The issue of the status of Nagorno Karabakh cannot be avoided in future discussions on an Armenia-Azerbaijan bilateral peace treaty, argues Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed. One solution is to agree to some transitional arrangement.
The April 6 Brussels meeting between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev gave the Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiations new momentum. The sides agreed to establish a border delamination and demarcation commission and take steps to launch negotiations over the signature of a bilateral peace treaty. These issues were also agreed upon in principle back in November 2021, when two leaders had a meeting in Sochi facilitated by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The fact that even after February 24, 2022, Russia and the EU are pushing Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiations in the same direction serves as proof of the long-standing assertion that, at least on the Nagorno Karabakh issue, Russia and the West are mainly on the same page. Not surprisingly, in their recent phone talk, the Russian President and President of the European Council also discussed Nagorno Karabakh. After the April 6 meeting, the Russian foreign ministry expressed its concerns about the "EU’s attempts to hijack the initiative over the peace process from Russia." Nevertheless, fact is fact: EU and Russia work towards the same goal – to facilitate the three-pronged process – the restoration of communications, the start of the border delimitation and demarcation process, and the launch of Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiations over a bilateral peace treaty. Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his support for these goals during his recent meeting with Nikol Pashinyan in Moscow. Meanwhile, the EU facilitates bilateral dialogue at different levels, including through the newly established channel between the Secretary of the Armenian Security Council and President Aliyev’s assistant on foreign policy.
Since April 6, 2022, Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers have held two phone conversations and met in Dushanbe during the CIS summit of ministers of foreign affairs. The Russian foreign minister facilitated the Dushanbe meeting, focusing on pushing forward all three tracks. Russian Deputy Prime Minister and deputy foreign minister responsible for CIS countries visited Yerevan on May 12 to push forward the process of restoration of communications. On the same day, Armenian foreign minister Mirzoyan stated that the first session of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border demarcation and border security commission would be held in Moscow on May 16-17, alongside the meeting of the trilateral commission dealing with the issue of restoration of communications.
In early March 2022, Azerbaijan published its five principles, which should serve as a basis for the future agreement with Armenia. Armenia stated that these suggestions are acceptable but should be expanded by points related to the issue of Nagorno Karabakh. On April 6, Armenia delivered to Azerbaijan its six points, and ambassador at large Edmon Marukyan disclosed these points on May 13. There is a debate between Armenian and Azerbaijan authorities regarding what was agreed or not agreed on this topic during the April 6 meeting, while Azerbaijan claims that the Armenian points are not tangible suggestions. Nevertheless, despite the rhetoric, the sides appear to be closer to the official start of the negotiations.
Anyone involved in settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and Armenia – Azerbaijan relations has a clear understating that the sides are not going to sign an agreement within several months. The conflict has been here for too long, and issues are too sensitive for quick jumps. However, even if negotiations last until the end of 2024, Armenia and Azerbaijan will not be able to avoid the issue of the status of Nagorno Karabakh. Azerbaijan firmly believes that the future treaty should deal with Nagorno Karabakh and should clearly define Nagorno Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan. Official Baku hints that it may drop its post – 2020 war position that Nagorno Karabakh does not exist anymore and may be ready to provide some autonomy to Nagorno Karabakh, probably within the borders of November 2020. As for the extension of the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh, whose mandate will expire in November 2025, Azerbaijan theoretically may agree on this. However, Azerbaijan will demand the realization of two conditions. The extension should take place based on a bilateral Azerbaijan – Russia agreement without Armenia's involvement, and Azerbaijan's sovereignty should be reimposed over this territory, probably by officially providing Nagorno Karabakh some sort of autonomy within Azerbaijan.
The recent protest movement in Yerevan shows that any attempt by the Armenian government to sign a peace treaty legally accepting Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan will be rejected by a significant portion of the politically active part of the Armenian society. Such developments will significantly destabilize the domestic political situation in Armenia, theoretically resulting in a change of government and the failure of negotiations. Meanwhile, if Armenia asks not to include the Nagorno Karabakh issue in the agreement, Azerbaijan will probably reject this option. The pause or cancellation of negotiations over a bilateral treaty may pave the way for new military escalation. It may hinder progress on the other two tracks – border demarcation and restoration of communications.
One of the viable options to overcome a potential deadlock in the negotiations, and avoid the peace process's failure, may be establishing a "transitional period" for Nagorno-Karabakh in a future Armenia - Azerbaijan agreement. During this “transitional period,” the status quo that emerged after the 2020 Karabakh war should remain intact, with no territorial changes or population relocation. The OSCE Minsk group or other relevant international bodies may elaborate on specific criteria to determine conditions that will allow the termination of the “transitional period." Meanwhile, the sides may seek to provide an international mandate to the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in Karabakh, potentially supplementing Russian troops with forces of other countries. Implementing robust “confidence-building measures" between the sides supported by the international community should be a significant part of the deal.
Such a “Transitional period” may not seem the ideal solution. However, other options risk sooner or later destroying the fragile bilateral talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan and may bring the region back to the pre-2020 war situation.