KORNIDZOR, Armenia — Ethnic Armenians are venting their frustration at the EU’s failed attempts to mediate in the growing humanitarian crisis over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh — as more than half of the territory’s residents now appear to have fled, fearing ethnic cleansing by Azerbaijan’s army.
Baku’s lightning advance into Nagorno-Karabakh last week — and the subsequent refugee exodus — is a stinging diplomatic failure for the EU, which had staked significant political capital in trying to style itself as a peacemaker. European Council President Charles Michel became a prominent personality in the region, and EU observers were deployed to observe the Armenia-Azerbaijan frontier. Ultimately, however, the EU now looks unlikely to turn to sanctions against Azerbaijan as it is unwilling to rock relations with a nation that it calls a “crucial” partner on natural gas supply.
On Wednesday morning, Armenian officials told POLITICO that 50,200 people — amounting to more than half of the estimated 100,000 total population — had already crossed the internationally recognized border into Armenia, packing what few possessions they could carry into cars, trucks and buses. With increasing chaos on the ground, however, many more could have arrived without being recorded.
Among the new arrivals was 58-year-old Spartak, a former security guard who made the journey with his children and grandchildren.
“Everyone is saying they care about us, but where are they?” he asked, sitting in the leafy garden of a hotel serving as an emergency shelter. “Where is France? Where is America? Where is Charles Michel?”
Brussels’ foray into the South Caucasus came amid efforts to reduce the waning influence of Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. Moscow stationed peacekeepers in the region but was unwilling or unable to enforce the status quo, sparking clashes and cease-fire violations.
Despite hosting talks designed to head off exactly the kind of catastrophe now taking place, both Michel and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have appeared wrong-footed by the crisis. Von der Leyen, who described Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev as one of Europe’s more “reliable, trustworthy” partners has not commented. Michel made an optimistic emergency phone call to Aliyev, asking for Karabakh Armenians to be well treated, but there doesn’t appear to be any kind of European leverage or willingness to hit Aliyev with penalties.
‘The EU is now losing Armenians’ faith’
Even though this humanitarian crisis is blowing up in Europe’s immediate neighborhood, it has pledged less aid than the U.S.: The bloc has promised to send €5 million, with Washington giving $11.5 million.
“While Russia is seen as having betrayed Armenians given its stated commitments to protect them, the EU is now losing Armenians’ faith,” said Karena Avedissian, a senior analyst at Armenia’s Regional Center for Democracy and Security. “People like Michel so often talk about Western values while doing nothing to uphold them, and Brussels pushed its own vision to resolve the conflict without addressing Armenians’ fears about being forced to flee.”
Armenian and Azerbaijani officials were in Brussels on Tuesday for discussions, to which the Council president dispatched his diplomatic advisers, Simon Mordue and Magdalena Grono. “President Michel joined the participants for a brief exchange,” a statement from the EU side reads.
Meanwhile, more than 60 MEPs are calling for sanctions on Azerbaijan — with the European Parliament having previously backed motions condemning the country and supporting restrictions on its top officials over alleged human rights abuses.
Sanctions looks unlikely
Given Europe’s diplomatic fixation with securing supplies of gas from Azerbaijan, however, Baku’s officials are pretty confident they are not going to face much backlash from the EU. Sanctions need to be signed off by member countries, not MEPs.
At a briefing in Brussels ahead of the negotiations with Armenian officials on Tuesday, Azerbaijan’s foreign policy chief Hikmet Hajiyev said that his government did not expect sanctions from the EU and hit out at “emotional” European lawmakers calling for punitive action.
“We don’t see such a risk because it’s irrational,” said Hajiyev, adding that he doesn’t believe there’s a clear “rationale” behind calls for sanctions or a suspension of the bloc’s gas deal with Baku. “Such a narrative is not helpful and is rather counterproductive to advance the agenda of the peace in the region,” Hajiyev continued. “On the contrary, it will cause further and further fragmentation and division of the region.”
In closed-door talks between countries, there is little appetite for slapping sanctions on Azerbaijan, according to two diplomats with direct knowledge of negotiations who were granted anonymity to speak candidly.
Only Lithuania has suggested that all options be on the table, the diplomats said, while Hungary showed the most skepticism, and others like Romania and Austria also had reservations.
“It’s quite stuck at the moment … there’s no unanimity in this case,” one of the diplomats said, adding that one reason could be the strength of countries’ relationships with Azerbaijan.
Hungary in particular “is a tricky one,” said the second diplomat, arguing that the worst-case scenario would be to ask for sanctions and have Budapest block talks for weeks as it has done during Russia sanctions discussions.
According to Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and an expert on the conflict, the gas deal was “a prime example” of mixed messaging from the EU. “People like Charles Michel and in the External Action Service were focused on conflict resolution,” he said, “while von der Leyen praised Aliyev and didn’t once mention the conflict or Armenians.”
“Azerbaijan knew that it could use both negotiation and force and could exploit both European and Russian weaknesses,” he added, calling for the EU to begin a “strategic audit on its Azerbaijan policy.”
Asked on Wednesday by POLITICO about why von der Leyen is yet to make a public pronouncement, a spokesperson for the Commission insisted “the EU position is clear” and that she had made her views clear by sharing a post condemning the violence from the bloc’s top diplomat Josep Borrell on social media.
For former security guard Spartak though, gathering together what remains of his possessions and working out what to do next, talk is cheap. “Nobody cares about us. We’ll go wherever people will help us — we just have to find somewhere.”
Victor Jack reported from Brussels. Gregorio Sorgi contributed reporting.
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