Kavkaz Files ISSN 2975-0474 Volume Issue 18 Issue 7
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi & Silvia Boltuc
The Azerbaijani military incursion into the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh has brought to light Italy’s precarious foreign policy in the South Caucasus. Driven by a web of Rome’s imperatives and constraints, the Italian government finds itself torn between justifying Azerbaijan’s regional strategy and acknowledging the resulting humanitarian crisis and civilian casualties.
Azerbaijan’s Military Offensive Against Nagorno-Karabakh:
On September 19th, 2023, the Azerbaijani Defence Ministry announced a ‘counter-terrorism operation’ in Nagorno-Karabakh, ostensibly aimed at eliminating Armenian military installations. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan promptly refuted Baku’s claim of Yerevan’s troops in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Stepanakert swiftly dismissed the Azerbaijani Defence Ministry’s statement, denouncing it as a disinformation campaign designed to legitimise attacks on civilians. According to information from Stepanakert’s morgue, 27 individuals have lost their lives in the Azerbaijani assault, including 2 civilians, with over 200 others sustaining injuries.
Since December 2022, Azerbaijan has enforced a blockade on the Lachin Corridor, the sole passage connecting Armenia and the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. This prolonged blockade has precipitated a severe humanitarian crisis in the region.
At 07:00 am on September 20th, 2023, the Defence Ministry of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh reported continued combat activity with varying intensity along the contact line. Azerbaijani Armed Forces, supported by diverse weaponry, persist in positional advancement operations, indiscriminately targeting civilian infrastructure.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urgently called for Azerbaijan to cease its operation, citing an already dire humanitarian situation because of Baku’s prolonged blockade of the region. Blinken also engaged in discussions with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, expressing deep concern over Azerbaijan’s military actions.
Armenia maintains that its armed forces are not present in Karabakh and emphasises stability on its border with Azerbaijan. It has called upon members of the UN Security Council for intervention and urged Russian peacekeepers to step in.
Russia, acting as mediator after the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, which saw Azerbaijan reclaim significant territories, has called for a cessation of hostilities from all parties involved. Notably, Azerbaijan started its military offensive on the same day the United Nations General Assembly convened in New York, underscoring the global importance of the situation.
Italy’s Foreign Policy and Strategy on the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis
While regional and international leaders condemned Azerbaijan’s military offensive, Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Antonio Tajani took a divergent approach. On his Twitter Account, he portrayed Azerbaijan as a crucial partner in the fight against human trafficking.
Tajani’s statements drew public disappointment, especially as they coincided with the Azerbaijani military’s bombardment of civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh. In response, Tajani extended an offer of Italian mediation and proposed the Alto-Adige model for managing the situation.
It is noteworthy that the Embassy of Azerbaijan in Italy has consistently advocated for the Alto-Adige model as a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis. This aligns with Baku’s strategy to integrate Artsakh into its territory.
Despite the impracticality of applying the Alto-Adige model to Nagorno-Karabakh after two conflicts and the humanitarian crisis resulting from the Azerbaijani blockade, Tajani seemingly overlooked the reluctance of Artsakh’s Armenians to become citizens of a state characterised by limited freedoms.
Indeed, organisations like Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, identify Azerbaijan as an authoritarian regime, dominated by President Ilham Aliyev and his extended family, with a history of suppressing political opposition and curtailing civil liberties.
Italy’s hesitancy to critique Azerbaijan is intricately tied to their extensive economic partnership. Over the past 26 years, exports from Azerbaijan to Italy have surged at an annualised rate of 26.8%, reaching $9.46 billion in 2021.
In 2021, Italy exported $339 million to Azerbaijan. The primary products that Italy exported to Azerbaijan are Valves ($33.9M), Other Sea Vessels ($21.5M), and Centrifuges ($15.6M). During the last 26 years, the Italian export to Azerbaijan has increased at an annualised rate of 13.5%, from $12.7 million in 1995 to $339 million in 2021.
Moreover, Italy serves as a vital entry point for Azeri natural gas extracted from Shah Deniz-2 in the Caspian Sea, facilitated by the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). This infrastructure transforms Italy into a crucial logistical hub for EU natural gas imports, particularly significant considering the ongoing energy crisis due to the situation in Ukraine and EU sanctions against Moscow.
During his September 2022 visit to Italy, President Ilham Aliyev underscored Baku’s commitment to fortify ties with Italy and expressed readiness to double gas production and augment exports through TAP.
Given Italy’s protracted political and economic instability, Azerbaijan has strategically focused on the country. Italy, amid a series of changing governments, has emerged as the least politically stable EU member state. Azerbaijan has leveraged its natural gas resources and positioned itself as a vital partner in Italy’s energy security and diversification efforts.
Besides cultural diplomacy efforts, Azerbaijan has not shied away from utilising ‘caviar diplomacy,’ as evidenced by the 2021 sentencing of Luca Giuseppe Volontè, an Italian politician, for accepting bribes from Azerbaijan to thwart a report on Baku’s treatment of political prisoners.
Azerbaijan has also targeted the Italian academic community, forging international university partnerships and generating scholarly literature supportive of Baku’s territorial claims in Nagorno-Karabakh. While welcoming young Italian researchers into Azerbaijani academic institutions, Baku has also fostered collaboration with leading Italian universities for joint research initiatives.
Azerbaijan’s military offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh has escalated the humanitarian crisis and destabilised the South Caucasus. While international actors have condemned Baku’s actions and called for peace negotiations, Italy appears to be adopting a softer, more passive stance.
Italy’s developing position on the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis is linked to its reliance on Azerbaijani natural gas. Presently, among EU member states, Italy stands as one of Azerbaijan’s foremost partners.
Minister Tajani’s words and actions affirm Rome’s feeble position, driven by the Italian imperative to address the EU energy crisis prompted by sanctions against Russia. Italy’s foreign policy is inextricably tied to Azerbaijan in the energy sector, particularly following Brussels’ decision to lean on Baku for EU Energy Security Strategy and natural gas import diversification.
Considering Azerbaijan’s multifaceted diplomatic efforts in Italy and recognising Italian imperatives and constraints, a substantive shift in Rome’s approach to the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis appears improbable, despite Italy’s historic and cultural ties with Armenia.
Following the migration crisis in Lampedusa, which exposed the vulnerabilities of the current Giorgia Meloni government, and Italy’s fragile agreement with Tunisia to stem migration flows, the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis further underscores the weakness of Italian foreign policy.
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