For the first time in years, serious negotiations are underway between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The meeting in Brussels on May 22 between the two leaders, Ilham Aliyev and Nikol Pashinyan, mediated by EU Council President Charles Michel resulted in a substantial declaration of progress on several issues, even though it leaves many questions unanswered.
After a long period of inaction following the 2020 war, the ice was broken in early 2022, with the emergence of the EU as a new key mediator in Armenian-Azerbaijani talks. The war in Ukraine had a catalyzing effect, as Russia was both distracted and internationally isolated. Both Baku and Yerevan see the EU as a more “honest broker” than Moscow, without Russia’s geopolitical ambitions or complicated bilateral relations with each country that might adversely affect the negotiations. For Yerevan, EU mediation is a bridge to Europe, helping Armenia pursue its traditional ambition of a balanced foreign policy where it is not solely reliant on Russia. For Baku, the EU is a mediator which lacks the “baggage” and associations of the OSCE Minsk Group.
Unlike the Russians, the EU is also happy to allow the two leaders to meet without anyone else in the room and has facilitated the formation of a key bilateral channel between advisers Armen Grigoryan and Hikmet Hajiiev. Finally, the EU is the biggest bilateral donor in the world, so there is a hope that it can back up any political agreement with substantia funding.
Three questions on the new process, all inter-linked, remain unanswered so far. What does this mean for Russia’s separate negotiations? What about the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs? And what does this mean for the Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh?
The word “Russia” is absent from any of the EU statements on the negotiations—even though they are essentially an attempt to resolve the unanswered questions from the Russian-mediated 2020 ceasefire agreement. Russia remains a mediator and is of course the new and sole peacekeeper in the region since 2020.
On April 28 Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova referred to “shameless attempts of Brussels to appropriate the topic of the Russian-Armenian-Azerbaijan high-level agreements.”
Yet in both Brussels and Moscow, there is a tacit acceptance that the two sides share several broad objectives. Brussels understands that the Russian peacekeeping force is the crucial stabilizing factor on the ground and there is no expectation that the EU (or any other international organization) intends to supply peacekeepers to the region to replace the Russians.
There is more potential for Brussels-Moscow rivalry when it comes to the two other main elements of negotiations: delineation and demarcation of the border and the reopening of transport communications. It is not yet clear how the newly formed border commissions will work and who will arbitrate between them: the EU or Moscow? And if Baku and Yerevan continue to make progress, encouraged by the EU, on a road and rail link to Nakhchivan across Armenian territory, will they still abide by Point 9. of the November 2020 agreement which stipulates for a Russian security force protecting the route? At some point, it is likely that the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders will be negotiating not just between themselves, but between Brussels and Moscow.
The OSCE Minsk Group is frozen and unlikely to be revived any time soon. Given the war in Ukraine, partnership between France and the United States on the one hand and Russia on the other is almost impossible and Sergei Lavrov has accused his Western counterparts of cancelling the format.
Azerbaijan has been keen to end the operation of the Minsk Group co-chairs so as to declare that the conflict is over and that “Nagorny Karabakh” no longer exists as an entity. The mediators who worked on the status of Karabakh and proposed the “Basic Principles” as a solution are now regarded as a bad memory.
Yet it is still possible the Minsk Group, or at least its three co-chair countries, will have a role to play in the future. The Armenian side of course wants to keep alive the only international mechanism which has a specific mandate to address the “Nagorny Karabakh conflict.” France, Russia and the United States each have an interest in preserving a mechanism that gives them a formal mediation role. Each has each kept its Minsk Group co-chair negotiators—while giving them a new designation of “special negotiator” or something similar. Washington has not yet named a successor to Andrew Schofer, who leaves his post in June, but the formal continuation of the Minsk Group will allow it to assert that it still has a role in the Armenian-Azerbaijani peace process.
For Russia it is also important not to see the format dissolved is as the OSCE Tirana statement of December 3, 2020, co-signed by France, Russia and the United States in their capacity as Minsk Group co-chairs is the only document which gives international blessing to the November 2020 ceasefire agreement. (Russia tried and failed to get a UN resolution approving the November 2020 statement.) And it would be foolhardy to dissolve a process which established an international consensus on the principles or resolving the conflict, most notably through the L’Aquila declaration of July 2009, signed by Presidents Medvedev, Obama and Sarkozy which asserts that the Karabakh conflict must be resolved “by adherence to the Helsinki Final Act principles of Non-Use of Force, Territorial Integrity, and the Equal Rights and Self-Determination of Peoples.”
As for the Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh, the issue of independence of territorial independence is now regarded to be off the table. Prime minister Pashinyan’s speech to the Armenian parliament on April 13 signaled an acceptance of this when he said, “We have stated that Armenia has never had territorial claims from Azerbaijan and the Karabakh issue is not a matter of territory but of rights.” Charles Michel echoed this when he said, “it was necessary that the rights and security of the ethnic Armenian population in Karabakh be addressed.”
The word “security” uttered by the EU leader is all-important here. It will extremely difficult to work out some kind of autonomy arrangement for Nagorny Karabakh within Azerbaijan, and indeed neither Baku or Stepanakert currently seems interested in pursuing negotiations on this topic. A consensus, shared by the EU and Russia, is visible around the principle that for the foreseeable future the Armenians of Karabakh must be afforded international protection so that they are allowed to stay in their homeland. How to achieve this will be a more important element of international negotiations, whether conducted in Brussels or Moscow, than questions of status or autonomy, which are as intractable as ever and will take many more years to resolve.
Thomas de Waal