With Different Mediation Preferences, Armenia-Azerbaijan Talks Hit Impediments
Author: Nicholas Castillo
Nov 2, 2023
With the reincorporation of Karabakh underway and hostilities in the region largely over, both Baku and Yerevan have pivoted toward the next front in stabilizing the South Caucasus: normalization of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia are highly invested in normalization, and work on a deal is ongoing. However, recent weeks have seen the process flounder due to different preferences as to how negotiations will go forward, delaying the peace talks.
On October 4, Azerbaijan announced that it would not be attending the much-anticipated summit in Grenada, Spain the very next day. Later in October, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan declined to attend the Commonwealth of Independent States summit in Kyrgyzstan, where Russia had hoped to mediate talks between Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Most recently, on October 25, the tri-lateral meeting between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the European Union was canceled, with no future date announced. Armenia’s Foreign Minister claimed that Azerbaijan had pulled out. There are specific reasons as to why Azerbaijani and Armenian elites chose not to attend these talks including Azerbaijani distrust of France, Armenian anger toward Russia, and logistical constraints. But these decisions also point to a larger problem in the push for normalization, that Baku and Yerevan seem to have different preferences for the forum through which talks will go forward.
Baku has made its preference for a regionally driven solution clear. President Aliyev has endorsed more regionally oriented talks, favoring the involvement of Russia, Georgia, or Turkey. The Armenians, however, seem to have remained committed to the EU or European countries having the central mediating role. These different visions are causing significant delays in the normalization process. It does appear that negotiations of some kind are continuing. Prime Minister Pashinyan has claimed as much in public statements, and on October 30 announced that Armenia and Azerbaijan had agreed to a number of “basic principles” such as territorial integrity and border delineation along Soviet lines. However, President Aliyev and Pashinyan have not held in-person discussions since July 15, before Azerbaijan gained control of Karabakh this September and re-shaped the regional situation. Since then, new avenues for direct negotiations have not been taken advantage of due to different preferences in mediation.
Georgia’s neglected offer to mediate is perhaps the clearest example. During an October 8 surprise visit to Tbilisi by President Aliyev, he and Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili proposed the concept of tri-lateral negotiations hosted and mediated by Georgia. In addition to increased cooperation between Tbilisi and Baku Prime Minister Garibashvili focused his attention on Armenian-Azerbaijani relations stating, “We have great hopes that Azerbaijan and Armenia sign a peace agreement." He went on to say, "[We] are ready to contribute to this issue today. We want to be a mediator in this matter and are ready to offer any friendly format. Our future should be peaceful and stable, and all three countries of the South Caucasus should address regional issues themselves."
If talks were mediated by Georgia, it could bring new-found political cohesion and connectivity to the South Caucuses countries. With its own breakaway regions, Georgia has a strong interest in a smooth reincorporation of Karabakh and normalization between its neighbors. Georgia also has a broad interest in regional cooperation and connectivity, with Georgia already having increased economic and energy cooperation with Azerbaijan in recent years. Georgia also launched the Peaceful Neighborhood Initiative in 2021, further evidencing a desire for regional cooperation. A trilateral summit between the three neighbors would also offer a slimmed down approach to diplomacy, potentially more productive than the multi-lateral meetings pursued in the past. Yet Armenia has yet to respond to Georgia’s offer, hinting at a strong preference for European involvement.
A key issue driving this dysfunction may be trust, or lack thereof, between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the different potential mediators. Armenia knows that is by far, the weaker of the two countries. It has been unable to push back Azerbaijani offensives, either against Karabakh separatists or within Armenia’s own territory, since 2020. Azerbaijan has nearly five times the population, a much larger economy, and security partners such as Turkey and Israel who have provided valuable military gear and, in the case of Turkey, stalworth political support. Armenia may therefore be attempting to increase its bargaining position by having friendlier actors involved in the normalization process, such as France or the European Union. Recent months have seen increased efforts by Pashinyan to better relations with Brussels, and France in particular has offered Armenia greater military and political support since September’s fighting in Karabakh. On the other hand, Armenia has grown highly dissatisfied with Russia, its nominal ally, who has failed to intervene on Yerevan’s behalf in a meaningful way over the conflict in Karabakh since 2020. Armenia therefore will likely not trust Russia to take a leading role and seems uninterested in Georgia taking on mediation either.
Disagreements over how to go forward with normalization talks may cause frustration and further worsen relations between Baku and Yerevan. Already, Armenia’s lack of interest in Russian and Georgian mediation has led President Aliyev to publicly chastise Armenian leadership. Speaking from the CIS summit in Kyrgyzstan, Aliyev re-iterated his preference for regional involvement stating “[Russia] 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 went on to say “[D]oes Armenia want peace? I think not, because if it had wanted peace, it would not have missed [the CIS summit]. The Armenian prime minister flies six hours to Granada and participates in an incomprehensible meeting there, where Azerbaijan is discussed without actually being present.”
While the two countries have recognized each other’s territorial integrity and Armenia has recognized Azerbaijan’s international borders, other issues remain. These include the likely over 100,000 ethnic Armenians who have fled Karabakh, the portions of Armenian lands Azerbaijani troops have held since 2020, exclaves and full border delineation, and ongoing concerns around the Zangezur corridor (although it now appears Azerbaijan may be moving to by-pass the corridor through Iran). In public addresses, Prime Minister Pashinyan has outlined continuing security concerns relating to Armenia’s stronger neighbors.
A normalization agreement may not only resolve these issues, but also allow both countries to tap into economic opportunities. For Armenia, the smallest economy of the South Caucasus, normalization would allow trade with larger Azerbaijan. Speaking at the Silk Road Forum in Tbilisi, Prime Minister Pashinyan explicitly stated his hope that an agreement with Azerbaijan would also lay the foundation for the opening of the border with Turkey, an even larger economic force. In a political sense, Russia’s declining influence in the region threatens to leave Armenia politically isolated, making the need for bettering regional ties all the stronger. Pashinyan himself is interested in regional cooperation, advocating for what he terms the “Armenian Crossroads” or “Crossroads of Peace” trade and infrastructure initiative. Likewise, at the recent Silk Road Forum, Armenia announced it was ready to buy Azerbaijani natural gas once political issues are resolved. For Azerbaijan, region-wide normalization would not only allow trade with a direct neighbor, but ease trade with Turkey and open efficient pathways toward Western markets.
Shared interest will likely eventually lead both Yerevan and Baku to a normalization deal. At his recent speech to the EU for instance, Prime Minister Pashinyan pledged to have signed a peace agreement with Azerbaijan by the end of the year. However, geopolitical positioning has contributed to the fact that Pashinyan and Aliyev have not been able to hold direct talks with one another for months. Political momentum is now behind normalization, yet until a format for discussion is agreed upon, progress on the issue will continue to face delays.