Over the last year multiple formats have emerged in Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations, and three main external players: Russia, the EU and the US are involved in the mediation process. This may lead to some confusion, says Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed for commonspace.eu. Big power rivalry may also negatively impact the process. Poghosyan argues some co-ordinating mechanism is necessary, and a format, at least involving Russia and the EU, could also help to combine their efforts.
While the South Caucasus marked the second anniversary of the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war, negotiations to sign a peace agreement between Armenia – Azerbaijan have become increasingly complex. If during the first year after the war, it was Russia that almost exclusively controlled the process, now we have many actors with contradicting interests and visions. The EU entered the game first, organizing four summits between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders in the period of December 2021 – August 2022, simultaneously launching a new format of negotiations between the Secretary of the Armenian security council and top foreign policy aide to President Aliyev. Russia was watching the growing EU involvement in the process, messaging its concerns about the EU's desire to take the initiative from the Kremlin. However, the appearance of the US as a driver of Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiations, after the September 13-14, 2022 Azerbaijani aggression against Armenia, raised alarm bells in Russia. President Putin publicly spoke about the so-called "Washington version of the peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan," which presumably recognized Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. while hinting that according to Russia's perception, the issue of the final status of Nagorno Karabakh status should be postponed. The Russian ambassador in Armenia articulated this vision further, claiming that the best scenario was to leave the issue of Nagorno Karabakh status to the next generations. The US denied that it had presented the sides a draft peace treaty, arguing that its role was to provide a space for the sides to conduct discussions. However, apparently, Russia was not happy to see American involvement here.
Expert communities and broader layers of society in Armenia and Azerbaijan sought to grasp the differences between or even the mere existence of “Russian," 'European," and "American" versions of peace agreements. Meanwhile, the idea of signing a peace agreement by the end of 2022 came to the surface after September 27, 2022, meeting between the Secretary of the Armenian security council and top foreign policy aide to President Aliyev at the White House. This idea surprised many as too ambitious, given the need for more clarity on what was agreed and what was not agreed between the sides.
The next step was the Prague statement adopted at the first summit of the European political community on October 6, 2022. Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to recognize each other’s territorial integrity within the Alma-Ata declaration of December 1991. However, according to a long-standing Armenian position, Nagorno Karabakh declared its independence citing the principle of the peoples right for self-determination. Another significant result of the Prague meeting was the deployment of 40 unarmed EU observers along parts of the Armenia – Azerbaijan international border for two months. Many in Armenia believe that the mission's deployment should be extended and the number of observers should be increased.
As military failures in Ukraine shattered the perception of Russia’s military strength in many parts of the world, including in the South Caucasus, the Kremlin sought to regain the position of chief mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan by organizing a leaders' summit in Sochi on October 31, 2022. According to the Armenian read-out, Azerbaijan rejected Russia's offers to include in the final statement any mention of Nagorno Karabakh, as well as dismissed an Armenian offer to extend the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh beyond 2025, for an additional ten or even twenty years. However, during the Sochi meeting, Armenia and Azerbaijan confirmed the significant role of the Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh while reiterating mutual recognition of territorial integrity within the Alma-Ata declaration.
In parallel with the meetings between leaders, ministers of foreign affairs, the Secretary of the Armenian security council, and top foreign policy aide to President Aliyev, the trilateral Armenia – Azerbaijan – Russia commission on restoration of communications, established in early 2021, continues its activities. Another bilateral Armenia – Azerbaijan commission on border delimitation and demarcation held its third meeting in Brussels on November 3, 2022.
Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiations continue in different layers and through the mediation of different actors. The peace process comprises five layers - summits between leaders; discussions between ministers of foreign affairs; meetings between the Secretary of the Armenian security council and top foreign policy aide to President Aliyev; discussions of the commission on restoration of communications; meetings of the commission on border delimitation and demarcation. Meetings are convened by different mediators Russia, the EU, and the US. Given the ongoing Russia – US confrontation due to the war in Ukraine, where the EU fully supports the US, the direct involvement of Russia, the US, and the EU in the negotiation process complicates the situation. It potentially makes Armenia – Azerbaijan relations and the Nagorno Karabakh conflict settlement process another battlefield for the Russia – West confrontation. The five different layers of negotiations create some confusion, as sometimes discussions and tentative agreements within one layer are not taken into account the negotiations in other layers.
One of the ways to reduce the confusion and to create some clarity could be the convening of comprehensive summits with the participation of all Armenian and Azerbaijani actors involved in negotiations – to have at the same place and at the same time leaders, ministers of foreign affairs, Armenian Secretary of the security council and President's Aliyev top foreign policy aid, and the members of the two commissions dealing with the restoration of communications and border delimitation issues. Simultaneous negotiations may at least decrease the ambiguity on what is achievable and what is not.
The other option would be to combine the efforts of at least two mediators. The current level of Russia – US relations precludes any joint mediation efforts, but there is room to discuss the convening of a comprehensive Armenia – Azerbaijan summit with the joint participation of EU and Russian officials. No one accepts the presence in the same room of President Putin and President Michel or Minister Lavrov and the EU High representative for foreign Affairs and security policy Borrell. However, a meeting facilitated and attended by the EU Special representative in the South Caucasus and the Russian deputy foreign minister responsible for the South Caucasus may be a realistic option.