Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Europe’s risky tolerance of tension in the Caucasus

EurActiv - 19 June 2012

Military tensions have grown in recent weeks between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Charles Tannock argues that the EU should take steps to diffuse the situation.

Almost unnoticed beyond the specialist foreign policy community, there have been around a dozen heavy incidents of exchanges of sniper fire and artillery shelling between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the last two months.

In this time, more than 10 soldiers have been killed, and those foreign policy pundits who still maintain the concept of "frozen conflicts" being dormant affairs that can be safely ignored should know that half of these incidents did not take place in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, but at the recognised international borders between the two states, which are both part of the European Neighbourhood Policy and the EU's Eastern Partnership.

This recent escalation smacks of the rising tensions before the Georgian-Russian war in 2008. After years with numerous smaller incidents, the international community gets used to a certain instability, and while peace negotiations fail due to the lack of political will between the hostile parties, the frequency and gravity of the incidents slowly escalates and in spite of European "calls upon both sides" for restraint, real war actions can suddenly unfold. History appears to be repeating itself, but there are three main differences.

First, among Armenia and Azerbaijan, only Azerbaijan has an interest in mobilising troops at the risk of escalating to an outright actual war. While the situation between Russia and Georgia was more blurred, only Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his government openly and repeatedly threaten their neighbour with war, whereas Armenia does not and would logically have no such interest.

After decades of discrimination, the majority ethnic Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh sought independence during the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1991, when the young Republic of Azerbaijan used force to restore "order", the independence movement took up arms and with military assistance from Armenia proper they liberated Nagorno-Karabakh and the conflict carried on until the legally still binding cease-fire of Bishkek was signed in 1994.

Azerbaijan claims that these territories are occupied, but since Stalin allocated them in 1921 under Soviet rule (arbitrarily) to Azerbaijan, it has done nothing to convince the local Armenian population of the benefits of Azerbaijani rule. The only time most of the local people in Nagorno-Karabakh have felt to be living without fear of discrimination and with a relative physical security came after 1994, and thus neither Armenia nor the de-facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic have any interest in the renewed use of force – as they would be fighting for what?

The second current difference is the potential scale of this possible war. It is very different from the Georgian situation in 2008, as Azerbaijan and Armenia could see bombs and rockets fall on their capitals and the large-scale destruction of key places of civilian infrastructure. In Azerbaijan, oil rigs and pipelines, vital to their petrodollar economy, are all within simple artillery range of the Karabakhi army, and Armenian rockets can easily reach the refineries on the Caspian shores near Baku.

These places have been the major vital financial resource for Azerbaijan's large defence budget, which, as President Aliyev proudly proclaimed, exceeds Armenia's total state budget and allows the possibility of "liberating Karabakh in 10 days".

In short, both sides can erase everything positive that has been built up in the past 20 years since independence. Armenia is in a close defence alliance with Russia, while Azerbaijan is supported by its ethnic "brother nation" Turkey.

Iran is at odds with Azerbaijan due to Azeri revanchist and irredentist claims on Iranian soil and fears international peacekeeping troops on its northern border, given its virtual pariah status over the Iranian nuclear quest. Georgia fears Russian troops spreading out in the South Caucasus to aid Armenia. It is most unlikely that such a war would be restricted simply to Karabakh.

Also knowing the complex local geography and huge natural resources, it is impossible to predict whose troops would finally end up exactly where. Only one thing is certain: the human tragedy and economic costs would dwarf anything seen in Europe, at least for the last 20 years since the Balkan wars. To add to further turmoil as the world is facing an economic slump, with the eurozone crisis and US and Chinese growth dampening, the expected collapse of Azerbaijani oil and gas supplies would cause a rapid rise in world-wide crude prices and strangle any green shoots hopes for renewed global economic growth.

The third main difference is the position of Europe. While the EU has traditionally been closer to Georgia than to Russia, the EU desperately seeks a balanced relation with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the above mentioned hostile incidents, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and foreign ministers in the EU's capitals all "called upon both sides" to show restraint, despite clear evidence about which side had started the recent provocation.

Azerbaijani state-controlled media reported that "Azerbaijani armed forces prevented one more provocation of the Armenian army" and that "it was identified that the Armenians were carrying out digging work along the front line" (the internationally recognised state border).

One might assume that the Armenians are allowed to dig on their own territory as much as they like and that "preventing" such a "provocation" with the disproportionate use of artillery fire, as it happened on the 25 April in the Tavoush region, might have sparked an international outcry. And even though ever since the Eurovision song contest (held in Azerbaijan's capital), most of Europe is now better informed about the undemocratic nature of the government in Baku, no Belarus-type EU sanctions have been threatened or even discussed.

The EU today possesses all the instruments necessary to make a difference. If we have learnt anything from the Georgian war of 2008, we must now use them to avert the possibility of the worst horror scenarios occurring in our near eastern neighbourhood.

The EU should clearly threaten sanctions against anyone unilaterally using disproportionate force in this conflict, and we must insist on the removal of snipers and on having EU observers along the line of contact and the state borders. Incidentally, Armenia has already agreed to this.

Before signing the next oil trade treaty with Baku, this should be the EU condition, or we might soon have very different prices to pay for oil and more importantly a tragic human catastrophe in Europe's east with large-scale casualties. In addition, there could be large flows of refugees heading in our direction with all that this might mean in economic terms in terms of additional burdens on our already stretched public resources.