Armenia and Azerbaijan are restarting peace negotiations
During the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan (aided by Turkey) demonstrated huge military advantage over Armenia and won substantial territories. After watching the war for 44 days, Russia brokered a ceasefire, based on which it has deployed a military contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh, aimed at peacekeeping. Despite this, regular incidents take place at the line of contact, which incrementally shift the ceasefire line in favour of Azerbaijan.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has now made Armenia’s situation much more complicated. Being a small democracy neighbored by two hostile regimes, Azerbaijan and Turkey, is a challenge by itself. According to a recent public opinion survey, Azerbaijan and Turkey are seen as the greatest security, political and economic threats to Armenia.Armenia’s government is still going ahead with peace talks, despite strong resentment in the population against any reconciliation attempts after the war with Azerbaijan.
Armenians perceive the Russian presence as a guarantee at least to prevent any large-scale war in the near future, as well as to ensure the survival of the population in Nagorno-Karabakh. This perception has not substantially changed, even though Russia signed an agreement with Azerbaijan to increase military cooperation just two days before its invasion to Ukraine.
With Russia’s military attention on Ukraine, the EU’s new initiative to support talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan has recently gained some momentum. Since November 2020, when the large-scale war in Nagorno-Karabakh ended with Russia’s mediation and deployment of its forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, the EU has been looking for ways to be re-involved in the conflict settlement process. In December 2021, the head of the European Council, Charles Michel, coordinated a meeting between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev ahead of the Eastern Partnership summit.
Fresh talks between them (again, with the mediation of Charles Michel) took place in Brussels on April 6 this year and are one of the most discussed topics in both South Caucasian countries. The negotiations, which lasted more than 4 hours, were a continuation of the December 2021 discussions. After the talks, EU officials were confident that the process to reach a sustainable agreement to guarantee peace, security, and stability in South Caucasus was started.
The trilateral meeting took place amid a flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh in March. Since the beginning of March, Nagorno-Karabakh had been cut off gas supplies for almost 2 weeks amid unprecedented fierce weather conditions, leaving hospitals, educational institutions, bakeries, homes, etc. without any heating opportunities. The gas supply cutoff was condemned by international human rights organizations, such as Freedom House and Human Rights Watch; the EU called for an “immediate resume of gas supply” to the affected local population.
Additionally, on March 24th 2022, Azerbaijan captured the strategically important Karaglukh hill, located in the zone of Russia’s forces’ responsibility, taking advantage of the latter’s inaction.
The Russian forces were literally standing and watching what was going on without reacting. Since then the Armenian side has been unsuccessfully trying to achieve the withdrawal of the Azerbaijani forces to their original positions. Meanwhile, the effectiveness of Russia’s military presence in Nagorno-Karabakh has been actively discussed. The Armenian Prime Minister repeatedly mentioned the necessity to investigate the actions of Russian peacekeepers in such situations.
The purpose of the April 6 Brussels meeting was to clarify conditions for the peace treaty between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The main results of the negotiations were:
Confidence building measures
The head of the European Council, Charles Michel, underlined the importance of humanitarian gestures for confidence building and peaceful coexistence, including the release of the Armenian prisoners of war remaining in Baku, and a comprehensive solution to the problem of the missing persons. In his written statement issued shortly afterward, he expressed the EU’s readiness to support these efforts through the provision of expertise and increased financial assistance, as well as assistance to conflict-affected populations, rehabilitation and reconstruction.
Joint Border Commission
An agreement was reached to create a bilateral commission by the end of April, which will deal with the demilitarisation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. It shall also have the authority to ensure security and stability along the border. It means that the committee can rapidly react in case of incidents at the border and has the authority to indicate who started the fire. This is an important step to minimize the chances of potential escalation along the borders.
The work on establishing such a committee is ongoing. On April 25, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan had a phone conversation (already the second one after the Brussels talks), during which the structure of the Border Commission was discussed. They reached an agreement to arrange a meeting in the near future to discuss further details of this commission.
Restoration of communications/connectivity infrastructure
Another agreement was reached regarding the opening of all kinds of transportation systems in the South Caucasus region, in particular between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Preparations for the peace treaty
It is reported that the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders instructed their foreign ministers to begin preparatory work for the peace treaty. On April 11, just a few days after the Brussels meeting, a phone call was arranged between the Foreign Ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia, which can be considered the first practical step following the Brussels agreements. Azerbaijan has previously outlined 5 points on which a peace agreement with Armenia should be based. Perhaps the most crucial point is mutual recognition of territorial integrity. It is complicated, because each side wants it on their own terms. While the Aliyev regime demands the Armenian side to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan, Armenians do not want to accept it due to the lack of basic security guarantees and fear of ethnic cleansing of the Nagorno-Karabakh population.
For the Armenian authorities, there is “nothing unacceptable” in these 5 points. However, according to the Armenian government, Azerbaijan’s proposals do not cover the entire agenda of the Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. For Armenia, it is of utmost importance to include the issues of the rights and security guarantees of the people in Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the clarification of the Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status in the agenda of peace negotiations.
The EU statement also does not contain any mention of the terms “Nagorno-Karabakh” or “conflict”․ Some experts consider this as a failure of the Armenian government, as the approach of ignoring the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict corresponds to Baku’s official stance. The Azerbaijani authorities ask for the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan (through recognition of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity) as a precondition to start negotiations. They are also urging various international actors to avoid using the term “Nagorno-Karabakh” in their public speeches.
The EU statement does not mention the OSCE Minsk Group format, co-chaired by the USA, France and Russia. However, Armenia attaches importance to the participation of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs in this process, because the OSCE Minsk Group has an international mandate to deal with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
At the same time, it is obvious that in the light of the war in Ukraine, it is difficult to imagine cooperation between the West and Russia as it was before February 24th 2022. Armenia understands this challenge for its policy.
The war in Ukraine put Russia in a situation where its focus shifted away from South Causacus; it hence does not have enough power to mediate in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This became evident in the recent escalations in Nagorno-Karabakh, and opens a space for the involvement of other mediators to fill the gap in the negotiation process. Under these circumstances, the EU high-level involvement in the mediating process between Armenia and Azerbaijan is very timely. It is highly important to avoid an escalation of another conflict, especially nowadays, having the war in Ukraine in mind.
Russia welcomed the Brussels negotiations and the reach of certain agreements, with recalling the November 2021 agreements reached between Azerbaijan and Armenia with the Russian mediation in Sochi. In 2021, Russia expressed its willingness to provide consultancy support upon the request of both sides, which will probably be required for the demarcation process, because the borders will apparently be delimitated based on the former Soviet Union maps. Russia, as the Soviet Union’s successor, possesses those maps and other relevant information.
At some stage, Russia is likely to become more active again in South Caucasus by attempting to get actively involved in the mediation process, as Russia considers South Caucasus as an area of its interest.
However, the EU should stay persistent. The impartiality of the EU in this process cannot be underestimated. In the search for alternative gas supply options for the European market, Europe should be careful when it comes to increasing its energy dependency on Azerbaijan, because it might risk the EU’s impartiality. Europe’s impartiality as mediating side can hugely contribute to the long-term stability in the region.