Armenia’s prime minister looks set to officially accept Azerbaijan’s territory as encompassing the long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. A peace deal between the two countries could happen as soon as June 1.
After decades of tension, clashes, and wars, Armenia and Azerbaijan appear to be the closest they have ever been to concluding an official peace following Armenia’s prime minister’s explicit recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory.
“Armenia recognises Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity of 86,600 square kilometres, assuming that Azerbaijan recognises Armenia’s territorial integrity as 29,800 square kilometres,” said Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan on May 22.
“Those 86,600 square kilometres also include Nagorno-Karabakh.”
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Nagorno-Karabakh has a majority ethnic Armenian population but is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. The Armenians who live there do so under the de facto, unrecognised government of the Republic of Artsakh (the Armenian name for the region) and reject Azerbaijan’s sovereignty.
While Pashinyan has been hinting that he is willing to recognise Azerbaijan’s claim to Nagorno-Karabakh for over a year, his statement triggered outrage across Armenia, amongst Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the global Armenian diaspora. Support for the Republic of Artsakh has long been a third rail in Armenian politics.
The National Assembly of the Republic of Artsakh convened a special session on May 22 and adopted a statement reading, “Any statement by Nikol Pashinyan ignoring the sovereignty of the Republic of Artsakh, our people’s right to self-determination and the fact of its implementation, as well as any document drafted on that basis is unacceptable and worthless to us.”
The statement also cites a 1992 decision by the Supreme Council of the Republic of Armenia which ruled, “it is unacceptable for the Republic of Armenia to consider any international or interstate document which refers to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic as part of Azerbaijan.”
Will they, won’t they, and when?
The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are protected by Russian peacekeepers under the terms of the trilateral 2020 ceasefire agreement that ended the Second Karabakh War.
During that war, Azerbaijan reclaimed large portions of the territory controlled by the breakaway state of Artsakh, including Nagorno-Karabakh’s second largest city of Shusha. Many ethnic Armenians fled the region for Armenia.
Those remaining in Nagorno-Karabakh believe Azerbaijan’s multi-month blockade of the Lachin Corridor, the only route to Armenia, is meant to squeeze them out. The blockade has now been formalised as an Azerbaijani checkpoint.
“Whoever does not want to become our citizen, the road is not closed, it is open,” said Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. “They can leave, they can go by themselves, no one will hinder them.”
Karabakh’s gas operator says Azerbaijan has blocked the region’s gas supplies since March. The region has largely depended on the Sarsang Reservoir for electricity, but that has now reached critically low levels—leaving the region with both an energy crisis and environmental catastrophe.
While Armenia has long advocated for the rights of Armenians in Karabakh—and indeed, Pashinyan clarified his recognition of Karabakh as Azerbaijani was conditional upon guarantees for the rights of Armenians living in the region—incursions into its territory by the Azerbaijani military in May 2021 and September 2022 has forced it to the negotiating table.
Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which also includes Russia, but the alliance declined to defend Armenia militarily, likely due to the close ties of its Central Asian members for Azerbaijan and Russia and Belarus’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine.
Let down by his treaty allies, Pashinyan has repeatedly criticised the alliance and most recently said he was “not ruling out” the possibility of Armenia withdrawing from the CSTO if Armenia determines “the CSTO has withdrawn from Armenia” at the same May 22 press conference as his comments recognising Karabakh as Azerbaijan.
Sensing a decline in Russia’s influence, Western leaders have been eager to play an increased role in the peace process and increase their diplomatic presence in the region.
Pashinyan met with Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev on the sidelines of the first European Political Community (EPC) Summit in Prague in October 2022 and agreed to facilitate a civilian European Union mission to their shared border.
They met again in February 2023 at the 59th Munich Security Conference, where United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken mediated talks concerning the blockade of the Lachin Corridor. Blinken also held talks with the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in New York in September 2022 and for four days in Washington DC in early May of 2023.
Pashinyan and Aliyev met again in Brussels on May 14 with European Council President Charles Michel and discussed border delimitation, reopening transport and economic links, and the release of two Azerbaijani soldiers captured in Armenia.
Russia is still interested in an active role in the peace process, and Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Pashinyan and Aliyev for talks in Sochi in November 2022 and most recently in Moscow on May 25. All sides seemed optimistic after the May 25 meeting, with Putin saying, “There are still unresolved questions, but in my opinion, and we discussed this with our Azeri and our Armenian colleagues, they are of a purely technical nature.”
Both Pashinyan and Aliyev reiterated their mutual recognition of the other country’s territorial integrity. Aliyev, who had previously threatened to open a ‘Zangezur Corridor’ between mainland Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhchivan by force, walked back these comments.
“I want to say that we have no such [territorial] claims [on Armenia] … As for the word ‘corridor,’ which I used, I used (it) in the same way about the North-South corridor, in the same way, this word is used about the East-West corridor, The word ‘corridor’ is in no way an encroachment on someone’s territory. It is an international term,” Aliyev said.
The leaders are set to meet again at the Second EPC Summit in Moldova on June 1.
“On June 1 in Chișinău we hope that finally a peace treaty can be signed,” said Baku’s envoy to France Leyla Abdoullayeva.
Following Abdoullayeva’s comments, the Armenia Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the signing of a peace treaty is not included in the agenda of the meeting to be held in Chișinău. Several analysts and journalists have predicted the signing will occur at the Third EPC Summit in Granada in October instead.
Nonetheless, for the topic of discussion to go from the cessation of hostilities to the date for a treaty signing ceremony is unmistakable progress.
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