US should follow EU’s lead on Nagorno-Karabakh

US should follow EU’s lead on Nagorno-Karabakh

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An Armenian soldier in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. (Reuters)

The EU last month took an unmistakable stand for territorial integrity that should have a ripple effect all the way to Washington.

As EU leaders held the annual Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit via videoconference and discussed their response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on June 18, they also used the occasion to reaffirm their opposition to illegal occupations.

The EU’s six partners in the EaP are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine; collectively known as the “Eastern partners.” Comments from Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and European People’s Party President Donald Tusk underscored the summit’s broad sentiments in support of territorial integrity and conflict resolution.

“Croatia supports the further development of the EU’s relations with the Eastern Partnership countries with strong support for the European ambitions of those countries wishing to move closer to the European Union,” Plenkovic said. “Consistent respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each Eastern Partnership country and peaceful settlement of disputes is important on that path, especially in the context of a series of frozen conflicts.”

Tusk added: “We reiterate our support for territorial integrity within internationally recognized borders. We condemn Russian aggression and annexation of Crimea and Russia’s occupation of Donbass, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transnistria. We reiterate our comprehensive support for the efforts and basic principles of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution.”

The last point brings to light a notable aspect of the EaP: That two of its six partners, Armenia and Azerbaijan, have been waging a decades-long conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the region that several UN resolutions identify as part of Azerbaijan and as occupied by Armenia.

The two former Soviet republics waged the Nagorno-Karabakh War of 1988 to 1994, which resulted in about 30,000 deaths. Following Armenia’s occupation of one-fifth of Azerbaijan’s territory during that conflict, Azerbaijan today has one of the world’s largest populations of internally displaced persons. The current population of the 4,400-square-kilometer territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is 95 percent ethnically Armenian. Despite a Russian-brokered cease-fire in May 1994 and ongoing efforts to broker peace by the OSCE Minsk Group (co-chaired by the US, Russia and France), tensions continue to this day along the so-called line of contact that separates Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, including a four-day escalation of violence in 2016 known as the April War. This Eurasian region’s broader geopolitical significance derives from the fact that Azerbaijan is the only country that borders both Russia and Iran, as well as its status as a leading exporter of oil and gas to Europe and Central Asia.

On June 19, the European Parliament amplified the EU’s stance on territorial integrity in the context of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, with 507 of the 663 lawmakers present backing a resolution that reiterated the “EU’s commitment to the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of the EaP countries.”

The European Parliament’s overwhelming backing of these common sense principles makes one wonder: Why is the US Congress avoiding making such a statement, while some lawmakers even voice support for the opposite values? 

During a June 23 virtual hearing of the US House Appropriations Committee, 10 of the 30 representatives who offered testimony expressed their support for US aid to Nagorno-Karabakh, led by Democrat Rep. Brad Sherman. In fact, while House Democrats vocally oppose Israel’s plan to annex areas of the West Bank, they remain silent on Nagorno-Karabakh — an area the State Department explicitly does not recognize as an independent country. The State Department also says it “supports the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.” However, in Congress, Democratic lawmakers are prone to making arguments on the basis of international law for the West Bank while ignoring it for Nagorno-Karabakh.

Meanwhile, in the international community, the pandemic has exposed another blind spot on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Two weeks after Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov requested that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voice support for the Azerbaijani-chaired Non-Aligned Movement’s proposal of a UN General Assembly session in response to COVID-19, Armenia opposed the session. Its ambassador to the UN, Mher Margaryan, penned a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that argued that UN members have already “invested considerable efforts to address the crisis.”

Margaryan said: “The critical importance of ensuring that (UN) member states make best use of the existing deliberation platforms and mandated formats available to this end.” His puzzling opposition to international cooperation in response to the pandemic can only be attributed to Armenia’s fixation on its conflict with Azerbaijan. Otherwise, can anyone reasonably advocate for a quota on initiatives aiming to solve the world’s greatest problem?

In contrast, the EU’s Eastern Partnership has articulated the clear-eyed message that working toward a law-based peace in conflict zones is an important part of the solution to COVID-19. At the recent EaP summit, European Council President Charles Michel said EU leaders are advancing “the political will to continue building an area of shared democracy, prosperity, and stability, anchored in our shared values, through a rules-based international order and international law.”

While House Democrats vocally oppose Israel’s plan to annex areas of the West Bank, they remain silent on this issue.

Adelle Nazarian

It certainly stands to reason that peace, unity, and solidarity will only enhance the collaborative international response to the pandemic. Yet, somehow, Armenia views these values as undermining global efforts to combat the virus. Simultaneously, the pro-Armenian lobby in the US rejects the OSCE Minsk Group’s Madrid Principles for resolving the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

Now is the time for US lawmakers to echo Europe’s support for territorial integrity. Hypocrisy should no longer be accepted.

  • Adelle Nazarian is a US-based journalist, fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, India, and senior media fellow at the Gold Institute for International Strategy in Washington, D.C.
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