Nagorno-Karabakh is a 4400sq km self-governing state sited in the northeastern part of the Armenian highland. This territory has been a ground of struggle between Armenians and Azerbaijanis since the years 1918-1920. The region has been disputed mainly for historical motives by both the sides. Azerbaijan insists that it has been under their rule since renowned history and on the contrary, the Armenian side claims that Nagorno-Karabakh was an Armenian territory originally and that the claims of Azerbaijan are not legitimate.
The conflict escalated by 1988, when under the Azerbaijani repressions in Nagorno-Karabakh large-scale demonstrations and strikes erupted, which brought Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh epicenter. On February 13, 1988 the Supreme Soviet of Karabakh, adopted a resolution, which signposted that Nagorno-Karabakh region must be transferred from Azerbaijan to Armenia. The taught to be frozen conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh erupted on April 2, 2016, continued for four days and left dozens of casualties on both sides. The situation remains extremely volatile, despite a temporary truce and calls from the international community and organizations to immediately stop the fighting and get back to the negotiations table. Among those were international organizations NATO and the EU, which both have wide ranged interests in the South Caucasus region.
South Caucasus is geographically located on the most crucial crossroad linking the West and East, North and South of the Eurasia and has always drawn the attention of superpowers and while aspiring to strengthen their military political influence, they attached significant importance to taking control over this particular crossroad.
NATO’s policy in the Caucasus has never been static. Rather, it has evolved under the influence of many factors, including the strategic interests of the United States and its European allies, aspirations of the regional players (Turkey, Iran), key security challenges such as terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and regional conflicts, which can addressed through concerted international cooperation. The region is located on key oil and gas transit routes, which makes it extremely important place to be. South Caucasus, being in proximity to the NATO borders, the Alliance directly links the security in South Caucasus to the security in the entire Euro-Atlantic zone; therefore, the alliance tries to play a significant role in enhancing security and stability in region. NATO is best interested in the stability in the South Caucasus region, with the reform-capable states, sharing democratic values with the Alliance that are the best guarantors of security, stability and prosperity. NATO and other European structures as well are eager to perceive South Caucasus as a geopolitically unified area and work with the region as such, whereas the region is united only geographically, and totally fractured politically. An integrated approach towards the region fails as Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan follow quite different foreign policy vectors. Statement, urging the sides to respect the ceasefire, was made by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, quote “I am encouraged by the reports of the cessation of hostilities along the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Contact. I urge the sides to respect the ceasefire, show restraint and prevent any new escalation. NATO supports the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group. The parties need to go back to the negotiating table and find a comprehensive settlement, under the auspices of the Co-chairs. There is no military solution to the conflict. The peaceful resolution of conflicts is one of the core commitments to which all NATO’s partner countries commit when joining the Partnership for Peace”.
These statement level actions show that the alliance does not have the goal to get fully engaged in the conflict as leading members of NATO, United States and France are already co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk group, which mediates the peace talks. South Caucasus is largely considered by west as a Russian “space” to which Russia gives utmost importance, regarding it as its southern gate, an access to the Middle East. Being fully engaged in the region and in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict means confronting Russia and other regional powers, which is not worth.
Armenia and Russia are supposed to be strategic partners, but “strategic partnership,” some Armenian analysts acclaim, has become outlined more by a precarious amount of Armenian overdependence than unbiased cooperation. Russia embraces a unique place in the Armenian foreign policy notion of ‘complementarism’. Armenia considers the military-political cooperation with Russia as a critical component of its policy in the scope of defense and security and if NATO-Armenia relations want to proceed any further NATO must offer more than just the Individual Partnership Action Plan and cooperation on democratic, institutional, and defense reforms. Security matters most to the Armenian interests because Armenia is at war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and is at odds with Turkey over the 1915 Armenian Genocide, who also supports Azerbaijan in the Karabakh conflict.
The European Union has become engaged in this area since the independence of the South Caucasian states in 1991 and though the EU borders the South Caucasus through the Black Sea, lacking direct land border, the region is still perceived as a potential threat for the European security. Another prevailing factor for EU’s interest is the need for diversification of energy resources for the EU and the role of the South Caucasus for production and transportation of hydrocarbons. Along with energy security, the role of trade, transport, and communications corridor should be highlighted on the background of the region’s strategic location between Europe and Asia. Although politically and economically highly involved in the region, EU’s attitude to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is distanced. European Union like NATO has remained satisfied with just making statements on the four-day war between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan.
The EU and NATO despite having no direct role in the negotiation process fully support the current mediation efforts and have called for a peaceful settlement. At first stance the EU’s position looks rather vague – proposing two opposite solutions, territorial integrity and self-determination, show the EU’s lack of interest in the specifics of the conflicts at the EU’s periphery. Indeed, the EU’s overall strategy towards Nagorno-Karabakh and the South Caucasus in general has been incoherent, resembling to a child who is just about to walk and is still making clumsy steps. EU has developed its own distinctive, though not always effective, approach to conflict resolution and that is Europeanisation, comprising both conditionality and social learning. Whilst by applying conditionality, be it through the ‘carrots’ or ‘sticks’, the European policy-makers seek to achieve the required changes in the domestic structures in a third country, social learning advocates an internalization of the EU norms by the domestic actors who would consider these norms both legitimate and intrinsically valuable. However, this nudging concept of social learning has little chance of being welcomed in the states like Armenia and Azerbaijan, where the vast implications of the contagious Soviet legacy are still felt throughout. Civil society reform in both countries is far from fully developed.
It is by the use of sanctions, and in particular, targeted sanctions, the EU can reinforce and exert its influence, thus yielding positive changes in the policy making of the two South Caucasian countries. That may take the form of sanctions in the event of violations of contractual obligations undertaken by both countries. These positive changes towards democratization should lead to a more constructive conflict resolution that should be enabled by an active support of civil society initiatives and thus fostering of an open dialogue between conflict-affected parties. This would make the EU’s stake in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution more tangible and effective.