Why France Should Be Replaced as a Minsk Group Mediator

French President Emmanuel Macron
Image credit: Stiftung Münchner Sicherheitskonferenz (gemeinnützige) GmbH, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Minsk Group was created in its current format in 1992 to find a peaceful settlement to the Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The group with its three co-chairs, Russia, the USA and France, has failed in its mission ever since. The group was unable to end the grave injustices that occurred with the occupation of Azerbaijani land and to restore the rights of more than 700,000 Azerbaijani refugees from Mountainous Karabakh and the seven districts surrounding it. The Minsk Group’s inaction and unwillingness to enforce the United Nations Security Council resolutions on the Karabakh conflict show how the international system, which is strongly based on territorial integrity and opposition to changing internationally recognized borders by force, is in fact a matter of facilitating the perceived interests of big countries such as Russia, the US and France.

The Minsk Group did not issue a statement when, contrary to the negotiations process, Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan announced in 2019 that “Karabakh is Armenia and that’s it.” Or when Armenia set up illegal settlements in the seven occupied Azerbaijani districts around Karabakh and resettled Syrian and Lebanese Armenians there and in the Mountainous Karabakh town of Shusha. The mediators gave no public reaction, nor did they send any fact-checking mission to investigate the demographic engineering policy of Armenia and its diaspora. Their repeated, one-sided declarations that “there is no military solution” emboldened Armenia to annex and try to settle Mountainous Karabakh and the seven districts around it.

It was obvious from the start that the presence of a large and powerful Armenian diaspora in those countries would affect their foreign policies with regard to the Karabakh settlement process. Ironically, the French and US support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine and Georgia shows the difference in their approach to Azerbaijan. During the 44 days of the Second Karabakh War, the co-chairs showed that they are in favor of freezing the conflict. France, however, stood clearly by Armenia’s side and President Macron’s provocative and baseless accusations against Azerbaijan once again proved that Paris does not act as a mediator, but as a supporter of one side in the conflict. Macron made a reckless and unsubstantiated accusation on his arrival at an EU summit in Brussels last September that “Turkey transferred Syrian jihadists to Nagorno Karabakh.” His repetition of the Armenian narrative, which had started circulating in Russian and Armenian media, was the first sign of France taking sides in the conflict. Mr. Macron’s rivalry with Turkish President Erdogan in Libya, Syria and the EastMed dispute had brought him setbacks. Seeing Turkey’s moral and political support for its ally Azerbaijan in the Caucasus, he seemed to forget the French role as a mediator in the Karabakh peace process, and saw the conflict instead as another collision of French and Turkish interests.

Since his election, Mr. Macron has clearly disturbed the balance as a co-chair of the Minsk Group. When he visited Yerevan but did not go to Baku, this was an early sign of his pro-Armenia stance despite leading a co-chair country. During the war, he made several phone calls to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev but did not offer to support Armenia withdrawing its occupying troops from at least the seven districts around Mountainous Karabakh. Instead, he just called for the re-establishment of the former status quo of 1994. This shows that Mr. Macron’s main goal was to preserve Armenia’s occupation of Azerbaijani territories without offering any exit plan. The French ambassador to Yerevan paid three official visits to the then Armenian Defence Minister David Tonoyan whose forces fired ballistic missiles on Azerbaijani civilian targets in Ganja and Barda. The ambassador’s counterpart in Baku did not make any visits to the Azerbaijani defense minister, which makes one wonder what exactly the French ambassador discussed with Tonoyan?

French politicians visited the conflict zone to show solidarity with the Armenian side, while French media took a pro-Armenia stance, launching coordinated, one-sided attacks on Azerbaijan during and after the war. The French parliament’s resolution of Nov. 25 recognizing the Armenian separatist entity as an independent state was the last nail in the coffin of French mediation as a co-chair of the Minsk Group. This resolution clearly ignores international law and existing norms, calling on the French president to recognize Mountainous Karabakh as a state. The legislatures of neither of the other co-chair countries have adopted such provocative resolutions. The French politicians have set a very dangerous precedent, as their resolution might embolden Russian recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

This kind of approach is aimed at damaging efforts at reconciliation. It only hinders the opening of communications between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the move to a lasting peace agreement between the two countries following the Nov. 10 Russian brokered ceasefire. In his recent visit to Yerevan to participate in Armenian Genocide commemoration events, the president of the French Senate, Gerard Larcher, provocatively defended this resolution, saying “we want the parliaments of other countries [to] share the resolution that was adopted by the Senate and later by the National Assembly.” He also said that France wants to lead the way to recognition of Mountainous Karabakh through political talks.

Larcher’s speech on the alleged “erasure of Armenian traces in Karabakh” was another repeat of the Armenian narrative against Azerbaijan that has been going on since the joint statement in November. As the country that hosts the UNESCO headquarters, France is trying to use this narrative to appease Armenia and the Armenian diaspora. Feeling sidelined from the region, Paris is also using the pretext of preserving Armenian heritage in Karabakh as a political tool to facilitate its national interests in the South Caucasus region.

During his recent visit to Yerevan French lawmaker Francois Pupponi tweeted that Armenian soldiers fought for their freedom and also to protect Europeans against obscurantism and what he called Turkish-Azeri hegemony. This is yet more evidence that the French parliamentarians do not see their country as a neutral mediator. Mr. Pupponi also tabled a motion for a resolution in parliament calling for the immediate release of Armenian “POWs.” The supposed POWs were part of a group of saboteurs that killed Azerbaijani civilians and soldiers and were captured several weeks after the ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

As the Minsk Group tries to revive itself, it can have a positive impact only if it engages in working on a peace deal within the framework of the territorial integrity of the two countries. Moreover, France will have to be replaced as a co-chair, since its politicians keep encouraging the revanchist forces in Armenia through their actions and reckless statements. It would be best for another Minsk Group member to replace France or to invite a neutral country. It is clear that Paris has no role to play as a co-chair and its participation will be detrimental to the reconciliation process. 

Rufat Ahmadzada is a graduate of City, University of London. His research area covers the South Caucasus and Iran. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.