France's Role as Mediator in Karabakh Issue

Gulnar Abbasova Analysis 24 August 2021
France's Role as Mediator in Karabakh Issue

During the recent six-week fighting in the South Caucasus region over Karabakh and its surrounding districts, France effectively sided with Armenia, while the United States was limited in urging the sides to stop fighting due to the fact that the war coincided with the US presidential election, so it seemed more neutral.

These approaches predetermined the Kremlin’s unilateral takeover of what had been an attempt at concert-of-powers mediation. The Second Karabakh war prompted France to attempt reactivating the institution of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, whose main task was to find a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through negotiation and mediation, in the hopes of recouping at least some degree of their lost influence.

Now, the Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group are Igor Popov of the Russian Federation; Stéphane Visconti of France; and Andrew Schofer of the United States of America. The French co-chair was reduced to telephoning Moscow during the war, assembling from time to time as a trio with the Russian co-chair (including an October 25 meeting in Washington), and issuing public statements by tripartite consensus.

OSCE has been focused on Nagorno-Karabakh since the early stages of the conflict, and this was the first conflict mediation effort undertaken by the above-mentioned organization, with official delegations visiting the South Caucasus amidst fighting in February and March 1992. In December 1994, the OSCE Budapest Summit established the so-called Minsk Group, the main international mechanism for resolving the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Karabakh.

The conflict in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan spiraled on September 27 following decades-old ineffective political negotiations mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group. Intensive deployment of military equipment and troops to the frontline by both sides catapulted the largest clashes between the sides since the ceasefire in 1994.

On the night of November 10, 2020, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia adopted a joint statement on the conditions ending the forty-four-day war. Under the terms of the agreement, the Armenian and Azerbaijani troops remained in their places, while Russia deployed peacekeepers to the region to monitor the ceasefire. The Azerbaijani army reclaimed 300 settlements, including five major districts in Karabakh, including Fuzuli, Jabrayil, Zangilan, Gubadli, and Shusha. Armenia withdrew from three more districts – Aghdam, Kalbajar, and Lachin under its obligations outlined in the ceasefire deal.

The war brought an end to Armenia’s decades-long illegal occupation of the Azerbaijani lands and its refusal to withdraw its forces despite international calls. Twenty percent of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory fell under Armenia’s occupation in the wake of a war that ensued shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991-1994.

Paris' aspiration to gain more diplomatic weight and play a more significant role in the EU has been observed for a long time. Nicolas Sarkozy also tried to play a peacemaker and negotiator role during the 2008 South Ossetian conflict. Macron is considered a continuer of this tradition. Therefore it is not surprising that he is interested in alternative proposals that could strengthen the position of Paris in the Transcaucasus.

As the Russia's Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper notes, "not only the introduction of French troops into the South Caucasus and their deployment along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, but also entry into Karabakh is being considered".

Meanwhile, France's activity could cost Russia dearly. If, as a result of the communication between Pashinyan and Macron, a trilateral agreement is threatened, the Russian Federation will find itself in a difficult position - Moscow will no longer play the leading role in the negotiation process, which means that it will be more difficult to defend its interests in a strategically important region than before.

On November 26, Azerbaijani MPs proposed to the country’s government to achieve the exclusion of France from the list of co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. In their statement, the lawmakers questioned France’s neutrality and statements made during the latest war.

The statement was made against the background of a resolution approved by the French Senate, proposing to the French leadership to recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. A document calling on the French government to recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh was supported by 305 French senators out of 306 participants in the meeting. As the experts explained, the resolution is advisory and non-binding.

Later, the French Foreign Ministry reconsidered its position, stating that the recognition of Karabakh by the Senate did not reflect French policy. Some French analysts suggested that France should withdraw from its role as a co-chair of the Minsk Group. 

Following the signing of the trilateral agreement to end the war, French President Emmanuel Macron said “France stands by Armenia during this difficult time,” and also urged Turkey “to end its provocations”. In a response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that France has lost its credibility as an intermediary of the Minsk group, as it sided with Armenia in that conflict. 

Five cargo planes carrying humanitarian aid from France war arrived in the capital Yerevan between November 2020 and January 2021 for Armenians suffering as a result of the war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. 

Former French presidents have all had positive political attitudes towards Armenians, as the country has a long historical relationship with Armenia. The French Armenian community is the largest in the European Union, exceeding 500,000.

According to the co-president of the Coordination Committee of Armenian Organizations in France, Franck Papazian, “the security of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, and in Armenia, too, is a real concern to France”.

In mid-May, on the subject of the recent tensions on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, France Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs reaffirmed its commitment to preserving Armenia’s territorial integrity and called on the two sides “to continue their discussions in order to reach an agreement on a swift withdrawal of Azerbaijani troops from Armenian territory”.

As for issues still pending after the ceasefire of November 9, including the issue of Armenian detainees, France renewed its call – in line with the communique issued by the Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group on April 13 – for a direct, high-level dialogue between the parties under the auspices of the Co-Chairs.

Even lawmakers of President Macron's own party, La Republique en Marche (LREM), are pleading for more active support for the Armenians. A lawmaker from the LREM party, Guillaume Kasbarian, also wants more action, saying that "we need to bare our teeth now, send peacekeepers and impose sanctions — being part of the OSCE Minsk Group just isn't enough". 

Macron sided with Armenia against Azerbaijan and Turkey even before the war’s outbreak. On August 30, Macron condemned Turkey’s “warlike rhetoric” for encouraging Azerbaijan’s “dangerous” territorial claims on Armenia. Following the war’s outbreak, Macron used the opportunity of a European Union summit in Brussels to attack Turkey again for its “reckless and dangerous” statements backing Azerbaijan.

In turn, the Turkish top officials slammed the OSCE Minsk Group over ongoing Azerbaijan-Armenia crisis, saying that the group is "brain-dead". Furthermore, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the co-chairs of the group, the US, Russia and France of standing by Armenia and providing "all kind of weapon support".

During the war, Macron suggested Putin that Russian and French mediation efforts should continue both within and outside the Minsk Group, thus implying that Paris and Moscow could act together to bypass the US side of the triple co-chairmanship. 

Analysts propose that while securing the significant French-Armenian vote in the upcoming presidential election, Macron should not debase the Minsk Group co-chairmanship’s credibility. The prospect of submitting a French-Armenian resolution on the deployment of French troops in Armenia, on the border with Azerbaijan for UN discussion, may turn out to be quite real in the near future. Most likely, Russia will have to use its veto right to show its place to its ally and save its southern borders from the presence of foreign troops.

Jérôme Lambert, a member of the French National Assembly and of the Parliamentary Assemblies of both the Council of Europe and NATO says, “France must now seek to re-balance its own approach to the region. In doing so it has one key advantage: its unwavering support for Armenia has given it a certain leverage in Yerevan, and it is this leverage which France must now use”. 

He said that “besides the important question of France’s diplomatic reputation, direct French economic interests are at stake,” and added: “The opportunity for investment in the region – not least in the devastated territory of Karabakh itself – is enormous, with Azerbaijan’s powerful economy underwriting the re-establishment of vital infrastructure to allow the return of 1 million internal refugees to their homelands”.