After a long break and several delays, the 6th Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit will be held in Brussels on December 15, 2021. The summit was originally scheduled for 2020 and meant to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership, which was established in 2009 as part of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and includes six eastern neighbors of the EU: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The agenda has undergone some adjustments, however. Since the last Eastern Partnership Summit in 2017, the geopolitical landscape and status quo in the region have been greatly altered. It came as a surprise when, on November 19, President of the European Council Charles Michel announced that he proposed to host President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia for a meeting in Brussels on the margins of the EaP Summit. “Leaders have agreed to meet in Brussels to discuss the regional situation and ways of overcoming tensions for a prosperous and stable South Caucasus, which the EU supports,” the press release stated.
Since September 2020, throughout Azerbaijan’s aggressive war against Artsakh and later incursions and offensives against the Republic of Armenia, Russia has enjoyed an effective monopoly over mediating the negotiation process, eclipsing even the OSCE Minsk Group, which was the main format for negotiations since the 1994 ceasefire. The announcement of the President of the European Council was unexpected, as the EU has mostly remained on the sidelines since the November 9 ceasefire. Is this the EU reacting to the latest attacks against Armenia by Azerbaijan, trying to stabilize the situation, or to reestablish European influence in the region?
It was preceded by a Joint Statement on November 17 by Chair of the Delegation for Relations with the South Caucasus MEP Marina Kaljurand (Estonia-S&D), the European Parliament’s Standing Rapporteur on Armenia MEP Andrey Kovatchev (Bulgaria-EPP), and the European Parliament’s Standing Rapporteur on Azerbaijan MEP Zeljana Zovko (Croatia-EPP) that directly mentioned that the escalation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border was provoked by Azerbaijan. Moreover, they “regret that, despite numerous calls from the international community including the European Parliament resolution of 20 May 20, 2021, many Armenian detainees held in connection with the conflict have yet to be released, and we renew our appeal to the Azerbaijani authorities on this issue.”
However, the statement of the EU’s executive branch were less direct and avoided pointing out the aggressor. It took the “both sides” approach, which Armenian Foreign Affairs Minister Ararat Mirzoyan has argued emboldens Azerbaijan to continue its attacks with impunity. In the statement, “the EU urges Armenia and Azerbaijan to exercise utmost restraint, disengage their military forces on the ground and respect the commitments undertaken in the framework of the two trilateral statements. We call on both sides to resume negotiations to work towards a comprehensive settlement of outstanding issues, including border demarcation.” Though statements by Ilham Aliyev and the presence of Azerbaijani forces on the territory of the Republic of Armenia makes it clear that Azerbaijan is the side trying to destabilize the security situation, the EU executive has continued to avoid casting blame.
The biggest political group of the European Parliament, the European Peoples’ Party (EPP), condemned “the violations of the internationally recognized border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.” Their statement continued, “We unequivocally reject the use of force or threat of force as a means to achieve political goals in the region. We underline the vital need for international prevention mechanisms and an international investigation of military clashes, including meaningful relevant sanctions against aggressors.” The statement is quite interesting from the perspective that it highlights the necessity for an international investigation, which can be taken to mean it would involve stakeholders other than just the Russians.
Later, on November 19, on the initiative of MEP Loucas Fourlas (Cyprus-EPP), 33 MEPs from all the main political groups addressed a letter to the EU High Representative Josep Borrell (analogous to the EU’s Minister of Foreign Affairs) concerning the attack of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces on the Republic of Armenia. The MEPs call the European External Action Service (EEAS, analogous to the EU’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to urge Azerbaijan to immediately and completely withdraw its forces from Armenian territory.
Before the escalation, on November 9, the cross-party European Parliament Friendship Group with Armenia had been relaunched, headed by MEP Fourlas.
Overall, the EU is showing some initiative toward the region, after remaining quite uninvolved during the 2020 Artsakh War. As this will be the first Eastern Partnership Summit after the war, the final declaration of the summit will carry significant weight. The wording of these declarations have in the past been a diplomatic battleground for Armenia and Azerbaijan, where every word counts. The EU tries to avoid any formulation that could harm its relations with either of the neighbors or cause an additional source of tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan. For instance, in the first Prague Declaration (May 7, 2009), they mentioned conflicts only generally, stressing the importance of promoting stability and confidence-building measures. In the next Eastern Partnership Summit on September 30, 2011, the Warsaw Declaration was adopted, which again had no mention of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; it just generally stressed the importance of conflict resolution, building trust and good neighborly relations as an essential factor to economic and social development, and cooperation in the region. Though, it did speak about the role of the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia.
A dramatic shift took place in 2013, prior to the EU’s Vilnius summit, when Ukraine was forced to make a geopolitical choice between the EU and Russia. On November 29, 2013, in the Vilnius Declaration, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was explicitly mentioned for the first time; it welcomed the 2013 meeting in Vienna between the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, with the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, as well as the Presidents’ agreement to advance the negotiations toward a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
On May 22, 2015, the Riga Declaration had a brief line about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, expressing its full support to the mediation efforts on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by the Co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, including at the level of Presidents and their statements since 2009.
In 2017, there was a struggle to mention the importance of the territorial integrity of the Eastern Partnership countries. The Armenian side wanted to also include a line about the right to self-determination of nations; however, the former President of Armenia had to agree with the suggested formulation, as the CEPA agreement was due to be signed following the summit.
On November 24, 2017, the Brussels Declaration mentioned:
“The European Union remains committed in its support to the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of all its partners. Full commitment, respect for and adherence to the purposes and principles enshrined in the UN Charter, the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the 1990 OSCE Charter of Paris are fundamental to our shared vision for a peaceful and undivided Europe. The Summit participants reconfirm elements and principles embodied in past Eastern Partnership Summit Declarations and underline their firm intention to carry forward the commitments taken at previous Summits and in bilateral agreements.”
Throughout the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiation process, the tension has always been between the principle of territorial integrity and the right to self-determination of peoples, which is included in the Helsinki Final Act that the declaration referred to. Now, Azerbaijan is seeking to disregard both the right to self-determination of the Armenian people of Artsakh, as well as the territorial integrity of the Republic of Armenia itself, as it attempts to realize the so-called “Zangezur Corridor” by force and the continued threat of the use of force.
Azerbaijan has Turkey in its corner on the kinetic battlefield. Will Armenia be able to forge new partnerships on the diplomatic battlefield? The wording of the declaration following the 2021 Summit will reveal much.
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