France Continues to Derail the Peace Process in the South Caucasus Despite Countless Diplomatic Defeats

The Armenian-Azerbaijani peace process showed a positive development in December when the two countries held direct talks. This appears to concern external players though, who view the South Caucasus region as an extension of the political struggle between the US-led West and Russia in Ukraine. On Dec. 7, 2023, Armenia and Azerbaijan for the first time issued an unexpected joint statement, without the involvement of any third party, in which both nations confirmed their intentions to normalise relations and reach a peace treaty based on the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty. Also for the first time, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed as part of the joint statement to support each other at international level. As a result, Armenia supported Azerbaijan’s initiative to host the UN’s 29th Session of the Conference of Parties (COP29) in return for Azerbaijan’s support for Armenia’s candidacy for membership of the Eastern European Group COP Bureau. This historic joint statement was possible due to the direct engagement of the parties in negotiations without any involvement of third parties.

The positive developments started with the fifth meeting of the state commissions on the delimitation of the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan held at the shared border. As part of the process, both Armenia and Azerbaijan approved the regulations of the commission on border delimitation in December.

It is worth emphasizing that all these positive developments in the peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan were achieved via direct talks, something which Azerbaijan had been advocating for a while. Azerbaijan suggested to Armenia holding direct bilateral talks and also negotiations in a regional format with the participation of Georgia. The notion behind Azerbaijan’s proposals is to sideline and minimise the disruptive involvement of third parties that are trying to facilitate their geopolitical interests by taking the peace process hostage and viewing it as an extension of the geopolitical rivalry in Ukraine. This has been the case with the involvement of Russia, France/EU and the USA as “intermediaries”.

Post-colonial attitude: the role of France in sustaining Armenia’s occupation policy 

France’s policy of supporting Armenia and its aggressive nationalistic circles has led to extreme, unhinged actions that contradict UN principles and international law. One example is the recent resolution adopted on 17 January by the French Senate which calls for sanctions against Azerbaijan for the measures taken to re-establish Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh. The irony of the resolution is that while it affirms Armenia’s right to defend its “territorial integrity” including by force, it condemns Azerbaijan for defending its territorial integrity and re-establishing its sovereignty. The resolution goes further and calls for the release of the former irredentist Armenian leaders who led the occupation of Azerbaijani territory and ethnic cleansing of its Azerbaijani population, and ordered missile strikes on civilian infrastructure in Ganja and other Azerbaijani cities in 2020, in which dozens of civilians were killed.

The latest resolution by the French Senate is part of President Macron’s ongoing attempts to insert himself as a “formidable” statesman on the world stage. However, these attempts keep failing and France has become an insignificant external actor in the South Caucasus.

As a former co-chair of the Minsk Group, France enjoyed the geopolitical privileges of influence in the South Caucasus region thanks to the long drawn-out Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani lands. The sole purpose of France was to ensure the endless sustainability of the status quo, facilitating Armenia’s annexation of the Azerbaijani lands in the long term. Having a significant Armenian diaspora and history of support for Armenian irredentism and armed rebellions since the 19th century, France views Armenia as a potential satellite to be used in an attempt to project Paris as a global player amidst its colossal defeats in Africa’s Sahel region. Biased and Armenia- centric French policies towards Azerbaijan can be seen in the actions of the former French ambassador to the UN, Jean-Bernard Mérimée, who during the UN Security Council consultation following Armenia’s occupation of Kelbajar district of Azerbaijan in April 1993 suggested excluding Armenia’s name from the draft resolution and adding instead the ambiguous term “local Armenian forces” in order to spare Armenia responsibility for its actions. 

Jean-Bernard Mérimée also advocated using the language of Chapter VI of the UN Charter on the peaceful settlement of disputes, by objecting to the use of Chapter VII language on taking action to restore peace and security, in UN Security Council Resolution 822. In other words, France deliberately advocated the Chapter VI formulation, which is called the Pacific Settlement of Disputes, in order to protect the occupation of Kelbajar by Armenia and make it part of an endless negotiations process in favour of Armenia.

As a co-chair of the former Minsk Group from 1997, France put on a show of being a peace process mediator. In each recommendation proposed by the co-chairs it did everything to propose Armenia-friendly “solutions”, such as the Madrid Principles, in order to trade swathes of the occupied Azerbaijani lands for the creation of a Kosovo-type statelet in Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region. This was part of a colonial mindset to sustain external influence in the region. All the work of France and its partners, the US and Russia, aimed to sustain the occupation status quo indefinitely. In March 2008, Azerbaijan took the issue of the occupied lands to the UN General Assembly as the inaction of the Minsk Group had created stagnation. France and its partners objected to this attempt and the French representative at the UN made it clear that France would vote against the draft resolution. France, the US and Russia together with Armenia voted against the draft resolution. The resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly called for the “immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian forces from all the occupied territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan”.

When Armenia started to bring illegal Armenian settlers from Lebanon, Syria and Armenia to the then occupied lands, this was met with inaction amounting to tacit approval for this demographic engineering policy from the co-chair countries, including France. Azerbaijan wanted to raise the issue of illegal settlements in their territory and have a fact-finding mission sent to the occupied lands in 2010, but the Minsk Group co-chairs exerted immense pressure on Azerbaijan which had to withdraw its draft resolution. In effect, the co-chairs monopolised management of the conflict in order to influence and rule the South Caucasus region as colonial powers.

Azerbaijan exposes the weakness of France, neutralising its attempts to get leverage in the region

With the start of the Azerbaijani counteroffensive to end the occupation of Karabakh in 2020, France was so annoyed that President Macron disseminated fake news. His groundless and unsubstantiated claims that “Syrian mercenaries are fighting on Azerbaijan’s side” were cheap propaganda invented by Russia and Armenia. Having been defeated in a geopolitical struggle over Libya by Turkey the same year, Macron’s anti-Turkey hysteria culminated in accusations against Turkey of creating trouble in the South Caucasus, forgetting that Turkey is a regional country bordering all three South Caucasus nations and also a close natural ally of Azerbaijan. Having enjoyed decades of conflict management through the colonial mechanism of the Minsk Group, France’s leader failed to appreciate that the balance of power had already changed in favour of Azerbaijan and Turkey, which has strategic autonomy unlike in the 1990s. In October 2020 in the midst of the war, when each day the Azerbaijani Army was liberating village after village, town after town, France together with Russia and the United States tried to pass a UN Security Council Resolution in order to nullify the four SC resolutions adopted in the 1990s calling for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Karabakh.

President Macron’s irrational remarks that “We will not accept Azerbaijani control over Nagorno-Karabakh” contradicted international law and the concept of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of sovereign states, and can be seen as the climax of his shortsighted view of foreign policy. Meanwhile, French nationals taking part in the war against Azerbaijan as foreign mercenaries were something the Élysée Palace did not address, unlike its tough criminal measures against French nationals joining conflicts in Syria and Iraq. When the Second Karabakh War ended with a trilateral statement in November 2020, France and the Minsk Group lost their role in the peace process. They had been excluded from talks on the trilateral statement, which increased French hysteria about Azerbaijan’s victory. In the new geopolitical realities Turkey’s role had increased. In a desperate attempt to retain their influence, President Macron’s office called for the already out-of-date Minsk Group to be put in charge of international supervision of the trilateral statement in Karabakh. In December 2020 Macron and the French Senate tried to blackmail Azerbaijan by adopting a non-binding resolution calling on the French government to officially recognise the now defunct Armenian irredentist entity in Karabakh.

As France found itself struggling to retain any influence in the South Caucasus region, it stubbornly acted as if the dead Minsk Group still existed, appointing a new “co-chair”, Brice Roquefeuil, in 2021. The appointment was rejected by Azerbaijan and Roquefeuil has not been welcome in Azerbaijan ever since. This was another diplomatic weakness of the Macron administration.

How France destroyed the EU initiative

With the start of EU mediation as a result of Charles Michel’s personal initiative by the end of 2021, the French president desperately tried to use the EU platform to insert himself into the peace process. Following the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels in December 2021, Emmanuel Macron appeared in a hotel where he met the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders for a photo opportunity. Macron tried to play a “mediator” role and posted his photos on X (Twitter). By doing so the French president was trying to present himself as the “protector” of Armenians for his domestic base as well as to pretend that France is a “global” power. 

Armenia refused to recognise Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh and continued its military provocation, not taking the Brussels format for talks seriously. It launched a military attack on Azerbaijani positions on the conditional border on 12 September 2022 which kicked off large scale fighting. Azerbaijan’s countermeasures and significant retaliation against the Armenian military targets forced Armenia and its external backers to recognise Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh at the First European Political Community Summit in Prague on 6 October 2022 with the participation of Macron and Michel. And yet again Emmanuel Macron got his photo opportunity.

Azerbaijani civil society activists staged protests on the Lachin road against Armenia’s transportation of landmines and weapons, against the illegal economic activities of Russian billionaire Ruben Vardanyan in the formerly Russian-controlled zone of Karabakh in order to create economic revenue for Armenian irredentism against Azerbaijan, and against environmental damages to the forests of Karabakh. Armenia started to disseminate a fake narrative about a so called “blockade” and France together with Armenia tried to pass a draft resolution at the UN SC in December 2022. As a permanent member of the Security Council, France prepared a pro-Armenia draft resolution in which it dramatized and falsely presented the situation on the Khankendi-Lachin road as a “humanitarian disaster”. This attempt was led by Macron’s office directly and his foreign policy advisors. As a result of a ten-day diplomatic battle France conceded yet another diplomatic defeat by abandoning the draft, which had had to go through several editions in the discussion, eventually losing its main objectives and becoming irrelevant.

Macron’s special obsession with Armenia continued. Though Macron was given an opportunity to take part in Michel’s mediation, Macron and Michel seemed to want to change the Brussels format to include the French president. However, Azerbaijan swiftly rejected the change and insisted on the trilateral format that had been the basis of the EU’s initial engagement. After Macron’s unacceptable remarks on French TV, Brussels wanted to add the French president to the format for the 7 December 2022 meeting. However, President Ilham Aliyev rejected Macron’s participation and declined to travel to Brussels if Macron was present. Then Brussels tried to facilitate Macron’s involvement by adding German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, as Azerbaijan thought that Germany might contain and balance France’s undiplomatic Armenia-centric position. Olaf Scholz also participated in the second European Political Community Meeting in June 2023.

In his meeting with leaders of the Armenian radical Dashnak party and Armenian community of Marseilles in June 2023, President Macron said that he would continue to take “action” regarding Karabakh and his commitment should not be doubted. Macron further stated that France had sent a military attaché to its embassy in Yerevan which “means something”. Overconfident, the French president went on to say, “I have and will continue to put more pressure on Aliyev than Pashinyan himself. I am the only one who has a clear position and message on the Karabakh issue.”

As Armenia continued to smuggle weapons and illicit goods, including landmines produced in Armenia in 2021, into Karabakh via the Lachin road, Azerbaijan had to take matters into its own hands and established a border crossing point, as is the inalienable right of a sovereign nation. Seeing its inability to sustain the Armenian irredentist claims and project its influence in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, France ironically condemned a sovereign nation’s legal actions to control its own borders on its own sovereign land.

President Macron vowed to bring international diplomatic pressure to bear to allow the flow of illicit goods and unchecked travel via the Lachin road in April 2023. Despite the French propaganda attacks against Azerbaijan, Paris failed yet again. The show of trucks lining up to cross the border, which was an idea of the French presidency to violate Azerbaijan’s sovereignty under the pretext of “humanitarian aid”, was completely debunked and nullified by Azerbaijan.

With the local anti-terror measures launched by Azerbaijan on 19 September 2023, the era of a grey zone and Armenian illegal irredentist regime came to an end within less than 23 hours. Once again, France tried to pass a resolution at the UN SC and failed miserably. Meeting on the sidelines of an EU summit in Granada in October 2023, the EU’s Michel, Macron and Scholz with the participation of Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan adopted a weird document without Azerbaijan’s participation. Azerbaijan had refused to attend the meeting following the refusal of Macron and Scholz to allow Turkish President Erdogan’s participation. Since the Turkish president destroyed French actions in Libya and the East Med, Macron thought he could achieve something against Turkey. However, Azerbaijan once again struck a blow to the French president’s hopes, making him irrelevant to the process. Macron also damaged the EU initiative, as by putting his signature to the Granada document Charles Michel essentially sidelined himself and the EU as a “mediator”. Since then Michel’s mediation and the Brussels process have been dead. 

After facing crushing geopolitical defeats in the Sahel region France suffered devastating diplomatic defeats in the South Caucasus by Azerbaijan. The exposure and expulsion of French intelligence agents at the French embassy in Baku inflicted another blow to Macron’s France. France is a declining power and its neocolonial arrogance that it can intimidate smaller states via international institutions has been shattered in the case of Azerbaijan. This proves that states defending their sovereignty and pursuing a realist foreign policy with a strong alliance of regional states such as Turkey and Israel can roll back the conflict management geopolitical mechanism and colonialist policies of the big powers. The case of Azerbaijan is a model for that. Rufat Ahmadzada is a graduate of City, University of London. His research area covers the South Caucasus and Iran.

[Photo of IAEA Imagebank, via Wikimedia Commons]

Rufat Ahmadzada is a graduate of City, University of London. His research area covers the South Caucasus and Iran. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect TGP’s editorial stance.

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