Baku and Yerevan are approaching a historic path toward achieving peace by resolving a decadeslong dispute over Karabakh, previously referred to as Nagorno-Karabakh, experts say, pointing to the shift in rhetoric from the Armenian side.
“Karabakh has definitely been the central element of the Armenia-Azerbaijan disagreement and an apple of discord since 1988. All other issues are directly or indirectly related to this or stemming from the issue of Karabakh: territorial integrity, border issues, even transport and communication,” Rusif Huseynov, director of the Topchubashov Center think tank, told Daily Sabah.
Also speaking to Daily Sabah, Emil Avdaliani, professor at the European University in Tbilisi, Georgia and a nonresident fellow at the Georgian think tank Geocase, said that Yerevan has reached a point where it realizes “that a certain document needs to be signed with Azerbaijan, which ideally could end the war between the two states.”
“Would it be a definitive peace deal? It is difficult to say, but some hints in the rhetoric of the Armenian government indicate a shift in thinking. Many observers, including myself, believe that Yerevan might be agreeing to see Nagorno-Karabakh within the borders of Azerbaijan in exchange for cultural rights,” Avdaliani added.
As a way forward, Huseynov said that the two countries might address different issues as separate clusters.
“They can start the border-demarcation process, they can also work on the issues of the unblocking of transport and communication lines, mutual recognition of territorial integrity is also one of the hot issues on the agenda. So, I think, these three, four issues, mostly the points which are reflected in Azerbaijan’s five-point peace proposal, could be treated as the most important issues,” he added.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said in April that Armenia accepted the five-point proposal and that the two countries’ leaders agreed on a working group to prepare a peace agreement, the establishment of a commission on the delimitation of borders and the activities of a working group on transport issues with the involvement of Azerbaijan, Russia and Armenia following a meeting with European Council President Charles Michel.
Aliyev then on May 23 announced that Baku and Yerevan had agreed on the opening of the Zangezur corridor, including the construction of both railways and highways.
Zangezur was part of Azerbaijan until the Soviets gave the region to Armenia in the 1920s. This move resulted in Azerbaijan losing its direct overland route with Nakhchivan.
Following the completion of the railway, Azerbaijan will be able to reach Iran, Armenia and Nakhchivan uninterruptedly by train. The railway will also link Turkey with Russia through Azerbaijan.
Relations between the two former Soviet countries of Azerbaijan and Armenia have been tense since 1991 when the Armenian military illegally occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, and seven adjacent regions.
New clashes erupted on Sept. 27, 2020, and the 44-day conflict saw Azerbaijan liberate several cities and over 300 settlements and villages that were occupied by Armenia for almost three decades.
Yerevan has been gripped by anti-government protests since mid-April, with opposition parties demanding Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s resignation over his handling of a territorial dispute with Azerbaijan.
After the conflict ended, Azerbaijan launched a massive reconstruction initiative in the liberated Karabakh region.
Pashinian faces pressure
Avdaliani said that the nearing of a peace deal between Azerbaijan and Armenia is causing tensions within Yerevan. “This is what stirred protests in Armenia that complicate the situation for Pashinian’s government. But it is also likely that he will weather the storm – large parts of the Armenian public are unwilling to the return of the old guard.”
“The government both in Baku and Yerevan seem committed to achieve some sort of a peace deal, which is criticized, especially in Armenia,” Huseynov said, indicating that Pashinian currently faces both domestic pressure and pressure from the Kremlin.
“Interestingly enough, some of the political forces challenging Pashinian at home are also known for their ties with Moscow.”
“So, if Pashinian is able to stay in a power and if he is able to push his normalization agenda, we may soon see some positive developments and breakthrough in Armenian-Azerbaijani rapprochement. The obstacles are again the current opposition rallies in Armenia, which are not so large right now but are able to disrupt or derail the normalization process.”
Yerevan has been gripped by anti-government protests since mid-April, with opposition parties demanding Pashinian’s resignation over his handling of the territorial dispute with Azerbaijan.
‘Danger and opportunity’
Following the Karabakh war, a tripartite agreement was brokered by Russia to bring an end to the war in November 2020. However, since then, it has been the EU rather than Russia acting as a mediator and bringing the two countries together for vital negotiations, coinciding with Western countries pressuring Russia for its war on Ukraine.
“Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and slow progress it sees in Donbass is both a danger and an opportunity for the South Caucasus and the Armenia-Azerbaijan relations,” Avdaliani pointed out.
“It is a danger because of the potential military escalation; an opportunity because Russia is not entirely interested in being an honest peace-maker. And this is where the EU made significant progress through hosting a series of Armenia-Azerbaijan summits,” he continued.
Avdaliani said that Russia is worried about losing the initiative, but it could also stir things up militarily to advance its interests.
“Overall Russia’s position in the South Caucasus is unenviable. Moscow sees that the only way to dominate the space is through the military means. It is a weak tool, because once you are weak inside, all your military bases abroad might swiftly lose their relevance.”
Dilara Aslan Özer