Why are EU and US unable to reconcile Yerevan and Baku? Opinion
The Western stance
The Karabakh conflict risks falling into oblivion, and this, at least, does not contradict the interests of the West in the South Caucasus region. Taking over the role of the main moderator of negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Brussels aimed to construct the entire dialogue based primarily on the principle of the countries’ territorial integrity. This meant that official Yerevan had to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, which, indeed occurred.
However, current events are unfolding differently from the anticipated scenario. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has long been unwilling to resume negotiations on Western platforms. Meanwhile, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict remains unresolved. With Baku’s reluctance to engage in talks, there is a significant risk of renewed hostilities, despite warnings from Western partners about their unacceptable nature.
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October 5, 2023, could have marked a significant moment in the history of Armenia-Azerbaijan relations. A five-party meeting was scheduled in Granada, Spain, facilitated by European Council President Charles Michel. Alongside the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron were slated to attend. While the Armenian Prime Minister arrived in Spain, Ilham Aliyev declined to participate, citing France’s perceived bias. He also proposed inviting the president of Turkey, a suggestion opposed by Paris and Berlin.
This refusal sparked a period of turmoil in the negotiation process between Yerevan and Baku. However, this was just one aspect of the issue. In Granada, the leaders of the two conflict-ridden nations in the South Caucasus were meant to sign a declaration acknowledging mutual territorial integrity. Yet, only Pashinyan’s signature appeared on the document.
Consequently, Armenia fulfilled the expectations of its Western partners by recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, without receiving anything in return. Aliyev not only refrained from signing the document acknowledging Armenia’s borders but also made statements afterward that could only be interpreted as territorial claims.
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Success for the West and a setback for Russia
The outcomes of the 44-day Karabakh war in 2020 appeared to bolster Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus region. Through Moscow’s mediation, a trilateral ceasefire declaration was inked, effectively designating Russia as the guarantor for its enforcement. Just days following the cessation of hostilities, the Russian peacekeeping force was deployed to the territory of the unrecognized republic.
Following the war, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan made multiple visits to the Kremlin and even endorsed two additional agreements. It appeared that Moscow had notably augmented its sway in the region and had effectively ensnared Yerevan. However, everything shifted with the onset of the Ukrainian crisis.
A few months into the Ukrainian conflict, the European Union visibly heightened its engagement in the Karabakh issue. While Moscow grappled with military matters, Brussels primed itself to assume the lead mediator role between Yerevan and Baku. And they succeeded in their endeavor.
In 2022-2023, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan primarily convened in Brussels and other European capitals for their meetings. Consequently, the war of 2020, which was supposed to strengthen Russia’s influence, initiated another process: the Kremlin’s retreat from the region.
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Demand for Armenia to “lower the bar”
“Today the international community is telling us: lower your bar a little on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, and you will ensure greater international consolidation around Armenia and Artsakh. Otherwise, says the international community, please don’t count on us – not because we don’t want to help you, but because we can’t help you”.
This statement marked a turning point for Armenian society, signaling a departure from the previous pursuit of international recognition for Nagorno-Karabakh, as was the case before the 2020 war. By then, negotiations had begun to shift towards Western involvement, with the prime minister explicitly referring to European partners when mentioning the “international community.”
It’s evident now that Armenia has not just lowered its ambitions but completely relinquished its stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. However, it never gained consolidation around itself.
Why did the West prioritize the principle of territorial integrity over the right to self-determination in the context of the Karabakh conflict? Before the 2020 war, Azerbaijan had offered Karabakh significant autonomy within its borders. However, post-war, Baku changed its stance, refusing to discuss any status for the region. Concurrently, the West became highly invested in a definitive resolution to the Karabakh issue, with emerging realities suggesting that such a resolution would hinge on upholding the principle of territorial integrity.
The eventual resolution of the Karabakh conflict rendered the presence of Russian peacekeepers in the region obsolete, a goal pursued by Brussels and Washington from the outset. This outcome materialized as anticipated.
While the peacekeeping contingent remains in Karabakh, the withdrawal of Russian forces from the region seems imminent following the exodus of nearly the entire Armenian population. The peacekeeping mission’s mandate expires in 2025, and Azerbaijan appears unwilling to extend it. And there are all formal grounds for this.
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Has the confrontation ended?
Once Azerbaijan secured verbal and written acknowledgment from Armenia, recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, Baku lost interest in Western platforms. Ilham Aliyev has boycotted several meetings and consistently declined invitations to attend events in Brussels or Washington. Instead, the Azerbaijani leader extends invitations to his Armenian counterpart to meet in Russia.
The primary focus of negotiations has shifted away from Nagorno-Karabakh to the delimitation and demarcation of the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, along with the so-called “Zangezur corridor” issue.
“Zangezur corridor” refers to a route that would link Azerbaijan with its exclave, Nakhichevan. The Azerbaijani authorities insist that the road should not be under Armenian control.
Baku is well aware that it stands to gain the most from negotiations on these matters if they occur in Moscow. Russia aligns with Azerbaijan on these issues, driven by its own strategic interests. Specifically, Russia seeks to assert control over the road passing through Armenian territory.
“Our Western counterparts prefer a peace treaty between Azerbaijan and Armenia to be signed exclusively on their soil. This is a fact. Also factual is Azerbaijan’s readiness to sign it on Russian territory, where the initial efforts to end the conflict and establish a comprehensive system of interaction to address all issues began. As for Yerevan’s readiness for this, I am uncertain, although signals in that regard have been sent to the Armenian capital for some time.”
This statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accurately portrays not only the Kremlin’s stance on the negotiations but also Armenian-Azerbaijani relations.
Paradoxically, Yerevan is actively seeking to avoid and clearly wary of activating its strategic ally. It is becoming increasingly evident this could result in significant losses.
On the contrary, Armenian authorities anticipate increasing involvement from the West and are making progress in this regard. Specifically, they have succeeded in boosting the number of civilian observers from the EU mission tasked with patrolling the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.
The primary concern now revolves around whether Baku will initiate military action. Many in Armenia are convinced that it’s only a matter of time, and under favorable weather conditions, the border will become turbulent once again.
However, whether events will unfold according to this scenario will largely hinge on the stance of the European Union and the United States. Will Brussels and Washington be capable and inclined to rein in Baku’s ambitions? This question remains unanswered at the moment.
The Western stance