October - November 2023 probably will remain in the history of Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiations as a strange period full of hopes, disappointments, and confusion. Immediately after the military takeover of Nagorno Karabakh by Azerbaijan in September 2023 and the forced displacement of the entire Armenian population, there was a feeling that a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan was within reach. The disagreements over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and the future of the Armenian population were always seen as the main obstacles to the normalisation of bilateral relations. Even the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan by the Armenian government in October 2022 did not resolve the issue, as Armenia demanded an international presence in Nagorno-Karabakh to secure the rights of the Armenian population, and direct Baku – Stepanakert talks, while Azerbaijan rejected any possibility of an international presence and talks on status, arguing that talks could take place only about the reintegration of Nagorno Karabakh into Azerbaijan.
Thus, at the end of September 2023, everything seemed ready for a triumph of peace. The de facto President of the self–proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic, Samvel Shahramanyan, signed a decree to dissolve the Republic by the end of 2023, and the entire Armenian population left the region. The experts and politicians were preparing for the signature of a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan by the end of 2023.
However, only two months after, in early December 2023, no one talks about an upcoming peace agreement, and no one even knows when and where Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiations may resume. There could be different explanations for this situation. Some experts argue that Azerbaijan lost its interest in a peace agreement after "closing the Nagorno Karabakh chapter" by force and is interested in having a "no war, no peace" situation with Armenia to be able to continue to put military pressure on Armenia to satisfy its demands on enclaves and corridors.
Others point out to the fact that Armenia only answered to the latest Azerbaijani comments on the draft of the peace treaty, which were received on September 11, a few days ago. Thus, they believe that despite daily statements about Armenia’s readiness to sign peace agreement as soon as possible, based on the principles agreed during May and July 2023 meetings held in Brussels, in reality Armenia is not interested in peace.
Some experts believe that Azerbaijani leadership is not interested in the peace agreement because it needs a unifying idea to rally the population behind it. Since the early 2000s, raising the Azerbaijani flag in Nagorno-Karabakh served as such an idea, which united the population around the leaders despite inequality, corruption, and lack of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. Now, as President Aliyev reviewed a military parade in Stepanakert - with no Armenians around - on the 20th anniversary of his election as President, the dream is fulfilled. However, Azerbaijan's leaders need a new dream to secure the loyalty of the population for the next 20 years, and the concept of 'Western Azerbaijan" or the "Return of Azerbaijanis to their homeland/territory of current Armenia" may become the new idea to rally the population. In this context, any peace agreement with Armenia, regardless of the content, may kill the concept of Western Azerbaijan. Thus, Baku is not interested in signing any document.
Other experts blame everything on the transformation of the world order, and the Russia – West confrontation. They believe that Russia does everything to prevent the signature of a peace agreement in any Western capital, viewing such a prospect as another blow to its position in the region. Thus, Russia pressures Azerbaijan to reject the resumption of negotiations on Western platforms. At the same time, Armenia does not want to continue negotiations with Russia due to the deterioration of Armenia–Russia relations.
Regardless of the reasons behind the current impasse, one thing is clear – no peace agreement will be signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan by the end of 2023. Then, in 2024, election campaigns will start first in Russia, then in the EU, and later in the US. If everything seems clear as far as the results of the March 2024 Presidential elections in Russia are concerned, the situation in the EU and the US is more complex. It is challenging to assess whether current EU leadership, including European Council President Charles Michel, will keep their positions or whether we will have new leaders who may not be interested in Armenia–Azerbaijan relations. If Mr. Trump returns to the White House in January 2025, this may significantly impact US foreign policy, including in the South Caucasus. Moreover, we should not forget about the upcoming Parliamentary and Presidential elections in Azerbaijan in the first half of 2025, and the parliamentary elections in Armenia in June 2026.
In the current circumstances, there is a growing chance that there will be no peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan by the end of 2023, or even 2024. Both countries, and the mediators and facilitators, should prepare themselves for such an eventuality. The international community should send a clear message to Azerbaijan that the absence of a peace agreement cannot serve as a justification for further military attacks against Armenia, even for taking control over the enclaves.
As the prospects of a peace agreement become increasingly elusive, mediators and facilitators should put more effort into conflict management, seeking to avoid military escalations by facilitating talks even without any hope for short-term breakthroughs. Meanwhile, as Armenia and Azerbaijan embrace themselves for another period of uncertainty, more efforts should be put into fostering confidence and security-building measures. One of the options here could be the expansion of Armenia – Azerbaijan dialogues to include other regional countries – Georgia, Turkey, Iran, and Russia, which will allow them to discuss the realistic scenarios for the region's future in a frank manner.
source: Benyamin Poghosyan is a Senior Fellow on foreign policy at APRI Armenia and the founder and Chairman of the Centre for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
photo: A not-so-warm handshake between President Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Prime Minister Pashinyan of Armenia (archive picture)
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