How would another round of deadly hostilities affect the peace process in Karabakh?
    Hot winter in South Caucasus

    ANALYTICS  25 November 2022 - 16:20

    Fuad Shahbazov

    The diplomatic tensions in the South Caucasus flare up again amid the stalled peace process between Azerbaijan and Armenia and Russia's efforts to reinvigorate its role as a key mediator in the process. Two years have passed since the end of the second Karabakh war, but mediators, including Russia, did not succeed in making a breakthrough in the negotiation process.

    The growing criticism in Azerbaijan regarding Moscow's role in the process makes it clear that official Baku is not thinking of any concessions on the Karabakh issue. The criticism became more vocal with the appearance of Ruben Vardanyan, a Russian tycoon of Armenian origin, in Karabakh, presumably to replace Araik Harutunyan as chief of the de-facto separatist regime in the region. During his meeting with the European delegation, President Aliyev stated clearly that Moscow sent Vardanyan to Karabakh with a clear agenda, and he was not the appropriate figure to talk with.

    Indeed, Vardanyan’s appearance in Karabakh with clear political ambitions does not ease the complicated peace process between Baku and Yerevan but looks like more Moscow's efforts to assert its declining influence. Despite Baku's rising discontent, Ruben Vardanyan assumed the post of state minister within the separatist government, launching a purge among former bureaucrats.

    As such, the so-called long-term Minister of Foreign Affairs David Babayan was dismissed, while rumours claimed that Vardanyan Oskanyan, a former chief of the Armenian MFA during Robert Kocharyan's administration, will succeed Babayan's position, though no official confirmation has been made yet. In addition, a few more members of the separatist government were stripped of their position. Although Vardanyan did not reveal the main motivation behind the cabinet members’ change, he noted that “the current crisis and challenges require new management approaches.”

    Amid new changes in Karabakh, one should consider the possibility that the power switch may cause internal disputes within the separatist regime and complicate Vardanyan's mission even more. Moreover, Ruben Vardanyan's possible future successful political career in Armenia will depend on how successful his political manoeuvres will be in Karabakh. No doubt being closely linked to Vladimir Putin's business elite, Ruben Vardanyan eyes the opportunity to pursue a political career at home at the expense of the next round of escalation with Azerbaijan.

    With Russia's declining influence and discredited image as a mediator, Baku and Yerevan sought to turn to Western mediation for real action toward the final piece. Although the EU managed to conduct several vis-à-vis meetings of Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders, the French government's different stance on the conflict and President Emmanuel Macron's recent anti-Azerbaijani statements, caused outrage in the Azerbaijani public, thus totally discrediting France's role as a negotiator.

    President Ilham Aliyev's recent statement during the annual security conference in Baku held on November 25 suggests that Baku will block all efforts of Armenia to bring France as a mediator for peace negotiations. As such, Aliyev said that the scheduled meeting with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Brussels in early December would not happen due to Yerevan’s pre-condition to invite President Macron to the meeting.

    President Aliyev's refusal to proceed with peace negotiations under current circumstances and Prime Minister Pashinyan's efforts to postpone the process to avoid signing a peace treaty and neutralize pressure from Moscow and Tehran could be a signal for upcoming deadly hostilities in Karabakh.

    The most significant point about the current tensions is that official Baku abandoned its balanced approach towards Moscow and obtained more bellicose rhetoric. Hence, in order to show its dissatisfaction with Moscow's peacekeeping contingent dislocated in Karabakh, Azerbaijani State Security Service announced that "Russia amasses additional weaponry to Karabakh" without providing specific data.

    Considering the fact that Moscow-Baku relations are simmering, such a move by Baku may be attributed to its desire to push Russia out of the strategically important Lachin Corridor to be able to control every movement between Armenia and the Karabakh region. The Azerbaijani side will likely take over the control over the corridor, leaving the only option for the Russian contingent to use newly airports built in Zangilan and Fuzuli for military-technical supplies.

    Notwithstanding this, the full-scale war between Baku and Yerevan seems unlikely as there are poor perspectives for Karabakh Armenians to launch a war against Azerbaijan with the support of Russia, as there will be no winners of this war.

    Azerbaijan keeps signalling that it is ready for talks with Yerevan and the ethnic Armenian community in Karabakh but without the involvement of Russian-linked figures like Ruben Vardanyan and French President Macron. Simultaneously, as 2022 slightly ends, there is still optimism that tangible results in the peace process could be reached with Armenia in 2023 if a direct negotiation format is established between leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia.


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