The two countries’ leaders meet in Brussels amid fears that large-scale conflict could soon return to the region.
Thousands of opposition supporters rally in the Armenian capital of Yerevan on April 5 to denounce the government's handling of a territorial dispute with arch-foe Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Pashinyan and Aliyev Meet in Brussels
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev meet Wednesday in Brussels for talks mediated by EU Council President Charles Michel amid fears of fresh conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Although Russia is not part of Wednesday’s talks, President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine looms large. Russian peacekeeping forces have been deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh as part of a Russian-brokered peace deal since the 2020 conflict ended in Azerbaijan’s favor. Whether they stay there depends on how the war in Ukraine progresses, as does Moscow’s interest in restoring peace should a renewed Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict break out.
Armenia has reason to worry about the future, despite Russia’s historically strong support. Moscow’s failure to intervene on Armenia’s behalf in 2020, despite a defense pact, illustrates the shifting allegiances in the South Caucasus. On Feb. 22, the day after Putin publicly recognized the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, Aliyev was in Moscow signing a deal to increase military and diplomatic cooperation.
Recent incidents on the ground have raised tensions between the two sides. In March, Armenia accused Azerbaijan of violating a cease-fire agreement when Azerbaijani troops captured the town of Farukh, a strategically important village in Nagorno-Karabakh in an area usually patrolled by Russian forces.
Azerbaijan rejected the accusation, saying the town was part of its internationally recognized territory.
Armenia’s security council has since accused Azerbaijan of “preparing the ground for fresh provocations and an offensive on Nagorno-Karabakh.”
During Wednesday’s talks, Pashinyan and Aliyev are expected to discuss Nagorno-Karabakh as well as other pressing bilateral issues. Despite their differences, both leaders have sounded positive notes coming into the meeting. Lilit Makunts, Armenia’s ambassador to the United States, said via e-mail that she expects a “constructive” meeting and that her government is both “keen and has political will to achieve peace and stability.”
“In this context leaders may also touch base upon the issues of a possible comprehensive peace agreement,” Makunts added.
Khazar Ibrahim, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United States, also intimated that a nascent peace deal was forming. “We all need peace,” Ibrahim told Foreign Policy. “We expect practical steps in the direction of having a real peace deal.”
Regardless of the outcome, the fact that the two leaders are meeting at all is significant, especially since a formal framework for negotiations has yet to open. It also highlights the interest the European Union has taken in the issue and follows a similar meeting at the end of 2021.
“With the situation in Ukraine right now, it’s really very important that we have EU officials at such a senior level to get involved bringing these sides together,” said Olesya Vartanyan, a senior analyst for the South Caucasus region at the International Crisis Group. Vartanyan noted the frequency of engagement as a further positive sign: “It’s not just one event they had in December one day—it’s something that is becoming more of a process.”
The EU’s involvement is also timely, given Russia’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine. Russia’s economically precarious situation risks diluting the power it once had to mediate in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a development that calls for more interlocutors, Vartanyan said. “If Russia really becomes weaker and not able to pay attention to the South Caucasus, then I’m afraid we are left with a huge problem.”
Whether the EU can present itself as a neutral party is also up for debate. If one looks at its recent aid package to the six EU Eastern Partnership nations, the balance clearly seems in favor of Armenia, with the $3.1 billion doled out last July contrasting with the $152 million given to Azerbaijan. (Ukraine, another member of the partnership, received $2 billion.) However, relations could soon shift in Azerbaijan’s favor, especially as European countries look for replacements for Russian gas.
In Armenia, there is a sense among opposition groups that another capitulation is on the horizon. As Joshua Kucera explores in Eurasianet, that feeling stems from a subtle change in rhetoric from Armenia’s leaders, who seem resigned to Azerbaijan gaining full control over ethnic Armenian areas in Nagorno-Karabakh currently under the protection of Russian peacekeepers.
(c) 2022, Foreign Policy