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Calls for EU sanctions on gas-rich Azerbaijan grow over ethnic cleansing fears

Calls for EU sanctions on gas-rich Azerbaijan grow over ethnic cleansing fears

by host

YEREVAN, Armenia — Azerbaijan’s lightning attack on the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is increasing pressure on the EU to revisit its controversial gas deal with the energy-rich country, potentially complicating the bloc’s efforts to wean itself off Russian energy exports.

On Wednesday, Azerbaijan forced an effective surrender of the breakaway region’s armed forces. Meanwhile, Russia claims its peacekeepers on the ground have “evacuated” as many as 2,000 residents — sparking worries of a potential ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh’s estimated 100,000 ethnic Armenians.

That’s leading to growing pressure on Brussels to reassess its lucrative gas deal with Azerbaijan — a personal project of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Last July, in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, she flew to Baku for meetings with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, hailing the country as a “reliable, trustworthy partner” in the race to divest from Russian fossil fuels.

As part of a memorandum of understanding, Azerbaijan plans to ship some 20 billion cubic meters of natural gas to the EU by 2027 — about 18 percent of the bloc’s annual demand. In addition, a number of solar and hydrogen energy projects were also agreed in an effort to feed the EU’s growing demand for clean power.

However, that relationship is coming under greater scrutiny from the European Parliament, which has voted several times in favor of imposing restrictions and bans on Azerbaijani officials for their role in the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis.

The latest statement was issued on Tuesday, calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities and worrying that Azerbaijan could use “military escalation as a pretext to force the exodus of the local population.”

It continued: “In the absence of an immediate halt to the ongoing attack, we call on the Council to fundamentally reconsider the EU’s relations with Azerbaijan in this light, and consider imposing sanctions against responsible Azerbaijani authorities.”

French MEP and energy committee member François-Xavier Bellamy said on Tuesday — the same day that air raid sirens sounded across Nagorno-Karabakh: “We have to react now with immediate sanctions. We do not have the right to threaten, in exchange for a small gas supply, the rules of international law and the principles on which the Union has been founded.” 

Dutch MEP Thijs Reuten, who sits on the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, also called on von der Leyen to “suspend [the] Azerbaijan energy deal and put President Aliyev under full sanctions.”

Responding to a question from POLITICO at a briefing in Brussels on Wednesday, the EU’s foreign policy spokesperson Peter Stano declined to comment on calls for sanctions, which would have to be agreed by all member countries unanimously, but said that the bloc is still weighing up its next steps.

“It is very important that this current military operation is not used as a pretext to force the exodus of the local population from Karabakh,” he said. “The EU is watching the situation very closely. And the member states will decide next steps in this context as we see the developments unfolding on the ground.”

Officials from the EU’s directorate-general for energy also declined to comment.

But, according to Rusif Huseynov, director of Baku’s influential Topchubashov Center think tank, predictable calls for sanctions have already been priced in to Azerbaijan’s plans. The military offensive, he said, “was designed to be very speedy before the whole international community mobilizes against Azerbaijan.”

The fact the Karabakh Armenians capitulated within 24 hours makes it far harder for their supporters in Brussels to make the case for economy-damaging punitive measures, he said.

“At some point there has been a slight fear about possible sanctions or action by Western capitals against Azerbaijan,” he went on, “but this probability was always considered low, especially at an EU level, because Azerbaijan likes to have strong bilateral relations with different EU member states — Italy and Hungary most importantly — and at least one or two will always help us avoid any kind of huge barriers or sanctions.”

Gabriel Gavin reported from Yerevan. Gregorio Sorgi reported from Brussels.

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