On April 6, 2022, a trilateral meeting took place between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and President of the European Council Charles Michel in Brussels. After the 2020 Artsakh War, Brussels has been showing a significant active interest in normalizing relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and establishing security and stability in the South Caucasus. The first trilateral tete-a-tete took place on December 14, 2021, under the auspices of the EU Eastern Partnership Summit. According to the statement made by Charles Michel after that first meeting, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan had agreed to proceed with the restoration of railway connections, based on the principle of sovereign border and customs controls. This agreement can truly be considered a significant achievement, because it neutralized the false agenda of the so-called “Zangezur corridor” being pushed forward by both Turkey and Azerbaijan.
This latest meeting was notable due to several factors. Specifically, contrary to the prior Pashinyan-Michel-Aliyev meeting on December 14, this one took place when relations between Russia and the collective West have severely deteriorated. This meeting also preceded the visits of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Foreign Affairs Minister Ararat Mirzoyan to Moscow. Meanwhile, the first trilateral meeting in Brussels was preceded by the Pashinyan-Putin-Aliyev trilateral meeting (November 26, 2021 in Sochi), during which Russian President Vladimir Putin openly hinted at Russia being—at least outwardly—in agreement with the Brussels meeting. In other words, at least publicly, Russia did not label the EU’s mediation efforts at normalizing Armenian-Azerbaijani relations as contradictory to, or a threat to, Russian mediation efforts.
Taking into account that the 2022 Ukraine War frayed relations between Russia and the collective West to an unprecedented low since the Cold War, it was predictable that Russia would react negatively toward the April 6 Brussels meeting. And it did not take them long to respond. Specifically, during Ararat Mirzoyan’s visit to Moscow on April 8, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov noted that Charles Michel’s statement made no mention at all about Russia’s role. Lavrov was also quick to disparage Brussel’s role in the Armenia-Azerbaijan normalization process. He underlined that the delimitation process and the unblocking of economic, trade and communication ties formed part of the agreements reached during the successive trilateral meetings between the leaders of Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan. Even though the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan held phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin after their recent Brussels meeting to inform him of the results, it’s clear that Russia publicly disapproved of the latest EU efforts as an attempt to marginalize Russia’s role.
Europe Steps In
The next notable factor is what was agreed to during the Brussels meeting. According to Michel’s statement, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Armenia and Azerbaijan were instructed to work on the preparation of a future peace treaty and to undertake negotiations toward this end. In essence, this means that Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to carry out direct communications, something that the Europeans and Americans have been emphasizing in their public statements for a while now. Not long after the summit, Azerbaijan initiated a phone call between Mirzoyan and Bayramov, during which both sides exchanged ideas about creating a demarcation and border security committee, preparing for peace negotiations, and discussing humanitarian issues. The phone call on a foreign ministerial level can be acknowledged as significant progress in terms of ways to strengthen mutual trust between the two sides. Meanwhile, it’s important to note that, in terms of establishing direct bilateral communications between Armenia and Azerbaijan, this was not Brussels’ only successful mission. Back on November 19, 2021, European Council President Charles Michel published a statement after holding phone calls with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, according to which the two leaders had agreed to establish a direct line of communication at the level of their Ministers of Defense, to serve as an incident prevention mechanism. Accordingly, we can conclude that Brussels is putting in effort to establish direct communication between Armenia and Azerbaijan, something which would undoubtedly irritate Russia; not only are Russian peacekeeping forces stationed in post-war Artsakh, but Russia has also positioned itself as the primary mediator in all issues on the Armenia-Azerbaijan agenda.
Demarcation and Delimitation
Another point of agreement reached during the Brussels summit is to create a joint commission on delimitation and demarcation issues by the end of April 2022. This point clearly reveals that Armenia has retreated from its previous position, which was that initial steps to increase the level of stability and security on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border were necessary before the creation of a commission on delimitation and demarcation. Previously, Armenia had advocated for a “mirrored” withdrawal of troops from the Soviet-era Armenian-Azerbaijani border, handing over border protection to a restricted number of border guards, and introducing international monitoring at the border. Azerbaijan had refused this proposal. As a result, the possibility that Azerbaijan resumes border tensions and hostilities during the demarcation process, in order to strengthen its negotiating position, will be more probable. It’s clear that, under such circumstances, Armenia should have made it a principle to initiate international monitoring mechanisms for border security before the start of the demarcation process. Two reasons can be given for Armenia’s retreat. First, within the framework of the Brussels meeting, it may have been possible to get security guarantees from the Europeans, at least verbally, that appropriate political and legal leverage will be used if necessary to prevent possible military aggression by Azerbaijan during the delimitation process. Secondly, and perhaps more likely, the Brussels format has demonstrated the limited capabilities of the EU in this regard and the Armenian side has been forced to be satisfied with verbal guarantees in the absence of any other alternative. As the Azerbaijani advance into the Parukh village in Artsakh’s Askeran region laid bare, the presence of Russian peacekeeping forces in Artsakh and Russian mediation efforts aimed at normalizing Armenia-Azerbaijan relations have not been able to neutralize Azerbaijan’s continued policy of military aggression to extract concession after concession from Armenia. Moreover, during Mirzoyan’s visit to Moscow, Lavrov announced that Russia saw no obstacles to creating an Armenian-Azerbaijani border delimitation and demarcation commission.This statement, to put it mildly, is puzzling. Russia, who considers itself to be the primary mediator, should have been well aware that it was precisely the existence of this obstacle which served as the basis of the signing of the document following the November 26, 2021 trilateral Pashinyan-Putin-Aliyev meeting in Sochi where the sides agreed to take steps to increase the level of stability and security on the Armenia-Azerbaijan state border and push the process to create a bilateral commission on demarcation and future delimitation.
The Mirzoyan-Lavrov press conference clearly showcased that Russia is trying to disparage the Brussels agreement on creating a demarcation and delimitation commission. If we were to diplomatically translate Lavrov’s words, Russia is warning the Europeans not to interfere in this issue, for which it had set up a trilateral Russia-Armenia-Azerbaijan format since 2020.
The Brussels summit is notable as well in that Michel welcomed the steps being taken by both sides to restore railway connections and called for Armenia and Azerbaijan to find effective solutions to re-establish road links as well. Back in Yerevan, Pashinyan announced that there had been misinterpretations about the re-opening of road links during the meeting, and that the parties had agreed to continue to work toward finding solutions. Armenia has proposed to rebuild the Yeraskh-Julfa-Ordubad-Meghri-Horadiz railway line along the Araks River and reconnect roads that would allow travel between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan that would include border and customs controls. Azerbaijan has insisted that any treatment of this connection should also apply to the Lachin corridor that connects Armenia with Artsakh. To justify this position, Azerbaijan cites the November 9 trilateral statement. Meanwhile, the statement does not include any clause where another country can oversee control over any Armenian territory. Besides this, it’s notable that any parallels between Artsakh and Nakhichevan are baseless, as Nakhichevan already has land connections through Iran and Turkey that do not rely on Armenia. In contrast, the Lachin Corridor represents Artsakh’s only connection to the outside world. Before heading to Brussels, Pashinyan publicly proposed to accept de jure the agreements made during the first trilateral Brussels meeting regarding the reopening of the railway. Armenia fears that, even if it constructs the railway and roads, Azerbaijan may refuse to open the border anyway. Not only was such a document not signed as a result of the Brussels meeting, there was also no mention of it in Charles Michel’s statement. Therefore, we can state that Brussels wasn’t able to reconcile both side’s positions regarding this issue, and Armenia returned empty-handed.
The Conflict That Must Not Be Named
The next noteworthy outcome of the Brussels meeting is that Charles Michel’s statement does not include any mention of the need for the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group, or even refer to Nagorno-Karabakh at all. This observation incited an outcry in Armenian political and public circles. Prime Minister Pashinyan already announced in Yerevan that the parties discussed the deteriorating security environment in Nagorno-Karabakh while in Brussels, specifically the incidents at Parukh; however, those discussions did not result in a collective assessment of the situation. Moreover, Armenia did not find it pertinent to continue this discussion; according to Pashinyan, the issue concerned the invasion of Azerbaijani military units into an area under the jurisdiction of the Russian peacekeeping forces, and that it should be discussed with the participation of their Russian counterparts.
Everyone who is familiar with this issue knows very well that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the perpetual deadlock from which all issues pertaining to the normalization of Armenia-Azerbaijan relations arise, collide or intersect. While Azerbaijan is consistently pushing forward its concept of a “Nagorno-Karabakh without Armenians” with its genocidal actions and denies even the existence of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia is emphasizing the importance of guaranteeing the security of the people of Artsakh, the protection of their rights and freedoms, as well as the clarification of their final status. It is unlikely that both parties were able to meet halfway in Brussels. In this case, how did the parties succeed in moving forward and instructing their foreign ministers to start the preparations for a peace agreement? After returning to Yerevan, Pashinyan announced that Armenia’s new position would be to relegate the issue of status to the backburner and focus on security guarantees and the rights of Artsakh’s Armenians. It’s clear that Armenia has high hopes for the case it brought against Azerbaijan at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to support the principle of remedial secession. One can only hope that the Brussels meeting, at the very least, provided verbal guarantees to the Armenian side and that the international community will not witness the total annihilation of the Artsakh Armenians by Azerbaijan in their homeland prior to the completion of the trial. One can also only hope that Armenia, by choosing between the bad and the worst, has a clearly formulated strategy and clear multilateral security guarantees for the safety of the Artsakh Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Otherwise, choosing between ‘bad’ and ‘worst’ is not so much a choice as it is perilous.
Undermining the OSCE Minsk Group
Another development from the Brussels trilateral summit was that, during the Mirzoyan-Lavrov press conference, the Russian side publicly accused France and the U.S. of undermining the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmanship, because the Europeans and Americans will no longer work with the Russian side in the wake of the war in Ukraine. This statement was, to put it mildly, disturbing. On March 14, 2022, despite the extreme tension among the members, official Yerevan had applied to the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs to spearhead the negotiation of a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Following the 2020 Artsakh War, the fate of the OSCE Minsk Group is continually being discussed within political and expert circles. Although the co-chair countries have repeatedly stated that a number of issues have not yet been resolved, and it is necessary to continue negotiations to reach a comprehensive settlement of the conflict, the fact remains that the November 9, 2020 statement to cease military operations was made in a trilateral format (Armenia-Russia-Azerbaijan), and only Russian peacekeepers are stationed in Artsakh. Moreover, by denying the existence of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and attempting to censor the word Nagorno-Karabakh itself, Baku is preventing the Minsk Group co-chairs from entering Artsakh.
Lavrov’s statement questioning the survival of the OSCE Minsk Group format was followed by responses by the U.S. and France. Official Washington announced that the U.S. is ready to engage in bilateral peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan with like-minded partners, including also as a co-chair of the Minsk Group. A similar announcement was made by France, reaffirming its full commitment both on a bilateral basis and as the holder of the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union and a Co-Chair of the Minsk Group, to establish peace and stability in the South Caucasus. Moreover, the U.S. and French Co-chairs, Andrew Schofer and Brice Roquefeuil visited Armenia. During their meeting with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the sides stressed the role of the OSCE Minsk Group in the comprehensive settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The public support of France and the U.S. for European Council President Charles Michel’s mediation efforts to establish peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, including also their willingness to work with both parties, both at the bilateral level and as co-chair countries of the Minsk Group, is a serious challenge to Russia’s role in the South Caucasus. The West is openly implying that it intends to remain involved in the process, even as its relations with Russia hobble the OSCE Minsk Group. Perhaps it was this realization that served as the basis for the 24th point of the joint statement signed between Pashinyan and Putin in Moscow on April 19, 2022, which, mildly put, contradicts Russia’s views in regards to the OSCE Minsk Group expressed during the Mirzoyan-Lavrov press conference. In particular, in the context of the urgent need to resolve crucial humanitarian issues and to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through political and diplomatic means, the leaders of Armenia and Russia reaffirmed the need to use the potential and experience of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs in accordance with its international mandate.
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