Schedule for Armenia-Azerbaijan agreement slipping into the future
Azerbaijan, which had been pressing hard for a resolution, has eased off following the Turkish elections and their establishment of a border post in Karabakh.
The schedule for the signing of a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan appears to have again slipped, as Azerbaijan – not long ago regularly complaining about Armenian “delays” in the process – is now expressing a newfound patience for the process to take all the time it needs.
At a May 28 speech in Lachin, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev said that Baku was not in a hurry to sign an agreement. “We are the stronger side, we are the ones who have a strong position at the negotiating table, we are the ones who have a strong position on the border,” he said. “Even if the peace treaty is not signed, we will live comfortably and safely.”
This was a notable change of tone from Aliyev’s usual rhetoric, which regularly featured accusations that Armenia was dragging its feet and veiled threats in case the Armenians did not step it up. Just over three weeks earlier, Aliyev had repeated that warning, arguing that delaying a final resolution of the conflict has been Armenians’ longtime practice.
“They can delay; they can use a negotiation format, which already has been established not to come to an agreement, but to make the process endless, waiting for something, waiting for a miracle, waiting for changes. And they will miss the opportunity because almost thirty years of occupation did not give them any advantage,” Aliyev said on May 3.
Two key, interrelated changes took place in between those two speeches that changed the Azerbaijani government’s approach, said Zaur Shiriyev, a Baku-based analyst for the think tank Crisis Group.
One, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won reelection, ensuring that Azerbaijan’s key international patron would remain in office for another five-year term. Second, Azerbaijan managed to erect a border post on the Lachin Corridor, the only road connecting Karabakh to Armenia. The post is Azerbaijan’s most concrete step yet towards reasserting its control over the territory, which it lost to Armenians in the first war between the two sides in the 1990s.
“Simply put, Baku controls the Lachin road, meaning everything is in their hands, and while it remains a priority, it seems that there is no immediate urgency to reaching a peace agreement,” Shiriyev told Eurasianet. Azerbaijan hastened the establishment of the border checkpoint in part because of uncertainty over the election’s outcome, he said.
“Had Erdogan not been elected and, hypothetically, if [main opposition candidate Kemal] Kilicdaroglu were in his place, Baku would likely have pressed for a more forceful signing of the peace agreement, considering it a non-negotiable priority,” Shiriyev said.
The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan had been scheduled to meet in Washington starting on June 12, but Azerbaijan postponed the meeting because Erdogan scheduled a trip to Baku for the same time. (Turkish diplomatic tradition has it that a newly elected leader’s first foreign trip is to Northern Cyprus and the second is to Azerbaijan.)
That meeting has not been rescheduled, but a State Department spokesperson said on June 13 that “we look forward to rescheduling it as soon as we can.”
The postponement of the Washington talks notwithstanding, the pace of diplomacy between the two sides has been brisk. The two foreign ministers met for several days in Washington at the beginning of May; U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said at their conclusion that “an agreement is within reach.”
Aliyev met Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Moscow on May 25 and in Chisinau on June 1, and ahead of the Moldova meeting there were some expectations that an agreement could be signed there. Asked in parliament a month ahead of the Moldova event about media reports that an agreement could be signed, Pashinyan said he would be happy for it to happen. Less than a week before that meeting, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to France said she hoped an agreement would be signed there.
In the end that meeting was short and produced no breakthrough. But the fact that negotiations are being conducted steadily and that progress is being made on an agreement has reinforced Azerbaijan’s patience, Shiriyev said.
Baku remains interested in signing a peace agreement as soon as possible, a senior Azerbaijani diplomat told Eurasianet on condition of anonymity. “Azerbaijan is interested in speedy progress” in the various tracks of negotiations including the delimitation of the mutual border, establishment of new transport routes, and the relationship between Baku and Karabakh’s Armenian population.
But, the diplomat added, Baku feels that time is on its side: “At the end of the day, in the worst-case scenario Azerbaijan could afford the luxury of keeping everything untouched as it is: lack of land connectivity from the outside to Armenia, impediments for dialogue with the Armenian community in Azerbaijan, undelimited borders, and finally a missed opportunity to sign an overwhelming peace treaty with Azerbaijan.”
The history of Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations is littered with expectations for breakthroughs that always broke down before an agreement could be signed.
Low-level fighting has ticked up in recent weeks, and Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned in a June 13 statement that Azerbaijan might be preparing the ground for “another aggressive actions and ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh.”
But even as the fighting continues, and the diplomatic process has downshifted, both sides are continuing to express optimism that a deal could be signed within months.
In Baku, the expectation is now that an agreement could be signed by August or September, Shiriyev said.
In Armenia, the expected date is somewhat later. Armen Grigoryan, the chair of Armenia’s National Security Council, said on June 4 that “the negotiations are being conducted very intensively. If we are able to maintain this intensity, and there is also strong assistance from the international community, then there is a possibility to reach a peace agreement at the end of the year.”
By the end of the year is a “likely” target, said Richard Giragosian, head of the Yerevan think tank Regional Studies Center.
“The outlook for the two sides to conclude a comprehensive peace treaty seems increasingly positive,” Giragosian said. “Such optimism does not include any realistic expectation for a sudden mature breakthrough and is based on a more gradual timetable, with a peace treaty likely by the end of 2023, but not sooner, despite the rhetoric.”
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.