Despite low expectations following the meeting late last month between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders in Sochi, another between Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and President Ilham Aliyev held a day before the Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit in Brussels on 15 December can be largely assessed as successful. It marks the first direct engagement of the European Union in the Karabakh conflict despite over three decades of animosity that obstructed cooperation between the two in the EaP. Previously, the EU has largely confined its involvement to voicing support for the OSCE Minsk Group process.
In a statement issued after the meeting, European Council President Charles Michel declared that the EU was committed to working closely with Armenia and Azerbaijan to create an atmosphere of trust and sustainable peace underpinned by a comprehensive peace agreement. This also included the establishment of a direct line of communication between the defence ministers of both countries in order to help de-escalate tensions between on the border. Humanitarian issues, such as the release of the remaining Armenian detainees held by Azerbaijan, and demining activities were also discussed.
In the case of the latter, the EU said it would provide technical assistance, something that was also put at the disposal of the sides in the likely long and difficult task of border delimitation and demarcation. An economic advisory platform would also be established by the EU to contribute to peaceful coexistence and economic cooperation in the region. Taking questions from journalists, Michel also said that at one point he had left Aliyev and Pashinyan alone at the working dinner to discuss issues privately between themselves.
“The EU is committed,” Michel said. “We want to play a positive, a useful role for more stability, for more security, for more prosperity in this region. We also want to support the humanitarian gestures that are needed. On the railways, for example, an agreement was made tonight because it was very clear that they have a common understanding on what is needed to reopen those communication lines.”
Implementing Point 9 of the November 2020 ceasefire agreement, however, still remains a matter of controversy and disagreement between the sides, with Pashinyan tweeting that Armenia still considers that Baku is obstructing the process by insisting that there should be no customs checks on the route connecting Azerbaijan through Armenia to its exclave of Nakhichevan. On his part, Aliyev compared what is often referred to as the “Zangezur Corridor” in Azerbaijan to the Lachin Corridor connecting Armenia to what remains of the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO).
“There should be no customs checkpoints on the Zangezur corridor just like there is none on the Lachin corridor,” said Aliyev earlier in the day at a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. He also stressed that this linkage would not only allow Azerbaijan to connect to Nakhichevan by rail, but also Armenia to gain better access to the Iranian and Russian markets. “It was agreed to proceed with the restoration of railway lines, with appropriate arrangements for border and customs controls, based on the principle of reciprocity,” said Michel in his statement.
Yet the above statements by Pashinyan and Aliyev appear to indicate differences in interpreting the definition of reciprocity.
Compared to Sochi, and noticeably highlighting the difference in approaches by the EU and the Russian Federation, the meeting between Aliyev and Pashinyan was more casual than that in Sochi, with the two leaders joining Michel at a round rather than oval table for discussions over dinner that lasted over 4.5 hours. Another second meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders was held on the initiation of French President Emmanuel Macron over coffee the following evening. Despite this, however, the EU does not seek to compete with Russia in the processes that look set to continue.
Michel underscored the EU’s belief that the trilateral statements of 9 November 2020 and 11 January 2021 should be honoured, including implementation of ‘understandings’ that had been reached in the Sochi meeting of 26 November 2021. “The statement makes it clear that the EU has no intention to replace any existing formats but rather contribute to the ongoing and future discussions and agreements,” tweeted International Crisis Group (ICG) Senior Analyst Olessya Vartanyan.
The Brussels meeting also came after two other related positive developments. On Friday 10 November the deputy foreign ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, and Turkey met in Moscow to start preliminary discussions on the 3+3 regional format for cooperation, albeit with the absence of Georgia. And on the day of the meeting between Aliyev and Pashinyan in Brussels, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, announced that Yerevan and Ankara had agreed to name two special envoys to start bilateral negotiations on normalising Armenia-Turkey relations.
On 15 November, Ankara named Serdar Kilic, the former Turkish Ambassador to the United States, as its pick. Turkey will nonetheless consult with Azerbaijan in this process, but following the 2020 Karabakh war, the obstacles that plagued the last attempt to normalise relations in the form of 2009’s Armenia-Turkey Protocols no longer exist. That attempt failed due to Baku’s resistance given that Armenian forces still controlled the seven regions surrounding the former NKAO. Analysts such as Regional Studies Center Director Richard Giragosian also believe that progress in this area is more likely given Turkish hopes to ‘regain a seat at the table” after being sidelined by Moscow over the past year.
“This is the first time ever we see the EU president hosting two South Caucasian leaders for talks on their key problems,” tweeted ICG’s Vartanyan in a thread. “Despite yesterday’s controversy over statements about “corridors,” the meeting was a success.“