A recycled narrative of peace amid ongoing Armenia-Azerbaijan impasse

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

Azerbaijan and Armenia, two bitter neighboring rivals, are yet to reach a deal that could finally end their three decade long impasse. Even after two wars, a military operation, and a deadly flare-up, the two countries are still negotiating. At the heart of the negotiations is a bilateral agreement proposed by Azerbaijan in May 2022. The deal consists of five principles, which include recognizing each other's territorial integrity, the absence of territorial claims, abstaining from threats, demarcating the border, and opening transportation links.

Both countries have been engaged in negotiations and countless meetings mediated by international stakeholders since the Second Karabakh War in 2020, centered around reaching a final bilateral agreement and settling the remaining disagreements between them.

But there has been little substantial progress despite numerous statements and expressions of goodwill. In addition to the lack of trust and frosty relations between the two countries that run deep, there is also an asymmetry in power dynamics between the two sides — official Baku holds the upper hand at the negotiating table and does not shy away from pushing its own agenda or aggressive narrative. As such, the current stalemate leaves prospects for peace at that — merely a prospect.

Meanwhile, the regional geopolitics are also changing. Having felt abandoned by Russia, Armenia is moving toward enhancing its relations with the West. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, is busy looking for alleged spy networks on its soil operated by Western countries and instead relying on ties with Turkey and Russia.

The latest on the negotiations front

The sticking point in the negotiations is centered around border demarcation and delimitation. In the context of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the demarcation and delimitation of borders have been rather problematic. The current border between Armenia and Azerbaijan was “delimited in a cartographic sense in Soviet maps. As an internal border, the boundary line was never physically demarcated, and in many areas, lines of actual control do not correspond to the de jure border. Over the past 30 years, optimal geographic positions taken by both sides have essentially been ‘borderized’ through the construction of defensive infrastructure and fortifications,” explained Laurence Broers, an Associate Fellow specializing in Russia and Eurasia at Chatham House and long-time regional expert.

At the heart of the issue are separate demands by each of the sides. Azerbaijan is after the eight villages and enclaves that have been under Armenia's control since the First Karabakh War in the early 1990s. Armenia is demanding Azerbaijan withdraw its troops from the territories it occupied between May 2021 and September 2022.

In his January 2024 interview with Azerbaijani journalists, President Ilham Aliyev said:

The villages that are not enclaves, the four villages should be returned to Azerbaijan without any preconditions. For the villages that are enclaves, a separate expert group should be established and this issue should be discussed. We believe that all enclaves should be returned. The roads leading to these enclaves should have the necessary conditions and the people living there should be accommodated in these enclaves. So, this is our position. We cannot understand Armenia's position.

The border delimitation is being discussed between the country border delimitation commissions which have been meeting since 2022. Following a meeting in March 2024, Azerbaijan once again repeated its demand that Armenia return four villages immediately and unconditionally.

The same month, Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan signaled that official Yerevan would accept Azerbaijan's demands to return the four villages. Most recently, on March 18, Pashinyan repeated this willingness on the grounds that returning these four villages would prevent another war — namely because numerous times, the Azerbaijani side hinted at military intervention if Armenia did not hand over these villages.

Changing tides

Meanwhile, Armenia is inching closer towards its aspiration to distance itself from Russia and instead deepening its ties with the EU.

On March 12, the European Parliament passed a resolution “On closer ties between the EU and Armenia and the need for a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan.”

With over 500 MePs in favor, four against, and 32 abstentions, the resolution “recognizes and welcomes” Armenia's “desire to enhance and prioritize relations with the European Union,” calling the partnership between Armenia and the EU a “logical step in aligning with Armenia's choice in favor of democracy, the rule of law, the fight against corruption and respect for the international rules-based order.”

The resolution followed explicit intentions expressed by Armenia to apply for EU candidacy and a partnership agenda announced by the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell in February 2024.

Armenia decided to freeze its membership to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in February 2024 following the deadly flare-up between Armenia and Azerbaijan. At least four Armenian servicemen were reportedly killed and one wounded in the first fatal incident on February 13, 2024, since the September 2023 military offensive.

Azerbaijan on the other hand, is relying on Turkey and Russia. In January 2024, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted 76 in favor and ten against denying Azerbaijan delegation's credentials at the Assembly. The credentials of Azerbaijan's delegation at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) were challenged on the grounds the country failed to meet “major commitments” as part of its membership to the Council of Europe on January 22, at the opening of the winter plenary session of PACE.

Azerbaijan also insists that the negotiations over a final deal between the two countries is a matter that must be settled between and by Armenia and Azerbaijan instead of the involvement of Western stakeholders. President Ilham Aliyev doubled down on this position in February 2024 after securing a victory in a snap presidential election held on February 7. In his victory speech, President Aliyev said, “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.”

Azerbaijan also criticized the EU mission deployed along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border for “creating military and intelligence cover for the Armenian side.” The decision to deploy the mission came a month after Azerbaijan launched an offensive inside Armenia in 2022.

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.

Under the current circumstances, “the worrying scenario is that a peace deal will not be signed until Azerbaijan gets what it wants in southern Armenia,” according to Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. It remains to be seen whether the two countries will resolve the complex border dispute and manage to shift geopolitical dynamics given the asymmetry in their relations.

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