Armenia and Karabakh should be ready for new escalations by Azerbaijan

By Benyamin Poghosyan

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and European Council President Charles Michel met for the fourth time in Brussels on Wednesday. The format was launched last December during that year’s Eastern Partnership summit. Following those talks Pashinyan, Aliyev, and Michel met earlier this year, in early April and late May.

The Brussels format has received a variety of expert assessments.. Some analysts argued that it is part of a Western strategy to lessen Russian influence in the South Caucasus region. Others pointed out that the European Union’s involvement lacked institutional capacity and an international mandate, and that the EU has no capacity to challenge Russia’s position as the primary mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Regardless of the strategic implications of the EU’s mediation efforts, it seems Brussels has secured some achievements. After the April meeting, Pashinyan and Aliyev agreed to instruct their foreign ministers to work to prepare a peace treaty that would address all critical issues, and to convene a joint border demarcation Commission.

The results of the May meeting were more encouraging: Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to start the work of the border commission, with the first meeting taking place just two days later. According to a read-out of the May meeting, Pashinyan and Aliyev also agreed on the principles that would govern transit between western Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan and between different parts of Armenia via Azerbaijan. They also apparently reached some form of agreement on the principles for border administration, security, land fees, and customs. In addition, the two leaders reiterated their readiness to advance discussions on a future peace treaty governing interstate relations between their two countries.

Separately, the EU was able to launch a second track of dialogue between Yerevan and Baku, facilitating meetings between Armen Grigoryan, the head of Armenia’s Security Council, and Hikmet Hajiyev, a senior foreign policy advisor to Aliyev. In short, the May meeting raised hopes in the region, and beyond, the EU would be able to push the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process forward.

The reality on the ground is different

However, the reality on the ground after the May meeting was quite different. Despite all the statements about both sides’ readiness to start work on a peace treaty and putting together special teams to draft the text, nothing concrete was done in this regard. Armenia and Azerbaijan’s foreign ministers met in July in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, but those talks ended with no results and, ultimately, did not prevent Azerbaijan’s major military escalation in Karabakh early last month.

Azerbaijan has consistently pushed for coercive diplomacy and military blackmail to force Armenia to accept its demands. These tactics were evident in August’s escalation, which saw Baku force Yerevan and Stepanakert to accept its demands and cede control over Armenian-inhabited communities located within the Lachin corridor.

After that, Azerbaijan put forward two more demands: one, to dissolve the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic Defense Army, and two, to open the “Zangezur corridor” across Armenia’s southernmost Syunik region. By demanding a corridor, Azerbaijan demands that there be no Armenian customs or border control in Syunik for Azerbaijani citizens and goods traveling from mainland Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan.

Otherwise, Azerbaijan threatens to establish its own checkpoints along the Lachin corridor, which in reality would mean the closure of the only road connecting Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Thus, Azerbaijan’s position is unequivocal: no checkpoints on routes between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and on routes between mainland Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan, or checkpoints on both. Given the developments of early August, it is apparent Azerbaijan believes it will force Armenia to accept these demands through further escalation.

In this context, this week’s meeting had little chance of success. Michel’s post-meeting statement had very few details about the results, instead indicating a lack of progress. The two sides agreed to organize a meeting between their foreign ministers within a month to start work on drafting a peace treaty. However, this was already agreed in April, with no tangible results since. Azerbaijan views a peace treaty as a tool to finally settle the Karabakh issue, which means that the peace treaty, according to Azerbaijan’s understanding, should include a clear statement by Armenia that Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan will not accept anything else.

Armenia and Karabakh should be ready for new escalations by Azerbaijan

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s meeting also saw the sides take a step back on the issue of unblocking transport connections. If, after their May meeting, Pashinyan and Aliyev were speaking about agreements on principles governing transit between western Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan and between different parts of Armenia via Azerbaijan, this time they just reviewed the progress of discussions to unblock transport links. Armenia will not accept Azerbaijan’s demands for the absence of Armenian border and passport control on routes passing through Syunik. But at the same time, Armenia hopes that Russia will not allow Azerbaijan to establish checkpoints on the route connecting Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh. There was also no progress on the issue of the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army. Michel’s statement did not even mention Karabakh, despite the fact that Karabakh-related issues were clearly on the agenda.

So, we can say Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations are approaching an impasse, and most probably, Azerbaijan will continue to use military escalations to force Armenia to accept its demands. In this context, the leadership in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh alike should be ready for new escalations by Azerbaijan, both along the line of contact and on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.

Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan is the Chairman and Founder, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.