Progress at last? Armenia and Azerbaijan give peace another chance

Image via the official website of the President Ilham Aliyev. Used with permission under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

This article was first published on OC Media. An edited version is republished here under a content partnership agreement. 

On May 14, leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Brussels for high-level talks mediated by the EU Council President Charles Michel. Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev reportedly discussed border delimitation, reopening transport and economic links, and the release of two Azerbaijani soldiers captured in Armenia.

In a statement issued after the meeting, Charles Michel said the conversation was “frank, open, and result-oriented.”

The meeting in Brussels took place just ten days after the two countries’ foreign ministers met in Washington DC, where the two sides discussed the draft bilateral Agreement on Peace and Establishment of Interstate Relations.

In Brussels, Charles Michel underscored the importance of maintaining momentum and taking “decisive steps” toward the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement.

The leaders of both countries agreed to resume bilateral meetings to address questions of border delimitation, confirming their commitment to the borders established in the 1991 Almaty Declaration and the respective territorial integrity of Armenia and Azerbaijan, according to the statement issued by the European Council.

Michel added that “clear progress” had been made regarding reopening transport and economic links between the two countries and that the two sides were now approaching an agreement regarding reopening a railway connection to and via Nakhchivan. Nakhchivan is Azerbaijan’s remote enclave sandwiched between Armenia, Turkey, and Iran.

According to the final point of the trilateral deal brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin and co-signed by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in November 2020, “all economic and transport connections in the region shall be unblocked.”

“At issue is a series of transport routes that have been closed since the early 1990s, cutting off Armenia and the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan from international access. If these closed routes are all ‘unblocked,’ as the agreement stipulates, the most noticeable impact will be a reactivated north-south route that runs from Russia to Armenia and Iran via Azerbaijan,” wrote Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region. “A new good-quality rail network with minimal border controls would also boost east-west trade, especially if the Armenia-Turkey border, closed since 1993, is reopened,” he added.

The leaders reportedly also discussed the release of prisoners in the coming weeks, particularly the two Azerbaijani soldiers captured in Armenian territory in April. They also agreed on “stepping up” work to demine in the region. In June 2021, Azerbaijan released 15 Armenian detainees in exchange for maps showing the locations of nearly 100,000 landmines that Armenian forces had planted in the territory that Azerbaijan retook in 2020’s bitter war between the two nations. The agreement was praised at the time by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In a statement, the Ministry said, “Obtaining mine maps will save the lives and health of tens of thousands of our citizens, including demining workers, and accelerate the reconstruction projects initiated by the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Mr. Ilham Aliyev, in Agdam and the return of IDPs.”

Michel added that he had encouraged Azerbaijan to work towards guaranteeing Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians’ rights and security and had raised the need for a “transparent and constructive dialogue” between them and Baku.

Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry described the meeting as “useful and result-oriented” while noting that the Brussels meetings had not taken place for almost nine months due to “attempts to interfere and set conditions.”

Armenia’s Prime Minister’s Office noted the same points of discussion described by Michel while offering no assessment of the meeting.

Both Yerevan and the EU Council President also said the leaders would meet again on the margins of the European Political Community Summit in Chișinău, Moldova, on June 1, this time alongside French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Baku has previously rejected France’s involvement in the negotiations, accusing the country of supporting Armenia.

Michel stated that the leaders had agreed to hold the Brussels meetings “as often as necessary,” with another meeting scheduled to take place in July and that he would invite Pashinyan and Aliyev to meet at another European Political Community summit in Granada in October.

The talks and meetings continue to take place amid escalations. Most recently, on May 11, both sides accused one another of violating the ceasefire agreement, which put an end to the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020.

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