Brussels has a key gas deal with Baku, but reports of a food and fuel shortage in Nagorno-Karabakh are increasing calls for it to take action.
BY GABRIEL GAVIN, JULY 27, 2023
Azerbaijan is accused of throttling the ethnic-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh — setting off a crisis in relations with the European Union just as the country becomes an increasingly important fossil fuel supplier to replace imports from Russia.
Members of the European Parliament are demanding action, and late Wednesday the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said that the bloc is “deeply concerned” about the worsening humanitarian situation in the region.
Worry is growing over the risk of famine in Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders. The Armenian population declared independence after a brutal war in the early 1990s, but Azerbaijan reversed many of those gains in a lightning campaign in 2020.
Since December, the only road in or out of the mountainous territory has been under the control of Azerbaijan’s armed forces and, for the past six weeks, local officials say a checkpoint on the Lachin Corridor linking Karabakh with Armenia has been closed to civilian traffic and supply trucks.
In a statement Tuesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been bringing food and medicine to the tens of thousands of Armenians in Karabakh, said that “despite persistent efforts, we are currently unable to deliver aid.”
“People lack life-saving medication and essentials like hygiene products and baby formula. Fruits, vegetables, and bread are increasingly scarce and costly. Other food items such as dairy products, sunflower oil, cereal, fish, and chicken are unavailable,” it added. Miscarriages have tripled in the past month as a result of malnutrition, one doctor told local media.
A day earlier, the president of the unrecognized local Armenian administration, Arayik Harutyunyan, declared that it had become a “disaster zone” and called on international organizations, foreign nations and the U.N. to urgently intervene.
Over the weekend, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan warned that a repeat of the 2020 war is now “very likely.” He accused Baku of laying the foundations for “genocide” in the region.
Azerbaijan denies it is blockading Nagorno-Karabakh, and has offered to provide aid by a road from Aghdam, a regional hub it regained in 2020, almost totally leveled during three decades of Armenian control.
Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry called Borrell’s statement “regrettable” and said it was driven by “propaganda and political manipulations spread by Armenia.”
Responding to a question from POLITICO, Harutyunyan insisted that his government is unable to accept the offer because, “Azerbaijan created this crisis and cannot be the solution to it.”
Local officials fear that becoming dependent on Baku for supplies would effectively end their independence and make them vulnerable to future shut-offs.
However, Azerbaijan’s foreign policy chief, Hikmet Hajiyev, declared this week that the international community should press the local Armenians to accept supplies via Aghdam, insisting “there is no other way! Game over!”
Questions for Brussels
The EU is slowly waking up to the crisis. Borrell said Azerbaijan is disregarding an International Court of Justice ruling mandating that it keep the road open. He added that the Aghdam route “should not be seen as an alternative” to the Lachin Corridor.
In its response, Baku accused the bloc’s top envoy of a “blatant misinterpretation” of the International Court of Justice ruling.
The EU has a long-standing interest in the region.
After Azerbaijan launched a series of incursions into Armenia last year, Brussels signed off on a Common Security and Defense Policy monitoring mission along the border in the hope of preventing future bloodshed.
Nathalie Loiseau, the chair of the European Parliament’s defense committee, said the EU should go further than just voicing concern and impose “targeted sanctions” on Azerbaijani officials “responsible for hate speech and illegal decisions,” arguing that the bloc’s status as a mediator shouldn’t prevent it from standing up for its self-declared values.
Nor, she said, should its energy ties with Baku weaken its leverage, because “in a trade relationship, both partners are dependent.”
The EU has repeatedly cautioned that what it sees as inflammatory rhetoric is a threat to peace in the region. Despite that, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has threatened to “chase away” Armenian separatists “like dogs” and Baku previously issued a commemorative postage stamp featuring a worker in hazmat gear spraying disinfectant on the region.
Brussels’ External Action Service has dispatched its civilian monitors to the start of the Lachin Corridor to “get first hand and verified information on current developments.”
However, according to François-Xavier Bellamy, a French MEP who sits on the Parliament’s energy committee, it appears there simply isn’t the political will in Brussels to do anything more substantive at present.
“It’s becoming a case of Parliament vs. the Commission. We’ve tabled questions, we had a debate and now Parliament has voted to support a settled position on introducing sanctions on Azerbaijan,” he said. “But if the Commission won’t listen, what else can we do?”
According to Laurence Broers, a leading analyst on the conflict and an associate fellow at Chatham House, the EU is trying to “compartmentalize” its role in the peace process to avoid damaging its relations with Armenia or Azerbaijan.
“We have seen some friction in the messaging between different parts of the EU, with the European Parliament taking a stronger normative stand,” he said. “Those parts of the EU more directly engaged with the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict have tended to rely more on positive incentives rather than negative disincentives.”
European Council President Charles Michel has spearheaded a series of trilateral talks in Brussels, bringing together Aliyev and Pashinyan. However, the situation on the ground has continued to worsen.
“Michel’s rhetoric is well received in Baku,” said Rusif Huseynov, director of Azerbaijan’s Topchubashov Center think tank. “He refers to Azerbaijani territorial integrity, he mentioned the Aghdam route as an alternative. Critical voices from MEPs of course are a source of irritation in Baku, but I don’t think there’s too much concern because Azerbaijan has good relations at the level of Charles Michel and von der Leyen.”
A spokesperson for Michel declined to comment on whether the EU needs to step up its response to the growing humanitarian catastrophe, saying only that a press release issued two weeks ago had details of yet more talks planned for after the summer holidays.
“That answers your question,” the official said.