Opinion: Charles Michel’s trip to the South Caucasus promises a new balance of power

As Charles Michel attempts to bring the EU back into the South Caucasus region, there is a lot that Armenia has to gain. However, economic support from the EU alone will not be enough for Armenia to manage the Russian-Azerbaijani tandem, and Pashinyan's new government requires real leadership in its relations with Turkey, says Alex Petrosyan in this op-ed for KarabakhSpace.eu.

Earlier this month, Charles Michel made an official visit to the South Caucasus as the president of the European Council, visiting the three capitals of the region, following a visit by Olivér Várhelyi, the EU’s Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, a week earlier. 

Michel’s visit was the peak of the EU’s recent re-engagement with the region following the publishing of its renewed strategic document, ‘Recovery, resilience and reform: post 2020 Eastern Partnership’, in advance of the Eastern Partnership summit in December 2021. The document outlines Brussels’ intention to increase the importance of the updated Eastern dimension of its Neighbourhood Policy. Being a financial, modernising and normative power, the EU seeks to widen its presence in the South Caucasus to prevent the region from plunging deeper into the Russian orbit. 

In Yerevan, Michel declared the EU’s ambitions “to be a fair and committed partner actively engaging in the pursuit of prosperity, stability and security”. In doing this, he outlined the four main points that Armenia and Azerbaijan need to address in the short, medium and long terms.

  1. “the importance of using language which fosters moderation, of avoiding verbal escalation and ensuring that progress can continue to be made on very specific issues” – he highlighted the issues of Armenian detainees and minemaps;
  2. “the delimitation of disputed borders” through negotiations and dialogue, recommending the withdrawal of troops from disputed areas;
  3. “to discuss possible co-operation projects” on transport and other important sectors; and
  4. “the status of Nagorno-Karabakh must also be addressed” through “peace negotiations”, also mentioning important issues such as cultural heritage.

Views from Armenia

This new wave of active engagement could result in long-lasting opportunities for Armenia, which has been promised an EU support package of 2.6 billion euros in the next five years. This aid package not only touches the economy, which has heavily suffered from the COVID-19 and the second Karabakh war, but also promotes a broad agenda of domestic reforms stemming from the EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement. The most important aspect of the EU’s engagement with Armenia is its readiness to support the North-South highway corridor construction and to mitigate the geopolitical and geographical vulnerabilities of Armenia’s south. For Yerevan, co-operation with Brussels is an important milestone in the long journey of restoring diversified and well-balanced foreign relations. It is welcomed and supported by Brussels as well, where Pashinyan is seen as the best alternative to the pro-Russian Kocharyan. Therefore, by underlining Pashinyan’s legitimate power and stating the EU’s readiness to stand by Armenia, Charles Michel sends a message to the radical opposition, which is committed to challenging Pashinyan’s governance through its relations with the Kremlin. The protest organised by the representatives of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaksutyun) and other supporters of the ‘Armenia Alliance’ – led by Kocharyan – against Charles Michel’s visit was a gesture towards Russia and nothing more. 

Highlighting the importance of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, Michel undermines Russian efforts to silence the issue and to establish its sole dominance over the region. Yerevan is eager to see European aspirations aimed at restoring the balance of power in the region, which will cut Armenia’s isolation and bring Aliyev back to earth after being drunk with victory. Armenia’s interim prime minister seized the opportunity at the joint press conference with Charles Michel to raise not only the Nagorno-Karabakh status issue, but also to declare that Azerbaijan is preparing an invasion into Armenian sovereign territory. The latter was a pre-emptive measure trying to gain wider support vis-à-vis Azerbaijani aggression and at the same time highlighting Russian incompetency in terms of its Armenian security patronage. 

This recent European involvement in the region is transforming Armenia’s domestic perception of the EU, which was seriously damaged during the Second Karabakh war due to the bloc’s neutral stance. Both the EU and Armenia must act wisely in order not to trigger the jealousy of Russia, which is famously paranoid vis-à-vis the foreign policy orientations of post-Soviet countries. Therefore, despite the expanding involvement of the EU in the region, the newly elected Armenian government should be careful when it comes to communication with society on foreign relations. The EU can assist Armenia in institution building, economic development, and judicial reforms, while providing it with political support, which are serious components for domestic security; however, Brussels can’t deliver a traditional security umbrella for Armenia. Given this reality – and the lessons learnt from Ukraine and Georgia – Armenia must make haste slowly. 

Preoccupations in Azerbaijan

The mention of a negotiated status for Nagorno-Karabakh not only causes trouble in Moscow amidst evolving tensions in Central Asia, but also causes serious problems for Aliyev’s regime. This is the most problematic topic in the Karabakh saga and could be Aliyev’s Achilles’ heel in the long run. Instead of trying to pursue rapprochement with Armenia and trying to find solutions for existing problems through direct negotiations with Yerevan, Baku uses both the Moscow channel and recent border tensions to apply pressure. 

Ilham Aliyev’s official discourse has seen dramatic fluctuations since the end of the second war. Initially, he spoke about the end of the conflict and restoring control over the self-governed Nagorno-Karabakh, even emphasising the importance of restoring peace and communications in the region. But soon, the Azerbaijani army encroached on the internationally recognised borders of Armenia, alongside threats to open a land corridor to the exclave of the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic by force. 

It seems that the Azerbaijani leadership isn’t satisfied with the recent Eastern Partnership initiatives. The fact that Azerbaijan will receive a comparatively low amount of financial aid compared with that of Georgia and Armenia, shows the EU’s priorities in the region. Moreover, the Azerbaijani media, which is heavily dependent on the presidential office, tries to show the evolving presence of the EU in the region as the failure and weakness of Russia, and the EU’s aid package to Armenia, in this context, has been labelled the “Michel plan”, invoking connotations of the “Marshall plan”. In addition to this warm engagement of the EU with Armenia, Baku sees the EU’s preference as the North-South corridor over the so-called “Zangezur corridor” to Nakhichevan. The latter is the worst idea which the Azerbaijani president, for whom the Nagorno-Karabakh problem is over, actively promotes. Baku sees the “Michel plan”, alongside any discussions over status, as a serious challenge for the status quo and its arrangements with Russia. In addition to this, Armenia’s recent active political consultations with the USA and France – especially Macron’s upcoming trip to Armenia – prompted Ilham Aliyev to visit Russia in order to use the Moscow channel to put further pressure on Armenia to recognise Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and to provide a land corridor to its western exclave.


Overall, Azerbaijan needs to accept a clear Nagorno-Karabakh policy as the post-war euphoria in the air will start vanishing, leaving only the harsh realities of an increased Russian presence, the Armenian self-governance of the remaining part of the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and Armenia’s small but far-reaching steps to restore its economy and mitigate vulnerabilities. Direct communication with the Armenian side is necessary for establishing trust and paving the ground for mutual understanding. The conflict will not be over even after the Russian withdrawal, which doesn’t seem likely to happen even after the expiration of the five-year-agreement. At the same time, any possible inroads into Armenian sovereign territory will only strengthen Armenia’s stance and empower its discourse over the importance of status. 

For Pashinyan’s new government, economic support from the EU alone will not be enough to manage the Russian-Azerbaijani tandem. The ongoing situation requires the Armenian leadership to take a serious approach towards Turkey. Despite the fact that Armenian domestic discourse faces serious challenges when it comes to relations with Turkey, especially in light of the second war, the current state of affairs and the logic of realpolitik dictate different cold-blooded calculations. A possible rapprochement and normalisation of Armenian-Turkish relations would be able to change moods in Moscow and Baku, making their behaviour more expectable and restrained.


source: This analysis was prepared for KarabakhSpace.eu by Alexander Petrosyan, an independent analyst based in Brussels.
photo: Charles Michel, the presdeint of the European Council, and Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian prime minister, give a joint press conference, 17 July 2021; The Office of the Prime Minister of Armenia
The views expressed in opinion pieces and commentaries do not necessarily reflect the position of KarabakhSpace.eu or its partners