Ignoring U.S. concerns, Azerbaijan on Thursday succeeded in forcing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to close its office in Yerevan that has promoted political reforms in Armenia.
The office has faced an uncertain future since Baku vetoed late last year a further extension of its mandate, objecting to a humanitarian demining program implemented by it in Armenia.
The Azerbaijani delegation to the OSCE headquarters in Vienna insisted in a January statement that the program “can strengthen the capacity and skills of relevant Armenian structures” in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It accused Armenia of seeking to “misuse the OSCE Office in Yerevan against legitimate interests of Azerbaijan.”
Armenia shrugged off those allegations. It said that Baku is simply keen to force the closure of the Yerevan office after having a similar OSCE office in Baku shut down in 2015. OSCE decisions on opening such missions and extending their activities have to be unanimously approved by all 57 member states of the organization.
Baku did not drop its objections even after the Armenian government agreed later in January to exclude demining from a wide range of OSCE activities in Armenia. That prompted a stern warning from the United States, with a senior U.S. diplomat saying in February that the closure of the Yerevan office would “reflect poorly on Azerbaijan.”
A representative of Austria, the current holder of the OSCE presidency, told the OSCE’s Permanent Council in Vienna on Thursday that the Azerbaijani government remains adamant in demanding the office closure.
“The United States regrets the impending closure of the OSCE Office in Yerevan,” Kate Byrnes, the charge d’affaires of the U.S. mission to the OSCE, said at the meeting. “We lament the loss of the last OSCE field operation in the South Caucasus.”
“Armenia, in the spirit of compromise, agreed that the Office in Yerevan would end these [humanitarian demining] activities,” she stressed.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry strongly condemned Baku’s uncompromising stance on the issue. The ministry spokesman, Tigran Balayan, said Azerbaijan’s authoritarian leadership is highlighting its dismal human rights record and “deepening the gap between itself and the international community.”
Byrnes also praised the Armenian government’s long-running cooperation with the OSCE and its Yerevan office in particular. The office’s promotion of human rights, tax and police reforms, gender equality and press freedom has brought about “positive results,” she said.
The American diplomat went on to urge the organization’s Austrian chairmanship to “explore new ways of maintaining an OSCE presence in Armenia and throughout the South Caucasus.”
Balayan said in that regard that the authorities in Yerevan are open to “new avenues of implementing OSCE projects in Armenia.”