EU Tries to Maintain Momentum for Peace Between Armenia and Azerbaijan
Author: Toghrul Aliyev
May 19, 2023
In the wake of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan in late 2020, the ceasefire brokered by Russia has proven ineffective in averting renewed tensions. In a bid to establish stability and long-term peace in the volatile South Caucasus region, the European Union (EU) and the United States have assumed crucial roles as mediators. Since April 2022, the EU has heightened its involvement by facilitating trilateral discussions between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, with the guidance of the President of the European Council (EC), Charles Michel. Nevertheless, diplomatic engagement between the two sides has reached an impasse since December 2022, primarily due to disagreements over transportation access to the Lachin Corridor, the sole passage connecting Armenia to Karabakh. After Azerbaijan established a checkpoint on the road along the corridor, peace talks have been re-intensified by the United States and the EU. On May 14, Brussels hosted another meeting between Pashinyan and Aliyev, as a result of which both sides once again explicitly reaffirmed their recognition of each other’s territorial integrity. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the two countries first recognized each other’s territorial integrity by becoming signatories to the Alma-Ata Declaration.
The simmering tensions surrounding the Lachin Corridor have stemmed from the Azerbaijani insistence on establishing a border customs checkpoint on the Hakari bridge, citing concerns over Armenia's alleged exploitation of the route to transport weaponry, including mines. According to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the establishment of the checkpoint by Azerbaijan in its sovereign territories was an “adequate response to the unilateral establishment of a checkpoint by Armenia on the border with Azerbaijan on April 22 at the entrance to the Lachin-Khankendi road.” In response, the Armenian government has decried this move as "the blockade of the Lachin Corridor" and a humanitarian catastrophe for ethnic Armenians residing in Karabakh. Adding to the volatility, a series of skirmishes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces in April claimed the lives of seven individuals. These recent developments serve as a stark reminder of Russia's limited ability to maintain peace in the region, underscoring the persistent on-the-ground tensions and the pressing need for a peaceful resolution between the two factions.
The May 14 trilateral meeting hosted by EC President Michel was the fifth of its kind. Speaking at the press conference, Michel emphasized that following the recent positive talks held in the United States by the foreign ministers of both sides the week of May 1, “the momentum should be maintained to take decisive steps towards the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement.” Michel said the two leaders “shared a common willingness for a South Caucasus at peace,” having discussed topics ranging from border and humanitarian issues to connectivity and unblocking transport links.
The Brussels meeting yielded a pivotal outcome, as both countries reasserted their unwavering commitment to the Alma-Ata Declaration of 21 December 1991 that both countries had signed following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Through the EU’s mediation, this historic agreement was brought up on the agenda again on the sidelines of the inaugural gathering of the European Political Community in Prague in October 2022. Within the framework of the May 14 Brussels meeting, Armenia and Azerbaijan reaffirmed previous commitments by explicitly recognizing each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty, even going so far as to include specific references to land areas in square kilometers.
The discussions encompassed a range of pressing matters, including the crucial aspects of unblocking transport and economic links, alongside addressing humanitarian concerns. Regarding connectivity, President Michel highlighted significant progress in negotiations, as both sides approached a consensus on the resumption of railway connections to and from Nakhchivan. This autonomous republic, a landlocked exclave of Azerbaijan and adjacent to Armenia, holds immense potential for regional integration in the South Caucasus. The reopening of these transportation routes could act as a catalyst for enhanced connectivity within the Trans-Caspian trade and energy corridor, effectively bridging Asia with the European market.
With respect to humanitarian concerns, an agreement was reached between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the release of detainees in the coming weeks. This promising development marks a crucial step forward in resolving the humanitarian crisis and fostering reconciliation between the two nations. Moreover, during the talks, Michel also emphasized the issue of rights and security of ethnic Armenians living in Karabakh, further encouraging “the need for a transparent and constructive dialogue between Baku and this population.” By prioritizing such measures, the path towards lasting stability and cooperation gains momentum, offering renewed hope for a more prosperous future in the South Caucasus region.
The European Union (EU), demonstrating its commitment to facilitating the peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan, maintains direct engagement with both sides, aiming to assert persistence and drive momentum. The EU's steadfastness in this endeavor holds the potential to emerge as a decisive factor in achieving a sustainable and lasting peace in the region. A testament to this determination was evident during the Brussels meeting, where President Michel emphasized the leaders' agreement to convene "as often as necessary." The next trilateral gathering is scheduled for July in Brussels, signifying the EU's dedication to ensuring continued dialogue and progress.
Moreover, another significant meeting between Prime Minister Pashinyan and President Aliyev is set to take place on the sidelines of the second Summit of the European Political Community in Chisinau, Moldova, on June 1. According to Michel, this gathering will also include President Macron of France and Chancellor Scholz of Germany. Through this, the EU aims to implement a proactive approach by engaging European countries that have close relations with each side.
Following the early-May talks in Washington, DC, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the sides “made tangible progress on a durable peace agreement” and that he believed “an agreement is within sight, within reach.” These efforts were further re-intensified through Brussels’ diplomatic engagement. However, while these initiatives merit ongoing persistence, it is imperative to acknowledge the potential spoilers that could impede progress.
The involvement of Russia, acting as a mediator with its own vested interests, poses a potential hindrance to the momentum created by the United States and the European Union. The Kremlin's agenda might not align with the recognition of territorial integrity by the parties involved, because the status quo of the frozen conflict serves Moscow’s own strategic goals. The continued participation of external actors such as France might also prove counterproductive, particularly considering Baku's previous accusations that President Macron harbors pro-Armenian bias. Therefore, perhaps continuing negotiations on a bilateral and trilateral format with Michel would be the more viable option in the future.