Interview Dr. Markus Ritter Head of the European Union Mission in Armenia

July 2024

Guus Rotink

THRI Research Fellow

Dr. Markus Ritter

EU Mission in Armenia

EU Mission in Armenia (EUMA) was launched by the decision of EU Foreign Affairs Council on 20 February 2023, when it also started its operational activities. EUMA is tasked with observing and reporting on the situation on the ground, contributing to human security in conflict-affected areas and supporting the confidence building between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where possible. EUMA is an essential component of the EU’s efforts in supporting peace and stability in the region.

The EU established the Mission in response to an official request by the Armenian authorities to deploy a full-fledged EU civilian mission on the ground. This deployment follows the successful experience of the EU Monitoring Capacity (EUMCAP) deployed previously on the Armenian side of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border
between 20 October 2022 and 19 December 2022.

The Hague Research Institute for Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia had the chance to speak to EUMA’s Head of Mission, Dr. Markus Ritter.

Thank you, Dr. Ritter, for your time and to speak to our research institute, it is highly appreciated. To start, could you elaborate on the mandate of EUMA and comment on whether or not it has been successful thus far?

The mandate of the mission is to patrol alongside the border and the line of confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We report on incidents and through our presence at the border aim to calm down the situation and avoid any new incidents.

We also have as a second line of operations, which is to patrol in the conflict affected area on the Armenian side to meet with the population there, to visit villages, farms, small towns near the border and the line of confrontation, to increase the sense of security in these areas, to give the people the feeling that they are not alone, that there’s somebody who is taking care.

The third line of operation is through our presence and through our patrolling and reporting to contribute to confidence building between Armenia and Azerbaijan. By all these activities, the idea was for the mission to facilitate the peace process that was started by Charles Michel, by the president of the European Council and to be his ears and eyes on the ground.

Do you believe the operation has been successful so far and how do you measure this?

We are now patrolling since February last year, so it is the 15th month now.  I think we are successful because the number of incidents has decreased. Also, since we are here, there was only one incident where there was shooting on civilians in a village. This happened much more often before the start of our mission.

And we learned from both sides that through our patrolling and also our communication on social media such as X (formerly Twitter) we helped to defuse the situation. For example, last Easter, there were allegations from Azerbaijan that Armenia wanted to start an offensive. We patrolled the area and made a statement that everything was calm and quiet and that we do not see any unusual movements. Because of this this, we heard from several sides that we really have had a huge impact on calming down the tensions.

Has the EUMA itself ever been involved in any incidents, such as shootings or dangerous situations?

No, up to now we have never been threatened or shot at. We have been eyewitness of shootings in the distance, but we were never targeted. Our patrols have never been involved.

Recently, we saw positive development in the case of border demarcation between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Tavush region, where Armenia will cede territory to Azerbaijan. This has led to protests in Armenia. How does this affect the mission?

Actually, we are staying away from this area of these four villages because there are a lot of emotions and tensions at the moment. We do not want to engage with that or be a reason for demonstrations since this is a political decision made by the Armenian government. If the handover will take place we will continue our patrols on the Armenian side and it will not affect us much.

How can you maintain an overview of this area?

We are going into this area, but we are avoiding to drive into these villages. So we have our observation positions and what we see, what we can report is if there are any military movements, any changes of positions, but we have not seen this yet.

Last year February, there there was an incident in the southern Syunik province in the Nerkin Han village, where the EU mission was not allowed to observe a certain area. I believe it was blocked by Russian forces present in the area. How has that affected EUMA?

It did not affect us. Since our existence here, there have been several incidents in which also, sadly, deaths have occurred. But in this case, as you said, this was an area where we had no access. There is a roadblock by the Russian FSB border guards. It has no effect on us.

And this remains the only area where you really have limited access? Or has it now changed positively?

Yes, but your question was if this incident affected us. We do not start things on our own. At the moment we agreed not to visit this area because there a negotiations taking place between the Armenian and Russian side.
We are in weekly contact with the Armenian side. As soon as they tell us we can go (to Nerkin Hand), we will start because, as I said, we have freedom of movement everywhere. At the moment, we know that this is reduced but it has not been clarified if the Russian have left (Nerkin Hand) at all. We wait on green light from the Armenian government.

Could you elaborate on the human security patrols you mentioned? How do you engage with the challenges of the local people? Do you engage in resilience building?

What we are doing on a daily basis is visiting the people, visiting the villages. We try to meet people there, to talk with them. Most of them already know us now. We speak with the people we meet on the street. Also, we have appointments with the governor, with the mayor, with the police chief, with teachers. So we are listening to the local population. If we hear about needs, for example, for displaced persons from Nagorno-Karabakh, we forward this to the EU delegation in order to combine our efforts. They have the budget and ability to help. What we also do is organizing meetings, small seminars for the local civil society. We have a gender advisor who is talking with them. In this frame, we are helping them and talking with them, but we do not have the budget for huge projects.

We are the actor that is the eyes and ears for Brussels and the EU delegation. We forward information on where we identify needs or possibilities to help. Also, we inform the EU member states ambassadors once a month. That meeting is also an opportunity to combine our efforts.

the European Union as such has no official contact with Russia and that is the same for us. So we have to obey the politics in Brussels. There is no interaction with the Russians

Would you say EUMA is similar to the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia (EUMM)?

I am not so familiar with the mission in Georgia. I know that they are patrolling along the borderline. The difference I know is that there is no cross-border traffic between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This does exist in the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Here there are trenches and military positions, most of them in high altitude areas, in remote places in the mountains. So it is quite different. The patrolling however I think is very similar. But I think this conflict here is still more “hot” than in Georgia. We have more incidents. There has been a time when we were on the edge of a new conflict.

Is there any form of contact or cooperation between EUMA and the Russian forces inside Armenia? Does their presence pose any challenges?

We are here on the invitation of the Armenian government. The same is with the Russian forces. We do not interact with them because we have no reason to interact with them. We see from time to time Russian convoys on the street but that is all. Also, the European Union as such has no official contact with Russia and that is the same for us. So we have to obey the politics in Brussels. There is no interaction with the Russians.

So you do not complement their presence at all?

No, we are planning our patrols and our presence on our own without any meetings with them. We are planning on our own together with the Armenian government.

Do you know of any discussions within the Armenian government about removing more of the Russian presence, such as the Russian military base in Gyumri?

We are aware of this, but only through the public media. I get media reviews from embassies or the EU delegation from which I gather this information.

What can you say about the relationship with Azerbaijan?

First, with our binocular we are not only looking at Azerbaijani positions but also to Armenian positions. Next they say that we are bringing guests here, a lot of visitors and that we are talking badly about Azerbaijan. I have no idea why they say this because they are not present in these conversations. They do not know what we are talking about. What we are doing is bringing member states, representatives and seconding agencies to the border, to the Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), because they want to see how their staff is operating there and what they are doing. That is all that we are doing, nothing more.

We are reporting very neutrally. We do not point fingers. We do not accuse any sie of lying. We defuse the situation by visiting an area and reporting neutrally on what we see. Sadly, we do not have a relationship with Azerbaijan. I regret this. I once had a meeting with Azerbaijani students in Georgia last year. That was the only time I had contact with them but since then there has been no wish nor will to cooperate with us. I can only accept this.

Do you feel the need to expand the mission because of your current needs?

It was decided after the so-called anti-terrorist operation against Nagorno-Karabakh that the mission will be expanded. So we are now increasing from around 160 to 209 staff members. We are still in the phase of building up. We have now reached nearly 130 staff.

So I can only tell you when we have reached 209 staff if this is enough or not because I don’t have any experience now with the enlarged mission. So I cannot answer this question. Sorry.

What is your outlook for the next five years for the mission? Are you hopeful about the full border delineation between Armenia and Azerbaijan? And if such a thing would happen, perhaps that would make the EU unnecessary.

Of course that is what we all would like. This is a mission that has been established on a political decision. Our stay here also depends on political decisions. We all hope that there will be peace here in this area, even though that might lead to the conclusion that we have to leave.

But nobody wants to have a conflict ongoing only to have a mission there. So let’s see if this all will have success. I hope so.

Thank you Mr. Ritter for your time.


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