By Walter Schwimmer
More than twenty years ago, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted Recommendation 1247 (1994). The Recommendation read: “In view of their cultural links with Europe, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia would have the possibility of applying for membership provided they clearly indicate their will to be considered as part of Europe”. This proposition was an invitation to the South Caucasian States to remember, rethink and rebuild their European roots and identity.
At that time, the Russian Federation was still two years away from membership. Russia joined the Council of Europe in 1996. Georgia followed in 1999 and, in January 2001, Armenia and Azerbaijan completed the membership as regards the Caucasus region.
From the political point of view the Caucasus is part of Europe. That has been confirmed not only by the Pan-European Council of Europe but also by its smaller sister, the European Union, e.g. just recently when the summit of the Eastern Partnership took place in Riga with the participation of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
We often speak about European family of democratically-minded nations, about European, or Council of Europe standards. But what it is to be European? What is the meaning of Europe in the 21st century? What does it mean with regard to stability and security in a region belonging to Europe?
Seen from Baku, Yerevan or Tbilisi, the Europe of Berlin, Paris, London, Vienna may seem impossibly prosperous and peaceful. Let me remind that Europe of 1949, when the Council of Europe was created, was quite different: war-torn cities, ruined economy and uncertain future.
The Council of Europe was created as a reaction to the horrors of war. What was the remedy? Respect for Human Rights, pluralistic democracy and the Rule of Law. These were the principles enshrined in Article 3 of the Statute. And Strasbourg, long the centre of bitter Franco-German conflicts, was chosen as the headquarters of the Organisation.
I invite you to pause and think for a moment: the guns of the Second World War went silent 70 years ago on 9 May 1945. Four years later, on 5 May 1949, the Statute of the Council of Europe was signed. Now imagine that four years after the Armenian-Azerbaijan cease-fire of 9 May 1994, on 5 May 1998, a regional Organisation for the respect of Human Rights, democracy and the rule of law was created and the town of Shusha was chosen for its seat.
That is the meaning of Europe. Perhaps not everybody saw that back in 1949, but today there is no doubt: Europe is all about renouncing war, once and for all – also in the minds of political establishment and the public. Europe is all about reconciliation, assuming past history, learning how to live with one’s neighbours, accepting and enjoying diversity.
Europe is by far not yet perfect. There is still a lot to be done, not only in the Southern Caucasus, in Europe and its neighbourhood.
And what about the South Caucasus as part of Europe? Even without detailed knowledge of history, a look at the map is enough – with Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan, with their interspersed and mixed populations, Azerbaijan and Armenia are tied together like Siamese twins. As late as 2001, it was manifested in the “joint Council of Europe accession option for Azerbaijan and Armenia”, chosen by all Council member States.
When I spoke in 2002 to an audience in the Yerevan State University I used for the first time the metaphor of the Siamese twins. It was not to the liking of everybody. Several weeks later, the Armenian Ambassador to the OSCE mentioned it in Vienna and argued against my message. I found no reason to change my mind: yes, Azerbaijan and Armenia are inseparably linked together, as I pointed out also at the Baku University. trying to separate Siamese twins by the sword will inevitably lead to death for both. Azerbaijan and Armenia have only one future – to live together, as one organism, as two neighbours separated by borders which have lost all meaning in everyday life, as two states within the larger European family.
As Secretary General I was used to organize workshops of young people from still existing conflict regions, e.g. Kosovo, Cyprus, Israel and Palestine in our proximity and of course the Southern Caucasus. In general it was always refreshing and promising how fast young people can overcome prejudices and stereotypes. E.g., when I had invited youngsters from Kosovo and the Middle East, on the first day the Albanians and Serbs from Kosovo told me how surprised they were seeing Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other, while the participants from the Middle East were shocked that the relations between different people living in the same area could be worse than in their part of the world. But after one week they all became friends!
Another year I brought together again young Israelis and Palestinians, Greeks and Turks from Cyprus and … Armenians and Azerbaijanis. I asked them to sit together in regional groups and work on conflict resolution. But not on their own conflict, but on one of the other regions, the ones from the Middle East on the Cyprus conflict, the Cypriots on the Nagorno Karabakh issue and the Caucasians on the Middle East case. All of them elaborated reasonable suggestions, for Cyprus a blue print of the Kofi Annan plan – but one year before the Secretary General of the UN came out with it, for Armenia and Azerbaijan a compromise which seemed for me to be acceptable for the partners and a very interesting approach for the Middle East.
What did young Armenians and Azerbaijanis suggest to Israel and the Palestinians? The essence was, don’t argue about the past, don’t waste time by blaming each other for mistakes of the past – just start where you are now. This is of course the only way to solve the Middle East conflict – if you are going to the past you end up with the Holy Books as land register, arguments used by the extremists of both sides.
But then I asked my young friends from the Southern Caucasus – why shouldn’t we apply the same principle for your region. You do not need to deal with the past looking for problems. There are current problems enough. Of course, they are rooted in the past, and several of them belong to what I would call the Soviet legacy.
There is the problem of Georgia, with two separatist entities, protected and supported by Russia. Hundreds of thousands refugees from these entities are staying in the rest of Georgia, dismantled of their property, separated from their homes, now nearly since a quarter of a century. The result of the attempt of former Georgian president Mikhail Sakashvili to solve one of the conflicts with military means is well known. The situation with Southern Ossetia became worse than before when there was a kind of status quo for ethnic Ossetians and ethnic Georgians.
Azerbaijan is still suffering from the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. A large part of the country beside Nagorno Karabakh is occupied by Armenian forces, more than 1 million people had to flee from these 7 Azerbaijani districts and are living now as IDPs, far from their destroyed homes. I visited refugees in 2004 and about 9 years later. I realized that Azerbaijan did a lot to provide for a life of dignity for these people. They have suffered enough; they should not endure alone the consequences of an unsolved conflict. Due to the conflict Azerbaijan has to spend more than 4% of its GDP for the army. Another consequence of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is that the province of Nakhichevan is separated from Azerbaijan by Armenian territory and cannot be reached on land.
But Armenia is suffering from the conflict too: The economies of both sides have been hurt by their inability to make substantial progress toward a peaceful resolution. Also here more than 4% of GDP goes to the military. The border to Turkey has been closed by Ankara in support of Azerbaijan as retaliation to the conflict with Azerbaijan. Between Yerevan and Ankara is also the open question of the recognition of the genocide of 1,5 million Armenians in the Ottoman empire. Allegedly up to half of the population has left the country due to the circumstances. The situation seems even worse in Nagorno Karabakh where 180,000 ethnic Armenians lived before the armed conflict and according to well-informed sources only one third is left. Due to the conflict Armenia is to a large extent dependent on Russian support.
Talking about stability and security in the region one should not forget that Russia despite its involvement in Georgia and in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has its own problems in the Northern Caucasus, being confronted with islamist extremism.
The international community succeeded in my view only to freeze the conflicts. The OSCE is involved in mediation efforts in several unresolved conflicts:
The conflict in and around Nagorno-Karabakh – through the Minsk Group (co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation and the United States) and a Personal Representative of the Chairman-in-Office on the Conflict Dealt with by the OSCE Minsk Conference.
In the post-2008 conflict in Georgia – the OSCE, together with the UN and EU, co-chairs the international Geneva Discussions in the wake of the conflict in Georgia. It also, with EUMM, co-facilitates the meetings of the Dvani/Ergneti Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) dealing with matters that affect the daily life of populations on the ground
You see what I mean when I say one does not need to deal with the past looking for problems. There are current problems enough. Priority should be given to solve the current problems the population of the whole region is suffering from. I admit that I don’t have a perfect recipe. But what I certainly know is that there is no military solution for any of the conflicts. The key words are dialogue, cooperation and reconciliation.
This is what was happening in Europe, earlier or later. France and Germany have led the way. Shortly after Azerbaijan and Armenia joined the Council of Europe, the remaining border control facilities on the Bridge of Europe, connecting the neighbouring cities of Strasbourg in France and Kehl in Germany were completely dismantled and two new bridges were built.
This was my first message – Europe is all about reconciliation, tolerance and enjoyment of diversity. I am deeply convinced – with political will and courage, within only one generation the South Caucasus can be a completely different place.
My second message is about caring of the interest of the people. Fighting poverty, improving education and health services should be given priority to military expenditure.
My third message is about cultural and regional co-operation.
Here again, I wish to speak the exact words I spoke in Baku, in Tbilisi and in Yerevan: Regional and transborder co-operation have given a remarkable contribution to the reunification and prosperity of Europe, we believe they can do much more so in the Caucasus region. This works not only between France and Germany. We can see that in another troubled region of Europe, the Western Balkans. Former enemies in SEE formed a Regional Council as well as CEFTA. By far not all problems have been solved including very serious ones such as the dispute over Kosovo. Nevertheless Serbia and Kosovo can both participate in these activities.
However, the political courage, the difficult compromises, the reconciliation efforts – this is all for the region to accomplish. But Europe can help. The events in Ukraine have demonstrated that we would need a genuine Pan-European security system – including Russia. Such a system should have a conflict management instrument which can be applied without further discussions. And such a system should cover of course the Southern Caucasus too.
I am convinced that peace and reconciliation in the Southern Caucasus is feasible. In Baku as well as in Yerewan I expressed my wish to go one day by train from one capital to the other. And perhaps, like Strasbourg, one day the town of Shusha will become the symbol of reconciliation.
* as delivered at “Security and stability in the South Caucasus” conference held at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna, Austria on May 26, 2015.
Walter Schwimmer was Secretary General of the Council of Europe 1999-2004, after being a member of the Austrian Parliament (National Council) for 28 years, serving as chairperson of several committees (Justice, Health, Housing and Construction) and deputy leader of his political group (ÖVP – Austrian People’s Party). He currently works as a consultant on international relations and European affairs, based in Klosterneuburg near Vienna.