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Nagorno-Karabakh conflict prevents South Caucasus to realize its full potential – EU

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Trend’s exclusive interview with the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia, Toivo Klaar, ahead of the Baku visit.

Question: What will be the main topic of your talks in Baku? Are there any particular areas that you intend to focus more in regards to Azerbaijan?

Answer: This is my second visit to Azerbaijan since taking up my post in November 2017. I paid my first and introductory visit to Baku in early December when I met with President Ilham Aliyev and high–level officials. This second visit again includes consultations with the Azerbaijani leadership. I plan to discuss issues that fall within my mandate which concerns conflicts in the region, including of course the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict but also more broadly on regional security and cooperation. I am certainly interested in hearing the views of the leadership on the current stage of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. I am sure this visit will also provide an opportunity to review issues on the agenda of our bilateral cooperation with Azerbaijan, which is in a positive stage now, and to follow up on the recent 15th European Union-Azerbaijan Cooperation Council that was held in Brussels on Feb.9.

Q.: What role can the EU play in intensifying the efforts for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict given the challenges the conflict poses to the whole region? What is your approach to moving things forward?

A.:You are right in pointing out the regional dimension of this conflict. It is one thing I try to stress in my talks with my interlocutors, that the negative impact of non-resolution is felt far beyond the conflict zone. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict prevents the South Caucasus to realise its full potential as a very rich region, economically, but also socially and culturally. The EU position is very clear: we want a peaceful and prosperous South Caucasus where individuals and societies can realise their full potential. For this to happen, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict needs an early resolution. The status quo is in many ways unsustainable and very fragile. The Minsk Group and its Co-Chairs is the internationally agreed format for the conflict settlement – agreed also by the sides – and the EU fully supports the efforts and proposals of the Co-Chairs aimed at finding a solution. When it comes to finding a resolution, it is important to underline that the sides have the primary responsibility: without compromises by the sides, there will be no resolution of the conflict. We of course recognise that this can be difficult, and the EU is prepared to support the sides and the Minsk Group Co-Chairs in these efforts.

This is one reason why we insist on discussing the conflict settlement at high-level meetings in the region. We convey strong messages on progress towards peace, but we are also telling the sides that we are here to support a peace process, both during the talks under the auspices of the Minsk Group Co-Chairs, and afterwards for instance with reconstruction or building up interconnected economies and societies. As EUSR, I have close working contacts with the Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group as well as with the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, to make sure that what we do is supportive of the process they are leading. It is also important to inform our leadership in Brussels, as well as the Member States, about the different aspects of the ongoing peace process so that everyone is on the same page.

But the EU does more than political work. We believe that for conflict resolution to be effective, the societies must also be involved. Again and again in other conflict contexts, we have seen that negotiated peace agreements are not holding up if the societies are not on board from the start. I do not think that the South Caucasus is an exception. So for the EU, one important element of this support to the official peace process is to work also with societies. This is what we do in the Georgia context, which is another part of my mandate. In the NK conflict context, we are supporting civil society-led confidence-building measures and people-to-people contacts across the divide through an initiative we call the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK). This is a unique initiative involving several very experienced non-governmental organisations. We are of course not underestimating the difficulties: there are very strong feelings and sharp polarisations in this conflict and in such environment peacebuilding activities can be seen as threatening. I categorically reject this. In fact, people-to-people contacts and peace activities can show that there are mutual interests across the divide and that the conflict does not need to be seen in a zero-sum logic where one side can gain only if the other loses. If cooperation and mutual benefits prevail, for instance in the economic sphere, when it comes to tackle common challenges such as human security or the environment, or dealing with common cultural heritage in a responsible way, I am convinced it would be possible to help the peace process forward.

Q.: The overall ceasefire regime remains fragile, while Azerbaijani civilians become targets of the ceasefire breaches. What are your primary concerns regarding the situation in the region? How can be prevented civilian victims of the conflict?

A.: The EU and I personally, deplore any loss of life. Seeing each year the number of victims – many of whom are very young – in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone is heart-breaking. There is no justification for this to go on year after year. I plan to visit areas affected by the conflict as soon as possible to contribute to putting the spotlight on this very human dimension of the conflict that should not be forgotten. I know that my predecessor Herbert Salber did the same. Unfortunately, ceasefire violations are part of the daily life of people living close to the Line of Contact and the international border. Even though the number of incidents seems to have decreased since last year, terrible incidents continue to happen. From a purely humanitarian perspective, this has to stop. It is also detrimental to fruitful negotiations. From the EU side, we continuously call on the sides to strictly adhere to the ceasefire and to exercise restraint on the ground. We urge the sides to implement the agreements reached between the Presidents, most recently in Geneva, which in addition to intensifying the negotiations also involve measures to reduce tension on the ground. It is time that the agreement on the expansion of the Office of the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office is implemented. It is undisputable that reducing tension on the ground will help reduce civilian victims. It will also facilitate reaching a mutually acceptable agreement; it will not cement the status quo.

Q.: Which steps do you think as urgent to release Azerbaijani captives Dilgam Asgarov and Shahbaz Guliyev?

A.: We, of course, have followed this case since their capture in June 2014. The EU, together with the Minsk Group Co-Chairs, fully supports the ICRC efforts. In my view, this issue should also be looked at in a broader context; it would be very helpful and contribute to building trust if the parties could address humanitarian issues and agree for instance on the release of several detainees. It would show to the societies and all those affected that there is progress and willingness to engage without the sides having to compromise on core positions regarding the conflict. In the Georgia context, there have been several releases of detainees over the past two years, and this has not been negative for any side, quite the contrary, it can provide the basis for further trust-building. Perhaps this could also be the case in the Nagorno-Karabakh context.

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