Guest Author: Onnik James Krikorian
After a hiatus of several months, the Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, and Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev, met again again in Brussels on 14 May for talks facilitated by European Council President Charles Michel. The development followed hot on the heels of the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken-facilitated 1-4 May meeting of delegations led by the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers, Ararat Mirzoyan and Jeyhun Bayramov, at the George P. Schultz National Foreign Affairs Training Centre in Arlington, Virginia, outside of Washington D.C.
Blinken had previously hosted the Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, and Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev, for talks on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference earlier this year on 18 February. The talks, as will the Brussels meeting, are aimed at finally finding solution to the decades long conflict between Yerevan and Baku that frustrates the stability and development of the South Caucasus. For three decades it has already frustrated attempts to normalise relations between Armenia and Turkiye.
Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war in the early 1990s over the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), a mainly ethnic-Armenian entity situated within Azerbaijan. A fragile ceasefire put the conflict largely on hold until 2016 when a four-day war broke out between the sides and later erupted into a 44-day war in September-November 2020 that saw Azerbaijan take back control of its seven regions situated outside the NKAO. Turkiye closed its borders at the time in protest at Armenian-backed forces capturing that territory in the early 1990s, forcing over 600,000 Azerbaijanis into a life as IDPs.
Azerbaijan also took back control of parts of the former NKAO before a November 2020 trilateral ceasefire statement signed by the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia saw an uneasy calm set in with no actual peace treaty agreed by the sides. Instead, apart from a short-term timetable for the return of those seven regions that were not taken during the actual war itself, as well as the deployment of 1,960 Russian peacekeepers, the maintenance of the “Lachin Corridor,” defined as 5 km wide, to connect Armenia with Karabakh through Azerbaijan proper was included.
The trilateral ceasefire statement also envisaged the unblocking of regional trade and communications to allow the ‘unobstructed movement of persons, vehicles and cargo in both directions’ between Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhchivan via Armenian territory. Yerevan and Baku would guarantee the security of traffic and transport through their respective countries in the case of both routes while Russian peacekeepers would ‘control’ the road through the Azerbaijani region of Lachin. Russian border guards would ‘oversee’ any route to Nakhchivan.
However, in the 2.5 years since the statement, the route from Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan has not been agreed let alone constructed, and on 12 December last year, Azerbaijanis claiming to be environmental activists set up a protest camp on the Lachin road, effectively cutting off Karabakh from Armenia. The de facto but unrecognised ethnic Armenian leadership in what remains of the former NKAO claims that this amounts to a blockade by Baku while Azerbaijan says that it had no role in the protests though most think otherwise.
Nonetheless, Baku also alleges that Armenia was shipping arms and munitions through Lachin to Karabakh as well as exporting previous minerals to Armenia. Though inhabited by a claimed 120,000 ethnic Armenians, though it is possibly much lower, Karabakh remains internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. Declaring its independence from Azerbaijan in 1991, no country has recognised it as such, including Armenia itself even though prior to 2020 it had lobbied hard for it. On 23 April, after many warnings, Azerbaijan set up a border checkpoint on Lachin.
Though the international community has criticised the move, with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) demanding that Azerbaijan “take all necessary measures to ensure unimpeded movement of persons,” most criticism of the new checkpoint is centred around concerns that it is detrimental to renewed efforts to normalise relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan and to finally resolve the conflict over Karabakh. Some Azerbaijani analysts, however, charge that the checkpoint is within its own sovereign territory and makes a peace agreement more likely given the situation Karabakh now finds itself in.
In the new post-2020 environment, the ethnic Armenian community of Karabakh is geographically isolated from Armenia in ways it never was when Armenian forces controlled those surrounding regions. Not only does all trade and transport have to be conducted via the Lachin road, but Karabakh is also now deprived of much of its hydro-electric power generation and some agricultural production that it pursued in the seven districts. As a result, Karabakh now faces a shortage of goods, rising inflation, unemployment, and regular power cuts.
In such an environment, resolving the Karabakh conflict becomes even more urgent. Although official Yerevan sought to have the region’s independence recognised internationally, most observers believe that if it was unlikely before the 2020 war it is now impossible. Instead, it is believed that the ethnic Armenian population of Karabakh would be integrated into Azerbaijan and that the matter would become one of minority rights. This now appears to be Yerevan’s position although disagreement with Baku continues as to how this is achieved.
Though the European Union has engaged extensively in the Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiation process since December 2021, holding multiple trilateral meetings between Aliyev, Pashinyan, and Charles Michel, it wasn’t until 27 September last year, in a meeting between Armenian Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoryan and Azerbaijani Presidential Advisor Hikmet Hajiyev convened by U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, that the issue of a discussion mechanism between Karabakh’s ethnic Armenians and officials in Baku was openly raised.
Disagreements, however, persist over whether such a mechanism should be internationally mediated, as Armenia and Karabakh hopes for, or internationally visible, as Azerbaijan does. This issue was also one of many points discussed during the 1-4 May Blinken-facilitated meeting in D.C. on which no agreement was reached. Others included the demarcation of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border and international security guarantees. The border between the two countries is currently observed by a small European Union monitoring mission since October last year.
Following the talks, however, and despite the differences, the U.S. Secretary of State voiced optimism about the potential to sign a peace agreement. Though it is unclear whether in the form of a framework or comprehensive document, with many analysts believing the former, Blinken said that a peace was “within reach” and urged two foreign ministers to convey that message to their governments on their return to Yerevan and Baku. Both sides, however, have since highlighted how significant differences remain.
Nonetheless, there are some reasons for optimism. Almost immediately following the Virginia meeting, the announcement of this weekend’s EU-facilitated meeting between Aliyev and Pashinyan in Brussels was both unexpected and welcome. An attempt to host another in early December fell through when Armenia unexpectedly requested the presence of French President Emmanuel Macron at the talks with Michel. Also encouragingly, it is hoped that the two leaders will meet again for talks on the sidelines of the European Political Community (EPC) summit in Chisinau, Moldova, on 1 June.
Unexpectedly, it has already been announced that they will also be joined by German chancellor Olaf Scholz and French president Emmanuel Macron. Scholz’s involvement has been described as a concession made to Baku for Macon to participate considering some tense exchanges of words between Azerbaijan and France particularly since last year.
And in the situation of two almost back-to-back meetings, a further announcement that Aliyev and Pashinyan would also be invited to hold talks on another EPC meeting to be held in Granada, Spain, on 5 October this year was unprecedented. Analysts, however, urge caution. Many spoilers could still exist along the way, and especially in the form of Russia. Moscow has also attempted to mediate between the sides and still considers its 2020 trilateral statement as the foundation for any peace deal. Though expected, it also announced that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will host Bayramov and Mirzoyan for talks in Moscow on 19 May.
Of key concern to Russia is the fate of its peacekeeping mission in Karabakh. Moscow fears that the EU and US are seeking an agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to make its presence no longer necessary after its first term expires in November 2025. Baku is believed to want the same.
But though facing setbacks in its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow is not totally distracted and possesses several levers with which to influence Yerevan, namely in the economic, energy, and security sphere.
Still, with Karabakh facing a very real threat of depopulation unless an amicable solution is found between the sides, an added incentive for Yerevan lies in the hope that with such a settlement, Turkiye would open its border with Armenia, allowing the country access to additional markets through its territory. As the 2009 Armenia-Turkiye Protocols highlighted, normalisation between Yerevan and Ankara continues to be inextricably linked to that between Yerevan and Baku.
Pashinyan also faces the prospect of parliamentary elections in 2026 that could obstruct further progress in talks unless a final agreement is reached this year. According to a recent survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI), most Armenians are against any peace agreement that would see Yerevan relinquish its hopes for an independent Karabakh or one annexed by Armenia, but recognising Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity was the most likely outcome prior to the 2020 war and is clearly the only option on the table now. The longer a peace agreement is left unsigned, the more difficult it will be to achieve one without renewed conflict.
The ‘status quo’ of “no war, no peace,” favoured by many Armenians prior to the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, was not only misguided but also untenable. The outcome of the recent war, however, highlighted that reality and also offers new opportunities.
Many Armenian analysts believe that Pashinyan is the only Armenian leader that is willing to deliver such a deal. For that, however, he would need to present to the Armenian public a clearer picture of why it is necessary and what security guarantees are in place for the ethnic Armenian population of Karabakh. Though Armenian analysts warn that accepting Azerbaijani jurisdiction over Karabakh would result in the depopulation of ethnic Armenians from the region, or what they consider to be ‘ethnic cleansing,’ it is clear that under the present circumstances life in the besieged breakaway region is already unsustainable.
Soon after the 2020 war, Gerard Libaridian, the former advisor to Armenia’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, opined that the most the Karabakh Armenians could expect would be some form of non-territorial cultural autonomy as is the case for Istanbul’s ethnic Armenian community. Likewise, any progress on Armenia-Turkiye normalisation, although also a hard sell to the public, could provide an opportunity for more Armenian-Turkish people-to-people contact that would naturally impact the opportunity for the same in terms of the Armenian and Azerbaijani peoples.
Ankara and Baku are clearly coordinating efforts to normalise relations with Yerevan, but those two tracks are the only clearly viable option on the table at present if there is to be peace in the region and a new chapter of coexistence written. It is imperative that a peace agreement, even in the form of a framework document, is signed this year. Time is running out ahead of the possible withdrawal of Russian peacekeeping forces from Karabakh in 2025 and the 2026 parliamentary elections in Armenia. This year is arguably the last chance for such an agreement.
But then the hard work must begin. Though Armenia-Turkiye relations are already in place, especially in the form of direct air travel and the intermingling of peoples that already exists, civil society in all three countries will need to work to achieve the same for Armenia and Azerbaijan. Indeed, the re-engagement of Armenian and Turkish civil society into that normalisation process could have profound effects on the Armenia-Azerbaijan process too. Despite arguments over history, Armenian-Turkish coexistence already exists as an example even if only in limited forms.
The alternative, some warn, are renewed hostilities that could drag in other regional actors – Russia, Turkiye, and Iran – on a scale hitherto unseen. Some call this the ‘Syria-isation’ of the South Caucasus. And nobody should welcome that. For now, however, according to a statement from Charles Michel following the 14 May summit with Aliyev and Pashinyan, progress was registered on all these key points, including the issue of connecting Azerbaijan through Armenia to Nakhchivan by rail.
Onnik James Krikorian is a journalist and consultant from the United Kingdom based in the South Caucasus since 1998, first in Yerevan, Armenia, and then Tbilisi, Georgia. He has also covered the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict since 1994 and the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war. He has written on the Armenia-Turkiye normalisation process and has been published by Stratfor, the BBC, United Nations, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and other organisations and publications.