Talks between Azerbaijan and representatives of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh are taking place more frequently and more publicly.
For Karabakhis, the meetings are about practical local concerns rather than a political dialogue, but for Azerbaijan they ultimately serve the goal of establishing sovereignty over the area.
On March 1, Azerbaijani media reported that MP Ramin Mammadov was "identified as the person responsible for contacts with Armenian residents of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan,” though his role has not been officially confirmed.
On the same day Mammadov met with representatives of Karabakh Armenians through the mediation of Russian peacekeepers in the Karabakh town of Khojaly. Karabakh's de facto administration said that the local Armenian population was represented by national security council leadership, and that Azerbaijan’s blockade of the region and concerns around the exploitation of mines were discussed.
Azerbaijani media wrote that reintegration of Armenians into Azerbaijan was discussed in the meeting, which Karabakh's presidential spokesperson denied.
This was the first meeting between Azerbaijani and Armenian officials that was reported by pro-government Azerbaijani media. Earlier meetings were reported only by outlets in Armenia and Karabakh.
The meeting comes as Azerbaijan appears more focused on integrating Karabakh – governed as an unrecognized ethnic Armenian statelet since the early 1990s – into its fold and is stepping back from its demands for a seamless transportation route through the Republic of Armenia known as the Zangezur Corridor.
And it comes just days after the sacking of Karabakh's de facto state minister Ruben Vardanyan. Azerbaijan had ardently refused to engage with the Russian-Armenian billionaire, who had resettled in Karabakh and effectively become the most powerful figure in the territory.
Meanwhile, Karabakh has been under blockade since December 12, when Azerbaijani government-sponsored activists camped out on the only road linking the region to Armenia and the outside world.
The topic of Azerbaijan-Karabakh dialogue has long been seen in the context of the Armenian-Azerbaijani peace process despite Baku's insistence from the start that its engagement with the ethnic Armenian population of Karabakh is an internal affair, and none of Yerevan's business.
A meeting in Prague last October between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders with EU mediation seemed to have provided a breakthrough on that front, however.
Though the official readout of the meeting didn't mention anything about Nagorno-Karabakh, both Armenian and Azerbaijani media reported that it was agreed to separate the peace process into two tracks: Armenia-Azerbaijan talks and talks between Baku and Stepanakert (the de facto capital of Nagorno-Karabakh).
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has spoken several times recently about engaging the Karabakh Armenians.
On February 18, attending a panel discussion with the prime ministers of Armenia and Georgia on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, Aliyev said that he agreed with U.S. and European mediators that there would be "discussions on the rights and securities of the Armenian minority in Karabakh."
Several meetings have been held between Azerbaijani officials and representatives of the Karabakh authorities with the mediation of Russian peacekeepers, including on February 25, two days after Vardanyan's dismissal. The sides discussed "the blockade of the region and gas provision," the Karabakh presidential spokesperson told Armenian media.
There have been occasional reports of similar meetings shortly after the 2020 Second Karabakh War, which saw Azerbaijan assert control over large swathes of territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.
In February 2021, Sputnik Armenia reported that a meeting on humanitarian issues took place with the participation of then-commander of Russian peacekeepers Rustam Muradov, Karabakh president Arayik Harutyunyan, and an unnamed Azerbaijani official. In July 2022, a local official in central Azerbaijan's Tartar district confirmed to Eurasianet that a meeting took place between local Karabakhi and Azerbaijani officials, again with Russian mediation, after which the Armenians agreed to let water from an Armenian-held water reservoir flow into central Azerbaijani districts.
The view from Baku
The basic outline of Azerbaijan's vision for Karabakh is clear: to establish full control over the region, grant it no special autonomous status, and accept local ethnic Armenians as its own citizens.
Back in October President Aliyev said that periodic contacts with Karabakh Armenians would eventually "lead to a full understanding […] that there is simply no other way besides integration into Azerbaijani society."
In his remarks in Munich in February, he said that Baku was pursuing talks with "those representatives of the Armenian community who were born and lived in Karabakh throughout their life. Not with the person who was exported from Russia to have the leading position in Karabakh. Maybe export is not the right word. I prefer the term 'smuggled in’," he said in an obvious reference to Ruben Vardanyan, who was to be sacked five days later.
So who is Azerbaijan willing to talk to among the Karabakh Armenians? Especially given that the "Nagorno-Karabakh republic" (known in Armenian as the Artsakh republic) is anathema to Baku, and elections there aren't recognized by Azerbaijan or any other country. And given that Azerbaijan filed war crimes charges against the region's de facto president and other officials during the 2020 war.
One senior official in Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry told Eurasianet on condition of anonymity that Baku was indifferent to whether there would-be interlocutors from Karabakh had been elected in unrecognized polls. The official did rule out any dialogue with the de facto president, Arayik Harutyunyan, however. “There are lots of possibilities for communication, in any format, but not with those who moved there during the times of occupation, who are illegally there and committed crimes against Azerbaijan," he said.
Farid Shafiyev, head of the Baku-based state-run Center of Analysis of International Relations, told Eurasianet that some contacts were made in fall of 2022, and logistical issues have been discussed: "The contacts have no formal setting, so we can't speak about meeting with 'elected officials'. Occasionally our side deals with people [Armenians] who are in charge of, for example, water management, and occasionally they would have some self-proclaimed 'official' position but it's not one formally recognized by Azerbaijani authorities."
But no matter how intensive such contacts may become, Azerbaijan clearly has no intention of recognizing Karabakh as a separate political entity, according to Shafiyev.
"Certainly, there is acknowledgement from our side that we must address the issue of security and the rights of Karabakhi Armenians – but within the Azerbaijani constitution and with internal mechanisms," he said.
Shujaat Ahmadzada, researcher at Baku-based Topchubashov Center, proposed in November 2022 that Azerbaijan recognize the results of past municipal elections in Karabakh's towns and villages. "Although it is inconceivable to see the 'parliamentary' and 'presidential' elections held in the separatist enclave getting recognized, accepting village representatives as legitimate individuals in itself cannot undermine the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Azerbaijan," Ahmadzada wrote.
In an interview with Eurasianet in late February, Ahmadzada said Azerbaijan's move to intensify talks with the Karabakhis was a demonstration that it objected only to the presence of Ruben Vardanyan rather than engagement with Stepanakert per se.
He also affirmed that the talks were ultimately aimed at integrating Karabakh and its Armenian population: "For me, this dialogue mechanism is seen by Azerbaijan as more of a means of gradually regaining sovereignty over the portion of Nagorno-Karabakh that is not under its control. It would be unrealistic to assume that officials from Baku would engage in any discussions about political models that would not recognize Azerbaijan's sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. These discussions will probably primarily focus on discussing day-to-day practical difficulties in Karabakh (water, energy, transport, mining, etc)."
The view from Stepanakert
When announcing Ruben Vardyan's dismissal from the state minister position on February 23, Karabakh's de facto president touched on the prospects for dialogue with Baku. "We are committed to a dialogue and to conflict settlement with Azerbaijan, but we have clear principles and red lines that derive from the fundamental rights, vital interests and demands of the people of Artsakh," Arayik Harutyunyan said.
"First and foremost, we have to ensure a stable and reliable environment, excluding provocations, the use of force and psychological terror," he added, later mentioning that the routine issues were possible to solve "through simple contacts." However, for high-level negotiations aiming to solve the long-term issues, the precondition for Karabakh Armenians is an international framework with mediators to "guarantee the protection of both parties' interests and equality."
Harutyunyan further highlighted the importance of unimpeded operation of the infrastructure (gas and electricity lines) coming from Armenia through now Azerbaijani-controlled territories, as well as the free flow of traffic through the Lachin corridor.
He emphasized – in light of Vardyan's dismissal inevitably being seen as a concession to Azerbaijan – that Baku would not be able to choose who to speak to among the Karabakh Armenians.
Up to this point, Harutyunyan and his administration have been putting forward senior security officials for talks with the Azerbaijanis.
For a while it had appeared that Vitaly Balasanyan, the former secretary of Karabakh's security council, was playing the role of point man for engaging Baku. He had been authorized by the president to negotiate with Azerbaijan over gas supply restoration in March 2022, when it was cut by Azerbaijan amid freezing weather conditions. Following the first blockade of the corridor on December 5, he also conducted meetings with Azerbaijani environmentalists and the Russian peacekeepers.
Balasanyan, however, was sacked in January. His replacement, Samvel Shahramanyan, was seen in photos released of the March 1 Khojaly meeting.
Meanwhile, Karabakh refrains from calling the discussions a political dialogue.
Davit Babayan, a former foreign minister and current advisor to president Harutyunyan, insists that there are no "negotiations" under way, only "contacts on vital issues."
Following the March 1 meeting with Azerbaijani and Russian representatives, Karabakh’s Foreign Ministry reiterated that discussions aiming at resolving urgent issues “cannot replace full-fledged negotiations.” “We proceed from the need to restore the international mediation format as an important guarantee of the irreversibility of the peace process,” the ministry said.
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.
Lilit Shahverdyan is a journalist based in Stepanakert.