Tuesday 16 May 2023

How should the EU respond to the illegal closure of the Lachin corridor?


Nariné Ghazaryan, Assistant Professor in International and European Law, Radboud University Nijmegen

Photo credit: Alexander Naumov, via Wikimedia Commons   

When the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war came to an end through the adoption of the trilateral statement between Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan on 9 November (Tripartite Statement), those closely observing the region were convinced that peace was still far away. By mid-2021, it became plain obvious that the ceasefire did not hold when attacks against the Armenian territory took place earlier in May. It is at this stage that the EU finally assumed leadership in fostering peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This leadership materialised through the high-level mediation by the President European Council, Charles Michel in relation to the release of prisoners of war, behind the scene diplomatic efforts and high-level trilateral meetings taking place through the course of 2021-2022. With the trilateral meeting in August 2022 hopes were running high that the EU could broker a deal to bring the parties closer to the resolution of their long-standing differences. In an affront to the EU’s efforts, however, Azerbaijan undertook a large military offensive against Armenia in September 2022 occupying parts of its territory and leading to new allegations of war crimes (Hauer, Euractiv 2022; Freedom House 2022; PACE 2022). Despite these developments, no immediate reaction followed by the EU. Continuous diplomatic engagement was preferred instead, with another high-level meeting taking place at the Prague summit in October 2022.

By that time, Armenia had already appealed to various international organisations requesting international presence on its territory (Council of the EU 2022; OSCE 2022). In a positive move, the EU responded swiftly by deploying a temporary CFSP border mission on the territory of Armenia (Council Decision (CFSP) 2022/1970). In an affront to the EU mediation efforts, President Aliyev of Azerbaijan shortly after declared his opposition to the mission, noting further that Azerbaijan did not permit the mission to be deployed on its territory (The Armenian Weekly, 18 October 2022). Although the mission was subsequently extended for a longer period (Council Decision (CFSP) 2023/162), its presence in the region did not prevent further hostilities on the territory of Armenia or in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Under the trilateral statement of November 2020, the safety of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians was to be guaranteed by a Russian peace-keeping contingent. The presence of the latter, however, did not prevent further attacks since then. Rather the latter events confirmed the doubts about Russia’s genuine interest in the conflict resolution. When in December 2022, Azeri ‘eco-activists’ blocked the Lachin corridor, the only land route connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and the only life line for the region’s economic survival, no action followed by the Russian forces. This was a blatant violation of the trilateral statement of November 2020 according to which the Lachin corridor ‘shall remain under the control of the peacekeeping contingent of the Russian Federation’, while ‘[t] he Republic of Azerbaijan shall guarantee safe movement of citizens, vehicles and cargo in both directions along the Lachin corridor’ (para 6, Tripartite Statement).

It is clear that without a ‘green light’ from the Russian side the blocking of the road would have been impossible. While the image of Russia as Armenia’s security guarantor has long been shattered, the events of the Lachin corridor can be seen as exerting pressure over Armenia keen to build closer ties with the EU, the US and the international community more generally. Any threat to the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh can lead to political turbulence in Armenia threatening the position of its pro-Western government. The fate of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh is therefore left in the hands of the Russian army and Azeri government with its entrenched Armenophobia (UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 2016). Although statements were issued by the EU representatives calling on Azerbaijan to ensure the free passage through the Lachin corridor (EEAS, December 2022), there were no suggestions that lack of compliance will be followed by appropriate EU response. 

Few months into the blockade, the ICJ confirmed the Azeri responsibility for the blocking of the land corridor ordering the latter in interim to ‘take all measures at its disposal to ensure unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles and cargo along the Lachin Corridor in both directions’ in the case of Armenia v Azerbaijan concerning alleged violations of CERD (para 62 of the Order).  As in the past, a call on Azerbaijan followed from the EEAS spokesperson to comply with the ICJ order without hinting at possible consequences of  lack of compliance (EEAS, February 2023). Only the European Parliament in its subsequent resolution called for sanctions to be imposed on Azerbaijan if the latter fails to implement the ICJ’s order (European Parliament 2023). In defiance of the ICJ judgement and the calls of the international community, Azerbaijan not only did not unblock the road, but in further escalation it dropped the pretense of eco-activism and established a military check-point at the Lachin corridor in April 2022. In addition, attacks continued against the Armenian territory and Armenian soldiers despite the presence of the EU border mission. Alarmingly, the EU border mission is never located in the vicinity of these events. This might be explained by the fact that the EU border mission coordinates its movements with Azerbaijan in advance (Gavin, Politico, 2023).

In this context, it is clear that Azerbaijan has no genuine interest in concluding a peace treaty with Armenia. The international community’s attention on the war in Ukraine gives Azerbaijan the upper hand in capitalising on the defeat of the Armenian side in the 2020 war by making claims to the South of Armenia, and creating the conditions for the potential ethnic cleansing of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. Given its diplomatic efforts of the past two years and the deployment of the CFSP mission in Armenia, the question is where does this leave the EU? Should it limit itself to its current mediation efforts, or should it make use of other political and legal instruments at its disposal, including sanctions?

Despite the spearheading of trilateral talks to advance the peace process, the EU’s approach is rooted in its past cautious engagement and its long-standing position of ‘both-side-ism’ (Ghazaryan 2023). In simple terms, the latter viewed both Armenia and Azerbaijan as equal in terms of the causes of the bilateral conflict, but also their intransigence in the attempts to resolve the conflict. Even if one views such perception as justified in the past, following the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war this no longer stands scrutiny given the precarious position of Armenia and the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is precisely this vulnerable position that Azerbaijan is keen to exploit given its cordial relations with Russia, the only international power with a military presence on the ground (Eurasia Review, 2022). Its position has also been emboldened by a new energy deal concluded between the EU and Azerbaijan in the summer of 2022. The EU’s understandable desire to break away from its dependence on Russian fossil fuels, appears inevitably to push it into the arms of other authoritarian regimes. In its speech to mark the closing of the deal promising the doubling of gas supplies to the EU,  Commission President von der Leyen declared Azerbaijan to be a ‘trustworthy partner’ despite the latter’s political record and threats against Armenia’s territorial integrity.

The blockade of the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians now affirmed by the establishment of the miliary checkpoint in breach of the ICJ order should not go unnoticed by the EU. The recent gas deal emboldening Azerbaijan also creates significant leverage for the EU which should be used to end the blockade to prevent the ethnic cleansing of Karabakhi Armenians. The war in Ukraine demonstrated the EU’s ability to respond to blatant violations of International Law by deploying a wide range of sanctions and taking a clear stance. Placating the authoritarian regime in Azerbaijan demonstrates that lessons have not been learned from the EU’s previous practice in its Eastern neighbourhood where its placating of Putin’s regime only led to impunity and further aggression. The EU’s partnership and prospects of concluding a new agreement with Azerbaijan should be put on hold unless the latter genuinely engages in the peace process with a view to resolve the conflict rooted in the issue of self-determination of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. The EU should not shy away from addressing the issue of how to guarantee the safety and rights of Karabakhi Armenians in the context of Azerbaijan’s lack of democratic governance and poor human rights record, as well as its decades-long Armenophobia. In particular, due to its relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan the EU is well placed to deploy a European peace-keeping contingent given the poor record of the Russian forces on the ground.

Most importantly, the EU’s political, legal and economic weight should be used to take a stance in line with its values when clear breaches of International Law are taking place. Glossing over them to advance its energy interests will only lead to a new painful episode at the EU’s borders which it could have possibly prevented.




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