Armenia and Azerbaijan: The most recent flare up puts peace prospects on the backburner

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

For three decades, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been accusing each other of violating the ceasefire agreement signed between the two countries in 1994 following the first Karabakh war. Following the second Karabakh war in 2020 and a military operation in September 2023, Azerbaijan regained all previously occupied territories as well as full control over Karabakh, the breakaway region that has been at the heart of the dispute between the two countries.

Since the second Karabakh War in 2020, both countries have been engaged in a peace process centered around reaching a final bilateral agreement and settling the remaining disagreements between them. But there has been little substantial progress. Although the war is over, tensions remain — this time, with accusations that the other is manipulating the peace process or feigning commitment towards it.

Meanwhile, the deadly flare-ups continue. On February 13, at least four Armenian servicemen were reportedly killed and one wounded in the first fatal incident since the September 2023 military offensive. Azerbaijan accused Armenia of provocation — on February 12, one Azerbaijani serviceman was reportedly wounded, justifying the next day's shooting as retaliation to provocation and dubbing it “operation revenge.” Armenia had an entirely different opinion on the escalation, calling it a “pretext” to attack Armenia, according to the latter’s Foreign Ministry statement.

A game of peace

There were high hopes in the aftermath of the Second Karabakh war that perhaps the two nations could reach peace at last. But even with countless meetings mediated by international stakeholders plus numerous statements and expressions of goodwill, it seems that the lack of trust and frosty relations between the two countries run deep and are here to stay — at least for now.

The most recent meeting between senior officials from Armenia and Azerbaijan took place in January 2024, when the sides discussed the delimitation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. The latter remains a key hurdle to a comprehensive bilateral peace deal proposed by Azerbaijan in May 2022. That deal consisted of five principles, including recognizing each other's territorial integrity, the absence of territorial claims, abstaining from threats, demarcating the border, and opening transportation links.

The matter of transportation routes is also important. Specifically the route across Armenia to Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchivan — sandwiched between Armenia, Turkey, and Iran. Azerbaijan’s territorial demands over the region Armenia refers to as Syunik (Azerbaijan refers to the region as Zangezur) have stoked Armenian fears that Azerbaijan is plotting an invasion of southern Armenia's region Syunik, where the said route passes through.

Just three years ago, in 2021, President Aliyev said, “We are implementing the Zangazur corridor, whether Armenia likes it or not. If they do, it will be easier for us to implement; if not, we will enforce it. Just as before and during the war, I said that [Armenia] must get out of our lands, or we will expel them by force. And so it happened. The same will apply to the Zangazur corridor.”

The February 13 exchange of fire took place near the village of Nerkin Hand in Syunik.

According to Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, the negotiations over Zangezur/Syunik transport route may put Armenia “under big pressure from both Baku and Moscow, using different methods, to accede to a plan for the Zangezur Corridor that suits neither Yerevan nor the Western powers.” Armenia wants sufficient international presence for security reasons and to ensure the final bilateral peace deal is implemented fairly. This is important, especially as international peace agreements often have a tendency to fall apart in the course of five years, according to de Waal.

The diplomatic language of the government of Azerbaijan adds further questions about whether it is indeed interested in establishing peace. In response to the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Relations and Security Policy, Joseph Borrell’s statement on February 14 following the shooting, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry accused Armenia of deploying mercenaries with the EU’s blessing. Borrell’s statement called on both sides “to exercise the utmost restraint and de-escalate the situation.”

A pro-government platform created recently, the Western Azerbaijan Community, accused the EU mission of “creating military and intelligence cover for the Armenian side.”

The EU first deployed the EU Monitoring Capacity in Armenia (EUMCAP) in October 2022 following a joint meeting in Prague between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev facilitated by the EU Council President Charles Michel and French President Emmanuel Macron. Both the meeting and the decision to deploy the mission came a month after Azerbaijan launched an offensive inside Armenia. According to statements by both countries, more than 200 service personnel were killed as a result. On September 15, 2022, the two countries signed a ceasefire mediated by Russia.

In December 2022, Armenia requested another mission with the hope that its presence along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border would prevent further military escalations like the one in September 2022.

In February 2023, the EU deployed the EU civilian mission in Armenia (EUMA) with a two-year mandate. In December 2023, it announced it was increasing its presence on the ground from 138 to 209 staff. Both Russia and Azerbaijan criticized the deployment of the second mission. In their statements, officials of both countries questioned the purpose of the mission. Speaking at a news conference in Baku, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the purpose of the mission was dubious “in terms of its legitimacy, functions, mandate, and duration,” echoing on its earlier claims that the EU monitors “can only bring geopolitical confrontation to the region,” and accused the EU of pushing back “Russia's mediation efforts at any cost.”

Azerbaijani officials have also changed their view of Western diplomacy. Emboldened with its victory in September 2023, these days, the state narrative is focused on the two countries reaching a final agreement on their own. “The normalization process between Armenia and Azerbaijan must be dropped from the international agenda. Because everyone who has nothing else to do wants to get involved with this issue. Why don't they go and mind their own business,” President Ilham Aliyev said on February 14 while taking an oath after securing a victory in a snap presidential election held on February 7.

Since 2021, the EU has taken on a more active role in mediation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with European Council President Charles Michel spearheading meetings between Pashinian and Aliyev.

But the Western-mediated peace process stalled following the September military operation in 2023. The offensive was launched despite Azerbaijan's reassurances to Western mediators that it won't resort to such measures.

People on the ground

Beyond official statements, there is also the issue of hostile attitudes between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. Addressing a high-profile House of Lords session in the UK on January 10, 2024, Marina Nagai, the Caucasus program Director at the International Alert, highlighted that the looming peace deal is not just between the governments but between the people too, and that “bringing those people together will take more than a piece of paper,” given the negative feelings as a result of thirty years of enmity. The bellicose state narrative does little to help in changing hostile feelings, especially in the Azerbaijani context.

In a statement, Azerbaijan's Commissioner for Human Rights (Ombudsman), Sabina Aliyeva, called the February 12 flare-up part of Armenia’s “insidious policy.”

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, culminating in the second Karabakh war in 2020 and the military operation in September 2023. The latter paved the way for Azerbaijan to regain full control over Karabakh. However, despite reassurances that Karabakh Armenian rights’ would be protected and preserved, 104,000 Karabakh Armenians fled following the September 2023 offensive, according to the most recent data. It is unlikely they would return under the current circumstances. “They might want to visit, get their property back, they might want to visit family graves or move those graves to Armenia. But I don’t think anyone is talking about the right to return anytime soon,” de Waal told Radio Azatutyun, Armenian Service for Radio Liberty, in an interview.

Whether these recent developments further derail prospects for peace depends on steps taken in the coming months; for now, once again, peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan is hanging by a thread.

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