Three conjectural scenarios for the Azerbaijani-Armenian talks
ANALYTICS 31 May 2023 - 18:19
Even though the probability of Azerbaijan and Armenia signing an agreement on “Peace and the Establishment of Interstate Relations” on 1 June cannot be decisively overruled, its likelihood could, despite not being negligibly infinitesimal, only be plausibly perceived with the credulity of a wishful nature.
What is more likely is that, as was the case during the First Summit of the European Political Community in October 2022, EU Council President Charles Michel may again come up with a press statement, compartmentalising the latest agreements between the sides, giving rise to what the media and expert community could later label as the Chisinau Declaration. In the wider field of Baku-Yerevan contestation, there are three conjectural scenarios as to how the talks between the parties could play out in the upcoming period, and the EPC congregation will allow us to reflect on their comparative merits.
The Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders met twice during May and their next convocation is slated for 1 June in Chisinau, Moldova, on the margins of the Second Summit of the European Political Community. On 14 May, when President Ilham Aliyev and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan held talks under the aegis of EU Council President Charles Michel, the sides reconfirmed their adherence to the Almaty Declaration, recognising each other’s territorial integrity within mathematically-expressed confines. This was significant progress and lauded in the West, and even in Russia, despite some discernible traces of the customary nonplussed semi-approbation radiating from glamorous Kremlin Spokesperson Maria Zakharova.
The 25 May Moscow convocation of the leaders organised by President Vladimir Putin, which followed the congregation in the EU capital, was neither a glittering breakthrough nor a monstrously ignoble setback. The momentum was not slackened. But its main practical takeaway - an agreement on the meeting of the Deputy Prime Ministers of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia - did not look like a resoundingly reassuring enough success.
The question now is what to expect from 1 June. The likelihood of the signing of a framework document on “Peace and the establishment of interstate relations” cannot be decisively overruled, with such an eventuality remaining within the realm of conjectural probability. But the chances are not too high. It is also worth remembering that the forthcoming meeting on the margins of the EPC summit, despite Charles Michel’s involvement, will also be attended by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and is, strictly speaking, outside the framework of the trilateral Brussels platform.
In terms of format, it will be akin to the meeting which took place during the first EPC summit in October 2022, albeit with the addition of the German leader. Back then, Charles Michel, subsequent to the talks, issued a press statement, retrospectively referred to as the Prague Declaration, wherein, amongst other clauses, the overriding principle of mutual recognition of territorial integrity and sovereignty was declared as an agreed point. Therefore, it is not unthinkable that the EU Council President could again issue a statement, incorporating the latest agreements attained, giving rise to the term 'the Chisinau Declaration'.
Whether Baku and Yerevan will manage to achieve a significant breakthrough on 1 June is open to conjecture, but what seems more likely is that the momentum gained in May will be further entrenched. A setback is definitely not expected. It is all about the extent of the progress the sides could achieve and “constructive spirit” that will ensue.
If we holistically consider the wider field of Baku-Yerevan discourse beyond the Chisinau summit, there are three scenarios that should be contemplated for the sake of argument.
The first is unlikely but needs to be glanced upon in terms of its potential ramifications so as to ascertain the reasons underpinning its perceived implausibility. Baku and Yerevan had already agreed on the point of territorial integrity, but Armenia still strives for an international mechanism to guarantee the security and rights of Karabakh Armenians.
This is, in some ways, Nikol Pashinyan’s design to free himself from the shackles of the Karabakh conundrum and to “delegate” the entire issue to a platform that could potentially evolve into a Second Minsk Group process, blighted with the same degree of inertia. Such an international mechanism would also be constructed in such a way as to keep the “remedial secession” hopes of the Armenian separatists alive, being maintained as a “ticking time bomb”, ready to explode at a pertinent juncture.
This scenario has its own plausibility for Pashinyan in justifying himself in front of the local audience and maintaining a constructive demeanour internationally. The crux of the design is simple: Armenia recognises Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh, but by means of an international mechanism maintains the possibility of the secession of the Armenians residing in this Azerbaijani region. Baku is conscious of this and will not concur.
The second scenario could be understood through the prism of “whatever must happen will ultimately happen immediately”. This quip is attributed to centenarian Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, and appears to be appropriate to Baku’s version of a peace deal. Any form of uncertainty and ambivalence on Karabakh, which could be engendered by an international mechanism, is inimical to Baku’s worldview and backtracking is not on the agenda.
The alternative is that the sides develop a common understanding on how the rights and security of the Armenians residing in Karabakh will be designed as Azerbaijan’s internal affair with increased international visibility, overruling any external interference. This will require the simultaneous withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces remaining within the zone of the so-called Russian 'peacekeeping' contingent and the dismemberment of the illegal separatist structures therein.
On 29 May, President Aliyev made it clear that, if the so-called illegal "NKR" dissolves, then an amnesty in relation to those constituting the military junta currently enjoying the protective shield of the Russian contingent in Khankandi could be considered. This is an offer that demonstrates a positive path. It is understood in the West that the Armenian population of Karabakh should be reintegrated into Azerbaijani society, unlike the illegal separatist entity. The latter’s dissolution is an integral element in pursuing the logic of the internal second track of the wider peace agenda.
The third scenario is a bleak concept where there is no peace deal, nor a framework document on peace and interstate normalisation, with the situation on the ground remaining volatile. For Armenia, this presents a greater danger by virtue of the bargaining chips and the balance of power.
Baku has already established a border checkpoint at the entrance to the Lachin Road, and the process of the removal or the neutralisation of the illegal separatist forces in Karabakh has been already set in motion. If there is no accord on the delimitation of the interstate border, escalations are likely to continue, with Azerbaijan further entrenching its positions along the conditional border. The Zangazur route could theoretically still be opened through a specific arrangement, outside a comprehensive peace deal.
What is undesirable about this scenario is that it fails to endorse mutual trust and cement the foundations of a durable peace. It is not the best option and the parties will need to appreciate their respective positions if the situation goes awry, hedging their bets to a greater or lesser extent.
The Chisinau summit will, in some ways, be the competition between the first and the second scenarios, with the likelihood that the third will continue to loom large amid hopes for a long-awaited breakthrough. Neil Watson, UK Political Journalist, commented: "Option two is clearly the most desirable for both sides, but the question is whether Pashinyan has the political mettle to see it through and absorb the barbs and brickbats that will inevitably be meted out at home and from his diaspora."
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