Marlene Mourier, Mayor of Bourg-Les-Valence and fellow delegates in Karabakh in Sept. 2015. Photo courtesy of Artsakhpress.
Marlene Mourier, Mayor of Bourg-Les-Valence and fellow delegates in Karabakh in Sept. 2015. Photo courtesy of Artsakhpress.

By Taline Papazian

On April 3, 2018, mayors of the Nagorno Karabakh town of Martuni and Bourge de Péage, a town of 10,000 located south of Lyon in the Rhone-Alpes region in France, signed a charter of friendship.

In the last five years ten such charters have been signed between French municipalities and Karabakh towns. These documents linking towns or regions include common projects in the realm of culture, economy, education or sport: all things belonging to non-sovereign missions of a state –in that sense they are distinct from the classical key state realms, such as foreign affairs, justice, finance or defense.

Over the last decades, France has been promoting a decentralization policy. This policy gives the right to regions and cities to form direct links with towns and regions of a foreign country in order to implement a number of small-scale cooperation projects.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic lacks a clear status but has nonetheless a number of features allowing it to act with a certain level of autonomy. One such feature is a permanent representation in France and a few other key countries, including the United States and Russia–the closest thing to an embassy for a non-recognized state.

Through its permanent representative in France, the NKR has been taking advantage of the decentralized cooperation policy, making successful bids for –so far- 11 French mayors to engage with the unrecognized Republic of Karabakh. Under the auspices of the charter, “friend” cities host cultural events dedicated to the promotion of Nagorno-Karabakh culture, economy and society: events where the French public is invited to get acquainted with the place, its heritage and values, in a positive way. Even more so than for classic small states, such “soft” diplomacy is a vital tool to reach out for a landlocked, internationally unrecognized and generally ignored Nagorno Karabakh.

At the national level, France for its part remains within the boundaries of its position in the Karabakh conflict: a charter of friendship is a modest level of cooperation; it is distinct from twinning of cities, the highest degree of decentralized cooperation under French law allowing public funding of common programs.

Even though the scope of the charters is modest and mainly symbolic, their signing does not go without triggering official reactions from Azerbaijan, from protests by the Ambassador to open threats to the French mayors engaged in the agreements. Mayors responded vehemently to these acts.

France’s official response, made in July 2015 circular to regional prefects that local authorities are not entitled to enter in agreements with entities not recognized by France. Nagorno-Karabakh, along with Crimea and a few others, is explicitly stated in the circular. As one of the three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group in charge of mediation in the conflict settlement, France wishes to remain neutral. This however did not prevent more mayors to engage locally in new charters of friendship.

Charters are one example of endeavors undertaken by the Nagorno Karabakh leadership to engage in foreign relations directly. The highest-level charters were signed in May 2015 between the Drome region and the Republic of Mountainous Karabakh (now also known as Artsakh Republic). Signatories were the NKR Foreign Minister and the President of the Council of the Department, on the occasion of the visit by President Bako Sahakyan to the regional center, Valence.

That same year, Karabakh also followed in the steps of Armenia’s diplomatic outreach to Frankophone countries. The House of Francophonia was opened in Stepanakert in 2015 and put under symbolic patronage of Paul Eluard, a famous French poet of the first half of the 20thcentury. It is no coincidence that the final lines of Liberty, written in order to raise the spirit of French resistance to German occupation during WWII, are now on the frontispiece of the house of Francophonia in Stepanakert.

Since November 2017 and until November 2018, the “Days of Artsakh” in France -an exhibition complete with photo reportage, book presentations and dancing/singing- will be traveling the 11 cities that signed charters plus a few extra ones. The closing of the Days of Arstakh will be paralleled by the Francophony Summit which will be hosted by Yerevan in October 2018.

French cities that venture in these gestures of friendship are traditional living places of medium-sized Armenian communities. They are involved in the process, but their presence is neither the driving force nor the reason for these charters. Modestly-sized cities in terms of demographics and economics are safer places from where to act outside of the mainstream politics. It is also in the interests of local political actors to engage in active decentralized cooperation policies.

In large part, credit for these efforts goes to the Representation of Karabakh in France and to a small circle of people –mainly of Armenian descent but outside traditional community institutions- advising and working with the Representation. Years of advocacy and friendly bonding with a handful of French local politicians are yielding concrete results.

A group of 60 deputies, senators, mayors and other elected representatives are now gathered in a Cercle d’Amitié France-Artsakh. The objective is to “support the OSCE Minsk Group’s action” and act as a complement to French official diplomacy in the South Caucasus, especially through charters with the NKR. The still modest but growing number of French mayors who have already accepted to sign them applaud the Artsakh Republic’s efforts to achieve peace; and shared values with the French Republic, including an honorable human rights records. In most cases, preceding the political gesture, they will have traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh and got acquainted with the region.

This super-local-level diplomacy, a modest charm offensive, has successfully attracted a number of French local representatives.

  • Taline Papazian is a fellow at the USC Institute of Armenian Studies.