No clear path forward for Armenia-Azerbaijan peace talks after prisoner swap
The unprecedented joint statement by the two countries' leaders did not include specifics on the future of the bilateral format or the peace process overall.
On December 13 Armenia and Azerbaijan conducted a prisoner swap on the rival states' common border, with Armenia handing over two Azerbaijani captives in exchange for Azerbaijan releasing 32 Armenian prisoners.
The handover had been announced in a surprise joint statement by the two countries' leaders six days earlier. That statement said the sides were resolved to "continue their discussions regarding the implementation of more confidence-building measures … and call on the international community to support their efforts that will contribute to building mutual trust between the two countries and will positively impact the entire South Caucasus region."
It also announced that Armenia would support Azerbaijan's ultimately successful bid to host next year's COP-29 climate conference.
The two Azerbaijani soldiers released had crossed into Armenia in April. One of them was convicted of murdering a security guard at a copper-molybdenum mine in southern Armenia and had been serving a life sentence in prison.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan posted the names of the freed prisoners on Facebook hours before they arrived in Armenia. The prisoners were mostly from the north-western Shirak region. While there is no information about when and where the released soldiers were captured, 57 soldiers, mainly from the Shirak region, were taken captive from the Hadrut region of Nagorno-Karabakh about a month after the end of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in late 2020. Some of them had been released earlier through Russian and Western mediation at different times.
The joint statement between the countries was the first of its kind not to bear the signature of any mediators. Though there was speculation about behind-the-scenes mediation, possibly by a top U.S. diplomat who visited Baku the day before the statement was issued.
Until now, all statements and agreements reached had been mediated by Russia, the EU, or the U.S., and, in one case, Georgia.
Russia and the West have praised the bilateral deal, with the US calling it an "important confidence-building measure" as the "sides work to finalize a peace agreement and normalize relations." EU Council president Charles Michel called it a "major breakthrough in Armenia-Azerbaijan relations," and the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said the agreement was in line with Russia-mediated agreements since 2020 to "further" the relations between the two countries.
Amid the excitement in the international community, the chairman of the Armenian parliament committee on foreign relations, Sargis Khandanyan, urged caution. The statement's importance should not be "overestimated," as no understanding has been reached on the future of the bilateral format beyond the one-off prisoner swap deal.
According to Armenian human rights defenders, there are still 23 Armenians in Azerbaijani captivity, including high-ranking military officers and politicians from Karabakh.
The issue of the Armenian prisoners has been a heated one in the peace talks between the two countries that followed the 2020 war, with Azerbaijan refusing to acknowledge some of its detentions.
The issue gained importance with Azerbaijan's capture of eight former high-ranking officials of the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. The detainees include the NKR's last three presidents and the region's former state minister, Russian-Armenian billionaire Ruben Vardanyan. They face charges including terrorism. None of their trials has begun yet.
Yerevan has for the most part not been using public channels to call for their release.
The talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan have largely been at a standstill in the past months, particularly after Azerbaijan's military conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh, which resulted in the displacement of the region's Armenian population and the dissolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Yerevan and Baku have failed to meet on several occasions since September, with Yerevan pulling out of Moscow-led talks and Baku refusing to participate in the EU and U.S.-mediated meetings.
While the first bilateral statement was a milestone, the future of the peace talks - either with or without mediators - remains unclear. Both countries had previously expressed hopes of signing the deal by the end of this year. Armenian PM Pashinyan said that the peace deal's "main principles" had been agreed upon while Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said he needs firmer guarantees that Armenia won't embark on "revanchism."
The sides still have to agree on the details of the demarcation of common borders and the opening of transport links, particularly the "Zangezur corridor" sought by Azerbaijan. Baku would like to see a corridor overseen by Russian troops running through Armenia connecting mainland Azerbaijan with the Nakhchivan exclave while Armenia envisages a simple road link with the usual customs and border checks.