Commentary: Step by step

On Saturday, 15 July, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan once again met in Brussels, under the auspices of the president of the European Council Charles Michel, to discuss the future of the relations between their two countries after years of war and conflict.

Another meeting, one of dozens that have taken place in the last two years in different parts of Europe and beyond. Many cynics have stopped hoping and stopped watching, dismissing the whole exercise as simply an excuse to perpetuate the status quo. Some blame Armenia, some Azerbaijan, many blame both, and most blame the Russians.

Yet they are wrong. Armenia and Azerbaijan, and their leaders, Nikol Pashinyan and Ilham Aliyev have the unenviable task of reconciling two nations that have been in a bitter conflict for decades. Opinions on both sides are hardened. Their is no road map to follow to pursue peace - the sides are making it up as they go along. The international context is as complicated as can be.

But the two sides have for some time now committed to end this cycle of violence and conflict and seek a comprehensive peace agreement. Easier said than done as they soon found out. Unpacking the issues and trying to solve them has been a painfully laborious process, exacerbated by incidents on the ground, and pockets of hardliners on both sides. Even as they negotiate the two sides continue to exchange vitriolic verbal attacks against each other - just in case.

Yet progress is being made, and yesterday, speaking after the meeting in Brussels, European Council president Charles Michel summed it up

We are going through one of the most comprehensive and vigorous stages of negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

My remarks following the meeting with Prime Minister @NikolPashinyan and @presidentaz:

— Charles Michel (@CharlesMichel) July 15, 2023

Michel in his summing up of the meeting listed the long list of issues still to be tackled:

"We have just completed our sixth meeting with President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan. We once again had a frank, honest and meaningful exchange of views. Our meeting was the latest in a series of intensive and productive high-level meetings with the participation of the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Deputy Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers, held since the beginning of May in Brussels, Chisinau, Washington, Moscow and on the bilateral border.

One of the most complete and energetic stages of negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan is taking place. I thanked the leaders for their strong commitment to the peace process and encouraged them to continue to take bold steps to ensure decisive and irreversible progress towards the normalization of relations. While our meeting took place amid an alarming rise in tensions on the ground, I noted an important momentum in political discussions and efforts.

We discussed all items on the agenda.

sovereignty and territorial integrity. The leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan once again fully reaffirmed their respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of each other, based on the understanding that the territory of Armenia is 29.8 thousand square kilometers, and Azerbaijan - 86.6 thousand square kilometers.

Border delimitation. Both leaders reaffirmed their firm commitment to the 1991 Alma-Ata Declaration as the political basis for the delimitation.

I welcomed the July 12 meeting of the two border commissions. Work has progressed on the development of the statutes of these commissions and the discussion of the principles of delimitation.

And what is very important, the leaders agreed to intensify and speed up the work of the commissions.

Communications . Over the past two months, the parties have also made clear progress in discussions related to the unblocking of transport and economic ties in the region. We discussed the mechanisms of future transport relations, within which the principles of sovereignty, jurisdictions and reciprocity will be respected.

The construction of railway lines must be started immediately. The EU is ready to provide financial support. Some details still require clarification, but positions on this issue are already converging, options are being actively studied.

Humanitarian supplies . We discussed the situation of the Armenian population  of Karabakh and the situation around the Lachin corridor. The current state of affairs is clearly unstable and does not serve anyone's interests. We also discussed possible concrete steps to help bring the situation back to normal.

I stressed the need to open the Lachin road. I also noted Azerbaijan's readiness to equally deliver humanitarian cargo through Aghdam. I consider both options important and encourage humanitarian deliveries from both sides to meet the needs of the population.

I also welcomed the resumption of work of the International Committee of the Red Cross on medical evacuations.

Rights and Security . First of all, the population on the ground should be reassured that their rights and security will be ensured.

In this context, I expressed EU support for a direct dialogue between Baku and representatives of the Armenians living in the former Nagorno- Karabakh Autonomous Region. This dialogue should give confidence, much needed to all participants in the process.

Detainees . We also discussed issues related to the detainees. The leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the gentleman's understanding that the process of releasing soldiers who accidentally changed sides would be facilitated.

I advocated that the detainees be released on both sides.

The importance of closer cooperation in addressing issues related to the fate of missing persons and demining was also discussed. I again urged the parties to share as much information as possible.

Follow up . We have agreed that our teams will stay in close contact to ensure future action on the issues discussed today. Real progress depends on the next steps to be taken in the near future.

As a matter of priority, violence and harsh language must be stopped in order to create the right conditions for peace negotiations and normalization of the situation.

I also confirmed my intention to invite the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to the next meeting in Brussels after the summer, as well as to the next five-party meeting with the participation of the leaders of France and Germany in Granada on the sidelines of the next summit of the European Political Community".

It is clear that what is required now is perseverance and hard work, and a bit of common sense will not go amiss also. The sides must stop the verbal abuse of each other. First, the two governments should instruct their diplomats to speak in a measured way. Too often Armenian and Azerbaijani diplomats have reverted to their comfort zone of complete negativity when addressing each other. They now need to lead be example in the new path of reconciliation. On the ground commanders must tighten discipline to ensure no unnecessary incidents occur. And in wider society those who claim they want peace now need to accelerate their work, not least by urging the many who have sat conveniently on the side whilst the leaders negotiated, to weigh in on the side of peace and negotiations.

Those who hoped for a dramatic breakthrough in the past in the process of Armenia - Azerbaijan normalisation, may have been disappointed at how slow the process moved. Those who still think that peace is a "moment" are mistaken. It is a process that needs to develop step by step. The meeting in Brussels this weekend was certainly a step in the right direction.

source: This is a commentary prepared by the editorial team of
photo: Nikol Pashinyan and Ilham Aliyev with Charles Michel in Brussels on 15 July 2023.

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