessary to ensure that the ceasefire is respected and that the peace talks will reach a solution:
▪ Install monitoring equipment at the contact line that separates the Armenian and Azeri forces in order to register those responsible for violating the ceasefire. Both the US administration and the OSSE have supported this proposal, as this step would minimize violence in border areas. However, Azerbaijan has not accepted the proposal, and although the proposal was presented two years ago, there is still no monitoring equipment in place.
▪The Republic of Artsakh is not recognized by EU member states, which makes it impossible for normal diplomatic relations to exist. However, in other cases, the EU has been able to carry out humanitarian work in the territory of unrecognized entities, which also should be possible in Nagorno-Karabakh.
▪ Today, peace talks only take place between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We must find a way to ensure that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh also can participate.
Within the framework of the Eastern Partnership, the EU must now work more actively for dialogue and a peaceful solution. Direct dialogue between the partners is the only opportunity to build trust and reach a long-term solution of the conflict. Something that the troubled and isolated population of Nagorno-Karabakh truly deserves.