What Was Achieved and Not Achieved at Brussels Summit

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There is a law of physics which also applies to politics: for every action, there is a corresponding reaction.

The 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended in a ceasefire brokered by Russia on November 9, 2020. At that time, Moscow haphazardly drafted a declaration to be signed by the three parties, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. The agreement favored Azerbaijan, which recaptured most of Karabakh, in addition to the Azerbaijani lands the Armenians had captured and held as insurance in the 1990s war, and also Russia, which regained a foothold in Azerbaijan, through the introduction of 2,000 Russian peacekeeping forces.

But what was achieved globally in addition to the local arrangements was Russia’s control of the situation, sidelining the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group and the West, which expressed a preference for international peacekeepers, specifically from the Scandinavian countries.

Now that Russia has been mired in the war in Ukraine, the opportunity for a reaction from the West has arrived. Indeed, the European Union has taken the lead to achieve peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, this time, pushing Russia to the sidelines.

Indeed, on April 6-7, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev met in Brussels under the auspices of the European Council and its president, Charles Michel. The choice of the location itself — Brussels, the capital of the European Union and home of the NATO headquarters — was symbolic and enough to cause concern for the Kremlin.

Although Michel assessed the meeting as a success with positive signs, that meeting signifies that Armenia is caught in a geostrategic trap.

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Following the summit, the three sides signaled a positive movement toward a peace agreement for the Caucasus, although none of the statements touched upon the core issue of Karabakh, which seems worrisome.

Ever since the November 9, 2020 declaration, President Aliyev has been claiming that there is no longer a Karabakh issue left, since he solved the problem by military force. For him, there is not even a geographic area that should be known as Nagorno Karabakh and thus he suggests that the OSCE Minsk Group has no role to play anymore.

It seems that Pashinyan and Michel have avoided making any reference to Karabakh, so as not to offend Aliyev and entice him to come to the negotiation table, rather than the battlefield again.

Before taking up the actual agenda of peace negotiations, we have to outline the broader political implications of the move. Thus, Russia, certainly worried, reacted angrily. The occasion was the visit to Moscow by Armenia’s Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan. We have also to be mindful that before Mr. Pashinyan’s trip to Brussels, President Vladimir Putin had called the two leaders separately to discuss the upcoming talks. But as an afterthought, he called Prime Minister Pashinyan again, most probably to remind him of the red lines he should not cross.

Armenia’s foreign minister was visiting Moscow on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. But the visit entailed more serious topics both privately and publicly. During a joint press conference of the two foreign minister, Mr. Sergei Lavrov used the occasion to score a few points by stating: “We will continue, from the position of key ally of Amenia, to help and strengthen your defense capabilities, to ensure the protection of the border, and of course, as the main trade and economic partner, and as the main foreign investor, we will continue to look for the new prospects that will ensure the sustainability of our trade, and create new production facilities and jobs.”

This statement was meant to assure his counterpart that Armenia’s expectations will be met. Mirzoyan certainly had complained about the poor performance of the Russian peacekeeping force in Karabakh, which had ceded a strategic elevation in Parukh (Karabakh) under its control to the Azerbaijani forces, during which time three Armenian soldiers were killed and a dozen wounded. The incident was characterized as a “minor border incident,” which was being investigated for an entire month.

Referring to the resentment of the Armenian side, Mr. Lavrov said, “For us, these circumstances are not completely clear. I would not get ahead of myself and make a final judgement. We are convinced that our Armenian friends fully trust the Russian peacekeepers.”

Unfortunately, the Russian peacekeepers have been delinquent in the performance of their duties on many occasions, by trying to placate the Azerbaijani side whenever it is harassing Armenians going about their lives – for example, while cultivating their lands.

Such dereliction of duty occurred when Azerbaijan blew up the gas line to Karabakh, leaving the Armenians living in the enclave to freeze for two weeks in inclement weather. While their performance has been lackluster at best, Russia has always been fishing for compliments from Armenians to say how wonderful the Russian soldiers have been performing their tasks and that Armenia is forever grateful.

The climax of the conference came when Mr. Lavrov referred to the role of the OSCE in settling the Karabakh issue: “Our French and American partners [the so-called partners in this group] in a Russophobic frenzy and in an effort to cancel everything related to the Russian Federation, said that they would not communicate with us in that format. This is their right. If they are ready to sacrifice their interests in the settlement of Karabakh and in Transcaucasia as a whole, this is their choice.”

When Mr. Lavrov cast in doubt the future of OSCE, Mirzoyan reacted by saying that international community believes that the Minsk Group has an important role to play in bringing peace to Karabakh. This was an unusual rebuke, given that the Armenian government representatives never publicly react to the statements of the Russian side, no matter how provocative they might be.

In an indirect response to Mr. Lavrov’s remarks regarding the demise of the OSCE Minsk Group, the French co-chair of the group, Brice Roquefeuil, showed up in Yerevan this week to signal that the group is still alive and well and in pursuit of its mission in Karabakh. The French and Armenian sides added, however, that the visit had been planned in advance and were not a reaction to Mr. Lavrov’s statement.

Thus, the Kremlin believes that the West is stealing the show in the Caucasus from the Russians and Armenia is colluding with the Western powers.

There is a tug of war between the two camps and Armenia is caught between them. Hopefully, Armenia’s nascent diplomacy can cope with this complex situation and come out unscathed.

Although Pashinyan and Aliyev have placed separate calls to President Putin, informing him about the talk, Armenia’s prime minister is expected to visit the Kremlin on April 19, to hold further talks with the Russian leader, who certainly will reprimand his guests for steering Armenia toward the West.

As the East-West confrontation continues, particularly fueled by the war in Ukraine, the Armenia-Azerbaijan talks have their own life.

Pashinyan and Aliyev have agreed on an agenda which they have already begun to implement. They have agreed to charge their respective foreign ministers to work together to draft a peace plan. Aliyev has confided that Armenia has agreed to his five-point plan and that the parties will soon begin the delimitation and demarcation process, which may eliminate border conflicts in the future. Foreign Ministers Mirzoyan and Jeyhun Bayramov have talked to each other to jumpstart the talks.

Although there is no reference to the Karabakh issue by any other party, upon his return to Armenia, Pashinyan gave a report wherein he underlined that Karabakh is a priority for Armenia and that the issue will be included on the agenda of the peace process.

Mr. Michel has reassured the public that “all outstanding issues will be on the agenda.” When there is no mention of the core question, there should be a cause for concern for the Armenian side, especially in light of Mr. Aliyev’s enthusiasm to engage immediately in the peace talks, before Armenia can have a chance to rebuild its armed forces and muster some political clout.

While the negotiations begin to take shape, the parliamentary opposition held an impressive rally, protesting the potential for a second “capitulation.” Barring derogatory remarks, the protest may strengthen Pashinyan’s hand at the negotiation table.

Even if the Karabakh issue is discussed, it is anyone’s guess as to in what shape it will emerge. Some pessimists already have been advising the evacuation of the Armenian population from the enclave. Others are preparing a referendum to join the Russian Federation as South Ossetia is in the process of doing. Pashinyan’s and Mirzoyan’s statements that Karabakh does not represent a territorial issue but rather a “rights” one, indicates that the current administration has given up hope to see Karabakh in any other position than within Azerbaijan, with some cosmetic “rights,” which Azerbaijan can agree to and once again trample and resort to ethnic cleansing. The military government in Myanmar, for example, is carrying out an ethnic cleansing policy against its Rohingya minority, which international authorities ignore, except for some pundits in the press.

Karabakh has a good chance to implement a policy of “remedial cessation,” because of Azerbaijan’s often repeated state policy of hatred and also its genocidal tendencies.

There is also another legal course which is worth exploring. Azerbaijan has been able to convince the world community that Karabakh is an integral part of its territory. But throughout the Soviet period, Karabakh had the special status of an “autonomous oblast” or region, for a reason that citizens living in the enclave had a different and distinct identity than that of Azerbaijan. It even had its separate legislative body for self-rule. What Azerbaijan is doing is unraveling a system put in place by the Soviet constitution and international law and the international community is colluding with the Azerbaijani government to dismantle this system and breach international laws. Similarly, Nakhichevan had the status of an autonomous republic, which could not be disbanded and made a part of Azerbaijan’s own territory, which has a different legal status.

The Armenian government, to its credit, has begun to engage in active diplomacy. Hopefully, that diplomacy will help save Karabakh, and above all, bring peace to Armenia.

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