Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders take tentative steps toward peace

A meeting between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, the President of European Council Charles Michel, and President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev in Brussels. Photo credit, Presidential Administration of Azerbaijan. Licensed under CC-BY-4.0

The leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Brussels on May 22, as part of ongoing peace talks between the two nations in the aftermath of the 44-day Nagorno-Karabakh war the two countries fought in 2020. The meeting was chaired by the European Council President Charles Michel and is the third peace discussion hosted by the European Council. 

The disputed territory of Karabakh, an area of 4,400 square kilometers in the South Caucasus has been under the control of its ethnic Armenian population as a self-declared state since a war fought in the early 1990s, which ended with a 1994 ceasefire and Armenian military victory. In the aftermath of the first war, a new, internationally unrecognized, de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was established. Seven adjacent regions were occupied by the Armenian forces. As a result of that war, “more than a million people had been forced from their homes: Azerbaijanis fled Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the adjacent territories, while Armenians left homes in Azerbaijan,” according to the International Crisis Group, an independent organization that works to prevent wars and shape policies.

Following the second Karabakh war in 2020, Azerbaijan regained control over much of the previously occupied seven regions. Azerbaijan also captured one-third of Karabakh itself as a result of the second war. On November 10, 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia. Among several points of the agreement, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a presence of 1,960 Russian peacekeeping forces in those parts of Karabakh “not recaptured by Azerbaijan and a narrow corridor connecting with Armenia across the Azerbaijani district of Lachin.”

In his remarks on May 23, Michel said the three leaders focused on “the situation in the South Caucasus and the development of EU relations with both countries as well as the broader region.” 

The three leaders previously met in December 2021, and in April 2022. In a separate meeting under EU auspices in March 2022, the countries sent their senior representatives “to continue the engagement to ensure follow-up to agreements reached at leader’s level,” according to a statement by the European Council from April 2022. 

During their last meeting in Brussels in April, the parties also agreed to “the delimitation and demarcation of their bilateral border.” According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe guidebook on demarcation and delimitation mean:

Delimitation – legal registration of the state border line between the neighboring states, the position of which is graphically depicted on a topographic map, with a corresponding description, which may be an integral part of the contract or an appendix to it.

Demarcation – marking on the ground the passage of the state border between the neighboring states with boundary signs with the drawing up of demarcation documents.

According to a statement released by the European Council, following the meeting on May 22, “the first joint meeting of the Border Commissions (on the demarcation and security of borders) will be held on the inter-state (Armenian-Azerbaijan) border.” The statement did not specify a date. However, following the meeting in Brussels, on May 23, both Armenia and Azerbaijan announced they were forming a state commission delegation on delimitation. And on May 24, the delegation met for the first time on the state border between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Among other issues discussed during the meeting were unblocking of transport links, further progress on the future peace treaty, and advancing economic development for the benefit of both countries and their populations. 

Meanwhile, protests have erupted in Armenia, with protestors demanding Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian resign over the so-called concessions over Karabakh. According to local media, some 200 protesters were detained on May 2, as demonstrations continued and police resorted to violence to disperse the crowds. By some accounts, over 10,000 people attended the rally.

The anti-government protests began in April when Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan hinted at making concessions regarding the final status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, after attending a meeting on April 6 in Brussels with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, facilitated by President of the European Council Charles Michel. During the meeting, the two leaders pledged to explore a “possible peace treaty” to finally resolve the conflict.

Days after his visit to Brussels, Pashinyan said in his speech at the national parliament that the “international community was calling Armenia to lower the bars of the status of the disputed region.” 

In response, the Nagorno-Karabakh Parliament adopted a resolution that said, “no government has a right to lower the negotiating bar for a status acceptable to Artsakth [Nagorno-Karabakh] and the internationally rebounded right to self-determination under the pretext of peace.”

On May 24, demonstrators blocked the entrance to several government buildings, voicing continued demands for Pashinian's resignation, reported Radio Liberty.

The next trilateral meeting is scheduled to take place in August according to Charles Michel:

The precarious role of Russia in Azerbaijan-Armenia peace talks

Following the meeting in Brussels on May 22, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, spoke on the phone with foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Officials discussed the situation in the region and the ongoing attempts at normalizing ties between the two nations.

However, some analysts believe Russia is losing ground in the negotiations. According to political analyst Ahmed Alili who spoke to, “Russia is trying to continue negotiations on Karabakh on its turf and unilaterally dominate in mediating process. It is unwilling to include an alternative mediator.” But is failing at that, argues Alili. “Charles Michel was able to break this pattern and appear as an alternative. The results are already visible. Three meetings have taken place under the auspices of the European Council already,” said Alili.

According to an analysis by the International Crisis Group, engagement of more parties in mediation does not have to be mutually exclusive. “The OSCE Minsk Group (which includes Russia, France and the United States) permits discussions about the future of Nagorno-Karabakh. EU-hosted discussions help build ties with Brussels and facilitate conversations about the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia should remain open to all of them. Despite Moscow’s concerns about exclusion, its peacekeeping presence and critical role in 2020 ensure its continued involvement. There is no evidence, at least to date, to suggest that any other party wants to usurp its position,” reads the ICG analysis.

The most recent meeting between Armenia and Azerbaijan mediated by Russia took place in Dushanbe on May 12 on the sidelines of the Russia-led Commonwealth of Independent States meeting. The foreign ministers of Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan discussed the terms of the November 9 ceasefire agreement signed in the aftermath of the 44-day war, including similar talking points from the Brussel's meeting: normalizing ties, border delimitation, and the opening of transport links.

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