Josep BORRELL FONTELLES (High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, EEAS) © UE

Josep BORRELL FONTELLES (High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, EEAS) © UE

On 20 February the European Union Mission in Armenia (EUMA) started observing the country’s fragile border with neighbouring Azerbaijan. EUMA is a tool to create a more conducive environment for negotiations between Yerevan and Baku

28/02/2023 -  Onnik James Krikorian

As expected, on 20 February the European Union Mission in Armenia (EUMA) started observing the country’s fragile border with neighbouring Azerbaijan with the opening of its headquarters in the southern town of Yeghegnadzor. The unarmed civilian monitoring deployment will be comprised of staff seconded from various EU member states including France, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and Sweden.

“The exclusively civilian staff of the EUMA will number approximately 100 in total, including around 50 unarmed observers”, a statement from the European Council of the European Union announced on the same day. The mission also immediately started its monitoring work on the border.

"EUMA will contribute to human security, build confidence on the ground and support EU efforts in the peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan", High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell tweeted.

EUMA will continue in an expanded and two-year form the work of the much smaller 40-person two-month European Union Monitoring Capacity (EUMCAP) in Armenia. It will “contribute to regional stability and peace”, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s office announced following a meeting with Stefano Tomat, the Civilian Operations Commander of the European External Action Service (EEAS).

Nonetheless, despite the precedent of the earlier civilian monitoring capacity, some Armenian media inaccurately reported the news, even going as far to imply that while 50 of the 100 staff will be “unarmed monitors”, the remaining 50 might carry weapons. Other reports incorrectly stated that there were 100 monitors and not 50, while yet another even referred to EUMA as “European Union ground forces”.

None of those claims was correct, however, and all were potentially damaging for the mission before it had even operated for a full day. In fairness, news reports that seconded gendarmes and police officers from France and Germany would be among others in EUMA could be the reason for the confusion, coincidentally highlighting how the EU will need to manage expectations for the mission.

“As monitors they are no longer police, even though in the case of EUMM Georgia some of the seconded police decided to wear their uniforms. But they are always unarmed”, clarifies Tobias Pietz, Deputy Head of Analysis at the Center for International Peace Operations (ZIF), a German governmental agency that will also contribute staff to EUMA.

Such confusion could have been avoided, however. As Pietz mentions, the EU has operated another unarmed Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) civilian mission in the region, the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM), since late 2008. It monitors Georgia’s Administrative Boundary Lines (ABLs) with breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia following the August 2008 war with Russia.

Regardless, the Head of Mission for EUMA will also be another police officer, head of the German Federal Police Headquarters in Stuttgart and the former head of the European Union Advisory Mission (EUAM) in Iraq, Dr. Markus Ritter. The mission will only patrol along Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan. It will not be able to monitor within Azerbaijan itself, including Karabakh.

Even so, concerns have been raised in Baku.
“Unlike the previous temporary version of the mission, there is no clear peace agenda and no coordination with Azerbaijan”, says Topchubashov analyst Mahammad Mammadov. “It may damage the EU’s image as an honest broker in the region and Baku is highly concerned about losing the EU mediation track as it has been the favoured choice for a number of reasons”.

“If we send a mission only to the Armenian side without Baku’s consent, it may create the wrong impression. Baku may see it as ‘the EU is against it’”, the International Crisis Group also quoted an anonymous EU official as saying. “The deployment of the EU mission in Armenia should take into account the legitimate interests of Azerbaijan, and its activities […] should not undermine mutual trust”, the Azerbaijan Ministry of Foreign Affairs had already said in a statement .

Such concerns have been raised by Armenian analysts too, with the Director of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan, Benyamin Poghosyan, warning that EUMA cannot deter or prevent renewed violence, but simply reduce the risk of it happening. Moreover, he has said publicly, Armenia should not see EUMA as an excuse to delay progress in negotiations.

“Some circles in Armenia believe that the EU sent observers to Armenia only to deter future possible Azerbaijani aggression, to play the role of a buffer, and to provide Armenia with the necessary time to increase its military capabilities and be able to repel future Azerbaijani aggression on its own [...] The EU views the potential deployment of a new observer mission from a different angle”, wrote Poghosyan in January. “It is meaningful only if Armenia and Azerbaijan are engaged in serious peace negotiations where the EU plays a significant role”.

Russia has also expressed its concern with the presence of a new security actor in the region, and especially on the soil of traditional ally Armenia.
"We see in these attempts a purely geopolitical background which is far from the interests of a real normalisation of relations in the Transcaucasus”, said Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson. “Everything is being done to squeeze Russia out of the region and weaken its historical role as the main guarantor of security", she charged.

Possibly in response, the following day, a senior government lawmaker, Hayk Konjoryan, told RFE/RL’s Yerevan Bureau that Armenia would also be ready to accept a monitoring mission from the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). However, he added, this could only happen if the CSTO clearly defines where Armenia’s borders are, the initial reason for Pashinyan rejecting such a mission earlier this month .

Such concerns from both Baku and Moscow are likely to be raised again during EUMA’s initial two-year term.

“The observers must pay heed to the other important party in the region — Russia, which has military and border guards along Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan”, wrote International Crisis Group Senior Analyst Olesya Vartanyan for Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s International Politics and Society journal.

"The EU should give its mission the tools to facilitate dialogue between Armenian and Azerbaijani military and border guards posted along the border if that might help prevent or damp down violence”, she further remarked, possibly referring to something akin to the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) that EUMM has established on the ABLs in Georgia.

While there are scant other details available on EUMA, the European Union does indeed see it as a tool to create a more conducive environment for negotiations between Yerevan and Baku. Indeed, that had been the purpose of the earlier EUMCAP too, including in assisting the task of border demarcation and delimitation.

It is this last possibility, and what appears to be an implicit attempt to override the details of the November 2020 trilateral ceasefire and subsequent statements, that has also irked Moscow.

“The implementation of agreements is the most direct way to improve the situation in the region”, Zakharova said , “including such steps as unblocking transport communications, delimitation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, establishment of contacts between the public, experts, religious circles, and MPs of the two countries, as well as negotiations on the elaboration of a peace treaty”.

It is too early to tell how successful EUMA will prove, but many analysts believe that it could contribute to peace and stability on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Some like Poghosyan, however, warn that, unless accompanied by the genuine resumption of the Brussels Process, its efforts could amount to little more than increased regional rivalry in the South Caucasus.

There are some signs of hope. Despite the sudden cancellation of a 7 December meeting between Aliyev and Pashinyan with European Council President Charles Michel in Brussels, the EU negotiation track does not appear to have collapsed.

“We have repeatedly reaffirmed our commitment to the peace process, namely the Brussels process”, stated Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev during a panel session at the Munich Security Conference on 18 February. “Yesterday during a meeting with President of the European Council Charles Michel [and] today during a meeting with Secretary of State Blinken”.

During the conference, incidentally, Aliyev had met with Michel to discuss the EU’s new mission in Armenia, though no other details are known. On 25 February, however, the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus announced during an interview that there were new efforts to revitalise the Brussels Process though the date for a possible meeting between Michel, Aliyev, and Pashinyan was yet to be determined.

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