Armenia-Azerbaijan Relations Remain Uneasy, But Carefully Improving

Since the six-week-long war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2020, the Russian-brokered ceasefire of November 2020 continues to hold, barring the occasional exchange of fire. However, much of the uneasy peace is contingent on cooperation from both sides and Russian mediation to prevent the deterioration of relations. At the end of last month, leaders from the three countries met in Sochi to discuss future cooperation on various fronts, ultimately hoping to improve relations further.

Last Friday, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinian, and Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks that focused on the border, trade, and economic issues. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (R.F.E./R.L.) reports that conflict flares up in the region at times. One of the most recent flareups occurred a week before the meeting, risking that “fears of a return to large-scale violence” would be rekindled. However, despite these conflicts, the leaders expressed positive remarks post-meeting.

A statement by the three called for “stability and security on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, the creation of a bilateral commission on the delimitation of the state border between [Azerbaijan and Armenia] with its subsequent demarcation with the consultative assistance of the Russian Federation [and focusing on] commitments from the past year on resuming economic and transport links in their Caucasus region.”

President Aliyev expressed hopes for a “more secure and predictable” situation in the region while also discussing “issues of border delimitation and demarcation and unblocking of transport arteries,” among many others. President Pashinian regarded the meeting as “very positive,” saying, “[W]e can expect concrete results if we manage to build on the dynamics of our talks.”

The conflict traces back to the early 1990s, when “[e]thnic Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union collapsed,” the Moscow Times writes. After years of relative stability, the most recent major conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region began in September 2020 and lasted for six weeks before the ceasefire agreement in early November 2020, claiming over 6,500 lives on both sides. Since then, occasional confrontations have taken place, with some involving human casualties. Russia negotiated a second ceasefire on November 16th to prevent further flare-ups.

Since then, the European Union, the United Nations, and other countries have called for an end to any conflicts in the region. Shortly after the ceasefire, European Council president Charles Michel spoke with President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinian. “Michel did not apportion blame for the ‘challenging situation in the region’ but demanded an ‘urgent de-escalation and full ceasefire,’” EURACTIV reports.

According to R.F.E./R.L., during a recent conflict before the November 26th meeting, Armenia “accused Azerbaijan’s armed forces of killing one of its soldiers along the countries’ border.” Azerbaijan replied, “[O]ur units did not open fire in that direction, the situation is stable.” The exchange of blame is very common after such confrontations. As previously mentioned, small conflict flareups can be a cause for concern, which further supports the need to maintain open lines of communication without hostilities.

After the second ceasefire was established, Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu “held phone conversations with counterparts in Baku and Yerevan and pledged Moscow’s help in easing tensions,” the Moscow Times reports. This, and the three-way talks in Sochi, may appear symbolic, but given the nature of the conflict and the high human toll during the six-week war, Armenia and Azerbaijan must maintain dialogue. Russia’s assistance as a mediator is also essential to maintain the ceasefire and ensure that all parties hold to their agreements. Holding more discussions will not only reduce hostile rhetoric but may also reduce small confrontations as both countries rebuild trust with each other.

Rather than assigning blame for the conflict, Armenia and Azerbaijan should focus on cooperation on the fronts of trade, transportation, the economy, and their borders, which will ultimately benefit both countries by reducing the possibility of new conflicts. Using their resources to improve their economies will instead open up new avenues of co-operation. The Sochi meeting is an example of positive changes in the region, and this form of dialogue and cooperation should continue.