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Ideas for a fairer world

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The EU and Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution

By Ulvi Pepinova.

Nagorno-Karabakh, a holy land, a historical heritage claimed by Azerbaijan and Armenia, two former Soviet republics who gained independence in 1991, has encountered a lengthy tug of war rather than a celebration of a peaceful coexistence. On going peace-making efforts for almost two decades under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group remain fruitless and scepticism over the performance of the geopolitical actors prevails.

The EU, despite having no direct role in the peace talks, fully supports the current mediation efforts and has called for a peaceful settlement including essential elements such as the non-use of force, principles of territorial integrity and self-determination. 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.

As a hybrid polity the EU has developed its own distinctive, though not always effective, approach to conflict resolution-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 internalisation 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. The notorious Armenian presidential elections in 2008, a deteriorating track record of human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, where law-making leads to suppressing rather than strengthening civil society reform, is a brazen challenge to social learning advocates. Supporters of conditionality, despite recent attempts to strengthen the 'more for more', 'less for less' approach, are still far from achieving concrete results in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The general perception of EU conditionality is that it uses more 'carrots' than 'sticks' and cannot rely only on treaty-based sanctions. However, it is by the use of sanctions, and in particular targeted sanctions, the EU can and should 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 democratisation 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.

Despite this, the current findings of my research reaffirm the general reluctance of the EU to apply a sanctions policy, even when the third countries do not meet the requirements of principal clauses such under ENP Action Plans. Retaining open political channels is still seen as far too crucial. Instead the EU sees awarding carrots as less problematic and this approach is eagerly promoted by Brussels. A rewards-based policy provides a comfort zone for open discussions. Sanctions however, though acknowledged as an option in a range of agreements, are treated cautiously. This opens up more fundamental questions about the EU's almost chronic inability to set out a vision for its role in the South Caucasus.

The EU has a choice of two patterns of engagement in the South Caucasus: a geo-political approach or one that prioritises policy convergence under the motto of Europeanisation. The latter is of a long-term nature and hence involves a more incremental development with foreseeable positive outcomes in the policy-making of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Strengthening a geo-political role of the EU in the region, a more short-term solution, may enhance the public perception of the EU in the South Caucasus, yet the implications for the parties involved would remain uncertain.

The EU is not regarded as a full geopolitical actor in the region. And this is a bitter or a sweet truth. Yet, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is highly geo-politicised. A widespread belief in conflict-affected countries is that 'a great game' should be dictated by 'great powers', for example, by the co-chairs of the Minsk Group. The EU is awarded with a secondary role, constrained to its soft diplomacy. What can become a booster for the EU's geo-politicisation of its role is the potential replacement of France with the EU in OSCE Minsk Group to counterbalance the key regional players Russia and the USA. It could be contentious, though, to infer that the EU's direct presence in the Minsk Group would invoke a different pattern in the peacemaking process or, some would point to a risk for the EU to be directly involved in the most dangerous conflict of the region. Some would argue that the EU as a co-chair may bring further implications for both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The main concern relates to the EU's lack of consolidating a common voice considering its inter-institutional discrepancies and differentiations further complicated by a rotating presidency of the EU. This argument certainly has a plausible grounding and echoes a conventional view on the legitimacy deficit of the EU and its non-affirmed identity as a geopolitical actor.

Nevertheless, what should be better propagated to Armenia, Azerbaijan and their diasporas, the majority of which find their second home in liberal democracies, is the EU's renowned consociational approach involving a guaranteed group representation. Besides, a potential presence of the EU as a co-chair will not break but rather may alter a dynamic in the Minsk group where more tools and instruments of transparent negotiations, intrinsic to the EU's policy-making style will be delegated. This in turn would lead to a subsequent revision by Armenia and Azerbaijan of their own foreign policy strategies.

Leaving aside a hypothetical boost of the EU's direct geopolitical role in the conflict resolution, it is the second pattern of its engagement - policy convergence - that the EU has already stepped up in the South Caucasus. This has resulted in the launch of the ENP Action Plans in 2006, Eastern Partnership in 2009 and ongoing negotiations over Association Agreements. From a conflict resolution perspective, the EU's ubiquitous commitment to encouraging democratic reforms is promising and ambitious, its core instrument being Civil Society initiative. However, as mentioned earlier it is too premature to acknowledge whether the EU's normative power's success and confidence-building measures, so eagerly promoted in EU official statements, have been taken on board by Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Policy convergence under the ENP as a technocratic tool is sensible and is a more promising pattern to follow. It has the potential to establish functional and robust democratic institutions in Armenia and Azerbaijan that should incrementally foster an inclusive, consociational style in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution.

It is broadly accepted that the strongest incentive for both parties, when it comes to conflict resolution, is EU membership. However, due to the absence of such an offer under the ENP framework, European policy-makers must look for other potential incentives the EU can propose. None of the countries are overwhelmingly seeking a full integration or enthusiastically internalising the European norms. Policy convergence and European integration in general with no sensible and clear incentives to offer would be regarded less feasible and less prioritised by South Caucasus countries. Only by proposing tangible incentives for policy convergence in both countries will the EU's leverage to influence the conflict dynamic increase and thus, improve the chances of encouraging the parties to find a compromise.