The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was back on the front pages of the international press this summer after a deadly escalation and more than 30 casualties since the signing of the ceasefire agreement in 1994 by Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. As usual, both sides accuse each other of having shot first and therefore being responsible for the situation.
The maintenance of the world’s only self-regulated ceasefire
Recently, critical voices have risen regarding the work of the OSCE Minsk Group, which has been in charge for the last 20 years to find a commonly agreed settlement to the conflict. To a lesser extent, the European Union has also been questioned. It is true that a satisfactory solution of the conflict has not been found yet, but it is equally true that a new large-scale war with dramatic consequences not only for the South Caucasus, but for the entire world – and particularly for oil dependant economies – has been avoided.
Since 1994, the OSCE Minsk Group has put forward five different framework proposals to both sides to achieve a final settlement of the conflict. Four of them were rejected but one remains on the table. Obviously it starts with the basics, by creating a level of confidence between both sides, one that is incompatible with the constant shootings in the Nagorno-Karabakh-Azerbaijan line of contact resulting in senseless casualties.
The OSCE Minsk Group has also worked along this line. In June 2012, the co-chairs once again proposed two very logical steps in order to avoid the loss of human lives in the only self-regulated ceasefire agreement in the world. The first was to establish an investigation mechanism for ceasefire violations. The aim would be to have an understanding as to which side is responsible for the shootings and ultimately to reduce these deadly incidents.
The second proposed measure was the withdrawal of all snipers from the line of contact. To the surprise of many, both proposals were rejected by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan. In its opinion, proposals would only strengthen the status quo. Obviously, the implementation of both measures would have spared 30 families the loss of their sons, as well as many others earlier, yet unfortunately for the Azerbaijani administration their soldiers seem to be expendable.
This approach becomes even clearer when one analyses the nature of the military operations that this South Caucasus country is carrying out lately against Nagorno-Karabakh, not only at the beginning of August but also in July. In fact, more and more often Azerbaijani commandoes are ordered to break into the Nagorno-Karabakh territory and even into the territory of the Republic of Armenia, whose superiors know clearly that it is the way of no return.
Under these circumstances it is obvious that any mediating effort either by the OSCE Minsk Group or any other organisation becomes extremely challenging and progress is tremendously difficult to achieve.
European Union efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh
Simultaneously, the EU has tried to launch some complementary supporting measures to the OSCE Minsk Group mediating efforts in recent years.
Firstly, the EU has launched programmes to reinforce democracy in the South Caucasus – just like in any other neighbouring and Eastern Partnership country. Progress was made both in Armenia and Georgia, while the picture in Azerbaijan, according to the annual country report published by the EU, is turning darker. The quality of the electoral processes are seriously degrading while at the same time opposition parties even belonging to EU political families are systematically harassed by national security forces, impeding activities of political dissidents. Azerbaijan even overtook Belarus in the record of having the highest number of political prisoners among all the Eastern Partnership countries.
In addition, this repressive wave has been extended to civil society and human rights activists, jeopardising one of the most promising initiatives by the EU in this field: the civil society confidence building measures. This EU-sponsored action consists of reinforcing civil society and gathering organisations from Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia around cooperation projects in different fields in order to facilitate communication and mutual understanding. Unfortunately, many of the NGO representatives who were involved in these programmes were arrested, putting this initiative in standby-mode. It is difficult to build confidence between both sides when Azerbaijani citizens can’t even call or exchange e-mails with Armenians due to a firewall established by their own administration.
Under these circumstances one can easily understand the systematic absence of the Republic of Azerbaijan in the EU human rights dialogue platform, as well as the categorical and legitimate refusal of the people living in Nagorno-Karabakh to pass under Azerbaijani ruling, no matter the level of autonomy that this country may grant them.
In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, there is unfortunately a clear track of escalation: in the number of casualties and the calibre of weapons used by Azerbaijan; in the statements by the Azerbaijani President e.g.: “just as we have beaten the Armenians on the political and economic fronts, we are able to defeat them on the battlefield”; and in the victims targeted by Azerbaijan which, for the past four years, has targeted civilians both in Armenia and in Karabakh.
Looking at the full picture of Azerbaijani politics, both internally and in terms of foreign policy, it seems to dangerously follow the same pattern as other totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century. It is similar to that of the last Argentinian Military Junta, chaired by Leopoldo Galtieri, trying desperately to find an external enemy, the United Kingdom, in order to cover up the internal deep discontent and absence of democracy and pluralism, while smashing any opposition, followed by catastrophic consequences for the country in 1982.
One of the fundamental problems of this conflict is that the sides do not share the same scale of values which is a necessary condition for its settlement. In this regard, Azerbaijan has still a long democratic way to go and that is why the EU complementary measures to the mediators are especially relevant in terms of human rights, democracy building and the rule of law.
Finally, all these elements that are surely taken into consideration by the OSCE Minks Group should also be taken into account by those that question the only commonly agreed framework to settle the conflict.