Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan

On May 14, 2023, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met in Brussels. The meeting was facilitated by President of the European Council Charles Michel, who also had separate discussions with Pashinyan and Aliyev. The May 14 summit marked the resumption of the Brussels format, a European Union platform for Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiations created in December 2021. The last meeting in the Brussels format took place on August 31, 2022. It was followed by large-scale Azerbaijani aggression against Armenia on September 13-14 and by negotiations, which took place in Prague on October 6, 2022, facilitated by Michel and French President Emmanuel Macron. After Prague, the Brussels format was in limbo, as Armenia allegedly demanded to include Macron in the negotiations, which Azerbaijan vehemently rejected. After the Prague meeting, the US significantly increased its involvement in the negotiation process. Americans organized a Pashinyan – Aliyev meeting in February 2023 in Munich, and then after intensive shuttle diplomacy, brought the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers to Washington for a 4-day negotiation marathon in early May 2023.

Meanwhile, as Armenia and Azerbaijan were bickering over formats and platforms, Armenia, by signing the Prague declaration on October 6 and recognizing the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan within the Alma-Ata declaration of 1991, agreed that Nagorno Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan. This narrative was first articulated by Prime Minister Pashinyan in April 2022, when he argued that Armenia should lower the bar of the status of Nagorno Karabakh to secure the support of the international community.

It was a sign that Armenia dropped its long-term vision that Nagorno Karabakh could not be part of Azerbaijan and agreed to discuss the autonomous status of Karabakh within Azerbaijan. However, since the summer of 2022, Armenian authorities have stopped using the terms “status” and “the right of self-determination,” and instead have been pushing forward the narrative of the necessity to secure the rights of Armenians living in Nagorno Karabakh. Simultaneously, Armenia called for an international presence in Nagorno Karabakh and an international mechanism for Karabakh – Azerbaijan negotiations. The Prague statement of October 6, 2022 solidified this vision. Meanwhile, on December 12, 2022, Azerbaijan closed the Lachin corridor through the actions of self–described “eco-activists.” The blockade of Nagorno Karabakh added an additional layer to the negotiations, as Armenia called on Russia and the international community to pressure Azerbaijan to open the Lachin corridor. Simultaneously, the Armenian government stated that Armenia would not negotiate with Azerbaijan on the Lachin corridor issue. Armenia sought to use also international legal mechanisms to force Azerbaijan to end the blockade. Yerevan applied to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and the court, in its decision of February 22, 2023, called Azerbaijan to use all measures to allow free movement via the corridor. However, on April 23, Azerbaijan established a checkpoint on the Lachin corridor, thus finalizing its complete control.

Thus, as Azerbaijan took steps to strengthen its control over the Lachin corridor, rejected the implementation of the ICJ decision, and worsened the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno Karabakh, Armenia agreed to resume negotiations with Azerbaijan first in Munich, then in Washington and Brussels. On May 19, the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers will meet in Moscow, and leaders of the two countries will have another discussion on June 1, 2023, in Chisinau with the participation of Michel, Macron, and German Chancellor Scholz.

After the May 14 meeting, Charles Michel made some public remarks. He emphasized that the leaders confirmed their unequivocal commitment to the 1991 Alma-Ata Declaration and the respective territorial integrity of Armenia (29,800 km2) and Azerbaijan (86,600 km2). According to him, they continued exchanges on the issue of the rights and security of Armenians living in the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast. Michel stated that he encouraged Azerbaijan to develop a positive agenda to guarantee this population’s rights and security in close cooperation with the international community and raised the need for a transparent and constructive dialogue between Baku and this population.

There are several interesting features in these remarks. First, there was nothing about the situation along the Lachin corridor, noncompliance of Azerbaijan with the ICJ decision, the establishment of an Azerbaijani checkpoint, and the deepening humanitarian crisis. The absence of any reference to the situation in and around the corridor is very worrisome, as it meant that the EU accepted the Azerbaijani version of the situation that there was no blockade, and that establishment of the checkpoint was in line with international law. Unfortunately, Armenia did not object to this perception.

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Another interesting part is the reference to the area of Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the Prague statement, there was speculation in and outside Armenia that recognition of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity within the Alma-Ata declaration has nothing to do with Nagorno Karabakh, as Nagorno Karabakh, entirely in line with Soviet Union laws, declared its independence on September 2, 1991, and organized an independence referendum on December 10, before the signature of the Alma-Ata declaration on December 21. Thus, even after October 6, 2022, there was room for maneuvering for the Armenian authorities. However, the reference to Azerbaijan’s 86,600 km2 territory is an unequivocal message that Armenia recognizes the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan including Nagorno Karabakh. The last prominent feature of the statement was the notion that even though the Armenian government was daily repeating the necessity to have an international presence in Nagorno Karabakh and to establish an international mechanism for Azerbaijan – Nagorno Karabakh negotiations, there was no reference to any of these ideas.

Thus, the May 14 Brussels summit brought the sides closer to signing a peace agreement that will recognize Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan with no status and no explicit guarantees for the rights and security of the Armenian population. However, according to the recent International Republican Institute (IRI) poll, 70 percent of the population of Armenia does not support the government’s policy on Nagorno Karabakh, and so the Armenian authorities may avoid the signature of the agreement in the near future. In contrast with the November 10, 2020 statement, any agreement signed by the prime minister must be confirmed by the Constitutional Court and ratified by the parliament. This procedure can be another factor delaying the process.

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