The European Union Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia Toivo Klaar was interviewed by APA Agency
— My first question will be about the current state of the process between Azerbaijan and Armenia. We are talking about a normalisation process, but we also see deadly incidents and tensions on the international border. (…) How do you assess the current state of the "process" between Armenia and Azerbaijan? Is there any normalization, or are we just talking about it?
— Well, I would say that, yes, of course, this is a normalization process. But it is a normalization process at the end of a conflict that has lasted for thirty years. And I think it would be surprising if only two years after the latest big-scale war we would have everything being normal between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This takes time. The important thing is that there is political will from the leaderships in Yerevan and in Baku to overcome this history of conflict and we believe that there is this commitment by President Aliyev and there is also a commitment by Prime Minister Pashinyan. But again, it takes time, it is not easy.
— In this process, I would say there are two tracks: the Moscow track and the Brussels track. Since last year, the Brussels process was quite intensive, with trilateral meetings and dialogue, but since the Prague meeting in October last year, we have the impression that there has been a kind of setback or decline in the Brussels track of negotiations. But we now notice attempts by the EU to activate this process. How do you assess the latest developments on the matter and the current state of the Brussels talks?
— To us, this has never really been about the Brussels process versus any other process. We just wanted to support peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. And in that regard, our position has always been that whoever as an outside actor is willing and interested in supporting this, we are happy to work with them and we are happy to coordinate with them. And in that sense, we have never wanted to have any kind of competition of processes or anything like that, because that is simply not the objective. The objective is to help Armenia and Azerbaijan overcome the history of conflict. So, indeed, we have not had meetings in Brussels for some time. The understanding of President Charles Michel is that it will certainly be important to get the two leaders back to Brussels because it is not only about Brussels but there has not really been any meeting between leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan for quite a few months. And we believe that it is very important for them to meet on a regular basis and to really work on the substance of the outstanding issues, of which there are quite a few, and which will simply not be resolved without the leaders engaging and meeting in a substantive way as we have seen in Brussels. So, in that sense, President Michel is very much keen on having the leaders come to Brussels again. He met with the leaders in Munich a couple of weeks ago, I am here in Baku and I was in Yerevan last week to follow up on these meetings and now our open expectation will be that we can have the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders in Brussels in the very near future again.
— Following my previous question, (…) President Michel met with Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Aliyev in Munich and, as far as I know, there was a discussion on a new trilateral meeting in Brussels. Recently, Spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State Ned Price said that such a meeting would take place in the near future, but he did not give any exact details. So, is there any possible date for holding the next trilateral meeting, any development in this regard?
— Well I think, first of all, yes, it was a bit premature to say that this is going to happen, I think he even said not "in the near future", but "in the coming days", and that was a bit premature to say that. But, this having been said, “in the near future” is certainly a realistic aim from our perspective. We do have Nowruz coming up, so, in that sense, I believe that this will certainly also play into this. So, I do not see this happening before Nowruz, but in the end, of course, we can bring, we can provide the platform and President Michel can invite the leaders, can put his time at the disposal, in the end, what of course matters is the willingness of the leaders, of President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan, to get together and to strike deals and to make peace possible between Armenia and Azerbaijan and in the South Caucasus, more generally.
— So, you mean that in Munich President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan agreed to meet in the future?
— What President Michel discussed with both leaders was the process of how we get from here to have a meeting. These are the discussions that I have been having in Yerevan and now in Baku today.
— We know that in order to achieve peace, the EU is working at the official level, with the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan, but lack of trust, hate speech, and feelings of revenge is a very serious problem among the people of Armenia and Azerbaijan, at the level of societies. What kind of steps can the EU take to change the environment, and the minds of people, to assist people believing in the existence of peace, I mean, to work with grassroots communities, not at the official level?
— The EU has been working with civil society organizations, with different groups in both Azerbaijan and Armenia for quite a few years. But, ultimately, of course, one thing is what the EU can do, the other thing is what the countries themselves can do, what the leaderships of the countries can do. Because in the end, it is about education, it is about shaping opinions in civil society and society at large and that is really something that the leaderships of either country need to engage in, it pertains to school curricula, it pertains to what is written in the media, how it is written in the media. All of this is something where the EU frankly does not have very much to say, but the leaderships of the countries have, on the contrary, it is really for them to do this. So, I think that this is a very important aspect that you raised. And I think that, on the political level, it is important to have this engagement on the societal level, it is important for leadership to be shown in both countries that the era of hostilities, the era of conflict is over and we want to build a new era of partnership and friendship. This will not be easy, I mean, if you also look at Europe and the relationship between France and Germany at the end of WWII it would have seemed impossible to have the kind of relationship that you have now between French and Germans. And how there are exchanges between students, and how governments meet on a regular basis between France and Germany. But this has required a lot of work and above all by the leaderships in Paris and in Bonn, in Berlin. This is something that has to happen here as well.
— The EU launched a monitoring mission in Armenia in February 2023. There is a lot of disinformation around this mission. How many EU countries are represented in this mission? (…) Was there any discussion with Azerbaijan before establishing this mission? Because I remember that there was a discussion with Armenia and Azerbaijan before the EU launched its previous two-month mission. Did Azerbaijan also give its green light for this long-term mission now?
— First of all, regarding the composition of the mission, I cannot say how many there are, or how many member states are represented because, frankly, the mission is not yet complete and it depends on which countries are willing to send personnel because, as it works, every country that is sending a person to a mission is paying for that person. So, that is a decision that has to be taken by each member state. I can say that for example, in the mission in Georgia, we have I think almost all member states represented. I do not know if that will be the case in Armenia but it will be quite a few, I would be surprised if not the majority of EU member states are represented there in that mission. That is one thing. Regarding the mission in Armenia, we have absolutely been informing the Azerbaijani authorities, we have been transparent with the Azerbaijani authorities. We have not agreed on this with the Azerbaijani authorities because it is after all on the territory of Armenia but we have been absolutely transparent about what it is that we are doing, what the purpose of this mission is, and about the activities of the mission. We see the purpose of the mission as building confidence both regarding the situation on the Armenian - Azerbaijani border, but also in the Armenian communities along the international border and as contributing to the peace process. That is a very important element because in our view the role of the mission is to support the peace process, it is not an alternative, it is certainly not a substitute. It is something that in our view needs to serve as an accelerator of the peace process and to also help the Armenians who are feeling somewhat insecure, to more actively engage in the peace process, and to work towards good outcomes. So, that is the purpose we have this mission and again, not with the agreement of the Azerbaijani authorities, but with full transparency with Azerbaijani authorities.
— Yesterday, I also saw some kind of rumours, unconfirmed information, on social media that Armenia is also asking the EU to deploy this kind of mission to Karabakh. To what extent is it true?
— First of all, I have not heard that. Secondly, this is not within the parameters of what we have been discussing with Armenia. Indeed, there are a lot of rumours on social media.
— The situation around Lachin road: since December 2022, there have been a lot of discussions, and attention in international media claiming there is a kind of blockade around Karabakh. We also hear other perspectives, that Azerbaijan wants to have checkpoints on the Lachin road, the Lachin road, because Azerbaijan has legitimate security concerns. As far as I know from Azerbaijani media reports in Munich, Baku already suggested creating checkpoints on the Zangazur corridor and Lachin road but Yerevan rejected this. Recently, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visited Baku and also rejected this idea, saying that there is no agreement on the establishment of checkpoints by Azerbaijan on this road in the trilateral statement. What is the EU’s view on the matter?
—First of all, I think the idea that there should be transparency about what is being transported on the Lachin road is absolutely legitimate. Because we do not want the Lachin road to be used for any shipment of goods that would exacerbate tensions or be used for any military or sort of illicit purposes. That is one thing. Transparency is absolutely legitimate. The manner in which this transparency is achieved is, I think, something that is subject to discussions and negotiations. I think there are several ways of doing that. And I believe some of these have been discussed in the past like, for instance, Russians having some additional equipment on the checkpoint to be able to better inspect what is going in and what is going out. Again, I think there are several ways of doing it, I think it is important that this is discussed in detail. I think the view in Armenia is true that these are two separate issues. One is the Lachin road, which is covered in one point of the November 2020 Statement, and then there is the connection between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan which is covered in another point of the 2020 Statement. So, from that point of view, these are treated in different areas of that statement. But, in the end, it is a question of discussion, of negotiation. Our view of course is that, indeed, it is legitimate to have transparency, I think it is also important to have, for the people, for the Armenian inhabitants of Karabakh, a sense of security for them to be able to move back and forth. And in the present circumstances, whatever the facts about goods being brought in or not, it is certainly not the same level as it was in November 2022 and we believe that we have to return to that kind of movement that we had before the protesters arrived on the road.
— In your previous answer, you said that the EU does not see the issue of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan as a competition, but it seems that Russia sees it like that. Because the way the Kremlin and the MFA of Russia react to the EU’s involvement in the process proves that, they are somehow hysterical I would say, in particular the many comments made by Spokeswoman for the Russian MFA Zakharova. Why is Russia worried about the EU’s involvement in the process?
— You have to ask the Russians about that. We have made every effort to emphasize to the Russians that, for the EU, this is not some kind of geopolitical game, as Mrs Zakharova likes to say at times. For the EU, this is about helping Armenia and Azerbaijan, our two neighbours, to overcome the legacy of conflict. That is our sole interest. The South Caucasus is our neighbourhood, the EU's neighbourhood, as well, and for us, it is absolutely in our interest to have peace, stability and prosperity in this region, because if our neighbours are better off, then we are better off, it is as simple as that, and I would be happy if also in Moscow there were the understanding that, actually, if we had the same aim, then we can complement each other's efforts rather than seeing this as some kind of competition, which it certainly is not from our perspective.
— Do you have any contact with Russia on the matter? Because from time to time, I read that you are having contact with the Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia on the latest developments in the South Caucasus region, but after what happened in Ukraine, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, do you still have such close contact with Russia?
— Saying "close contact" is maybe saying too much. But saying that there are contacts, yes, there are. I just had a phone call with Deputy Minister Galuzin, a couple of weeks ago. I have also met with Russian Special Representative Igor Khovaev, I was even in Moscow in September  to also discuss this. So, there are contacts, they are not very close, very intense and very frequent but there are contacts. I have their phone numbers, they have mine. And, again, for us this is not some kind of geopolitical game, this is about wanting to help these two countries and that is above all our focus. I think that should also be the focus of Russia rather than worrying too much about the EU's involvement.
— In conflict studies, there are two kinds of approaches: conflict management and conflict resolution. Among ordinary people, there is a view that – when it comes to conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia – foreign actors, and foreign mediators, are not doing enough, they are just working on conflict management rather than conflict resolution, and finding sustainable peace. In this regard, what is the EU’s position: conflict management or conflict resolution?
— Very clearly: conflict resolution. We believe that this conflict can be overcome, the issues can be resolved, and we can have sustained, lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and also a settlement between Baku and the Karabakh Armenians in a way that does away with the legacy of the conflict. And that is what we are working towards. Management is something that you can do in a situation where there is no immediate perspective of resolution but I believe that here we really do have a perspective, I think there is a sense, both in Baku and in Yerevan that there is potential for resolving and overcoming the conflict and that is what we certainly want to work towards.
— As a diplomat from Estonia, I want to ask you about the enthusiastic concept of the Baltics’ Home, about how close the three countries are, about how good their cooperation is, do you think it would be possible to create close relations and cooperation in the South Caucasus in the future, among the three countries, a kind of Caucasus Home between Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan?
— I think it is possible. I think it will be challenging because we do not have this kind of history of conflict between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as we have here. But it is possible and there are certainly many reasons for that. This is a region that is very clearly defined geographically, you have common interests as far as being on the crossroads, both East-West, and North-South, you have common interests in ecological issues, as I said, also in economic issues, managing the environment, and so there are a lot of reasons for working closely together. And indeed establishing practical links between the countries with regard to practical issues like energy cooperation, environmental cooperation, tourism, and trade, if you are working on these practical things, this builds ties between people and it helps in a very practical way to overcome the conflict if an Azerbaijani and an Armenian meet in a conference to discuss the joint interest regarding water management and discover that, well, they actually have very much in common and they actually like each other as persons. So, that helps step by step, to overcome this conflict that has affected this region.
— I hope so, I hope we will have sustainable peace in our region. Thank you so much for this interview, Mr. Klaar.