Nagorno-Karabakh: the EU Must Act to Prevent Genocide on its Doorstep

Written by Adam Volf, Libertas Editor in Chief

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

 

Location of the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh (full area in broken lines)

Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Two months. 

That is how long human beings are known to be able to survive without food. With no water, humans will not live longer than one week. The Armenian inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh have now been blockaded for more than eight months.

Amidst a dearth of coverage by EU outlets (the BBC, notably, having devoted its most recent coverage to the blockade on January 6th), Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev has been emboldened to tighten his country’s grip on the breakaway region. What began with a false-flag demonstration by pretend eco-demonstrators has evolved into a slow-cooked race against time for the Armenian natives of the contested region. On August 15th, the first death (a 40-year-old man) by simple starvation was reported by Armenian sources in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

More will soon die, if the EU does act decisively to force Baku to lift the blockade and economic siege of the territory.

 

Progressive deterioration, enabled by disinterest

The ongoing blockade is the culmination of a progressive escalation of Baku’s pressure, enabled by the passivity of an increasingly toothless Russia. Since December, Azerbaijan has put a stranglehold on all economic activity and movement of people into and outside of Nagorno-Karabakh, by blocking the so-called Lachin corridor (the only point of access between the remote area and Armenia proper). The blockade represents the latest stage of a carefully-cultivated war fever by the authoritarian regime of President Aliyev.

Azerbaijan is a country held captive by its own head of state. Under Aliyev, Baku has become dependent on the Karabakh conflict as a legitimizing issue, a distractor to the woeful absence of domestic freedoms it affords its citizens. In 2023, Azerbaijan was featured 151st on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index - one place above Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Freedom House’s recent Freedom in the World report (assessing civil liberties) saw Azerbaijan ranked among the world’s 57 ‘not free’ countries (the lowest rank on the scale), and highlighted it amongst the most prominent aggregate backsliders in the most recent 10-year period. Aliyev’s reliance on the conflict - and Armenians as Azerbaijan’s eternal enemy - as a tool to distract from the erosion of domestic civil liberties is as poignant as it is vivid.

The unfolding crisis has been exacerbated by the uselessness of the 2,000 stationed Russian ‘peacekeepers’. These were cynically inserted by Russia via the terms of the agreement ending the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war - its 6th article binding them to oversee the route through Lachin between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Not only has Russia abandoned its duty (which, since inception, was nothing more than a thinly-veiled bid at securing influence in a region increasingly hostile to Russian meddling), but its inaction has emboldened Azerbaijan to proceed gradually toward the current blockade

 

Reintegration of the Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan 

The bellicose nature of Azerbaijan’s regime is visible in all pronouncements made internally by Aliyev - and his thundering anti-Armenian rhetoric has borne fruit.

Despite declarations by Baku to the contrary, there are many elements which indicate that the integration of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan with the 120,000 Armenians included is not a realistic prospect. Aside from the abhorrent precedent of a people having been effectively brutalised into integration (if that is what results from the ongoing economic siege of the area), the security threats to the Armenians in a unified Azerbaijan would be myriad.

Aliyev has raised sentiment against Armenians in Azerbaijan to a feverish pitch. The ominous rhetoric espoused by himself and the tightly-controlled domestic press has resulted in multiple instances of astonishing bloodthirst towards Armenians. July 2020 was an example. Anti-war protests are commonplace in many countries exposed to military conflict, yet popular upheavals in favour of war are (naturally) almost unheard of. Yet this is exactly what took place that summer in Baku, shortly before the Autumn eruption of the second Nagorno-Karabakh War. 50,000 people took to the streets to demand military action against Armenia - such is the warlike mood fostered by Aliyev. There are also individual examples which attest to the almost-certain absence of safety for Armenians in a reunited Azerbaijan. In 2004, Azerbaijani soldier Ramil Safarov hacked to death a sleeping Armenian attendee at a NATO training in Hungary with a supermarket-bought hatchet. An isolated occurrence, but Safarov - mindblowingly extradited by Hungarian authorities in 2012 - received a hero’s welcome in Azerbaijan, along with 8 years’ back pay and housing. The message was sent clearly: barbarism against Armenians would be met not with punishment, but with applause. Small wonder that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh would resist integration to a state so hostile to them at all costs. 

The options for the Karabakh Armenians - in the absence of external action to end the blockade - are thus twofold: reintegration to Azerbaijan (which would signify - at once - a victory for inhumane tactics and immediate flight of the Karabakh Armenian population), or starvation. 



Into the arms of despots

Dependence on Russia has continuously damaged Armenian interests, and will continue to do so. But therein lies a chance for greater EU leverage.

Russia, by abandoning its duty to maintain the Lachin corridor, resigned the Armenians to their fate at Aliyev’s hands. More cogently, reliance on Russia as its one regional ally has caused some onlooking academics to lazily correlate the conflict to Russia’s war against Ukraine, paint Armenian as a Russian puppet state, and justify its isolation. Injurious as this is, there can be little doubt that Armenia is paying a price for its poor choice of ally, and its misguided reliance on Russia. 

From the EU’s standpoint, there are strategic reasons to support the Armenians against Baku’s blockade: while Armenia does not boast the same economic value as Azerbaijan, it ranks comparatively well (compared to other countries of the region) on The Economist’s Democracy Index, and ranked 51st (more than 100 places above Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey, and Iran) on RSF’s above-mentioned Press Freedom Index. To not intervene risks pushing Armenia directly into desperate reliance on actors unfriendly to EU interests, Russia and Iran - and likely into backwards movement against the current of EU values. A politically-isolated Armenian, in threat of existential conflict, shall rely closer on either country in the emerging event of a renewed war - to its own detriment, but also to the EU’s. 

But geostrategic interests and power plays are all secondary to the single unassailable reason for the EU to intervene in the current context: to avoid the preventable (mass) loss of life of a starving people. 

The EU must use its means to stem the threat of genocide

The EU must do more to prevent the looming ethnic cleansing which will accompany the continuation of this blockade. It has multiple means by which it may do so.

First, economic pressure on Baku. The EU is a major trading partner of Azerbaijan, and EU countries are amongst the biggest buyers of Azeri exports (including oil and gas). The EU should progressively limit its imports of such products, until such time that Azerbaijan displays commitment to the humane treatment of the Karabakh Armenians and ends the blockade.

Moreover, the EU must play a greater role in documenting the conflict on the ground, and insist on the resumption of humanitarian aid via the Lachin corridor and not through Azerbaijan’s proposed Aghdam road (something completely contrary to the terms of the 2020 agreement). 

Azerbaijan has taken to blocking all humanitarian aid by the Lachin corridor, and has ignored both the (now purposeless) stationed Russian garrison, as well as the statements of international mediators such as the International Criminal Court. Here again, the EU must incrementally leverage its trade with Azerbaijan on democratic and humanitarian progress. Azerbaijan cannot so easily also ignore the EU, with EU countries consuming such a significant portion of its oil and gas exports. To do so, for no other reason than to perpetrate an ethnic cleansing, would come at too much of a cost to its economic interests.

The EU must act now, proactively not reactively

Both of these lines of engagement - crucial to halting the crisis in its spiral towards genocide - are in line with Lymec’s vision for a greater EU involvement in the resolution of the conflict. According to resolution 9.53 of the Lymec Policybook (adopted in the wake of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War), the EU must be a third party to the conflict for the sake of human rights and minorities. The EU was - crucially - absent during the resolution of the conflict in 2020, allowing Russia to gain greater leverage in the region without (as time has told) resolving the conflict. This can no longer be. The EU can no longer be a passive bystander.

Above all, it is inconceivable that an economically-advanced country in the EU’s environs - a member of its Neighbourhood Policy - could be able to brutalize a community of 120,000 people in the way it currently can - a community it claims as its own rightful citizens. Irrespective of the EU’s position on the territorial belonging of Nagorno-Karabakh, it must play a greater role in ending the blockade. To limit economic engagement with Azerbaijan is not to act against the interests of the Azerbaijani people: it is to act against the marauding whims of an autocratic regime (Azerbaijan’s Aliyev). It is also to support a people (the Karabakh Armenians) who are at risk of annihilation should the blockade continue or should the fences fall and the region be forcefully reintegrated into Azerbaijan.

The EU cannot look away any longer. It must see the potential for ethnic cleansing and act proactively rather than reactively to this threat. 

It is not a question of taking sides. Maintenance of the status quo will enable mass loss of life. 

 

 

References

  1. BBC News, Nagorno-Karabakh: Empty shops and blockade pile pressure on Armenians
  2. Reporters Without Borders, World Press Freedom Index 2023 (interactive map)
  3. Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2023 (PDF)
  4. Reuters, Armenia says food shortages hit Nagorno-Karabakh, blames Azerbaijan, Russia
  5. Radio Free Europe, Azerbaijan's 'Ethnic Hatred' Theme Park Draws Ire, Imperils Reconciliation
  6. Tradingeconomics.com, Azerbaijan Exports by Country
  7. The Associated Press (AP), Armenians face genocide in Azerbaijan, former International Criminal Court prosecutor warns
  8. Lymec Policy Book, Resolution 9.53: Urgency Resolution on Peace and Stability after the NagornoKarabakh Peace Deal
Adam Volf

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Adam Volf
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