Armenia and Azerbaijan take one step forward, three steps back in mending relations

Image by Harold Mendoza. Free to use under the Unsplash License.

Since active fighting ceased between Armenia and Azerbaijan in November 2020, following the 44-day war, there have been numerous attempts to normalize ties and relations between the two neighbors. The most recent attempt was made in Washington DC, where the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in early May 2023. The two sides discussed the draft bilateral Agreement on Peace and Establishment of Interstate Relations. Separately, another high-level meeting is scheduled to take place in Brussels from May 13–14 under the auspices of European Council President Charles Michel. But if there were any hopes for finally seeing the two countries move forward in peace negotiations following the meeting in DC and ahead of the scheduled meeting in Brussels, the fighting that erupted on May 11 speaks to the fragility of the situation three years after the war, despite numerous attempts to inch the countries closer to a peace deal.

The illusion of progress

In a press statement issued by Blinken on May 4, the Secretary of State said, “After an intensive and constructive series of bilateral and trilateral discussions, the parties made significant progress in addressing difficult issues. Both demonstrated a sincere commitment to normalizing relations and ending the long-standing conflict between their two countries.”

That “sincere commitment” was nowhere to be seen following the return of the foreign ministers to their home countries. In statements issued by the Ministries of Defense, both sides accused each other of shelling on May 11. According to the statements, four Armenian servicemen were injured and one Azerbaijani serviceman died as a result.

The recent high-level meetings also took place following a months-long blockade of the Lachin Corridor — the only route connecting Armenia to the contested Karabakh region across Azerbaijani territory — following the installation of an Azerbaijani border checkpoint on the corridor on April 23.

Tensions remain and reached new heights at the start of the European Weightlifting Championship in Yerevan, Armenia, on April 14, 2023. A man, who was identified later as an employee of Armenian public television, ran onto the stage, grabbed the Azerbaijani flag during the opening ceremony, set it on fire, and ran off the stage with the flag in his hands. Azerbaijani athletes immediately withdrew from the competition, citing safety concerns.

The flag burning followed deadly clashes between the two countries near the Lachin Corridor on April 11, which left a total of seven soldiers dead — four Armenia soldiers and three Azerbaijani soldiers. There were also reports of at least eight soldiers left wounded during the clash.

Also in April, Armenian security forces detained two Azerbaijani soldiers for illegally crossing into Armenia. Official Baku said the soldiers got lost due to inclement weather. Both soldiers were charged with illegal border crossing, smuggling, and illegal circulation of weapons and ammunition. On April 18, according to reporting by the Armenian Service for Radio Liberty, charges against one of the soldiers were changed. The serviceman stood accused of killing a security guard after crossing into Armenia. On May 8, one of the servicemen was sentenced to eleven and a half years in prison for illegal border crossing, smuggling, and illegal circulation of weapons and ammunition. The investigations related to the second serviceman are still ongoing at the time of writing this story.

Following the sentence on May 8, the Azerbaijan Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the sentence in a strongly worded statement, accusing Armenia of ignoring its legal responsibility in accordance with international humanitarian law and the principles of humanism. Armenia has also leveled similar accusations against Azerbaijan with regard to at least 33 remaining Armenian prisoners of war (PoWs) in Azerbaijan. According to the representative of Armenian prisoners of war at the European Court of Human Rights, Siranush Sahakyan, in addition to the confirmed 33 Armenian prisoners, there are some 80 “unconfirmed” PoWs who remain in captivity in Azerbaijan based on the evidence collected by the Armenian side.

Ongoing mediated negotiations

The meeting in the US as well as the upcoming meeting in Brussels, follow a series of mediated meetings between the two countries since the end of hostilities in 2020. In November 2021, the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia met in the Russian city of Sochi to discuss bilateral relations in a meeting organized by Russian President Vladimir Putin. A month later, the leaders met in Brussels, this time chaired by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel. In February 2022, there was a videoconference call with the leaders and French President Macron. The leaders met again in April and in May 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. Michel mediated another meeting that took place in August 2022. In October 2022, in a landmark breakthrough, leaders from Armenia and Azerbaijan pledged to mutually recognize each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty at the European Political Community summit held in Prague. Another meeting took place in October between Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in Geneva to kick off the work on the future peace treaty.

Throughout these meetings, there have been multiple reports of ceasefire violations, with each side blaming the other for the flare-ups.

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 during the war. On November 10, 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia.

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