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Humanitarian support in Nagorno Karabakh is not enough. Stefan Meister, Heinrich Boell Foundation, discusses the current situation for civil society, demonstrates the reasons behind failed peacebuilding and reconciliation attempts and identifies essential political priority shifts as well as opportunities for EU action.
After the second Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) war, there is a new reality in the South Caucasus. While negotiating a ceasefire agreement and deploying peacekeeping troops, Russia has demonstrated that it is the key security actor in the region. With its support of Azerbaijan, Turkey has become a more active player in the region. The Minsk Group, as a multilateral actor, has lost its role as the main negotiator on the conflict and the EUs and US role in the region have been weakened.
In Armenia, NK and Azerbaijan we have different situations for civil society: Armenia has a more developed but fragmented civil society, which is lacking long-term funding. In NK there is no funding at all for civil society, which is for this reason highly underdeveloped. In Azerbaijan, civil society and peacebuilders were already before the war marginalized and only a few persons were dealing seriously with reconciliation. These people are weakened even more with the Azerbaijani victory. There is a deep frustration in civil society and democratic groups in both countries with the lack of engagement from democratic countries in and after the war. Especially in Armenia after the “velvet revolution” in 2018 we could observe a growing impact and activities of civil society in all fields of the state and society of the country. There was hope that Armenia is becoming a democratic country and that there would be more support from the EU. This has now failed and there is a huge disorientation in the Armenian society. We can observe a growing impact of nationalistic groups nowadays in both countries with attacks and hate speech against peace actors.
There was a lack of reflection of the trends on the ground in the last years. Peacebuilding and reconciliation often happened decoupled from the reality in the societies of both countries (but more in Azerbaijan) and in the conflict region. Participants of these formats especially in Azerbaijan had to express in public their patriotism; there was a strong public pressure on them from the society and the security services. There were no lessons learned from changing reality in the countries and no adaptation by the EU as the main donor: EU had a blind eye on what happened on the ground. For instance, we observed shrinking spaces for civil society in Azerbaijan with impact on the peace process. “Peacebuilding tourisms” in Armenia and Azerbaijan with often the same people met at closed workshops created a wrong reality. These people often met outside of the region at conferences in nice hotels but had a limited impact on the discourses in Armenian and Azerbaijani societies. Furthermore, there was a huge impact of disinformation and a lack of information on the whole process and its perception in the societies. As a result, there is a lack of empathy between Armenians and Azeri’s.
Only the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) is at the moment active in the disputed region, there is a real humanitarian crisis. Infrastructures, houses, schools, hospitals everything is destroyed. In NK live at the moment approx. 110.000 people and in Armenia 35.000 permanent refugees from the region. Russia provided some basic construction material which helped, but does not fulfill the main humanitarian needs. The US and the EU are willing to provide more funds, but status questions block their engagement. Everything has to be decided with Baku and Russia needs to be recognized as the key player. The latter is problematic because of the current conflict between Russia and the West. The Armenian government helps in distributing private funds and small compensation for loses. However, this is by far not sufficient. Building houses for IDPs is a huge problem for Armenia, everything is poorly organized and the country lacks resources. The latest border conflict on the Lake Sev shows how tense the situation is and several issues like demarcation but also status questions are not solved. Here it needs a credible independent actor, who can facilitate solutions. The EU has started to fund humanitarian aid through international institutions like the IFRC, UN organizations and local NGOs but is not active in NK.
UN, OSCE and EU need an honest discussion on how to cooperate with Russia, how to help the people. Non-action and blockade will push NK and Armenia further into Russia’s hands, without solving anything. We need clear rules in dealing with Russia in conflicts. The OSCE Minsk group in the current constellation with the Co-Chairs France, Russia and USA is history. Bringing the EU into the conflict mediation might be a chance, because it had no stakes until now. Upgrading the mandate of the EU-Special Representative could be an important step towards increasing the profile of the EU in the conflict. We need to refocus the priorities to the refugees, IDPs, topics like war crime, human rights violations, housing and link them to the conflict. Humanitarian support is not enough especially in the work with IDPs. There is a need to work with the people on the ground and their traumata, their fate and tragic experiences. There is a strong feeling of people in NK of being betrayed. The war linked with the growing hate and patriotism undermined the peace and reconciliation process for the young generation, also for those who were not linked to the first war. Nevertheless, also on the Azerbaijani side working with IDPs is crucial, 45% belong to the young generation.