On November 9, 2020, an agreement was signed between the Prime Minister of Armenia and the Presidents of Russia and Azerbaijan, meant to put an end to the 44-day war in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). Regardless of what this agreement represents for Armenia, its citizens and political actors, it will impact the future internal and external policies of the country. The agreement introduced a shift in the balance of powers in the region and the degree to which external actors, more specifically the European Union (EU), can be involved going forward.
This complex region is known not only for its numerous conflicts but also for being a place where the interests of great powers, such as the United States, Russia and the EU intersect. It also has its own regional actors in Turkey and Iran, who have competed in the Caucasus for centuries. As such, conflicts in the region tend to get tangled up in larger scale rivalries.
The New Balance of Powers in the South Caucasus
As a result of the 2020 Artsakh War, the balance of powers is shifting in the South Caucasus and the West is being marginalized. Turkey’s direct involvement aimed to change the status quo in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which had been in a deadlock since 1994. For a quarter century, the OSCE Minsk Group, represented by its co-chairs, the U.S., Russia and France (backed by the EU), was the only internationally accepted mediator of the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, through direct military and tactical support provided to Azerbaijan and the introduction of Syrian and Libyan mercenaries to the conflict zone, Turkey tipped the scale in Azerbaijan’s favor. Moreover, on many occasions during the active days of the war, both Turkey and Azerbaijan declared that Turkey should become a primary party in the negotiations process. The OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairs did not adequately respond to Turkey’s instigation of renewed conflict. As a result, the credibility of the negotiations format suffered a blow. While the U.S. and EU made their own attempts at brokering an end to the fighting, Russia, through its readiness to deploy its own peacekeepers, was the only one to succeed. The mediating countries chose not to call out Azerbaijan for starting the renewed fighting.
The South Caucasus is still seen as part of Russia’s “near abroad,” an area of strategic post-Soviet political, cultural and military importance. Thus, it was important for Russia to be the one brokering the actual ceasefire deal and restraining Turkey. As a result, Russia negotiated a deal with the two sides. After the ceasefire agreement was signed, it was argued “the deal is perhaps the best outcome Moscow could get…” and while “Turkey maintains some role, it is clearly secondary to Russia’s.” Nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers were deployed to the region to secure the ceasefire for at least the next five years. What happens beyond that is not clear at this stage.
Where Did the EU Fall Short?
As Russia takes control of the situation, the EU has failed to react to a war that broke out in its close neighborhood. Up until the end of the war, the EU was unable to give a strong reaction to all the violations of international law by both Turkey and Azerbaijan. However, as the Union is known for being a democracy and a human rights guarantor, Armenia expected actual steps toward condemning those actions.
Besides the French President condemning Turkish and Azerbaijani aggression, human rights violations and confirming the involvement of mercenaries by Turkey on the battlefield, there was not enough reaction from the side of the EU countries to somehow influence the situation. On October 7, during a European Parliament plenary session, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR/VP) Josep Borrell ignored the calls of 65 MEPs (out of a total of 705) “to intervene,” “to stop Turkey” and “to impose sanctions on Turkey.” Borrel said, “Your message is clear. It has been repeated 65 times, with different voices, expressing the same concern and the same request to act. …All of you have been asking to act, but I have heard very few concrete versions of the verb ‘act.’ What do you mean by ‘act’? We will do what we can do, in order to support the OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairs.” Despite the strong opinions voiced by the MEPs, Borrell noted, “Our position is clear. The fighting must stop. Both sides need to re-engage in meaningful negotiations without any preconditions under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairs,” and closed the discussion on the topic, saying that the European Council will be discussing the degree of cooperation with Turkey in December. This discussion would focus on Turkey’s recent engagements in the Eastern Mediterranean and its engagement with the EU Member States. The statement issued as a result of the Council meeting on December 10-11 mentioned that the Council “strongly condemns violations of the sovereign rights of the Republic of Cyprus” and “supports the speedy resumption of negotiations, under the auspices of the UN” for the settlement of the Cyprus conflict. The European Council President, in cooperation with the President of the Commission and with the support of the High Representative, was invited “to develop a proposal for re-energizing the EU-Turkey agenda to this effect.” However, the statement also notifies that "in case of renewed unilateral actions or provocations in breach of international law [by Turkey], the EU will use all the instruments and the options at its disposal, including in accordance with Article 29 TEU [i.e. "The Council shall adopt decisions which shall define the approach of the Union to a particular matter of a geographical or thematic nature."] and Article 215 TFEU [i.e. "The Council may interrupt or reduce, in part or completely, economic and financial relations with one or more third countries on a joint proposal from the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the Commission."]
When Armenians expect the EU to react, they do not expect military engagement. On the contrary, it is the demonstration of soft power that is desired. The EU is a normative power, as it is argued, “it diffuses its norms by example, rather than in the coercive manner of a traditional military power.” In other words, its power is in supporting democracy and the rule of law, preservation of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Hence, third countries like Armenia expect the Union to use all the instruments at its disposal to condemn and sanction the violation of basic human rights and international law. These violations include the shelling of Artsakh’s cities with cluster bombs targeting the civilian population, the usage of incendiary ammunition, the bombing of churches, brutal beheadings of captured civilians and soldiers by the Azerbaijani Army, etc. As the list grows, the EU continues to remain silent.
The Past and Future of EU-Armenia Relations
The EU-Armenia relationship has gone through different stages, highs and lows. In September 2013, Armenia announced that it will not be signing the Association Agreement that had been negotiated with the EU for the better part of four years and would instead be joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). For EU-Armenia relations, this was a “low point.” As security guarantees were not part of the negotiations with the EU, most Armenians felt that they were being strong-armed by Russia to change course, under a thinly-veiled threat of the possibility of armed conflict associated with Nagorno-Karabakh.
After 2013, a lot of effort was made by different parties, such as EU affairs specialists, consultants, expert communities and civil society organizations to raise awareness about the Union and its values in Armenia. At the same time, the efforts concentrated on bringing out possible external cooperation fields, which would not contradict Armenia’s commitment to the EAEU. As a result, a new Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) was negotiated and signed, based on the areas of interest for cooperation on both sides and the external priorities of Armenia, where they did not contradict EAEU membership.
Since 2013, the attitudes toward the EU had significantly warmed in the country. With different projects and programs being implemented in Armenia on the governmental and civil society levels, public opinion shifted toward the EU. For instance, according to a recent opinion survey conducted in February 2020, “53% of Armenians have a positive image of the EU, as opposed to 44% in 2016. 86% of respondents consider relations with the European Union are good as opposed to 76% in 2016. And 65% of respondents are aware of the EU’s financial support to the country.” The results of the opinion polls and surveys of 2021 are likely to reflect the dissatisfaction of Armenia’s population with the EU’s lack of engagement during the Artsakh war.
Politics is about balance, in this case balance of powers. Pro-Russian attitudes have risen in Armenia and the shift is more pronounced in Artsakh, where Russian peacekeepers are stationed and provide a sense of security. As Armenia leans toward Russia, it will potentially move farther away from the EU, whose weak stance and incapacity to act during a time of great need for the Armenian people still reverberates. This will undoubtedly affect the EU’s credibility in Armenia, impact EU-Armenia relations and question the EUs involvement in the region in the years to come. Today, Armenians are asking themselves if they can afford to trust the EU again.