This editorial first appeared in the 11 May 2023 issue of our newsletter, Karabakh Concise. If you would like to subscribe to Karabakh Concise, or any other of our newsletters, please click here.
After months of diplomacy by e-mail, Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Washington DC in the first week of May for negotiations led by the foreign ministers of the two countries, with the United States providing facilitation and support, writes commonspace.eu in this editorial. The presence of US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, at the opening of the talks, raised expectations that the talks may be conclusive. They were not, but enough progress was made for Blinken to return for the closing session, telling his guests that the US appreciated that the last bit of any negotiating process was going to be the most difficult.
In the aftermath of the 2020 “44 day-Karabakh War” the European Union and the United States started playing a much more prominent role in brokering Armenian-Azerbaijani talks. Over the last year, the Russians, who initially seemed to hold all the cards, appeared increasingly marginalised, even if in fact their influence remains considerable. They have also since November 2020 hosted a number of meetings, with Putin gathering the two leaders for face-to-face discussions on several occasions. However, given the level of Russian entanglement, the talks hosted by Putin ended up being more operational than strategic. The talks hosted by the EU and the US over the last two years on the other hand were much broader and aimed at a comprehensive settlement of outstanding issues between the two countries.
In the talks in Brussels and in Washington a lot of ground has been covered and a lot of issues have been agreed. The basic text of an agreement started taking shape after hours of talks in Brussels, which formed the basis of last week’s negotiations in Washington. The talks are now down to the nitty-gritty issues that in many ways have always been the core issues behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, and most of them relate to the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The maximalist positions persist: on the Azerbaijani side the claim that Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijani territory – a claim that all world countries recognise – and that the Karabakh Armenians are simply Azerbaijani citizens who can exercise their rights under the Azerbaijani constitution as with all other citizens.
On the Armenian side, the claim that the Karabakh Armenians have exercised their right for self-determination, and that in any case their safety and security need to be recognised and protected by the international community.
Given that it appears that Armenia has now recognised that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan, many believe that the remaining differences between the sides can be bridged, which is why some are still optimistic that an agreement is within reach.
Three factors are hindering the process:
1. The level of distrust between the sides, cemented by constant propaganda promoting enemy imagery and a toxic social media coverage, has made even the smallest of steps difficult and complicated. Even when one or the other of the two leaders makes a grand gesture for compromise and reconciliation this is often derided and depicted as an act of cynicism;
2. Incidents on the ground have accompanied the peace process, often appearing close to derailing it. Some of these incidents have been pre-planned and aimed at strengthening the hand of one or the other of the sides in the negotiations, but many incidents happened sporadically – the result of a fluid border situation. Even this morning (11 May), as the two leaders prepare to leave for their next round of discussions, the sides exchanged artillery fire, and there were casualties on both sides;
3. The different negotiating platforms at times appeared to be in contradiction to each other. It is true that Armenian and Azerbaijani commentators have overstated this issue. Just in case the negotiations fail they appear to be preparing their domestic public opinion for the argument that the talks failed because of the mediators. There is of course rivalry between Russia on the one hand and the EU and US on the other, especially since the February 2022 launch of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, but this is not the main stumbling block for Armenia-Azerbaijan peace at present. The US and the EU appear to be co-ordinating their positions; such co-ordination may be difficult with Russia at this point, but channels of communication need to remain open.
However, in the end, success in the negotiations is going to depend largely on the will and ability of Ilham Aliyev and Nikol Pashinyan to finish what they started and get the agreement across the line.
On Sunday, they will meet in Brussels in talks brokered by European Council President Charles Michel. That the European Union is not expecting a major breakthrough on Sunday can be guessed from the fact that it has also been announced that other meetings are scheduled right until the autumn. This does not mean that some major steps cannot be taken immediately.
They should, because the temptation to draw out the ongoing situation for many more months, with the hope that time is on their side, has big risks. Unplanned incidents still have the capacity to escalate quickly and spiral out of control, feeding on the existing level of mistrust. The violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan reported this morning (11 May) is a case in point.
So in many ways this is the moment of truth, even if some would argue that we have been here before. Somehow however this time it feels different, even if the nitty-gritty problems have not gone away.