After a long period of stagnation, talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolve their decades-old conflict appear to have been revived. But the prospect of new peace talks has raised the question: What might “peace” look like?
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev have now met three times in the last six months. All the meetings were classified as “informal” and on the sidelines of other events, most recently the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But those discussions – along with four other meetings between the countries’ foreign ministers – have already resulted in a concrete agreement that has reduced violence along the front lines between the two sides, as well as the most positive rhetoric in years.
And according to diplomats familiar with the content of the meetings, the two leaders have already begun to discuss the fundamental issues that would have to be at the heart of any peace deal over Nagorno-Karabakh, the territory that is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but which has been controlled by Armenian forces since a bloody war between the two sides in the early 1990s.
While the promise of a real peace deal remains remote, the recent developments have nevertheless heartened advocates of a resolution to the conflict.
The diplomatic talks have been stagnant for several years, but Pashinyan’s rise to power in 2018 – after ousting a regime that had deep ties to Nagorno-Karabakh and its security structures – has raised the prospect of shaking up the negotiations.
Pashinyan, following his most recent meeting with Aliyev, vowed that his approach toward talks with Azerbaijan is fundamentally different from that of previous governments. “Our government is conducting a policy on Karabakh that no one has ever conducted before,” he told local media on January 30. “Drawing parallels and attempts to find any similarities with the previous policy are a delusion.”
But the government appears, at least so far, to be adhering to the same framework that the two sides have been working under since the mid-2000s, known as the Madrid Principles or the “basic principles.” These envisage a return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenian forces occupy as a security buffer; the right of those displaced from the conflict to return to their homes; security guarantees for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh; and an eventual resolution of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh itself.
“Obviously, because the Armenian side is coming from a very different place than the previous teams, there is a fair amount of exploration going on […] to test where the new elements are going to be or what the discussions are going to look like given this new team, these new players,” said one Western diplomat familiar with the ongoing negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, speaking to Eurasianet on condition of anonymity. “But nobody has come out and rejected the principles that have been the basis for discussions up until now.”
“The basic principles are still on the table because nobody has taken them off,” the diplomat continued, while cautioning: “Obviously, saying they are on the table, or saying they form the basis of negotiations, is very different from saying that the parties have agreed, in any meaningful way, to implement them or turn them into actionable points.”
Compromise of any sort is deeply unpopular among the publics in both countries. Among Armenians, in particular, the revival of negotiations has led to concerns about returning the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. One prominent Armenian-American lobby group, the Armenian National Committee of America, has launched a campaign against the Madrid Principles, criticizing them as “land for paper.”
Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan has hit back at such criticism, calling opponents of a peace deal “defeatist.”
The Western diplomat said criticisms of the Madrid Principles often miss the point. “As soon as you talk about the basic principles, they [critics] will say ‘Oh, that means…’ and then they’ll give you a particular formula that is very different from what you end up with.”
Pashinyan said he will not engage in any discussions of “land for peace,” prompting Azerbaijan to accuse him of violating the spirit of the negotiations. The deoccupation of the territories surrounding Karabakh is “a cornerstone of the peace process,” the spokesperson for Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Leyla Abdullayeva, responded. “The question arises: should we see this position of Pashinyan as a refusal to negotiate?”
Pashinyan later clarified his statement, saying he meant that Armenia should not be the only side to make concessions. “Why doesn’t anyone ask Azerbaijan if they are ready for concessions?” he asked. “That is why I have stated publicly many times that we will not answer this question until Azerbaijan answers it.”
Armenia’s foreign ministry and Pashinyan’s foreign policy adviser declined requests from Eurasianet for comment.
"The nuances are very important,” the Western diplomat said. “If you say, ‘I don’t accept territory for peace,’ the basic principles don’t anticipate territory [to be conceded] with nothing in exchange. And if you define peace as the absence of hostilities, okay, a scenario where you give up territories and all you get is a promise not to be attacked, that’s not a solution. There needs to be a recognition of something about status and security and so on. And again, this is where it gets sensitive – territory for peace is not the same as exchanging territory as part of a broader arrangement that takes into account the status and security issues.”
Azerbaijan has been more opaque about its position and has commented little publicly on the negotiations except to respond to statements by Armenian officials. Its foreign ministry and presidential administration did not respond to Eurasianet’s requests for comment.
Azerbaijani officials have frequently criticized one of Pashinyan’s key public demands about the negotiations: that they be expanded from the current bilateral format to include officials from the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh government. Azerbaijan has recently revived its community in charge of representing the Azerbaijanis displaced from Karabakh and has been trying to position it – rather than the governments in Baku and Yerevan – as the interlocutor with the Karabakh Armenians. Hikmet Hajiyev, Aliyev’s senior foreign policy adviser, criticized Armenians for calling for “providing the Armenian community with privileged rights after it ethnically cleansed the Azerbaijanis.”
In any case, Armenia seems to be backing down on the practical implementation of that demand, given that it has carried out a number of talks already on Karabakh without the formal participation of the entity’s leaders. But Armenian officials have said they will continue to insist on the principle of Karabakhi involvement. “If such a thing doesn’t happen now, it doesn’t mean that we forgot it,” Mnatsakanyan, the foreign minister, said.
With additional reporting by Ani Mejlumyan.
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit. Ani Mejlumyan is a reporter based in Yerevan.