One of the most important political events for the Eastern Partnership (EaP) in 2020 is going to be the Brussels Summit in June which this year will have a virtual format. Every two years, the heads of the EU member states and those of the Eastern Partnership countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine) together with the heads and leaders of EU institutions, gather under one roof for an overview of the achievements and omissions of the past two years, to outline and set policy priorities for the next two years and to evaluate the current situation. As a summary of their discussions, the Eastern Partnership Summit adopts a declaration. In the last decade, five have been published, in Prague (2009), Warsaw (2011), Vilnius (2013), Riga (2015) and Brussels (2017). As 2019 was a transitional year for the EU due to the elections, the traditional summit was not held.
Every word of the declarations is the result of extensive preparation and diplomatic bargaining. The process involves the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (AFET) and ultimately requires passage by the Plenary Session of the European Parliament (EP). Only then can the recommendations be included in the final declaration. For a sentiment to make it through this long journey, it needs the backing of official state diplomacy and must navigate lobbyist and stakeholder interests.
Recently, AFET adopted a report prepared by Member of European Parliament (MEP) Petras Auštrevičius, which is going to be the cornerstone for the upcoming Brussels declaration. Among other important issues, one of the critical points for Armenia is related to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In the initial version of the document, the formulations were quite unfavorable to the Armenian position. “Regional conflicts” were mentioned three times in the document and mainly within the context of the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. The draft read: “the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the EU’s Eastern European Partners are still imperilled by unresolved regional conflicts”; and “the European Parliament rejects the use of force or the threat of force in the resolution of conflicts and shares the EU’s commitment to supporting the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of all EaP countries within their internationally recognized borders, in accordance with international law, norms and principles.”
This wording was very one-sided and did not reflect the differences among the various conflicts. Fortunately, the final version of the report was accepted with amendments, which made it more balanced.
Case in point, in Amendment 90, which has several co authors, there is a new separate paragraph about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict:
“The European Parliament backs the EU’s continued support of the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs to achieve progress in the search for a political, equitable and lasting settlement of the conflict in Nagorno- Karabakh; whereas this process continues to be based on the principles of territorial integrity, non-use of force, and equal rights and self-determination as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act.”
It is important to differentiate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from the other conflicts of the region, especially Crimea. The main format for negotiations regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the OSCE Minsk Group, which has adopted three main principles to reach a settlement. All three principles carry equal weight and are accepted together by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. If the report mentioned only the principle of territorial integrity, the EU would disrupt the established format and sideline the principles of self-determination and non-use of force. This amendment was crucial to avoiding that misstep.
Another amendment, Number 267, was made by Hungarian-born Dutch politician from the European Parliament’s Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and Vice-Chair of the group, MEP Kati Pii. It mentions that the EU should “support tentative de-escalation steps in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan by encouraging all sides to intensify dialogue in search of a lasting, fair and peaceful settlement, based on all OSCE principles; call on all sides to the conflict to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric and creating facts on the ground that would further jeopardise any prospects for settlement.” This statement is especially important and a good supplement to the UN’s “Global Truce with Respect to A Year Without War.” Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, there is an urgent humanitarian need to de-escalate conflict zones. Unfortunately, the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh did not hold.
Amendment 424 put forward by Loucas Fourlas and Milan Zver, EPP representatives from Cyprus and Slovenia respectively, aims to “ensure that the ratification by the [European] Parliament of new agreements between the EU and each of the parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict be conditioned by meaningful commitments to and substantial progress towards the peaceful resolution of the conflict such as maintaining the ceasefire and supporting the implementation of the OSCE 2009 Basic Principles and the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs.”
The “new agreements” refer to the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with Armenia, which was signed in 2017 and has been ratified by 22 member states (out of 26) EU member states. Wording in the CEPA agreement also uses balanced language in expressing its support to the peaceful and lasting settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the need to achieve that settlement as early as possible, within the framework of the negotiations led by the OSCE Minsk Group. The EU recognized the need to achieve the settlement on the basis of the “OSCE Helsinki Final Act, in particular those related to refraining from the threat or use of force, the territorial integrity of States, and the equal rights and self-determination of peoples and reflected in all declarations issued within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmanship.” The other agreement is the EU-Azerbaijan Strategic Partnership Agreement, which launched negotiations in 2016 but has not yet been concluded. Its content has not yet been revealed.
Amendment 425, suggested by S&D MEP Nacho Sánchez Amor from Spain reads that the EU should “reaffirm support to the OSCE Minsk Group co-Chairs’ efforts to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and to their 2009 Basic Principles which reflect a reasonable compromise based on the Helsinki Final Act principles of non-use of force, territorial integrity, and the equal rights and self-determination of peoples; call on Armenia and Azerbaijan to continue negotiations in good faith with a view to implementing these principles to solve the conflict, which cannot be solved using military force; call on the Governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan to continue high-level talks and commit to genuine confidence-building measures and dialogue between Armenian and Azerbaijani civil society.”
Thus, with the amendments to the report, the final version of which will be presented in the Plenary Session of the European Parliament, we have several citations where the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is differentiated from the Russia-centered conflicts plaguing the Eastern Partnership countries. Crimea, Abkhazia and South Ossetia involve different dynamics that make territorial integrity the principal concern.
The topic of conflicts is very sensitive and the European Union tries to avoid wording that could cause a new source of tension between Eastern Partnership countries. Thus, we can see that the earliest declarations from the Prague and Warsaw Summits speak about confidence-building measures and supporting good neighborly relations for the sake of economic and social development in the region. After 2014, Russia’s annexation of Crimea triggered a dramatic shift. In the 2013 Vilnius declaration, the EU 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. In the 2015 Riga declaration, again, the EU expressed its full support to the mediation efforts by the Co-chairs of the Minsk Group on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, including at the level of Presidents and their statements since 2009.
In the 2017 Brussels Declaration, the EU avoided mentioning any of the conflicts in the region. The wording of that declaration was left quite ambiguous and messy: “The European Union remains committed in its support to the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of all its partners.” Though only the principle of territorial integrity is mentioned, the EU can argue that the specific conflicts were not enumerated and that the message was directed to Crimea. The rest of the paragraph mentions “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.”
Though the sentence mentions the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, this formulation is not favorable from the Armenian perspective. Going back to 2017, it is obvious that the Armenian side didn’t have much of a choice. At the Brussels summit, Armenia wanted to sign CEPA, which would have given a political boost to then-President Serzh Sargsyan as he was looking to extend his hold on power as Prime Minister in 2018. After the infamous events in 2013, when Armenia made an unexpected decision to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), tanking its Association Agreement with the EU, Serzh Sargsyan wanted to demonstrate that he had found a balance with a multi-vector foreign policy and was implementing “and … and” foreign policy instead of “either… or.” Perhaps that was the context in which the Armenian side agreed to the final declaration that year.
The upcoming Brussels summit will be another challenge for Armenia as it seeks to maintain the internationally-recognized OSCE Minsk Group framework, with its inclusion of the principle of self-determination. As the saying goes, “Diplomacy is the velvet glove that cloaks the fist of power.”