Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: What the EU should doYes, it might sound unusual: the meaning of the name of Karabakh (in most literature “Nagorno” (Mountainous) is added in front of it), a remote region between Armenia and Azerbaijan, is “black garden”. But ironically, after all the disputes, fights, and tragedies happening there around for almost three decades it is impossible to describe that “garden” without “black” tones. 

Despite the fact that the sound of this conflict may not be heard well in Brussels or other main European capitals, this potential “tinderbox” is capable to kindle the whole South Caucasus, which is the “backyard” of the EU, and pave a new way for future problems for the entire continent.

The EU, although struggling with the recent discrepancies and internal problems inside, is still seen as the only geopolitical and geoeconomic project which is favourable to the entire South Caucasus “trio”, namely, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Therefore, the active presence of Brussels in the conflict resolution and peacebuilding process between Armenia and Azerbaijan can also increase its importance and result in the escape of the whole region from the “paws” of their northern neighbour, Russia. Taking into account the difficulties arising from the migrant crisis as a result of conflicts in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, the possible outbreak of a new war in Nagorno-Karabakh can also devastatingly mitigate the stability in the EU. Therefore, the active involvement in the conflict resolution process in this region can help the EU to win the hearts and minds of people in the entire Caucasus and prevent the spread of hostilities near its borders.  


Background of the Conflict

Before focusing on the possible policy options and recommendations for the solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict it is better to analyze the situation with “3W” approach in order to understand the roots of the conflict comprehensively.  



Starting from the eruption of the conflict there was always disagreement among international community about the parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It was believed to be an internal problem of Azerbaijan by some people, whereas others considered it as an international conflict between newly declared Nagorno-Karabakh state and Azerbaijan, or Armenia and Azerbaijan. Having said that, Azerbaijan does not recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as a party to the conflict and accuses Armenia of the occupation of territories. In its turn, Armenia, by denying its involvement in the so-called occupation defines the conflict as an independence movement by the population of Nagorno-Karabakh which led to the current conflict. Noteworthy to mention, Armenia does not recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state and negotiations over the conflict is conducted between Yerevan and Baku. But Armenia and separatist government in Stepanakert are very interconnected in every aspect and it actually makes it very difficult to imagine Nagorno-Karabakh without the help and support of Yerevan. 



With the start of the period called “perestroika” and “glasnost” by Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, offered “openness” paved a way for the revival of the “sleeping” nationalism in member republics, including Armenia and Azerbaijan. By referring to the historical enmity and territorial disputes, as well as complaining about the “unjust border definement” during the Stalinist era, nationalists in Armenia started protests in 1988 which soon resulted in the secession of Nagorno-Karabakh from the Azerbaijan SSR. These events were followed with the outbreak of the armed conflict which resulted in deadly clashes and displacement of population on both sides. According to HRW/Helsinki, over the seven years between 1988 and 1994, an estimated number of deaths was 25 000, whereas over one million people became IDPs and refugees as a consequence of the conflict. Although a ceasefire was brokered in 1994 between the warring parties, skirmishes still happen in the contact line which melts the “frost” of the conflict. The violent clash in April 2016 can be shown as an example which was the deadliest one after the conclusion of the Bishkek Agreement on the ceasefire and it can be considered the “siren” for the future escalation.



The reason why the conflict has erupted and continued till now, even if there is a two-decade-old ceasefire between the parties, can be analysed according to the theory of Johan Galtung, a Norwegian scientist. 

According to his theory, accumulation of three forms of violence (cultural, structural, and direct violence) creates the conflict. A conflict starts when all of these elements are present. Violence is the combination of actions, emotions, feelings, attitudes etc. which deprives people from realising their full capacity and damages the human relations.

As mentioned above, the start of the “glasnost” era brought the latent elements of the violence in the Soviet society, including Armenia and Azerbaijan. The historical rivalry over the territories in the South Caucasus between Armenians and Turks and the feeling of the revenge for the actions happened in the beginning of the 20th century sparkled nationalist sentiment in Armenia. Demonstrations in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia were negatively accepted in Azerbaijan, increasing the tension between two nations. These events can be regarded as the beginning of the cultural violence, which came from negative attitudes of parties about each other. In order to strengthen the group identity the conflict parties needed “enemies” who helped them define who they were not, “chosen glories” and “traumas” which created a distinction between each other and spread “the seeds” of hostility. The mutual feeling of fear, distrust, and anger polarised two neighbour countries. 

Besides, incompatible goals, breakdown of the government of Azerbaijan SSR, as well as, the shortcomings in the region led to the contradiction. Nagorno-Karabakh, being a remote region bordering with Armenia, had a huge Armenian majority and was geographically close to Armenia. According to Thomas de Waal, “the cultural and symbolic meaning of Nagorno-Karabakh for both nations cannot be overstated. For Armenians, Karabakh is the last outpost of their Christian civilization and a historic haven of Armenian princes and bishops before the eastern Turkic world begins. Azerbaijanis talk of it as a cradle, nursery, or conservatoire, the birthplace of their musicians and poets.” Therefore, control over the region put those two ideas against each other, fastening the evolution of the third element, behaviour, or direct violence. The declaration of the strong secessionist rhetoric and rise of hatred as a result of that ended with pogroms and civilian deaths in both countries which turned into the violent war in the beginning of the 1990s.     


Policy options for the Conflict

There is a need to outline several possible solutions or scenarios which can be applied to the current conflict:

● The inclusion of Nagorno-Karabakh into its patron state, Armenia. As it is known, unification with Armenia was one of the main goals for the secessionist movement in Nagorno-Karabakh and this was also welcomed in Yerevan and among the Armenian community living abroad as well. It is also interesting that Armenia does not de jure recognise the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic even if there were attempts to do it after the April skirmishes. This approach may also come from the intention to see Stepanakert as a municipal center in future rather than the capital of the neighboring country. But it should also mentioned that the Nagorno-Karabakh government and population living there do not look at the unification as attractive as it was before as there are still differences with identity issues between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. The unilateral unification is also dangerous for the future of the conflict as the outbreak of a new war could be evitable after this action.

● Full independence. As mentioned above, after the April events the possible recognition of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was in the agenda of Armenian Parliament. But the proposal was rejected showing that even Yerevan is aware of the possible outcomes of that decision. Besides, independence attempts by new emerging separatist regions are not welcomed well by the international community as recognition of them can open a possible “Pandora box” in the whole world, including Europe as well. The recent trouble in Catalonia should also bell the rings for policy makers in the EU to refrain from such policy incentives.

● Reabsorption into the parent state, Azerbaijan. The last two years’ skirmishes in the contact line between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh signal the possibility of this scenario as Azerbaijan, spending a huge amount of money on armament, tries to change the current status-quo. When talking about Azerbaijan’s 2015 military budget, which amounted to $3.7 billion, by showing a 30 times growth since 2000, was larger than Armenia’s entire budget by 2011. Comparingly, Armenia’s military budget was $448 million in 2015 (SIRPI Military Expenditure Database). Although Azerbaijan’s military spending significantly decreased in 2016 due to the devaluation in the country – levelling at roughly $ 1.4 billion – it is still a significant number and both countries are in the tough arm race.

But in order to achieve this aim Baku needs to convince the international community and gain new friends in the West and Moscow, otherwise possible military campaigns can result in the countermeasures and international criticism against Azerbaijan. Besides, possible war can damage the vulnerable economic situation in the country, as well as result in the cataclysm in the society of Azerbaijan in the case of a failure. It is also a fact that the war can never solve any conflict and should therefore be strongly dismissed.

● Inclusion into the parent state as a separate entity. This option is one of the most favourite ones, as it enables the parent state to preserve its territorial integrity, as well as gives a separatist region more independence and autonomy. It is obvious that without mutual concessions it is not possible to achieve conflict resolution and peaceful settlement of the conflict. With the withdrawal its troops from the region, Armenia can achieve the lift of the blockade by neighbouring Turkey and Azerbaijan and boost its weakening economy by trading with them again and restoring its role as an important transport country. Azerbaijan, by this way, can solve its major political problem but it also means that Baku should spend substantial amount of money and resources to restore the region and stop its hostile rhetoric against Armenians living in its territory.


Madrid Principles

This formula, offered by France, the Russian Federation and the United States which are Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, as a peaceful settlement of the conflict, at the OSCE Ministerial Council in Madrid on 29 November, 2007, can be an example to the latter option mentioned above. The proposal, based on the principles such as the territorial integrity and self-determination, proposes to define the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh by public referendum, redeployment of the Armenian armed forces from the occupied territories surrounding Azerbaijan, deployment of international peacekeepers in the region and restoration of relations between two countries. 

Besides, according to those principles, there should be a corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh till the referendum is held. Although there were several adjustments to Madrid principles, the recent of which was a Kazan formula offered by Russia, they have not significantly altered the essence of the principles.


What the EU should do? Recommendations for Brussels

The EU:

● First of all, should increase its presence in the peaceful conflict resolution process in order to ensure the regional stability and protection of the energy corridor of the South Caucasus.

● Engaging the conflicting parties in the conflict settlement process and building confidence between them should also be a priority for the EU. Besides, the EU can achieve peacemaking and peacebuilding process in the region as it did in the Balkans after the bloody conflict of the 1990’s. It should be kept in mind that neither a war nor current status quo can be acceptable for the conflict resolution and necessary measures should be taken rather than to satisfy with fragile ceasefire.

● Organising joint peacebuilding programs, creating conditions for people-to-people contact, as well as meeting with military chiefs to analyze the situation in the conflict zone is also crucial as they help to eradicate the sources of hostilities and decrease negative stereotypes between nations.

● Funding projects of the NGOs aiming to achieve the peace between two nations and destroy negative attitudes can be taken as measures by the EU in this matter as well.

● Besides, the EU can set conditions for financial assistance to both countries in return for the commitment to peaceful ways by them. Respecting the ceasefire has also to be included in this condition package.


One fact should not be forgotten that the development of the region and its full integration into the European family is not possible without the solutions to the ethnic conflicts. The eradication of the poverty, enmity, and the authoritarian inclinations in the South Caucasus are positively interrelated with the end of the conflicts. Therefore, the policymakers in Brussels should take this factor into account in their policies in regard to the Eastern Partnership countries.




1. International Alert, “Oil and the Search for Peace in the South Caucasus: The Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline”, December 2004, available at

2. Jeffrey Mankoff, October 10, 2016, “The South Caucasus unfreezes”, available at .

3. Margarita Tadevosyan, June 01, 2010, “Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: War, Humanitarian Challenge and Peacekeeping”, available at

4. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki,  Report “Azerbaijan: Seven Years of Conflict in Nagorno Karabakh”, 1994.

5. Thomas de Waal, “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war”, New York University Press, 2003.

6. Pål Kolstø, “The Sustainability and Future of Unrecognized Quasi-States”, Journal of Peace Research, November 8, 2006.

7. Radio Liberty, “Yerevan Sends Draft Bill To Parliament On Recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh”, May 05, 2016, available at

8. Statement by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair countries, 10 July, 2009, available at

9. Audrey L. Altstadt, Rajan Menon, “Unfrozen Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Why Violence Persists”, April 12, 2006, available at

10. SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, available at

11. Directorate-General for External Policies, “Nagorno-Karabakh: Security Situation”, European Union, 2012.

12. Karl Cordell and Stefan Wolff, “Ethnic Conflict”, Polity Press, 2009.