The developments of the last year proved that assessments according to which by taking some 8500 square km of territories in the 2020 Karabakh war, Azerbaijan will be satisfied and an era of peaceful development will be launched for Armenians, were highly exaggerated, and had little semblance to reality, argues Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed for commonspace.eu
Since the end of the 2020 Karabakh war, Armenia has faced a new, harsh reality along its borders with Azerbaijan. Some in Armenia hoped that after taking back most of the territories which Baku lost during the first Karabakh war of 1992-1994, an era of regional peace would start in the South Caucasus, while Azerbaijan would agree to continue negotiations to fix the status of Nagorno Karabakh within its 1988 borders. Baku was quite quick to dampen such perceptions. Azerbaijan established an economic region of Karabakh in July 2021 and started to aggressively push forward the narrative that war had ended not only the conflict, but Nagorno Karabakh itself, and thus it was senseless to negotiate over the status of a non-existing entity.
On the issue of the normalization of relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan put forward two main conditions: that Armenia recognises the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan within the 1991 borders of Soviet Azerbaijan, thus publicly and officially accepting Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan; and that Armenia provides uncontrolled transit access (no border, passport or customs control) for Azerbaijan via its Syunik province to reach its exclave the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and onwards to Turkey. Azerbaijani officials use the term "Zangezur corridor" to describe these routes, but for them, the main issue is not the term but the substance. Azerbaijan may therefore agree to Russia controlling these routes, replicating in the Syunik the arrangements already in place in the Lachin corridor as established by the November 10 trilateral statement.
These demands caught the Armenian leadership by surprise. The ruling Civic Contract party participated in the June 2021 early parliamentary elections with a peace-oriented platform, discussing the normalisation of relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey. After a landslide victory in elections, the new government used very cautious language in its five-year program, dropping the term Nagorno Karabakh Republic and being vague on the future status and territories of Nagorno Karabakh. Prime Minister Pashinyan talked about positive signals from Turkey to normalise bilateral relations, and probably established a back channel with President Erdogan to exchange views.
Meanwhile, the new Armenian government was not ready to implement, at least immediately, the two primary demands of Azerbaijan – to recognise Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan and have zero control on those roads and highways via the Syunik province, which would connect Azerbaijan with the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic.
The other political forces in Armenia took a tougher line on relations with Azerbaijan. They spoke about the necessity to declare at least some of the territories taken by Azerbaijan in 2020 as occupied territories of the unrecognized Nagorno Karabakh Republic. They warned about Turkey's future economic domination of Armenia if the normalisation of relations would entail the opening up of the Armenian economy for Turkish investments. In this context, Civic Contract hoped that Baku and Ankara should be interested to see them as interlocutors, and not take steps to weaken their positions.
Unfortunately for the ruling party, these calculations were far from reality. Azerbaijan not only consistently pushed forward for the implementation of its two demands but very quickly deployed the tools of coercive diplomacy and military blackmail to reach them. In April 2021, President Aliyev publicly stated that if Armenia did not provide the "Zangezur corridor" by goodwill, Azerbaijan would either force Armenia to do that or open the corridor by force. Only weeks after that statement, Azerbaijani troops encroached into Armenian territory in Syunik and Gegharkunik regions. During the summer, Azerbaijan added Ararat province in its military pressure campaign, coming closer to Yerevan.
In parallel with the Azerbaijani military pressure campaign, negotiations were underway between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia to come to agreements on borders delimitation and demarcation processes and restoration of communications. The talks appeared to reach a conclusion at the beginning of November, and the Russian President's Press Secretary announced an online trilateral leaders meeting in the week of November 8-12. Simultaneously, there was a leak in the Armenian media that during the meeting, scheduled for either November 9 or 10, Aliyev, Pashinyan, and Putin would sign two documents on borders and routes, which, the sources claimed, would violate Armenian national interests.
On November 7, 2021, the Armenian Prime Minister rejected the rumors on the upcoming meeting during an interview with Armenian Public Television. The meeting did not take place. Apparently, the Armenian side asked to postpone or cancel it. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan increased its political and military pressure on Armenia by deploying customs posts on roads connecting several cities and villages in the Syunik province, in practice closing them for Armenians. On November 14, Azerbaijani troops advanced their positions in the Syunik province, meeting no resistance, while on November 16 a six-hour mini-war broke out in Syunik which resulted in additional encroachment of Azerbaijani troops, while both sides reported heavy casualties.
Azerbaijan has a clear strategy – any start of border delimitation and demarcation process is possible only if Armenia agrees on the main principle – recognising Nagorno Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan. If Armenia rejects this demand, no delimitation process will start. The absence of the delimitation process means the absence of fixed borders, which implies that Armenia cannot blame Azerbaijan for border encroachment into its sovereign territory. That in turn means Armenia will not be able to trigger its mutual defence arrangements with Russia, nor the mutual defence clauses envisaged by the CSTO military alliance. Azerbaijan will seek to continue its advance into Armenian territories, simultaneously rejecting the accusations of violating Armenian borders. As for uncontrolled (or as the worst-case scenario for Azerbaijan only Russia controlled) access via Syunik to Nakhijevan, the Azerbaijan's position is clear – if Armenia rejects this option, Azerbaijan will demand to establish its checkpoints in the Lachin corridor to implement joint Russia – Azerbaijan control there.
The documents prepared for the postponed or canceled Moscow virtual summit were not published, so assessing their content and implications is challenging. However, as Armenia probably asked to postpone the meeting, we may assume that the government had concerns that their signature may trigger another domestic political crisis in Armenia. Interestingly after the mini-war of November 16, Prime Minister Pashinyan stated that Armenia received new offers on delimitation and demarcation from the Russian Ministry of Defense, which were acceptable for Armenia. The government has however stated that it would not publicise them as this may hinder the negotiation process.
Azerbaijan is very clear in its intentions – to continue to put military pressure on Armenia by making more advances into Armenian territories to force Yerevan to accept its two primary demands. In the current situation, Armenia has four options available;
- to accept Azerbaijani demands, which will be equal to capitulation,
- to stop the Azerbaijani army's further advance in Syunik through military means to deprive Azerbaijan of its tool of military blackmail – that is if Yerevan has such military capabilities,
- to involve in the process external powers, which will force Azerbaijan to stop its military pressure without Armenia accepting Baku’s demands,
- to reject Azerbaijani demands and continue to lose territories and bear casualties with no light at the end of the tunnel.
The acceptable choices for Armenia are the second and third options or some combination of them.
Meanwhile, the developments of the last year proved that assessments according to which by taking some 8500 square km of territories in the 2020 Karabakh war, Azerbaijan will be satisfied, will forget about the remaining part of Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia, and an era of peaceful development will be launched for Armenians, were highly exaggerated, and had little semblance to reality.
source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
photo: An Armenian checkpoint on the border with Azerbaijan (picture courtesy of Armenpress, Yerevan)
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