"As the sides are coming closer to the signature of a peace agreement, steps should be taken to solve the issues along the Armenia – Azerbaijan state border and the line of contact," writes Benyamin Poghosyan for commonspace.eu. "The population of the self–proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic and Armenians and Azerbaijanis living along the state border have the inalienable right to live in a secure environment while external actors are moving forward with their geopolitical ambitions. In this context, a concrete measure to ease tensions can be the establishment of an incident prevention and response mechanism."
The restart of intensive Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiations in May 2023 gave hope that an Armenia – Azerbaijan peace agreement is within reach. Meetings in Washington, Brussels, Moscow, and Chisinau seem to have paved the way for a deal by the end of 2023. Officials from both countries started to sound more optimistic regarding the prospects of peace and stability in the South Caucasus. The Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers will have another round of talks in Washington in the next days, and the President of the European Council Michel will host Prime Minister Pashinyan and President Aliyev in Brussels on 21 July.
However, despite all these positive developments, in the last ten days, Armenia and Azerbaijan made daily statements about ceasefire violations along the Armenia – Azerbaijan state border, while Azerbaijan and the authorities of the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic accused each other of ceasefire violations along the line of contact. Things almost went out of control when, as a result of Azerbaijani fire, two Indian nationals were wounded in the village of Yeraskh near the border with Nakhijevan. They were involved in constructing a metallurgy plant, a joint Armenia – US investment project.
It is a worrying pattern, as in the past two years, that Azerbaijan usually issued statements of ceasefire violations before launching large-scale military attacks against Armenia or the self–proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic. It was the case during the August and September 2022 escalations.
After an incident near the recently established Azerbaijani checkpoint at the entrance of the Lachin corridor, Azerbaijan closed the checkpoint, entirely cutting off Nagorno Karabakh from the outside world. Azerbaijan accused Armenia of firing towards the checkpoint, while Armenia argued that Azerbaijani troops sought to advance into Armenian territory and raise an Azerbaijani flag there.
The growing number of shootings and incidents do not contribute to a positive environment for negotiations
It is challenging to assess the primary reasons behind the recent escalations. Some experts believe that Azerbaijan was putting additional pressure on Armenia before crucial negotiations, a tactic used often by Azerbaijan since the end of the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war. Others argue that talk of significant progress in the negotiation process has been exaggerated, and Azerbaijan is preparing to launch a large-scale military operation against the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic. President Aliyev's 28 May speech, where he practically issued an ultimatum to the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic, either to dissolve all state institutions and hope for amnesty, or brace themselves for harsh consequences, adding additional tensions to the situation.
The growing number of shootings and incidents in the last ten days do not contribute to establishing a positive environment for the negotiations. The conflicting messages from Azerbaijan and Armenia also confuse the international community. The European Union deployed a two-year-long civilian mission in Armenia in February 2023. However, around 100 civilian observers cannot monitor the 1000 km long Armenia – Azerbaijan border. Besides this, the mission informs the Azerbaijani side about upcoming patrols along the Armenia – Azerbaijan border, which reduces the possibility of the mission registering ceasefire violations.
It should be noted that the 10 November 2020 Russia-Armenia-Azerbaijan trilateral statement did not create any mechanism to discuss possible incidents along the new line of contact and prevent future ones. There is a lack of clarity regarding the peacekeeping forces' mandate and their rules of engagement. Azerbaijan has yet to approve the peacekeeping forces mandate. Regardless of the reasons behind Baku's decision, the ambiguity on peacekeeping forces' mandate and rules of engagement create the possibility of additional flashpoints along the line of contact.
A concrete measure to ease tensions can be the establishment of an incident prevention and response mechanism
As the sides are coming closer to the signature of a peace agreement, steps should be taken to solve the issues along the Armenia – Azerbaijan state border and the line of contact. The population of the self–proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic and Armenians and Azerbaijanis living along the state border have the inalienable right to live in a secure environment while external actors are moving forward with their geopolitical ambitions.
In this context, a concrete measure to ease tensions can be the establishment of an incident prevention and response mechanism. The IPRM can provide an opportunity to discuss such issues as identifying potential risks, following up on incidents, exchanging information, and problems affecting the communities daily. A hotline between relevant sides at an operational level can operate within the framework of this mechanism. The main goal of the hotline can be the rapid response to concrete and specific incidents. Ideally, the representatives of the self–proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Russian peacekeeping forces, and the EU monitoring mission may participate in the discussions within this mechanism.
Of course, since the start of the Ukraine war in February 2022, it has been challenging to envisage Russians and Europeans' joint participation in any endeavor, although the EU has tried to keep communication with Moscow on its peace efforts in the region open. Also, despite the war in Ukraine, Russia and the West remain engaged in the framework of the Geneva International Discussions focused on the conflicts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The history of conflicts tells us that as sides come closer to the signature of an agreement, the chances for last-minute disruptions increase. Establishing an incident prevention and response mechanism can play a vital role in building confidence and trust and may shape a more conducive environment for negotiations.