International diplomacy picks up amid rising fears of violence in Karabakh
The U.S. and Russia have both made high-level contact with Armenian and Azerbaijani officials as the rhetoric from Baku is getting increasingly bellicose.
International diplomacy in the Caucasus is picking up speed as Armenians brace for what many believe will be a new Azerbaijani offensive.
In the last several days United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has called the leaders of both countries, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hosted his Armenian counterpart Ararat Mirzoyan in Moscow, Iran’s deputy foreign minister visited Yerevan and France’s foreign minister announced plans for an April visit to both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
It comes as Azerbaijan is making ever more specific threats to Armenia based on unconfirmed “provocations” that Baku is blaming Yerevan for. The two sides are increasingly digging in on the most contentious issue between them: the fate of the Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani blockade of the only road connecting Karabakh to Armenia and the outside world, known as the Lachin Corridor, is now more than three months old with no end in sight.
Blinken called Armenia Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on March 20, and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev the next day. According to the State Department readout, Blinken “reaffirmed the importance of reopening the Lachin corridor to commercial and private vehicles.” At a Senate hearing later in the week, Blinken characterized his conversation with Aliyev as “pressing” the Azerbaijanis to reopen the road.
Aliyev’s readout struck a more combative tone; he repeated the standard denial that there was a blockade at all, citing the Red Cross and Russian peacekeeping vehicles that are allowed to pass. He further argued that 10,000 Armenian military personnel are in Karabakh in contravention of the ceasefire agreement that ended the 2020 war. The figure of 10,000 was a new one and it’s not clear where it came from.
Most remarkably, the Azerbaijani leader implicated the European Union monitoring mission in abetting the “provocations” he attributed to Armenia, in particular alleged arms transfers from Armenia to Karabakh. The Armenian side “had been recently abusing the presence of the European Union's mission in this country to pursue a policy aimed at deliberately escalating the situation,” Aliyev told Blinken.
In a bellicose speech a few days before the conversation with Blinken, Aliyev reiterated his position that the fate of the Karabakh would be the subject only of negotiations between local Armenians and the Azerbaijani government, but he did so in newly aggressive terms.
“There is one condition for them [Armenians] to live comfortably on an area of 29,000 square kilometers [the size of the Republic of Armenia] – Armenia must accept our conditions, officially recognize Karabakh as the territory of Azerbaijan, sign a peace treaty with us and carry out delimitation work according to our conditions,” he said. “Only under these circumstances can they live comfortably on an area of 29,000 square kilometers.”
It all only reinforced the sense, which has been building for weeks now, that an Azerbaijani offensive is imminent.
But Blinken’s assessment, in the Senate hearing, was rosier. He put the emphasis on the peace negotiations, despite the fact that they appear to have stalled. “There is an opportunity, I don’t want to exaggerate it, but an opportunity to bring a peace agreement to fruition,” he said in response to a question from pro-Armenian Senator Robert Menendez. “This is not something we are imposing on Armenia, we are answering the strong desire expressed by Armenia to help them reach an agreement which would help them end ... thirty-plus years of conflict.”
It was a tone that Pashinyan then echoed – somewhat incongruously, given the dire warnings he has been issuing.
“There will be a #peace treaty between #Armenia and #Azerbaijan, and it will be based on the joint official statements adopted at the highest level, he tweeted on March 23. “There won’t be а new escalation! The international community must strongly support this narrative.”
The statement was rewarded by an approving quote tweet from the State Department:
While the two sides have been exchanging draft peace deals, the pace of high-level meetings has slowed down, the last one being in mid-February between Aliyev, Pashinyan, and Blinken on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.
The process has been complicated by the two dueling tracks of negotiations: one led by the EU with support from the U.S., and the other led by Russia. While both Armenia and Azerbaijan appear to favor the Western track, Russia is impossible to ignore given its large footprint in the region, including the large peacekeeping mission that has operated in Karabakh since 2020.
The highlight of Lavrov’s March 20 meeting with Mirzoyan was a discursion by the Russian diplomat about how the Karabakh issue should be resolved. Azerbaijan has been arguing that the status of the Karabakh Armenians is an issue only between them and the Azerbaijani government, and that correspondingly they should not be part of any international negotiations.
Armenia, by contrast, has been insisting on an international guarantee for the rights and security of the Karabakh Armenians in whatever deal it signs with Azerbaijan. In recent weeks Yerevan has been more explicit about what that could entail, including an international (i.e. not only Russian) presence in Karabakh and a demilitarized zone.
The Europeans and Americans have not explicitly weighed in on this issue, but Lavrov did. He said that the issue should be the subject of negotiations between Baku and Stepanakert – in short, the Azerbaijani position – but then went on to approvingly cite examples of other cases in which minority rights were guaranteed by international agreements, seeming to imply that the rights of Karabakh Armenians could be similarly established.
But the examples he chose were curious ones: eastern Ukraine, where the Minsk agreements that Russia and Ukraine signed had provisions on local self-governance; and Kosovo, where the governments of Serbia and Kosovo agreed on some rights for the Serb minority there.
Lavrov described the principle of minority rights thusly: “The right to their native language, the right to teach their children in that language, live and work using that language, maintaining their culture, religion, having the right to self-governance and some sort of special links to their compatriots. In the case of Donbass, that was Russia.”
Leaving aside the details of the situation in eastern Ukraine, Lavrov’s explanation in this context seemed to imply that those rights should be afforded to the Karabakh Armenians, and that Armenia would be the “compatriots” in this scenario.
While there was no official reaction from Baku, a headline in the pro-government analysis website Minval.az referred to “Lavrov’s strange statement on Karabakh.”
And while it hewed closer to Armenia’s position, the response from Yerevan also was lukewarm. Edmon Marukyan, an ambassador-at-large who works on the Azerbaijan brief, suggested that Donbass and the Serbian communities of Kosovo were not good comparisons, he said: Karabakh had long enjoyed a special status in the Soviet Union, while those other territories never did (unlike other examples Lavrov could have, but didn’t choose, like Crimea, Abkhazia, or South Ossetia).
“Hence, while looking for a solution to the NK problem, the International Community should take into account the entire historical legal-political background, otherwise any solution built upon irrelevant examples will lead to the deepening of the problem and its non-resolution,” Marukyan wrote in a tweet.
The next round of diplomacy may, in any case, be on the Russia track; Lavrov said that he was working on arranging a meeting with himself, Mirzoyan, and their Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.