EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia Toivo Klaar will be visiting Armenia February 22-23. On the eve of his visit he gave an exclusive interview to Mediamax.
Toivo Klaar worked as Head of Division for Central Asia at the European External Action Service in 2014-2017. In 2013-2014 he was the Head of EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia.Earlier, he held different positions in the European External Action Service, European Commission, and Foreign Ministry of Estonia.
What will be the main topic of discussion during your visit to South Caucasus?
This is my second visit to both Armenia and Azerbaijan in my new capacity. Following my appointment as the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia in November 2017, I paid my first and introductory visits to the three countries in the region in late November-early December 2017.
This time, my visit to Armenia includes consultations with President Sargsyan and Foreign Minister Nalbandian. I plan to discuss issues relating to the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and also regional issues. I am sure we will have the possibility to touch on aspects of the bilateral cooperation between Armenia and the European Union as well, which is entering an important phase with the new bilateral Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement.
Photo: Press service of the Armenian President
Do you see basis for building an atmosphere of trust to enable further negotiations on Nagorno Karabakh?
The road to peace certainly has to go through negotiations, and negotiations can only happen in earnest if there is a modicum of trust between the sides.
Unfortunately, the April 2016 escalation on the Line-of-Contact had a very negative impact and depleted whatever trust there was before. It is true that we recently have seen some small positive steps: the situation on the ground is calmer, we can observe intensified engagement in negotiations, in the Krakow meeting between the Foreign Ministers there was an agreement in principle on the expansion of the office of the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office. This was long overdue.
Even though every conflict is different, I can for instance compare with the Georgian context, where although the atmosphere is also very difficult with profound differences between the sides, we see much less incidents involving casualties than in Nagorno-Karabakh. So more needs to be done.
In the Nagorno-Karabakh context, there are a number of further steps that need to be taken for a better atmosphere to take hold. We expect the parties to adhere scrupulously to the ceasefire, to exercise restraint both on the ground and in their public statements, to further engage at the negotiation table and to implement the agreements already reached in Vienna and St Petersburg and Geneva. This latter is important as it would help improving the environment and moving the process forward. It can be a first step to rebuilding that very important trust needed for further more bolder steps to be taken.
Particularly after the 2016 escalation, we have seen heightened rhetoric, and not only at high level. Also among the population the polarisation has only increased. We have seen unfortunately that people who want to reach out to the other side for dialogue or to find mutual interests to help resolving the conflict are often severely criticized. This is very worrying. In this context, peacebuilding and people-to-people contacts are very important in support of the official peace process. Only if the societies are on board will any deal be successful.
What do you regard as the niche role for the EU regarding the peace settlement of NK conflict?
The EU has a clear position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: the status quo is unsustainable. The conflict needs an early resolution in accordance with international law. The EU fully supports the efforts and proposals of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, the internationally recognised format for the negotiations. I must stress here however that the primary responsibility to find compromises that can lead to a resolution lies with the sides. This is something that I also tell the leaderships when I meet with them.
Photo: Press service of the Armenian President
I am in regular contact with the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group and the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office. This is very important for the EU, since we want to know how we best can contribute to promoting the efforts to resolve the conflict in a peaceful way, but also so that we can inform our leadership in Brussels as well as EU Member States about the different aspects of the ongoing peace process. The EU is ready to support and contribute to reconstruction activities when the sides ultimately reach an agreement. We must remember that the EU has good bilateral relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and also Georgia so we are well placed to contribute to these efforts should the sides want us to.
We are supporting civil society-led confidence-building measures and people-to-people contacts across the divide within the initiative that we call the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK). These activities, carried out by very experienced non-governmental organisations that have worked in the region for many years, can help the societies rebuild social contacts torn by conflict, identify mutual interests and opportunities for joint work, for instance in the economic sphere or when it comes to tackling common challenges such as security or environmental challenges. Ultimately, we hope to contribute to a growing appetite for peace within the societies, by moving away from zero-sum thinking in the conflict and instead helping people and the leaderships in identifying mutual benefits and regional development possibilities, by supporting this initiative. We have seen in other conflict contexts that peace deals, in order to be successful need to be anchored in societies.
Are you optimistic over settlement of Nagorno-Karabakh issue?
Despite all the difficulties and challenges, yes, I think one should remain optimistic. As I said before, the negotiations have recently entered a relatively active phase and I really hope that tension on the ground will be reduced and that the sides will continue to engage in good faith and show the political will needed for mutual compromises. I am sure that after the elections both here in Armenia and in Azerbaijan, this will be easier.
I think that the leaderships in the region realise that the settlement of the conflict will benefit everyone in the entire region. It will result in increased exchanges between the societies, better connectivity for instance in transport infrastructure, more mobility and better economic opportunities. If the EU experience can teach us anything, it is that once people and the leaderships look at mutual interests, everyone will gain. The South Caucasus has huge potential, but this has been largely untapped because of the conflicts. We hope that the sides will manage to overcome their differences and see the benefits that peace can bring to societies and partner countries in the region.
There are cases when EU underlines the unconditional access for representative of the EU to Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions? Would you like to visit NK? If “Yes” how do you see your role in putting no preconditions on visits to NK, will you be working in this direction?
The EU has always stressed the need for access for representatives of the EU to Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions. In the past, the EUSR has traveled to NK and in principle it is important to engage with all actors across the existing divides. I must stress that such travel to NK does not mean recognition or even a first step towards recognition. Instead it can help in exploring ways towards practical solutions in addressing local needs across the Line-of-Contact, and increase civil society contacts across the divide. This is the experience for instance in the Georgia context. I regularly go to Abkhazia to have direct discussions with all relevant stakeholders there including the civil society.
I would certainly like to visit Nagorno-Karabakh, to see the relevant stakeholders on the ground, get acquainted with the situation, but at the same time I hear that there are some concerns related to such visits. So any step in this direction will be done in close coordination with the sides, and the Co-Chairs, to avoid any kind of misunderstanding or misinterpretation.
How will you assess EU-Armenia current cooperation?
I would say that our cooperation is pretty excellent. Since 1999, the EU's relations with Armenia were based on the EU-Armenia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which provided for wide-ranging cooperation in the areas of political dialogue, trade, investment, economy, the promotion of democracy and human rights, law-making and culture. The EU-Armenia relations have reached a new level with the signing of our Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in the margins of the Eastern Partnership Summit held in Brussels in November 2017. CEPA provides a framework for the EU and Armenia to continue working together, taking into account the new global, political and economic interests shared by both sides. The agreement will enable stronger cooperation in sectors such as energy, transport, environment and trade. We hope that it will enter into force as soon as possible, as this would mean concrete results much quicker. And of course, a comprehensive settlement of the conflict, in particular if the borders are reopened, would make the benefits of the CEPA even greater for Armenian citizens.
Taguhi Hovhannisyan talked to Toivo Klaar