With Nikol Pashinyan reinstalled as the prime minister of Armenia and his government now in place, there have been some signs of optimism in Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. In this op-ed for KarabakhSpace.eu, Vasif Huseynov gives his perspective on positive developments and remaining challenges, Azerbaijan's redlines, and the status of the peace process.
After being officially appointed as prime minister following his party’s landslide win in the June parliamentary elections in Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan quickly formed his new government and adopted a five-year government programme in August. Contrary to the expectations of many observers, the elections did not result in much instability in the country, although several sittings of the new parliament resulted in brawls between the deputies – a reflection of continued domestic tensions in the country that still have the potential to spiral out of control.
The formation of the government, the appointment of a new foreign minister after a two-and-a-half-month vacuum, and the subsequent end to the political uncertainty of recent months in Yerevan opened the way for the resumption of the post-war negotiations with Baku over a long list of conflictual issues on the bilateral agenda. A first step towards this was the resumption of the trilateral [Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia] working group, which was established during the 11 January summit of the three leaders in Moscow and tasked with presenting action plans (including implementation schedules) to their governments regarding regional railroad and highway projects at its meeting on 17 August.
Prime Minister Pashinyan continued to give optimistic messages about the reopening of communication channels in the region stating at a cabinet meeting on 12 August that “One of [the] issues which I believe can be solved rather quickly is the opening of regional communications, the agenda of regional unblocking.” His government has, on a number of occasions, defended this provision of the trilateral ceasefire accord of 10 November 2020 and found it critically important for the stimulation of the stagnating economy of Armenia. Nevertheless, despite this optimism and support of both sides, the initiative is loaded with controversies (primarily in regard to the Zangezur corridor) that will likely complicate the trilateral negotiations before the sides reach a consensus.
Another area where there seems to be some agreement between Baku and Yerevan is concerning the demarcation and delimitation of the Armenia–Azerbaijan state border. The violent clashes between the armed forces of the two countries since 12 May reaffirmed the necessity of demarcation process which Russia, the main mediator between the two, supported and offered mediation and, if necessary, consultation. Pashinyan, in his cabinet meeting of 12 August, stressed the importance of work in this direction, which he said, “must be more active”. This gives some grounds to believe that in the following months the sides will reach progress in this area, which will create favourable conditions for discussions over a comprehensive peace treaty in the future.
There are, however, numerous challenges presently for a peace treaty to be possible between the two countries, despite the consistent calls for this from the Azerbaijani side. The new foreign minister of Armenia, Ararat Mirzoyan, in a press conference following his meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow on 31 August, reiterated the position of his predecessor declaring that an agreement over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh should be part of a peace treaty, “based on the principles already established by the Minsk Group Co-Chairs”. These principles, also known as the Basic Principles or Madrid Principles, are “non-use of force, territorial integrity, and the equal rights and self-determination of peoples”.
Mr Mirzoyan did not clarify how such a settlement might look like in practice as the sides had failed to reach a consensus over the implementation of these principles for more than 25 years of pre-war negotiations. However, the major question is about the attitude of the Armenian governments to the initiatives of the Minsk Group prior to the 44-Day War. While the previous governments at least imitated the negotiations and discussed the ways for the implementation of the proposals of this group, Pashinyan took a rather uninformed position and denied the existence of any documents at the negotiating table in April 2020, thereby rejecting all the efforts of the Minsk Group, including the Madrid Principles. This was practically the last nail in the coffin of the negotiations before the war. It is therefore intriguing that his government seeks to revive the Minsk Group and its principles, after Azerbaijan has accomplished the liberation of its territories through military means, ie outside the Minsk Group framework.
For the Azerbaijani government, any international negotiation over the status of its internationally recognised territories is unacceptable as Baku, in line with the United Nations Security Council’s resolutions, considers the Karabakh region as part of its sovereign territories. Azerbaijan, hence, considers the conflict as resolved in accordance with the outcomes of the 44-Day War, while Armenia insists it could not be counted resolved without an agreement on the status issue. Therefore, the two countries will likely remain stuck in a never-ending dispute for the foreseeable future unless Yerevan agrees to modify its position and recognises Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.
Although no major power has yet called Armenia to denounce its territorial claims against Azerbaijan and demonstrate a constructive position in the peace negotiations, they show reluctance to buy into the agenda promoted by Armenia concerning the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. For instance, in his congratulatory letter to Armenia’s newly appointed foreign minister, Mirzoyan, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, characterised the situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan as “post-conflict” in an apparent reference to the need to focus on issues beyond the conflict. A similar approach was maintained by European Union Council President, Charles Michel, during his visit (17 July) to Armenia, where he only fleetingly mentioned the necessity of an agreement on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia, the major mediator of the peace talks between Baku and Yerevan, holds a more explicit position in the conflictual issues between the two. Moscow has suggested to leave the issue of Karabakh’s status to the future and, as such, does not bring it up in the present negotiations. This was observed during Mirzoyan’s Moscow visit as well, where Lavrov avoided this issue as opposed to his Armenian colleague who stressed this as a precondition for a peace treaty. Lavrov disagreed with Mirzoyan on the issue of the Armenian prisoners detained by Azerbaijan also. In response to a question from the journalists, he said the status of those prisoners is not covered by the trilateral ceasefire deal of 10 November, as they were detained after the end of the war. He, however, called upon Azerbaijan to release them and Armenia to share the maps of minefields with Azerbaijan, as these steps would create a positive atmosphere in the region.
Thus, after a short pause due to Armenia’s parliamentary elections, the peace negotiations seem to be slowly resuming between Baku and Yerevan. Unlike the pre-war period, this time it looks like the process will continue to be conducted within the format Russia-Armenia-Azerbaijan, established on 10 November 2020. If this is the case, it would further sideline the OSCE Minsk Group from the process, despite all counter efforts of the Armenian government. For years, all the way up until the outbreak of last autumn’s 44-day Second Karabakh War, Baku had grown increasingly frustrated with the Minsk Group’s mediation failures, as well as the biased approaches of the Minsk Group co-chair, France. The Group did not take any measures vis-à-vis Armenia when its government denied the documents proposed by the Group after years of laborious efforts. Therefore, Azerbaijan has declared no interest in seeing the Minsk Group take on any specific role in the post-war peace negotiations or in the border demarcation process with Armenia. However, Baku expressed willingness to co-operate with the Group provided they come up with constructive initiatives addressing the post-conflict concerns, rather than bringing back the former conflict narratives, including those about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.