Eastern Express: 26.05: Nagorno Karabakh peace process

Ukraine is currently the focus of headlines, subsequently other conflicts in the post-Soviet sphere sometimes get overlooked. However, there appears to now be a chance to resolve at least one of them. The EU has stepped in in an attempt to bring an end to the long-lasting conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno Karabakh.

The leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia met on Sunday in Brussels to discuss a peace plan for Nagorno-Karabakh. The meeting was facilitated by the President of the European Council Charles Michel. The European Council President held bilateral talks with both Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan before they had a trilateral meeting at which Karabakh was discussed. Conflicting interests of great powers involved in the conflict did not help in resolving the issue. With Russia traditionally backing up Armenia and Turkey standing behind Azerbaijan, it seems the EU has emerged as a major player in Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations.

The Nagorno Karabakh Conflict

The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan dates back to the late Soviet era, when the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian autonomous area, demanded that Moscow separate the enclave from the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic and join it with the Armenian SSR. The move sparked a surge in nationalist enthusiasm on both sides, and eventually, independent Azerbaijan and independent Armenia went to war, resulting in widespread displacement and ethnic cleansing on both sides. The two sides signed a peace deal in 1994, giving Armenia de facto sovereign control over the Karabakh territory and adjacent Azerbaijani regions.

Major fighting broke out again in 2016 and 2020. After 45 days of fighting, Azerbaijani troops reclaimed the majority of the territory they had lost two decades earlier, leaving Armenians with only a rump of Karabakh. Russia then sent so-called peacekeepers to Karabakh to ensure the truce it had negotiated was maintained.

One of the positive outcomes of the 2020 war was the removal of various barriers to regional healing and rapprochement. In the 1990s, Turkey, for example, blocked its land border with Armenia as well as most transit ties between the two nations. Diplomacy has revived the prospect of restoring the ties following the 2020 conflict. Baku and Yerevan agreed to organise a delimitation panel late last year, set up a hotline between their military ministers, and resumed direct communication - all small signs of progress.

Even before the Ukraine conflict, Moscow's so-called "peacekeepers" failed to fulfill their duty. The 2020 Russian-brokered ceasefire that ended the second Karabakh war delivered neither full stability nor security to the region. However, with a new mediator - the European Union - a new peace process between Baku and Yerevan may emerge. These recent dynamic shifts demonstrate how Russia's assault on Ukraine is reshaping the Eurasian political landscape.

Interview with Konrad Zasztowt

To shed more light on the issue, TVP World invited Konrad Zasztowt, Ph.D., from the University of Warsaw.

The major question would be: is there hope for lasting peace? Mr. Zasztowt believes that EU involvement is a step in the right direction, but the issue of Nagorno Karabakh is very complex. However, the announced talks of delimitation are a chance to solve many important problems which continue to plague the region.

Mr. Zasztowt agrees that EU involvement is a chance to diminish Russian presence and involvement in the region while Putin is distracted by the invasion of Ukraine. Russian aggression against its neighbour leaves it with little room for maneuvers in other places in the post-Soviet space, such as the Caucasus, including Karabakh, but also in Central Asia.

In previous phases of the peace process, Russia served as the peace broker, especially following the Second Karabakh war, when Russian troops were sent to the region to serve as peacekeepers. But it seems that the Kremlin’s solution to everything is to send troops wherever it sees it fit, wherever Russian interests are possibly endangered, in this case by instability in the Caucasus.

It seems Russia is not good at producing complex peace resolutions. Often Russian “peacekeepers” are sent to regions where it has engineered conflicts. Previous involvement of Russia in the region failed to prevent the 2020 war. By contrast, the EU is more subtle in its approach and aims to find diplomatic solutions.

What the EU can do is convince the governments of the conflicting sides that lasting peace will be good for the economy and stability of the region. It would then be the role of the respective governments to sell the peace deal to their people.

However, the resolution of the conflict may be hard to stomach for some. Karabakh is generally recognised as Azerbaijan’s territory, yet making concessions to the Azeris might cause people in Armenia to see it as abandoning their fellow Armenians living in Karabakh. Protests erupted in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, but Mr. Zawsztowt believes those opposing the peace process are probably not in the majority. He stresses that Nikol Pashinyan and his government enjoy fairly large popular support.

All previous leaders of Armenia were under pressure from the public to take a tough and assertive stance on the Nagorno Karabakh issue. Armenians saw no possibility for compromise on the issue. Pashinyan's democratic legitimacy however cannot be called into question and he is in a better position than previous leaders to negotiate a peace deal.

The question now is whether Russia will simply step back and let the EU broker a peace deal, or will it try to reassert its presence once the conflict in Ukraine is concluded? Russia sees the countries that became independent following the collapse of the USSR as its sphere of influence. Russia has played a negative role in conflicts in the post-Soviet sphere and might like to fan the flames of tension and later present itself as the mediator. Mr. Zasztowt believes that with the war in Ukraine still ongoing, Russia is not likely to be capable of meddling even if it would like to.