The latest effort to organize talks between Azerbaijan and the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh seems to be going nowhere.
Nagorno-Karabakh wants international mediators and talks on neutral ground while Azerbaijan wants talks on its own territory with no intermediaries, as the fate of the Karabakh Armenians, in their view, is a strictly internal Azerbaijani affair.
The fate of the Karabakh Armenians is the main sticking point in the negotiations between Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia on reaching a comprehensive peace deal.
Armenia, as well as mediators from the U.S. and the EU, support the creation of an "international mechanism for ensuring the rights and securities of the Karabakh Armenians" living under future Azerbaijani rule.
Russia, which oversees a separate track of Armenia-Azerbaijan talks, does not support this demand, and says Karabakh Armenians should be protected by Azerbaijani law and international conventions on the rights of minorities.
On August 1, Azerbaijani news website Caliber.az, linked to the country's Defense Ministry, reported, citing unnamed sources, that a meeting between Azerbaijani and Nagorno-Karabakh officials "is being worked out" in the Azerbaijani town of Yevlakh, which is situated about 100 km north of Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto capital, Stepanakert.
"[The] proposal for the meeting does not come from any third country, it fits into the logic of Baku's well-known proposal for a dialogue that will take place exclusively between representatives of the central authorities and the Armenian ethnic minority, without the participation of representatives of foreign countries," the sources told the outlet as quoted.
The piece alleged that some in the de facto government of Nagorno-Karabakh "are trying to sabotage" the meeting. "This is an extremely destructive position since the problems in the region can be resolved within the framework of a dialogue between the Karabakh Armenians and their central government in Baku," it said.
The speculation was soon circulated in other pro-government media outlets, though Azerbaijani officials have not commented.
In its statement on August 1, Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto Foreign Ministry neither confirmed nor denied whether an offer for talks in Yevlakh had been received, but it did indicate that it wasn't interested.
"We reiterate our position that dialogue between Artsakh and Azerbaijan should take place within an agreed international format, supported by an appropriate mandate," it added, using an alternative Armenian name for Karabakh.
The ministry hasn't responded to Eurasianet's request for further comment.
Tigran Petrosyan, the chairman of an Anti-Crisis Committee set up under Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto president, in a Facebook live on July 31 disclosed some of the previous proposals for a Baku-Stepanakert dialogue.
One such meeting was to be convened in Sofia, Bulgaria in early July and mediated by third parties. Petrosyan did not specify why it didn't take place.
Another was to be held in Bratislava, Slovakia on August 1 and facilitated by the U.S. and EU. Azerbaijan rejected the offer without explanation, Petrosyan said.
Post-2020 war contacts between Baku, Stepanakert
Azerbaijani and de facto Karbakhi officials held several low-key meetings in the two years following the 2020 Second Karabakh War, which saw Baku regain large swaths of territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh that it had lost in the first war in the 1990s. Those meetings largely concerned practical and technical issues such as the management of shared local infrastructure.
For a moment in March 2023, it seemed as if Baku-Stepanakert talks were beginning in earnest. The sides identified chief negotiators and met in Nagorno-Karabakh with the mediation of the Russian peacekeepers stationed there since the end of the second war.
But later that month, Karabakh refused two Azerbaijani offers for follow-up talks in Baku. Karabakh's Foreign Ministry pointed to the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh, asserting that it "in no way contributes to the creation of an environment conducive to dialogue."
At the Global Media Forum in Shusha in late July, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev hinted that Azerbaijan's decision, four months into the blockade, to erect a checkpoint on the Lachin corridor, connecting Karabakh to Armenia and the outside world, was a response to the Karbakhis' rejection of talks in Baku.
Elkhan Shahinoglu, director of Baku-based Atlas Research Center, wrote on Facebook that a refusal to meet in Yevlakh would "only weaken" the positions of the Karabakhi Armenians. He expressed hope that they would show up as that would amount to a "climbdown from their demand to hold talks only in neutral territory with the presence of third parties."
During Armenia-Azerbaijan peace talks periodically held between the Armenian side's victory in the first war (1991-94) and Azerbaijan's victory in the second war in 2020, Baku had been saying it was willing to offer some sort of special autonomous status for Nagorno-Karabakh as long as Armenians recognized it as Azerbaijani territory.
After the second war, President Aliyev emphatically rescinded that offer.
"The status went to hell. It failed; it was shattered to smithereens. It is not and will not be there. As long as I am president, there will be no status," he said at the time.
In an August 1 interview with Euronews, Aliyev reiterated that Armenians would live under Azerbaijani rule just like other ethnic minorities of the country.
"Karabakh Armenians should understand that [by] being part of the Azerbaijan society with security guarantees, with their rights, including educational, cultural, religious, municipal rights, they will live normal life," he said in English. "They will stop being hostage to manipulation. And also, they should understand that the situation, which they are in now, will not change in their favor, if they continue to ignore us."
Meanwhile, Stepanakert insists that integration with Azerbaijan is a "red line" it is not willing to cross. Karabakhi and Armenian officials say that Azerbaijan's now nearly 8-month blockade of the region substantiates their fears that Baku is in fact pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing.
"We [Karabakhis] don't have a future in Azerbaijan and we won't agree to humiliating conditions under Baku's rule. Either a new war will break out, or we'll have to appeal to the international community for political refuge and ask them to provide a safe corridor to leave our homes," said Davit Babayan, an advisor to Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto state minister, told Eurasianet.
"Baku claims that we have no status, we are nothing - just some people living in 'the Karabakh economic region of Azerbaijan.' They only want to discuss how we will become citizens of Azerbaijan, and it's unacceptable for us. ... If they oblige us to accept their conditions through force and words around a negotiation table, we won't agree to such a format. We are ready to negotiate but not under the current conditions Baku offers," he added.
So what is there to talk about?
There might be something in Aliyev's mention of "municipal rights" that could be presented to the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians as an offer of some sort of self-rule, according to Shujaat Ahmadzade, a researcher at Topchubashov Center.
The remark revived expectations among Azerbaijanis that a referendum could be held on reforming the system of regional administration with a view toward decentralizing governance.
"In the past year and a half, there have been instances where semi-official channels of information in Azerbaijan criticize the existing territorial governance system," Ahmadzade told Eurasianet. "If these changes do occur, it is possible that municipal reforms could be presented as a compromise to Karabakh Armenians instead of territorial autonomy."
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.
Lilit Shahverdyan is a journalist based in Stepanakert.