Agendas and New Algorithms of Policies in the South Caucasus - 2023: France

Mr. Macron and Politicians of France Use Caucasus in French Policy

Regis Gente, journalist, expert on post-Soviet area

- How exactly do the Armenian-Azerbaijani post-war processes and Russia's war against Ukraine affect French foreign policy interests? Are there more threats or opportunities for France today? How are these threats and opportunities manifested?

That's a difficult question, because these two wars are different, they don't have the same origin. Russia doesn't play the same role at all. But I think what is difficult for France, like for other Western countries, is that we don't know how to deal with Russia. It was difficult for France to really step into the Karabakh war in 2020. Finally, this is a kind of new world, we are living in a period of multipolar centers. This is no longer the world dominated by the US or even by the West. And in this regard, for France, it was not that easy to jump into the Karabakh war, which was not a war of great importance to her. But personally, I feel it was an excellent opportunity to engage in this new war, to experience ourselves, as well as to demonstrate to everyone (Russia, Turkey, but also the Western partners) that this is the new world, and France has to play its role in it. And I feel that France is still not comfortable with that. So, this new order might be the very challenge. On one side, we should accept it, as the dominance of the West alone in the world may lead to some problems. We saw the mistakes of the US, for example, in the Middle East, back at the very beginning of this century. In the meantime, my perception of the war in Ukraine is that the non-democratic world tries to impose its own governance agenda on the world. And this is not acceptable either, because most of the people don't want to live in dictatorships and highly authoritarian regimes. And I think France is trying to find its place in between and remains in the process, both accepting the new multipolar world and not giving up the bases of our democratic political principles.
It was an opportunity to demonstrate, first of all, the positive role France could play in the conflict by getting engaged, especially when France didn't have anything at stake. I mean, this is not a conflict directly affecting the interests of France, but it was an opportunity for Paris to show that as a democracy, respectful of the human rights of various people, it tries to be a positive player in the conflict. And we saw France hesitating during and after the 2020 conflict, sometimes trying to really talk to both sides and lead them to a non-military, non-violent solution, but sometimes, especially for internal political motivations, taking more the side of Armenia: and it was important as Armenia has to be defended. There is no doubt on that. In the meantime, it complicated the relations with the Azerbaijani side, mostly not due to Karabakh as such but rather due to internal politics. And I believe that in this regard France lost the opportunity to be a full player in Karabakh in the aftermath of the war. Then the lead was taken by Europe. I think it was a positive role. The EU did a lot.

- Can we say that today new algorithms of relations are being shaped in the South Caucasus? How exactly are these algorithms manifested? Which countries (Russia, USA, France, other Western countries, Turkey, Iran) are the most active in promoting them?

You didn't exactly mention one of the key players of the last year, which was the EU. Now it has an observation mission on the ground. And the EU was able to play a positive role, as it managed to talk to both sides. The war happened in 2020 and it may happen again: it's still a threat. And for that, we have to talk with both sides. And the EU did. Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, managed to bring four times Nikol Pashinyan and Ilham Aliyev to Brussels and, as I understand it, the discussion was productive. Both sides try to really discuss despite the huge difficulty. And so, here is a big player. While Russia, of course, remains a player, we understand that both Yerevan and Baku can be somewhat cautious with Russia in this regard. Turkey is a player, despite being on one side. As I understand it, the discussions at the moment between Yerevan and Ankara are going quite well. And we saw that mission sent to the south of Turkey following the recent earthquake. Thus, there is a goodwill on both sides, but still we understand that at the last minute if some difficulties emerge, or if Baku decides to become more violent or use more force, Turkey will probably side with Baku. So, of course for Armenia Turkey is still not considered as an entirely reliable partner. But indeed, this is exactly what I wanted to focus on while answering the first question: we see that this is a pure conflict of the new world, let's say of the multipolar world, and we witness these different actors or players getting involved. And it is changing also because of the nature of the multipolar world, with its positive and negative sides. The positive side is that everyone is included. So, it doesn't let one single player to decide for everyone and make mistakes with no counteraction. But on the other side, it's a less predictable world, a more unstable one. And this is what happened. Russia is not the same player as it was, for example, at the end of 2020, same goes for Turkey, while Europe was not really involved. It became a key player only in 2022. The US are a bit aside at the moment, however the situation may change within six months. So again, it may have some positive and negative sides for the resolution of the conflict and for the peace in the region, since it also depends on multiple interests that can change over the time. I view the term “algorithm” used by you as an appropriate word choice as it captures all the complexity, while acknowledging the unpredictability of the future.

- What is France's agenda regarding the postwar Armenian- Azerbaijani confrontation and the agendas of which countries is the most aligned with?

I will be quite critical towards France and I regret it, because I feel that since the war in 2020, Mr. Macron doesn't have a Caucasian policy. There is rather a French policy that used the Caucasus, and it was also used by many French players in the French politics. The Armenian diaspora in France and some Armenians in Yerevan (but it is already very different) don't have the same understanding of it, but I think he doesn't help Armenians. And it is even a dangerous game as by overplaying the support to Armenia - because they would be our Christian brothers in the East - we, Westerners, in reality often manipulate the “Armenian question” mostly to bother the Sultan, I mean the Turkish rulers in general.
And this is what happened now in the French politics, not only with Mr. Macron. A lot of people would care about Armenia, or the fate of Armenia to send a signal to the French voters, electorates. The French agenda is very much set by the far-right in France now, with a focus on immigration and Muslims issues, and it makes the politicians, even the President, to look at the Caucasus through the prism of the needs of the French politics. And I think this is dangerous, because the agenda is led by something, which is not driven by the needs of the Caucasus: nobody in France is really looking at the interests of Armenia, for example, not really listening to Mr. Pashinyan, who wants to sign a peace treaty. In this context, the French policy towards Armenia and Azerbaijan is not clear. Does Paris want to indeed help Mr. Pashinyan to sign a peace treaty, or not? What should be the status of Nagorno-Karabakh? It is a key issue on which a decision has to be made. So I don't see really a policy at this level, a Caucasian policy of France. Certainly, France is pushing for giving more guarantees to Armenia and to Armenians from Karabakh. That’s perfect, absolutely necessary. But we're not really saying where the Armenians from Karabakh should be in the future: in an Azeri state or in an Armenian state, or in an independent one (or maybe a non-state entity for a few decades to decide what should be the status of Karabakh)? I don't see a policy on that. Maybe it's too early, maybe again because it's determined or decided by the French internal political agenda. And this is where I see some dangers. 
The 2020 conflict occurred six months before the French election. So, it became a part (although small) of the French election. And now indeed it continues as well, because it was somehow hijacked by part of the far-right side, who seek to focus on the identity issues and the place of immigration and Muslims in France. So it continues this way. And when you examine the backgrounds of the politicians, journalists, writers and others who travel to Yerevan, many are seen by Armenian diaspora and some in Armenia as friends of Armenia. I think they are not friends of Armenia. They are friends of themselves and they are thinking about their own very French political agenda. 

- Is there any prospect of establishing a cooperation regime in the South Caucasus region given the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation and higher levels of conflict between Russia and Western countries due to the Russian-Ukrainian war?

Certainly, the first impact of the war in Ukraine is that Russia is not that active in the Karabakh post-conflict situation. It doesn't have the necessary resources to do so. The South Caucasus situation is also affected by the uncertainty surrounding Russia’s future. So, when Mr. Aliyev is deciding about the next step, he has to take this into account. And this is a matter of great importance to him, because apparently, he and the society, everybody, no doubt, is thinking about 2025, which is only two years away. It will be the time to decide whether the Russian peacekeeping mission has to leave or this part of the South Caucasus or not. This has to be decided six months ahead, based on the text of the Declaration of November 9, 2020.
This suggests that in one year already the discussion has to really start, and a decision must be almost reached. Probably Russia doesn't want to leave the region. And maybe that's good, at least for the Armenian side, it is important. But much depends on the future capacities and the place of Russia on the diplomatic levels regionally and globally. In this regard, the conflict of Ukraine raises a lot of questions with no answers at the moment. And the other players, of course, will decide their position taking this into account, be it Turkey, an important player in Ukraine and, of course, in the South Caucasus, the US, Europe, France. So, that's a key question for the moment. If we look at the mood of Russia, of course, we understand that they want to keep the control of the near abroad. And Caucasus is important. I always recall that Mr. Putin’s first war out of the Russian borders was in Georgia in 2008, in the South Caucasus. The war in Ukraine is the continuation of the 2008 war in Georgia. This is the same war. And in this regard, Karabakh is somehow also a part of the same conflict. Of course, the Karabakh conflict has its own history and its own auto-generation, I would say. But for Russia, it's a part of the big question of its influence on its former colonies and its former sphere of influence. In this respect, of course, Russians, as much as they can, will never forget about Karabakh, and they will do everything to remain a player there.
I'm a journalist, so I'm not a decision-maker. But I truly believe that every big player has to discuss in this conflict after all. As I said, it is one of the first conflicts of the emerging multipolar world. We have to listen to Russia probably, because it's not only about Russia. Russia is a crucial partner for Armenia’s security. So, Yerevan has to be listened to in this question. Russia is the only country, which agrees to protect the borders of Armenia in the context of the difficult relations with the neighbor due to the non-recognition of the 1915 Genocide. So, maybe yes, it could be a place to discuss all together, indeed. Everyone should try to find a solution to give security guarantees to Armenian people in Karabakh, but also to the Armenian Republic, which is under threat at the moment. Then there are some other discussions, including, for example, this road mentioned in the 2020 ceasefire declaration that goes through the South of Armenia, which is not considered a corridor. A rode like that is always a challenge to the sovereignty of the country. A solution could be given with the help of everyone, providing all the guarantees needed by Armenia and Armenians and respecting what was signed at that moment.

- France and other countries, international organisations have many times condemned the blockade of the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan. But the blockade continues. Why, and what's next? How does this fit in the plans to unblock communication routes in the South Caucasus?

I would love to see more pressure from every partner in these discussions for the Lachin Corridor to be unblocked, indeed. While there have been some statements, I don’t see a significant effort to address this issue. I believe that for Mr. Aliyev this question is ultimately tied to the status of Karabakh. And he is going beyond the text of the Declaration of November 2020. There is no mentioning of the status in the text, since as Mr. Putin said in December 2020, it's too difficult to be decided right now. Mr. Aliyev, thus, is somehow rewriting this declaration, trying to force a decision on the Karabakh status. It is unacceptable. There are a lot of means for the discussion and the diplomacy at this level. But it's not only about unblocking the Lachin Corridor. It is also about having a comprehensive approach, which is requested by the local people, I mean both Armenian and Azeri people.

Series of interviews "Agendas and New Algorithms of Policies in the South Caucasus - 2023" has been organized within the framework of the Region Research Center's project "New Agendas for Peace and Stability in the South Caucasus after the Karabakh 2020 War". The project is being implemented with the support of the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation. The opinions expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions and positions of the Black See Trust for Regional Cooperation or its partners.




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