"The current border tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia are not the first and likely not the last. Given this, a successful border demarcation/delimitation process could be a crucial point in paving the way for a final peace agreement between the two adversaries. Therefore, the resumption of direct peace talks is the only rational option", writes Fuad Shahbazov in this op-ed.
Last month, shortly after the first anniversary of the 44-day Karabakh war i between Azerbaijan and Armenia, saw a new phase of violent hostilities, and the fighting was far from conventional. Deadly skirmishes occurred on the Azerbaijan–Armenia's international border, in a place named Giziltapa (Tsitserrnakar) near Syunik province. According to the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan, the tensions flared up due to the Armenian Armed Forces' intensive artillery fires at the positions of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces. In response, the Armenian Ministry of Defense accused the Azerbaijani side of provocation, violating international borders, and spreading disinformation regarding the skirmishes.
The border tensions unfolded amid ongoing negotiations between Baku and Yerevan on the border delimitation/demarcation – a process based on Soviet maps with the mediation of Moscow – and ahead of a scheduled meeting of Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders in Russia, which took place in Sochi on 25 November. Although the final agreement has not been reached yet, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan signaled that he was ready for talks regarding the border demarcation and signed the document Russia drafted. Nevertheless, the domestic political turmoil in Armenia unleashed following the 44 day war has so far prevented the government from holding formal talks with Baku on border issues.
For the Azerbaijani government, the border delimitation/demarcation issue is of particular importance as it is a long-awaited chance for Baku to get a land route to its Nakhchivan exclave, and further on to Turkey, via Armenia’s Syunik province, thus linking territories directly to each other. However, one year after the Russia-brokered ceasefire in November of 2020, the negotiations over the communication lines and transit routes have not yet yielded any visible results.
In May of 2021, Azerbaijani troops advanced towards Sev Lich (Qaragol) in Syunik province and established outposts, highlighting that “according to maps in its possession, its troops have crossed no border, and are merely enacting a demarcation long delayed by the conflict.” Whereas the Armenian opposition harshly criticizes the current government of PM Nikol Pashinyan allegedly for its concessions to Azerbaijan, the recently leaked documents in the Armenian mass media proved there were long behind-the-scenes talks between Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev regarding the border demarcation process. In this context, it is safe to note that Pashinyan personally takes a more pragmatic approach towards the issue, as it is the only way to end Armenia's three-decades-long economic isolation, end violent tensions, and get access to foreign markets. Unsurprisingly however, the resistance of domestic opposition and ongoing political instability followed by mass protests are a real challenge for the ruling cabinet in Armenia.
The current border escalation between Baku and Yerevan can be explained as a “borderization" process in which borders between adversaries remain ambiguously demarcated. In this regard, Azerbaijan’s decision to move beyond the traditional borderline in November 16 may be intended to obtain additional leverage over Yerevan, enforce the establishment of the transit route and admit new border demarcation/delimitation realities. However, in that case, Azerbaijan would directly challenge Russia - the main stakeholder and guarantor of the ceasefire agreement, which sounds unlikely.
Moreover, Armenia’s inability to defend its border deepens the confidence crisis between the state and population, whereas it also decreases the state's confidence in Moscow' , which is still considered a strategic ally, and its ability and will to provide protection.
In a broader context, although Armenia’s Nikol Pashinyan is eager to reach a final agreement on border demarcation, he wants to avoid possible questions of legitimacy of such agreement with Azerbaijan from the opposition side and further resistance within the military elite. Since the end of the war, Pashinyan’s government has been sensitive of the rigid stance of the local military, and survived several attempts of dismissal from military quarters. In just one year, the Chief of the Army Staff of Armenia, Colonel-General Onik Gasparyan, was sacked, Defense Minister David Tonoyan was put under arrest. At the same time, his two successors Vagharshak Harutiunyan, and Arshak Karapetyan, were dismissed from their posts after serving briefly in office. The government’s earlier warnings of an attempted military coup and frequent swap of defense chiefs suggest that Nikol Pashinyan perceives the local conservative military elite as the main obstacle for possible peace negotiations with Azerbaijan and suspects it is plotting provocations in border areas to undermine the current government’s legitimacy and peace talks with Baku. The appointment of a new defense chief, a Pashinyan party loyalist with no military background and relevant experience in the field, only supports the hypothesis above.
In order to put an end to such debates within, Prime Minister Pashinyan insists that peace talks (including border issues) between Baku and Yerevan should be restored under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group, a long-term peace mediator between Azerbaijan – Armenia established in 1992 – notwithstanding the fact that any the post-war peace negotiations in this format are doomed to fail, just like the previous three-decades lengthy negotiations over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
With Azerbaijani forces taking new positions like Giziltepe in the northwest of Lachin direction and partly ensuring control over the road to Ishkhanasar village in Sisian municipality, Nikol Pashinyan said that “Azerbaijani forces now control about 41 square kilometers of Armenia.” Paradoxically, the Armenian Prime Minister has been using the same figure since the border tensions in May, which suggests that Azerbaijani Forces did not seize additional territories during the most recent skirmishes.
The current border tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia are not the first and likely not the last. Given this, a successful border demarcation/delimitation process could be a crucial point in paving the way for a final peace agreement between the two adversaries. Therefore, the resumption of direct peace talks is the only rational option.
source: This op-ed was prepared for KarabakhSpace.eu by Fuad Shahbazov, an independent analyst. @fuadshahbazov
Photo: Armenia-Azerbaijan border (picture courtesy of Armenpress, Yerevan