Azerbaijan, Armenia, and tenuous prospects for peace

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Two years after the 44-day-war fought between Azerbaijan and Armenia, prospects for peace are inching closer, but whether it will really happen or last remains to be seen.

On September 3, in an interview with an Italian news platform, President Ilham Aliyev reportedly said a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan was “realistic” in the coming months, but only “if Armenia shows the same will.”

The interview took place shortly after the President of Azerbaijan and the Prime Minister of Armenia met in Brussels on August 31 as part of mediation efforts spearheaded by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel.

In a statement after the four-hour long meeting, Charles Michel said the discussion was “open and productive.” According to Michel's statement, a number of key issues were on the agenda — a potential peace agreement, humanitarian issues, border issues, and connectivity.

While the next meeting is set to take place in November, the European Council president urged the two leaders to work with their respective populations, preparing them “for a long-term, sustainable peace,” said Michel. According to media reports, both sides, asked their respective foreign ministries to start drafting a peace agreement.

In Armenia, President Ilham Aliyev's interview with the Italian newspaper was not well received. Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan accused the Azerbaijani side of “torpedoing the peace process” while dismissing Armenia's concerns over “the future status of Karabakh and the safety of its population,” reported the Mirror-Spectator. “The failure to listen to or attempts not to listen to this view gives the Armenian side reason to doubt the sincerity of Azerbaijan's intentions to achieve peace,” said Mirzoyan in a written comment to the newspaper.

The August meeting between the leaders followed a series of other meetings between government officials from both sides. On August 19, Armen Grigorian, the secretary of Armenia's Security Council, met with Hikmet Hajiyev, Azerbaijan President's foreign policy adviser, in Brussels.

The meeting was chaired by Toivo Klaar, the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the Crisis in Georgia, who made no further remarks on the details of the meeting.

Also, on May 22 and August 31, the representatives of the border commission met to discuss the next steps on border demarcation in Moscow. In June, deputy ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia met in Moscow to discuss the future of the regional transportation channels. Another meeting took place in July between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Continued fighting and escalations

The Nagorno-Karabakh area 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 ceasefire and Armenian military victory in 1994. 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 during the 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 that 1,960 Russian peacekeeping forces would remain in the parts of Karabakh “not recaptured by Azerbaijan and a narrow corridor connecting with Armenia across the Azerbaijani district of Lachin.”

Since the signed November 2020 agreement, there have been multiple reports of ceasefire violations, with each side blaming the other for flare-ups. In March, the Azerbaijani army seized control over a strategic village Farrukh, in the east of Karabakh, protected by the Russian peacekeepers. The most recent tensions were reported in August when Azerbaijan took over other strategic heights following an operation dubbed “Revenge.”

On September 2, the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense said its army was fired on by the Armenian armed forces. The same day, Armenia accused Azerbaijan of violating the ceasefire agreement. Two days later, the Azerbaijani side accused Armenia of doing the same, which Armenia denied.  On September 5, Armenia's Ministry of Defense accused Azerbaijan of shooting and killing one of its soldiers, according to Radio Liberty reporting, an accusation Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense denied.

No peace for awhile, not yet anyway

In August, the International Crisis Group published an analysis of the situation in Karabakh, including the recent wave of tensions and escalations. “Baku has three goals it wants to achieve either by force or the threat thereof,” wrote the authors of the report, “which it hopes will pressure Armenia to capitulate in negotiations.”

According to the authors of the International Crisis Group report, the first goal concerns land routes connecting Armenia to Nagorno Karabakh. Ahead of the trilateral meeting in Brussels, Azerbaijani forces entered Lachin, where Armenian residents were given a deadline to leave their homes by August 25. Lachin is situated along a narrow strip, referred to as the “Lachin corridor,” connecting Armenia to Nagorno Karabakh. The relocation of Armenians living in Lachin was part of a ceasefire agreement signed in November 2000, which also stipulated the construction of a new Lachin corridor south of the current road. The Russian peacekeeping troops that control the current corridor would switch to the new one, granting Azerbaijani forces full control over the old road according to the 2020 ceasefire agreement.

The second goal, according to the Crisis Group analysis, is Baku's frustration with the lack of progress on full military disarmament of Nagorno Karabakh as per the 2020 ceasefire agreement: “Yerevan says it has done so. The issue, it says, is Azerbaijan’s concern that Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto authorities retain an armed force. Baku argues that this force is illegal, demanding that Russian peacekeepers disarm it, while Armenia and the de facto authorities say its disarmament was never part of the ceasefire deal.”

According to Eurasianet reporting, Armen Grigoryan, the head of Armenia's Security Council, said Armenian conscripts are ought to return home by September and that security of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh will be provided by the presence of Russian peacekeeping forces.

Finally, official Baku is keen to finalize the dispute in its favor with a jointly signed agreement.

From Armenia's point of view, it is Azerbaijan stalling the diplomatic efforts. The latter's recent military advancements are viewed as a sign of Azerbaijan wanting to achieve “strategic advantage” and attempt “to pressure [Armenia] to drop any calls to sustain discussions on Nagorno-Karabakh's future status.”

Beneath the blame game, accusations, and strategic interests is context worth noting – the decades-long enmity between the two nations. Despite Charles Michel's statement following the August 31 meeting between the two leaders, in which he called on both leaders to start working with their respective populations in preparing them for peace, there seems to be little or no progress, making long-lasting piece unlikely for the foreseeable future.

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