Armenia and Azerbaijan Negotiations: New context and New Challenges

In recent weeks we have seen the activation of meetings between the Armenia and Azerbaijan officials on the normalization of relations.

In the run up to and in the immediate aftermath of the Second Karabakh War, the negotiations hardly existed. Now, with the start of the war in Ukraine, they have restarted. A meeting of high-ranking officials in Brussels was followed on April 6 by an EU-facilitated summit between Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, which was followed by a phone call between the countries’ respective foreign ministers. The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, announced that the sides were ready to work on a peace treaty.

On Thursday, May 5, a Caucasus Edition webinar brought together Zaur Shiriyev, South Caucasus analyst at the International Crisis Group, and Philip Gamaghelyan, editor at Caucasus Edition and Assistant Professor at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, to discuss these developments, the associated risks and opportunities, and conditions under which an agreement could be reached. Christina Soloyan, editor at Caucasus Edition, moderated the webinar.

Addressing the question “why now?”, Gamaghelyan offered three explanations: First, for thirty years Armenia and Azerbaijan saw each other as the main security threat. However, recent geopolitical changes and Russia’s war in Ukraine in particular, has changed that perception. While they are still a threat to each other, this threat now appears manageable compared to a potential  loss of sovereignty resulting from the great power rivalries and becoming another front in the Russia-NATO proxy wars. Second, as a result of the Second Karabakh War, the EU and United States have been muscled out of the region by Russia and Turkey and are currently trying to stage a comeback through an active role in the negotiation process. Third, the governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia currently have relatively high degree of domestic legitimacy not seen in decades, the former because of a victorious war, and the latter as a result of winning snap elections despite defeat in the same war.

Shiriyev added that when the war broke out in Ukraine, there was a concern that it would lead to new escalation in Karabakh, yet the sides refrained from it. A second concern was that the West and Russia would be focused more on Ukraine and thus ignore the Caucasus, but instead the EU has become more active in the process. Moreover, the EU is not engaged in classic mediation, instead facilitating the establishment of direct bilateral talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia,a turn away from the previous strategies of the OSCE Minsk group co-chairs and Russia. “Facilitating is not about telling you what to do or how to do, but it’s about opening the space and helping you to discuss, creating a direct channel of negotiations,” said Shiriyev.

The next question discussed was the present-day interests and positions of the sides. Gamaghelyan suggested the Armenian government has been public and transparent on this issue. They shifted from the uncompromising stance they espoused prior to the 2020 war to normalization of relations with both Turkey and Azerbaijan. Gamaghelyan, however, noted a discursive problem in the way the Armenian government justifies their new stance, rooting it in the claim that “What we’ve got as a result of the war is the same situation that we would have gotten via negotiations prior to 2020.” The speaker saw a number of problems with that position. First, the disrespect to the thousands who lost their lives in the war. Second, the government’s claim is obviously false. The Madrid Principles, on which the negotiated settlement was to be based prior to 2020, was a comprehensive document that dealt with questions including the security of the populations, status of Nagorno-Karabakh, rights of the displaced people, and demilitarization of the seven regions outside of the former NKAO which are now heavily militarized. Solving every single one of these core issues following the Second Karabakh War is considerably more difficult. Third, by claiming that the war would have happened regardless, that the outcomes were predetermined, and that Armenia was simply an object in the process, the Armenian government is renouncing its own agency, as if it had no role or responsibility in the negotiations that could have prevented the war and achieved a sustainable settlement. The success of the current normalization process depends on the extent of agency that the sides bring to the table, and reclaiming agency starts with taking responsibility for one’s own actions in the run up to war.

When it comes to the current position of the Armenian government, Gamaghelyan said that the high-ranking officials publicly accepted the five points presented by Baku, adding a few points on their own. Further, the Prime Minister talked about “lowering the plank” when it comes to the status, which is widely interpreted as accepting the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. “What is missing from the discussion, then, is what happens to Karabakh and its population,” says Gamaghelyan, adding that the question of status and variants of a solution should become central to the expert level dialogue if for now at the official level such a discussion is impossible, “we are talking about lives and safety of hundreds of thousands of people.”

Shiriyev confirmed that according to the Azerbaijani officials as well, the five principles they proposed had been accepted by Yerevan. He also stressed that while delimitation and demarcation are the integral parts of the normalization process, the governments understand that solving these will take years and the sides could progress on a comprehensive peace agreement without waiting for these to be settled.

Shiriyev also talked about the Russian peacekeeping force. He stated that prior to the war in Ukraine no one in Baku openly talked about the possibility of the Russian forces leaving in 2025. But now this possibility is often raised in both public and private conversations. The question then is, what will replace it? What kind of security guarantees will be put in place instead?

Turning to the risk factors, Shiriyev mentioned internal instability in Armenia as the primary factor, followed by Moscow’s dissatisfaction with the EU’s activism in the negotiations process and the possibility that other actors might facilitate the peace process. The third risk is the possibility of a renewal of violence.

Gamaghelyan stressed that the ongoing protests in Armenia are the direct result of both negotiations resuming and Pashinyan’s announcement of “lowering the plank” on Karabakh’s status. The protests occur daily and attract thousands of people. However, since they are led by the deeply unpopular former government officials, their appeal is limited and they are unlikely  to grow large enough to challenge Pashinyan’s government even if he moves forward with the negotiations. While a popular revolution is unlikely, Gamaghelyan considers a coup, instigation of violent clashes, or an attempt to start a civil war as risk factors. As a second risk factor, he reiterated his earlier point that the South Caucasus is facing the danger of becoming another front in the NATO-Russia proxy war. This risk can be avoided if Armenia and Azerbaijan refuse to turn on one another and commit to the non-violent settlement of their conflict.

Turning to the content of a possible peace agreement, Shiriyev said that the larger part of population will ask three questions and assess the peace deal based on the answers they receive:

“Is the war really over? Who won the war? Who will hold the conflicting parties to the agreement they have signed?” Shiriyev added that answering these questions could in time create confidence towards the peace process in the societies. “The accusatory tone should be removed in the peace process by both sides. The public should see that the leaders are supporting this process”. Shiriyev says that the sides should make humanitarian gestures towards one another and these gestures should be without condition. One good-faith gesture would be to release  Armenian detainees. At the same time, Armenia could separately provide more information about the fate of Azerbaijani missing persons. As the third important component he mentioned the dialogue between the civil societies, and establishing expert-level working groups that would discuss the core questions: fate of the Karabakh Armenians, missing people, rehabilitation, and others.

Agreeing with this, Gamaghelyan noted that it is the first time in 30 years that the civil societies are almost completely absent from the peace process. He suggested to think about civil societies in a broader sense, not limiting them to the NGOs and including also the expert communities, non-institutional networks of activists, and others. For the peace process to be sustainable following 30 years of violence and isolation, it cannot solely focus on demarcation and communication roads. The process also requires deeper work on reconciliation, an area in which governments lack expertise. Civil society would help address questions of memory, war crimes, the rights of the displaced people, and more. “We see that even in a place like Europe, that has all the resources and has been committed to the peace process, it took decades for France and Germany to get to a point of the enmity getting to non-dangerous level… but it’s not simply decades passing by, it’s decades of intentional work.” Gamaghelyan said he is encouraged to see that currently the international actors are competing over who would be a better facilitator of peace as opposed to who will help the two countries to fight each other.

Turning to possible models for a peace process, he suggested considering a “Cyprus Plus” model: to start, ruling out violence and maintaining separation to get to some basic level of sharing the region, followed by comprehensive and long term work towards reconciliation and coexistence.

Shiriyev added that a peace agreement should not be seen as one side winning and other side losing but become a joint document from which both sides can benefit.