Armenia and Azerbaijan vow peace — for now

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

After passing up on several opportunities to sign a peace deal, first in Brussels, then in Spain at a summit of European leaders on October 5, and later in Kyrgyzstan at the summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Armenia and Azerbaijan's leadership may have finally agreed on a peace deal document to be signed “in the coming months,” according to Armenia's prime minister Nikol Pashinian.

The document is based on a May 2022 peace deal proposed by Azerbaijan, consisting of five principles which include recognizing each other's territorial integrity, the absence of territorial claims, abstaining form threats, demarcating the border, and opening transportation links. At the time, there was no mention of the final status of Karabakh nor of the ethnic Armenian population living in Karabakh. Following Azerbaijan's military offensive into the formerly disputed Nagorno–Karabakh region on September 19, 2023, the status for these last two points changed. On September 28, the government of Nagorno–Karabakh announced it will dissolve itself by 2024 and nearly all of the ethnic Armenians living in Karabakh have fled the region amid fears of living under the government of Azerbaijan. Several former and current officials of Nagorno–Karabakh were detained in the aftermath of the September 19 military operation.

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.

The tensions lingered over the following decades. In 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a second war that lasted for 44 days. That war changed the status of the region. Azerbaijan regained control over much of the previously occupied seven regions and captured one-third of Karabakh itself.

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, mutual accusations of ceasefire violations continued unabated. So did mutual hostile rhetoric at the government and local levels, diminishing any prospects for peace.

As such, one question loomed: will there be another war? The most recent events on September 19, 2023, answered that question.

Peace deal

On October 30, 2023, Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan said, “three [out of five] main principles of peace and normalization of relations,” were agreed upon and that if both parties remained faithful to those principles, “the signing of the peace treaty becomes realistic,” reported OC Media.

But it is not just about the peace deal. In the words of Kommersant newspaper journalist Kirill Krivosheev, “If the Armenian presence in the region is no longer a political factor, what is there to argue about?” If anything, the deal would simply be a framework he notes. In addition, there are still a few items on the agenda, including “the fate of Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh, and eight Azerbaijani enclaves in Armenia, Azerbaijan's plans to connect Nakhichevan, its exclave that borders Armenia, Turkey, and Iran, to the rest of Azerbaijan, and who would operate this route,” as well as, “whether displaced Karabakh Armenians will be allowed to enter Azerbaijan.”

“Resolving these issues will take years and will depend on the shift of power dynamics in the region. For now, signing a rudimentary peace treaty that deters Azerbaijan from further escalation would be a good result for Armenia. Baku knows this, and will therefore try to squeeze everything it can from the situation before signing any such document,” argues Krivosheev.

Resolving the transportation routes — specifically the one across Armenia to Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchivan — remains contentious. This specific route is known as the “Zangezur corridor,” which is what Baku calls the route to Nakhchivan — Azerbaijan’s remote enclave sandwiched between Armenia, Turkey, and Iran. The route — albeit not mentioned by its name — was part of a ceasefire agreement signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the aftermath of the 44-day war the two countries fought in 2020. The agreement read:

The Republic of Armenia shall guarantee the security of transport connections between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in order to arrange unobstructed movement of persons, vehicles and cargo in both directions. The Border Guard Service of the Russian Federal Security Service shall be responsible for overseeing the transport connections. Subject to agreement between the Parties, the construction of new transport communications to link the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic with the western regions of Azerbaijan will be ensured.

In a recent interview with the local media, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan described the route as “a strategic project”:

True, there is no word ‘Zangezur corridor’ in it because I included the term ‘Zangezur corridor’ in the geopolitical lexicon afterwards. However, it is explicitly stated there that there should be a transport connection between the western regions of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, and Armenia should provide it.

The corridor is also important for another regional player and Azerbaijan's ally: Turkey.

Now, Azerbaijan claims it is no longer interested in the corridor, not in its current form anyway. On October 25, in an interview with Reuters, Hikmet Hajiyev, a top aide to Aliyev said, “Azerbaijan had no plans to seize Zangezur.” Hajiyev added that the country was working with Iran instead.

Meanwhile, the Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan has unveiled a regional transport proposal — “Crossroads of Peace” —  that would connect Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Georgia through Armenia, describing it as an “important part of the peace agenda in the South Caucasus,” according to reporting by OC Media.

Both Baku and Yerevan have officially made peace pledges before but tensions loomed despite the promises. Whether a deal will be signed by the end of the year will show whether commitments to peace are as genuine as the leaders say they are.

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