Bitter enemies Azerbaijan, Armenia in nascent talks for a peace deal

Unfreezing diplomatic relations could end decades of conflict, but will likely involve the interests of several regional players

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and members of the delegation attend a meeting to defuse tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, in Moscow, Russia, May 19, 2023. (photo credit: RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and members of the delegation attend a meeting to defuse tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, in Moscow, Russia, May 19, 2023.

A possible peace deal between Azerbaijan and Armenia could put an end to the ongoing conflict between the two Caucasus nations. However, several issues remain unresolved—and perhaps not only by the two countries in question.

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After initial talks facilitated last week by Russian President Vladimir Putin between Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, the next round of meetings will likely include a wider group of European leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

The possibility of an agreement between the bitter rivals came closer to fruition after Pashinyan declared that Yerevan would recognize the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabah—known to Armenians as Artsakh—as Azerbaijani territory.

Pashinyan said in a May 22 press conference that “Armenia recognizes Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity of 86,600 square kilometers, assuming that Azerbaijan recognizes Armenia’s territorial integrity as 29,800 square kilometers.”

“Those 86,600 square kilometers also include Nagorno-Karabakh,” Pashinyan added, according to the news website Ostorozhno, Novosti.

Armenians in Azerbaijan and surrounding areas

The territorial enclave, surrounded by Azerbaijan, is home to 120,000 ethnic Armenians. Nagorno-Karabakh is widely recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan, even though the population voted to break away from Baku after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The decision led to fighting until 1994 when a cease-fire went into effect.

In 2020, another war erupted, forcing Armenia to cede roughly two-thirds of Artsakh. The remaining cities are connected to Armenia through the Lachin corridor, which was under the control of Russian peacekeepers. In December, however, Azeri forces initiated a blockade on the region, cutting off residents from food, medicine, and often, electricity and gas as well. In April, Azerbaijan set up a checkpoint controlling access to Artsakh that Armenia claims bypasses the Russian control of the area.

But any actual peace deal will involve the interests of other regional actors, one expert said.

“We must consider here the whole geopolitical puzzle. There are so many players involved in this conflict so it’s not just the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan and their diaspora communities,” Dr. Eldad Ben Aharon, a researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt and an expert on Israel-Azerbaijan relations, told The Media Line. “We have Iran, Israel, Turkey, and Russia steering this conflict to a dead end, and they also tried to manage it according to their own interests.

“Therefore, it is really important to remember that whatever happens, we will see these countries heavily involved in signing this agreement and they will make sure that their own interests will be embedded into the agreement.”

While recent reports point to a peace treaty signing on June 1 in Moldova, Carey Cavanaugh, professor of diplomacy and conflict resolution and a retired US ambassador, noted that many crucial elements of an agreement remain in doubt.

“While there are hints of potential progress being made in the discussions between Aliyev and Pashinyan (with some prodding by the EU, US, and Russia), the public performance of both men in front of Putin last week underscored the fact that a satisfactory solution to ensure the agreed operation of the Lachin corridor has not yet been found, let alone mutually-acceptable provisions regarding the long-term status and safety of the ethnic Armenian population still remaining in Karabakh,” he told The Media Line. “The latter were not addressed in the 2020 Russian brokered cease-fire agreement.”

Armenians are concerned that ceding Nagorno-Karabakh paves the way for a new genocide. Some 1.5 million Armenians were killed in a genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks between 1915 to 1917, something that present-day Turkey—a key ally of Azerbaijan—refuses to acknowledge.

On May 23, 2023, the Catholicos of All Armenians, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Karekin II issued a statement by the Supreme Spiritual Council of the church expressing its concerns that these “concessions” will lead to “a new genocide and de-patriation.”

“The independence of Artsakh and Armenian territories, affirmed at the cost of our children’s blood, is not subject to bargaining,” the statement read. “The homeland belongs to everyone, and decisions related to the homeland should be made in accordance with the fundamental provisions of the Republic of Armenia’s Constitution and legislation—and not at the discretion of individual political parties and groups.”

Larger both geographically and militarily, and with key regional allies such as Turkey and Israel, Azerbaijan does appear to hold the cards in these negotiations. This is fueling fears among Armenians that the Azeri president will make good on his word to “return” to large parts of Armenian territory that he claims as Azerbaijan’s “historic lands.”

“Aliyev is definitely feeling he has the upper hand now and he can definitely pursue further aggressiveness in the region and beyond that,” Ben Aharon said. “It is not something that we cannot consider.”

US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller, however, praised the progress and said on Twitter that “a final agreement is in reach, and we are determined to help our friends achieve it.”

“There will be a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and it will be based on the joint official statements adopted at the highest level. There won’t be а new escalation! The international community must strongly support this narrative,” he wrote.

Putin was optimistic after last week’s meetings.

“There are still unresolved questions, but in my opinion, and we discussed this with our Azeri and our Armenian colleagues, they are of a purely technical nature,” he said.