The start of 2022 seemed promising for settling the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and the normalization of Armenia – Azerbaijan, and Armenia – Turkey relations. In December 2021, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and President Ilham Aliyev met in Brussels, launching the “Brussels format”. In November 2021 they met in Sochi under the patronage of President Putin, signing the third trilateral Armenia – Azerbaijan – Russia statement. On January 14, 2022, the special representatives of Armenia and Turkey had their first meeting in Moscow, starting a new phase in the process of normalizing Armenia – Turkey relations.
The first sign of problems to come appeared soon after the start of the war in Ukraine in late February 2022, which sent shockwaves to many regions, including the South Caucasus. Since the end of the first Nagorno Karabakh war in 1994, the US, Russia, and France, as co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, had cooperated to find a solution to the conflict. The 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war was a significant blow to this format, as the US and France were effectively sidelined by Russia and were not involved in elaborating the November 10, 2020, trilateral statement.
However, the Minsk Group co-chairs continued their activities, despite Azerbaijan's claims that the conflict was solved and no Nagorno Karabakh existed anymore. On December 7, 2021, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, and French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian adopted a joint statement expressing support for the resumption of direct dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan under the auspices of the Minsk Group Co-Chairs and reaffirmed their commitment to working with the sides to find comprehensive solutions to all remaining issues related to or resulting from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in accordance with their mandate. The war in Ukraine effectively put an end to the co-chairs' co-operation, and activities. Russia, the US, and France exchanged mutual accusations regarding who ruined the process, but at the end of the day, the Minsk group de facto stopped its work.
Then Azerbaijan relaunched its campaign of military pressure, seeking to force Armenia to accept its vision of a peace treaty articulated in five principles. It started in March 2022, when Azerbaijani troops entered Parukh, an Armenian village close to the new line of contact between Azerbaijan and the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic. Military escalation by Azerbaijan peaked on September 13-14, 2022, as Azerbaijan launched large-scale aggression against Armenia in multiple directions, encroaching deep into Armenian territory.
Between March – September 2022, while Russia was busy with Ukraine, the EU significantly increased its involvement in the negotiation process. Brussels organized three leaders' summits and launched a new negotiation format with Secretary of the Armenian Security Council Armen Grigoryan and top foreign policy aide to President Azerbaijan Hikmet Hajiyev. In April 2022, Armenian leadership expressed its readiness for significant concessions, publicly speaking about the need to lower the bar on the status of Nagorno Karabakh.
The September 2022 Azerbaijani aggression triggered a new set of diplomatic activities led by the US. The Americans organized a meeting between Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in New York and between Armen Grigoryan and Hikmet Hajiyev at the White House. After that meeting, Armenian and Azerbaijani officials started to speak about a preliminary agreement to sign a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan by the end of 2022. On October 2, 2022, the Azerbaijani foreign minister presented a revised text of the peace agreement during the meeting with his Armenian counterpart in Geneva. Four days later, in Prague, the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, France, and the President of the European Council endorsed a statement, which opened the way for the deployment of EU monitoring capacity in Armenia for two-month period. Another significant outcome of the Prague statement was mutual recognition of each other's territorial integrity based on the 1991 Alma-Ata declaration. On the same day, the Armenian Prime Minister met with the Turkish President, the first meeting between the two countries leaders since 2009.
After the wave of diplomatic activities in late September – early October 2022, it seemed that the idea of signing a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan by the end of 2022 was more than a dream. However, November – December 2022 proved that pessimists were closer to reality. After Russia re-inserted itself in the negotiation process by organizing a new trilateral leaders' summit on October 31, 2022, and Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers met in Washington on November 7, 2022; the peace process stalled. Azerbaijan returned to its strategy of coercive diplomacy and military blackmail, and President Aliyev made belligerent statements on November 8 and 25. A new meeting in Brussels scheduled for December 7 was canceled due to the controversy about President Macron's participation. On December 12, 2022, Azerbaijan closed the Lachin corridor, the only route connecting Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia, under the pretext of environmental protests. As the blockade entered its third week, Armenia decided not to participate in the planned trilateral Armenia – Azerbaijan – Russia meeting at the level of foreign ministers scheduled for December 23, 2022. In recent days Azerbaijan protestors put forward new demands which have nothing to do with the environment or climate change. They want Nagorno Karabakh's newly appointed state minister Ruben Vardanyan to resign and leave and also demand to establish an Azerbaijani checkpoint along the Lachin corridor. Armenia seeks to raise international pressure to force Azerbaijan to open the corridor, while the Nagorno Karabakh population faces a real threat of starvation. With only a few days left to bid farewell to 2022, no one expects the signature of the Armenia – Azerbaijan peace treaty anytime soon; on the contrary, many believe that new military escalations by Azerbaijan are likely in early 2023.
In the current situation, the external players involved in the negotiations and interested in preventing a resumption of hostilities should focus on preserving the fragile stability that emerged after September aggression by Azerbaijan. In this context, the resumption of the Brussels format of negotiations is of utmost importance. Otherwise, the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and Armenia – Azerbaijan relations risk becoming another pawn in Russia – US confrontation, with negative implications for all sides.
source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the founder and Chairman of the Centre for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
Photo: The first trilateral meeting between president Aliyev of Azerbaijan and prime minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia was held in brussels in December 2021.
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