Markus Ritter © Onnik James Krikorian

Markus Ritter © Onnik James Krikorian

For a year, the European Union Mission in Armenia (EUMA) has been deployed on the border with Azerbaijan, which it patrols regularly: a measure considered necessary by Yerevan - which fears a new conflict - but viewed with suspicion by Baku

29/02/2024 -  Onnik James Krikorian

The European Union Mission in Armenia (EUMA) marked the first anniversary of its deployment on the country’s border with Azerbaijan last week. To celebrate the occasion, an event attended by Western Ambassadors, Armenian government officials including Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoryan, and some members of local civil society was held in a central Yerevan hotel. Thirty civilian unarmed mission monitors wearing blue mission vests were awarded Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) Service medals by EUMA Head of Mission (HoM) Markus Ritter. The former German police chief reiterated the mission's aim to contribute to the normalisation of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations.

Deployed on 20 February 2023, EUMA followed the much shorter term two-month European Union Monitoring Capacity (EUMCAP) that temporarily monitored the Armenia-Azerbaijan border from October 2022. Initially numbering “up to 100” staff when EUMA was first announced, that number has since risen to 138 and will reach 209. At the anniversary event, Ritter said that 48 of its current staff are actual monitors operating from bases in Goris, Ijevan, Jermuk, Kapan, Martuni, and Yeghegnadzor, also the mission’s headquarters. To date EUMA has conducted over 1,720 patrols.

“Reinforcing the Mission and increasing the number of staff enables us to conduct more patrols, contributing to overall security and stability in the region”, said Ritter. “We are conducting daily patrols to observe and report the situation on the ground. On this special day, I want to acknowledge the valuable work of the Mission’s personnel and thank the 23 EU Member States who are contributing staff to the mission”.

That mission, however, has not been without controversy. Though Azerbaijan had reluctantly accepted the deployment of EUMCAP on the Armenian side of the border, Baku charges that EUMA could be used to delay progress in normalising relations between the two countries as they attempt to hammer out an agreement to end their three decades long conflict. It is also irked by the EU’s November announcement that Armenia will be included in its European Peace Facility, an initiative to enhance the defence capacity of beneficiary countries. However, that is unlikely to change the balance of power. In 2023, respectively, Georgia and Moldova were to receive €40 million and €36 million over 36 months to finance non-lethal equipment, supplies, and services.

Russia and Iran have also expressed their displeasure with EUMA’s activities in Armenia, regarding it as international intervention in the South Caucasus by countries far beyond its borders. However, others note that another CSDP mission, EUMM in neighbouring Georgia, has already been operating since late 2008. Moreover, although EUMA can lessen the potential for cross border incidents, it can hardly avoid them. That relies on the political will of the two governments, as demonstrated by a two-month period of calm between the withdrawal of EUMCAP and its replacement by EUMA, albeit isolated incidents occur largely depending on the normalisation process itself.

Indeed, on 12 February, alleged sniper shots from the Armenian side of the border wounded an Azerbaijani border guard in Kolluqışlaq, a village in the Zangelan district of Azerbaijan. A retaliatory strike on Nerkin Hand, situated across the border in Armenia, came the following day, killing four members of what has been reported as Yerkrapah, a controversial Armenian political-military formation. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell called the shooting of the Azerbaijani guard “deplorable” but described Baku’s response as “disproportionate”. EUMA also says it does not patrol in the area.

“Our mission has access to the entire territory of Armenia, except for the territory of Nerkin Hand, which falls under the responsibility of the Russian border guards”, Ritter claimed in comments also mirrored by those made by Armenian Security Council Secretary Grigoryan. “Armenia should address this issue”, the EUMA HoM continued. “We do not have direct contact with the Russian forces stationed in Armenia”.

Nonetheless, Azerbaijan’s Representative for Special Assignments Elchin Amirbayov also blamed EUMA for making such incidents more likely. Baku has long accused EUMA of engaging in what it terms “binocular diplomacy”, taking European diplomats to the still problematic border to look at “Azerbaijani positions through binoculars, taking photos and then distributing this on different social media and claiming that it is because only of [the EU] that Azerbaijan is not attacking Armenia”. Last week, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan claimed a new war was ‘very likely'.

Despite the controversies, however, EUMA’s presence is considered a much needed confidence-building measure in Armenia, especially for communities situated on its border with Azerbaijan. “I am sure that the EU monitoring mission is bringing important contribution to Armenia and the region, which symbolises the EU’s involvement for peace and stability”, CSDP commander Tomat said at the anniversary event. “I’m fully aware of the limits of what we can accomplish in such a delicate and complex environment”, noted Ritter.


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