The 35-year-old Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict could finally be coming to an end after last month's lightning offensive by Azerbaijan to retake Nagorno-Karabakh and the subsequent exodus of the region's Armenian population and dissolution of its de facto government.
The fate of the Karabakh Armenians had long been the main sticking point in the peace talks underway since 2021. Now that that issue has been resolved, however crudely, and the sides have vowed to recognize one another's territorial integrity, it might seem that a conclusion could be at hand.
But things aren't that simple. Apart from the actual content of a peace deal – chiefly border delimitation/demarcation and the opening of transit links – the sides are at odds over who should mediate.
Up to this point there have been two separate tracks of negotiations, one mediated by Russia and the other by the European Union with U.S. help.
Now, after Azerbaijan's takeover of Karabakh, Armenia is more dissatisfied than ever with its nominal strategic partner Russia and is increasingly positive on the West. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, has been expressing distaste with Western mediation and calling for a regional solution to the conflict, one that could involve Russia, Turkey and Iran, or, perhaps, just Georgia.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had been due to meet in the presence of European mediators on the sidelines of the European Political Community Summit in Granada, Spain, on October 5.
But Aliyev backed out. The presence of France, an ally of Armenia that has offered to sell it defensive weapons, and the exclusion of Azerbaijan's strategic partner Turkey were the reasons, his advisor later explained.
Pashinyan went anyway, and talked Armenia-Azerbaijan peace with President Charles Michel of the European Council, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany.
Those four released a joint statement afterwards expressing commitment to the normalization of relations between Baku and Yerevan, and the two countries' mutual respect for one another's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The statement also emphasized the importance of "strict adherence to the principle of non-use of force and threat of use of force." Concerns persist in Armenia that Azerbaijan could invade in order to force the establishment of a transit corridor, and the EU wants assurances from Baku that it won't do so.
A few days later, Armenia decided to skip a meeting of leaders and foreign ministers of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) members in Bishkek. Aliyev criticized the move, as supposedly a separate meeting was to be held between Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian foreign ministers on the sidelines of the event.
"We perceive the mediation of the Russian Federation with gratitude because Russia is our neighbor and ally, as well as Armenia's ally. This country is located in our region, unlike those who are thousands of kilometers away. Naturally, the history of relations between our countries presupposes the mediation of the Russian side," Aliyev said while receiving security council heads of CIS state members.
"Now, this invites the question: does Armenia want peace? I think not, because if it had wanted peace, it would not have missed this opportunity. The Armenian prime minister flies six hours to Granada and participates in an incomprehensible meeting there, where Azerbaijan is discussed without actually being present, but he cannot fly for two to three hours to Bishkek. He has other important things to do," Aliyev added.
After Aliyev met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Bishkek on October 13, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed a similar view. "Baku has a very constructive position on this [signing a peace treaty], while Yerevan has not quite decided yet," he said.
The rift between Armenia and Russia further widened when Pashinyan told the European Parliament on October 17 that Russia was trying to topple him.
"When the 100,000 Armenians were fleeing from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, our security allies not only failed to help us, but were publicly calling for a change of government, overthrowing the democratic government in Armenia," he said.
Russian state media the following day quoted a "high-ranking" Russian official as calling Pashinyan's statement "provocative" and suggesting Armenia could suffer the same fate as Ukraine, which Russia has waged full-scale war against for the past 18 months.
"We see that there's an attempt to turn Armenia into a Ukraine number three. If we consider that Moldova is Ukraine number two, Pashinyan is going by leaps and bounds down the path of [Ukrainian President] Volodymyr Zelensky," the unnamed official said.
Exclaves complicate border talks
When Armenia and Azerbaijan finally begin delimiting their common border, one of the more difficult issues is likely to be that of exclaves – the tiny islands of each country's territory that are surrounded entirely by the other's.
During the First Karabakh War in the 1990s all of these villages, most of which are actually far from Karabakh, were abandoned and taken over by the surrounding power. There are three Azerbaijani exclaves in Armenia and one Armenian exclave in Azerbaijan. There are also several bits of territory contiguous with contiguous with each country that the other sliced off during the first war.
After Pashinyan signed the statement affirming Azerbaijan's territorial integrity in Granada, Aliyev told European Council President Charles Michel by phone on October 7 that eight villages of Azerbaijan were "still under Armenian occupation, and stressed the importance of liberating these villages from occupation."
Asked by Armenian Public TV about this claim in an interview on October 10, Pashinyan did not comment directly but said that Azerbaijan has likewise been occupying several Armenian villages since the 1990s.
"We proposed a solution to that issue back in 2021 and said let's decide what the delimitation map is, and pull back the troops simultaneously from the border line according to that map. These are very important nuances," he said.
Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry in response said that Baku does not occupy any Armenian villages and suggested that Pashinyan was making that claim in order to justify Armenia's occupation of Azerbaijani villages.
(In June Pashinyan appeared to acknowledge the validity of Azerbaijan's claims on at least one village currently controlled by Armenia.)
Another issue that will need to be addressed in the border talks is the presence of Azerbaijani troops deep inside what's generally regarded as Armenian territory.
Azerbaijan has made several incursions into Armenia since the 2020 war and currently holds an estimated 215 square kilometers of its land.
By Heydar Isayev via Eurasianet.org