Hailed as a landmark deal, this statement not only rekindled hopes about the long-awaited peace agreement, but produced an immediate outcome: as a goodwill gesture, Armenia expressed its support for Azerbaijan’s bid to host next year’s Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP29) – a decisive step which was crucial in securing the Azerbaijani bid. On its part, Azerbaijan released 32 Armenian prisoners mostly captured in the end of 2020 in exchange for two Azerbaijani soldiers held by the Armenian side since April: the historic exchange took place on December 13 along the two countries` uneasy border. This deal and exchange were preceded by another direct engagement in late November, when the Armenian and Azerbaijani delegations led by deputy prime ministers Mher Grigoryan from Armenia and Shahin Mustafayev respectively met at the same border in order to discuss the border delimitation.
Now the next set of questions is when, how, where, and under what circumstances can a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan be signed, if it is going to be signed at all. For many months the formal talks, despite having been held through two different multilateral tracks, have been in stagnation. The Moscow track is obviously not preferable for both countries, especially Armenia, in light of the ongoing cooling of Armenia-Russia ties and Yerevan`s pro-Western pivot. The Western track, in spite of its earlier successes, has also reached a deadlock: Azerbaijani side blamed France for this situation as the latter repeatedly tried to interfere in the Brussels/Washington format. As Paris today does not hide its pro-Armenian sentiments and even emerges as a military supplier to Armenia, a CSTO member-state, Azerbaijan does not welcome any French involvement. Baku`s position on the Western mediation has been very much harmed also by a number of remarks made by American and European officials, especially in the aftermath of the September-October events, which enabled Azerbaijan to dissolve the breakaway “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic”, and establish its full sovereignty over Karabakh.
In order to rescue the negotiation process, the Azerbaijani side has been advocating for an alternative framework for some time: direct talks between Baku and Yerevan without the involvement of any other external power. Georgia has been proposed by Azerbaijan as a potential venue for continuing the talks and the subsequent peace deal. In this context, Georgia, a third country of the region, may look an ideal variant. Although some Georgian experts and policymakers may have reservations about their country`s potential to host such a complicated process, it may be an attractive player with certain experience. Tbilisi has maintained good relations with its neighbors and a strict policy of neutrality in their long-standing conflict.
Let`s not forget Tbilisi`s experience in not only navigating through this dispute but also addressing it when necessary: the Georgian government facilitated the discussions between Armenia and Azerbaijan when the former passed the maps of minefields, while the latter freed 15 Armenian soldiers.
While there could be speculation about the involvement of third parties in the December deal, it is also highly likely that the two countries worked directly. Several months ago, an anonymous official from the Azerbaijani side confirmed in a private conversation that despite the formal tracks of negotiations, the belligerent parties eagerly utilize backstage channels too. “..it [the joint statement] shows that Baku and Yerevan can deal, offering hope for further talks and, perhaps even eventually, a peace deal and normalization of relations between the two countries,” wrote Zaur Shiriyev, analyst with the International Crisis Group.
This deal further strengthens Azerbaijan`s preference for engaging in direct talks by squeezing out biased stakeholders from the process, who in most cases can be driven by their own geopolitical agenda rather than genuine peace-building goals. According to the prevailing perception within the Azerbaijani expert community, external mediators such as France, Russia, and the United States, the long-standing co-chairs of the Minsk Group specifically designed to address the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, simply procrastinated the status quo and were not able or willing to obtain any tangible results during the Interwar period (1994-2020). This logic also tells us that these external powers, which rejected the conclusion of the conflict after the 2020 hostilities or proposed to leave it for future generations, are more interested in their own involvement in the process and gain/maintain leverage on both Armenia and Azerbaijan rather than in a genuine peace deal.
The border meetings between the vice prime ministers also contributed to the same argument: although the demarcation and delimitation was originally to be handled by a trilateral Armenian-Azerbaijani-Russian commission, it was then replaced by a bilateral setting. In fact, the November meeting at the border was the fifth round of talks at vice-prime ministerial level. A number of recent developments allow us to assume that the bilateral discussion format is finally gaining a real momentum. Thus, on December 14, the Government of Armenia has approved the regulations for the functioning of the delimitation commission- while a similar move is expected from Baku in the coming days. Moreover, on the same day Azerbaijani MFA issued a statement that normalisation of relations with Armenia seems realistic, and Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan during his visit to Azerbaijan stated that peace between the countries is very close. The opportunities for a long-awaited breakthrough suddenly started to look bright at the end of the grim 2023.
Samir Hajizada is Communications Manager at Topchubashov Center. He studied international relations at Baku Slavic University. His research expertise focuses on geopolitical developments and security issues in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia.