What Is Next after the Vienna Summit?

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News is scant, but commentaries are in abundance after the summit between Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev in Vienna on March 30. No breakthroughs were expected and none were reported.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group’s announcement inviting the parties to the Vienna summit sounded somewhat like an ultimatum directed at the negotiating parties; yet the co-chairs of the group — the US, Russia and France — had toned down their rhetoric and had returned to their role of facilitators before the meeting happened.

The format of the Vienna meeting included the participation of the co-chairs as well as the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, in the second part of the meeting, the two leaders were left alone for more than two hours for private talks. Following the summit, the leaders kept their discussions close to their vests, revealing almost nothing to the public. Therefore, everything has been left up to speculation.

The prospect from Moscow seems gloomier. Commenting on the nature of the conflict, Deputy Director of the Center for Political and Strategic Analysis Alexander Khramchikhin stated, “If the parties are at odds, how can they compromise, which is essential for settling the problem? I can see here only one outcome; one of the parties may surrender quietly. But how can one surrender without a war?”

Through many years of negotiations, Azerbaijan’s position has been unyielding and bellicose. To quell the unrest of the displaced Azeris as a result of war, Azerbaijani leaders needed that toughness, mostly for their domestic audience. In recent months, some things may have changed. That dialogue has become more serious and Aliyev has been willing to yield at least on minor issues. It took Pashinyan a few minutes of “elevator talk,” as it is known informally, in Dushanbe, Tajikstan in September 2018 to reduce the tensions on the border.

Until recently, all the meetings between the leaders and their foreign ministers were characterized as “talks,” yet the Vienna meeting seems to have advanced those contacts to a higher level, characterized as “negotiations.”

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Aliyev’s calm and affable behavior during meetings always contrasted with his hostile public statements, leaving the Minsk co-chairs and his interlocutors at a loss. Although Azerbaijan was the losing party on the battlefield, its leader, Aliyev, tried to dictate the agenda of the negotiations. It was not palatable for the Armenian side to hear about his intentions, yet his strategy made sense in the given situation of both parties; Aliyev did not mince words when he said that Armenia suffered from a weak economy and its citizens were emigrating in droves. Therefore, he said, he watched Armenia’s steady depopulation and in the end Azerbaijan could take over its entire territory without a serious fight. We need to admit, however painful it might be, that Aliyev’s strategy had been justified.

Today, however, a new scenario has emerged with the success of the Velvet Revolution. Armenia is facing new prospects of developments and the trend of emigration has halted, if not reversed. Additionally, the Armenian side has realized that the Turks and Azeris respect power and pleading for peace is interpreted as weakness. Therefore, this new thinking is reflected in Armenia’s new policy and rhetoric. Also, Pashinyan’s overwhelming popular mandate is in contrast to Aliyev’s authoritarian rule, open for everyone to see. At this point, the Armenian side believes that Yerevan is setting the agenda.

Currently, very few facts are available for the public to objectively assess what transpired at the summit. What remains to be analyzed are the events which led to that summit. Once the Vienna meeting was announced, Azerbaijan resorted to staging massive wargames to flex its muscles. Armenians responded in kind; for the first time, leaders from Armenia held a meeting in Karabakh with the National Security Councils of both republics. That sent a message of unity, if there had been any doubts about it. Then, representatives of both legislative and executive bodies from the two republics sent strong messages to Azerbaijan. Indeed, My Step faction deputy Sasun Mikayelyan announced, “If attacked, we will march right to Baku.”

Armenian Defense Minister David Tonoyan’s statements similarly brought about a reversal in tone. Speaking to an Armenian-American community gathering in New York, where he was participating in a United Nations-affiliated forum, he said, “As a minister of defense, I stated that we have reformulated the ‘territories for peace’ approach to the ‘new war-new territories’ approach. … We will get rid of the defensive stance and will increase the number of military units capable of transferring military operations in the territory of the adversary.”

This statement received an angry response from the Azeri defense establishment, which demanded clarification from Armenia’s defense minister.

The new-found robust rhetoric in Armenia is ascribed to the strategic transformation of its armed forces, as formulated by Stepan Safarian, director of the Armenian Institute of International Relations and Security, in his statement, “The Armenian parties drew conclusions from the April 2016 and Azerbaijan today is deprived of the element of surprise. At the same time, the post-April enhancement of border equipment has significantly limited the possibility of Azerbaijani sabotage and attacks.”

In short, he concluded, Armenia has rendered any kind of Azeri aggression unwinnable.

The Vienna meeting is assessed as showing positive movement by all parties concerned. Pashinyan made a public comment at a gathering of Vienna Armenians, expressing some cautious optimism.

President Aliyev has refrained from making any comments and has asked journalists to refer to the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs’ statement. That statement, by and large, is in line with Pashinyan’s positive assessment.

In his comments, Armenia’s prime minister referred to the general expectations of the public, which tries to find winners and losers in the meeting. Pashinyan reassured all that such an approach is not applicable in this case, and went on to describe the parties as having exchanged ideas and expressing their own views about solving the outstanding problems.

It seems that the Dushanbe agreements have been reevaluated and further humanitarian actions have been considered. Although Aliyev stated that is too early to think about those steps, such as allowing border residents to carry out their agricultural activities unhampered or exchanging visits of POW families, he also made an oblique remark that he had come out from the meeting with a minor victory. He gave credit to the co-chairs who refused to entertain Pashinyan’s proposal to involve Karabakh (Artsakh) in the negotiations.

However, the co-chairs’ comments were directed at both parties. When they asked the Armenian side not to introduced any new elements in the negotiations, meaning a new negotiator, at the same time, they cautioned Aliyev to tone down his martial rhetoric. And Aliyev kept his side of the bargain.

For Pashinyan, Karabakh’s participation was not a pre-condition. He kept his flexibility not to jeopardize the negotiations. Incidentally, his proposal was not a “new element” per se; it was just a return to the original format of negotiations. Indeed, Karabakh was a signatory of the ceasefire of May 1994. Any final settlement still has to be ratified by the Karabakh legislature.

At this time, the foreign ministers of the two countries are tasked with continuing the negotiations and preparing the next summit.

In the sense that the parties have agreed to continue the negotiations, it is an achievement in itself and the co-chairs can bank on that.

However, how fast the negotiations will proceed and in which direction, those are questions that can only be answered in time.

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