On August 31, 2022, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan held their fourth meeting in Brussels with the mediation of the President of the European Council Charles Michel. Following the four-hour meeting, Michel called the talks “open and productive”. Reactions in Yerevan and Baku, however, were not as optimistic. The official statement released by the Armenian government outlined a general overview of the issues discussed, noting that “the next meeting of the leaders of the countries will take place in November.” Baku kept silent on the official level, but state sponsored media outlets aimed to show that Ilham Aliyev was not fully satisfied with the results.
“Tense talks between Aliyev and Pashinyan: Armenia wants to disrupt the Brussels process,” was the headline of the article published on Azerbaijani state media site Haqqin.az immediately after the meeting. The article referred to its sources concluding that “in general, the Armenian delegation made every effort to undermine the Brussels process. Azerbaijan insisted on the need to preserve and develop the Brussels negotiation process.” A day after the talks, on September 1, Pashinyan said that the discussion was not easy. “We all need to understand that it’s not easy and simple and that possible solutions are not obvious. We need to continue our consistent work,” he added, reaffirming the Armenian government’s commitment to the peace agenda.
On the eve of the Brussels meeting, assistant to the President of Azerbaijan and head of the Foreign Policy Department of the Presidential Administration Hikmet Hajiyev said that the Azerbaijani side had hopes that an agreement would be reached during the meeting in Brussels. This would include the forming of a working group to prepare the text of the peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In response to this announcement, Armenia’s Prime Minister’s Office stated that “A respective statement about the results of the meeting will be released which will provide comprehensive information about the topics that were discussed.” This vague notice again fueled doubts that either Yerevan had no clear agenda before the meeting in Brussels or that there is a hidden agenda, unknown to the Armenian public.
Before the Brussels meeting, on August 19, a meeting between the Secretary of Armenia’s Security Council, Armen Grigoryan, and Hikmet Hajiyev took place in Brussels, with the mediation of Toivo Klaar, EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and Georgia. It can be presumed that the Brussels agenda was being discussed. Hajiyev’s statement on Azerbaijani expectations was made after this discussion.
Clearly, Baku’s main task is to accelerate the process of signing the so-called “peace agreement” based mainly on Azerbaijani interests and demands. On this specific issue, Charles Michel, in a press statement issued after the latest talks, noted, “…we agree to step up substantive work to advance the peace treaty governing interstate relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan and tasked the foreign ministers to meet within one month to work on draft texts.” In his interview to Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, Azerbaijan’s President said, “I came to Italy from Brussels where we had trilateral negotiations with the President of the European Council and the Prime Minister of Armenia and we agreed that within one month the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia will meet in order to start practical discussions on a peace agreement. That was our proposal from almost immediately after the second Karabakh war ended; we said that we need peace. We need a peace agreement and it took almost two years for Armenia to agree to that […] Of course, a lot will depend on how these peace talks go, what the timetable will be, what the substance will be. I think that we can finalize and sign a peace agreement within several months. I think this is realistic if the Armenian side expresses the same will, because we introduced five basic principles, which a peace agreement should be based on and Armenia accepted them.”
Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan responded immediately to Aliyev’s comments, questioning Baku’s sincerity concerning the peace process. “Not listening or trying not to listen to this position gives the Armenian side a reason to question the sincerity of Azerbaijan’s intentions in achieving peace. Moreover, the continued arbitrary, false interpretations of the negotiations and avoiding implementing the agreements give the impression that Azerbaijan intends to undermine the peace process and continue its policy of ethnic cleansing through the use of force” the statement said.
Back in March 2022, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed the five basic principles of the proposal submitted to the Armenian side a month prior. In May 2022, Yerevan responded to those principles for the start of peace negotiations with six of its own. Armenia agreed with the principles put forward by Azerbaijan, but considered it necessary to add to them the issue of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was not mentioned in Baku’s proposal. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov scoffed at Yerevan’s proposal, saying that they are a reaction to the proposals that Baku has put forth, which Armenia has signaled as “acceptable.” Presumably, Baku considers the “peace agreement” to be based mainly on its proposals. In reality, Aliyev is not simply suggesting a “peace agreement” but threatening Armenia with a new war or aggression. He has already made it clear that if Armenia rejects the proposed deal, they will also refuse to recognize the territorial integrity of Armenia. Moreover, Baku is direct in openly speaking about its main objectives. Their priority, of course, is to take any discussion on security and the status of Artsakh off the table.
In this context, the biggest challenge remains the fact that Yerevan lacks a clear agenda and vision not only for the future of Artsakh, but also on the peace agenda in general. During snap parliamentary elections in 2021, the ruling Civil Contract party made it clear that “the people of Artsakh cannot live in Artsakh if it becomes a part of Azerbaijan.” Thus they promised to fight for the protection of self-determination of the people of Artsakh as one of the basic principles proposed by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs throughout the decades-long negotiation process. Almost a year after being reelected, Pashinyan and his team have changed their rhetoric and more recently have been saying that the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh is not a goal but rather a means to guarantee the security and protection of the rights and freedom of the people of Artsakh. Still, even this vague approach is not reflected in the official release published after the recent meeting in Brussels. Moreover, this time, there is no mention of Artsakh in Michel’s statement.
Thus, while Pashinyan keeps assuring that his government is keen on the peace agenda in spite of the obstacles, he and his team cannot present openly to the public the agenda’s content or main objectives. In fact, their team has effectively stepped back from the program they presented during the election campaign. Despite the points made in the program, the ruling party now refuses to publicly declare that they don’t see Artsakh as a part of Azerbaijan because of the existential threat. However, they provide no clear plan in its place. This creates problems and misunderstandings not only within the Armenian public, but also in the communication process with the mediators. Apparently, Armenia’s policy on the peace talks seems to be more “defensive” when it should have its own aims based on the national interests and security needs of Armenia and Artsakh. Armenia’s foreign policy requires a vision to be able to be more proactive in this difficult and complicated process.
Two days after the Brussels discussions, Baku reported that “on September 2, the Armenian armed forces subjected Azerbaijan Army positions to fire.” A few hours later, the Armenian Ministry of Defense claimed that “Azerbaijani Armed Forces units opened fire in the direction of a RA Defense Ministry vehicle in the eastern direction of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border zone.” On September 4, Baku again blamed Armenia for violating the ceasefire on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Armenia denied the claim and accused Azerbaijan of disseminating disinformation.
In practice, Azerbaijan spreads disinformation about alleged “shooting from the Armenian side” prior to new military action. This happened on the eve of August 3 in Artsakh after which Azerbaijan made the Armenian sides change the Berdzor/Lachin route connecting Armenia and Artsakh much earlier than stipulated in the trilateral statement of November 9, 2020. For instance, on July 30, Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov ordered “army units to be ready to immediately suppress any provocations on the border with Armenia and in Karabakh.” Similar actions can be seen now. Apart from this disinformation, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry Press service stated that the “Azerbaijani Army is ready to prevent any provocations in Lachin at any moment.”
It seems that after the Brussels meeting, Azerbaijan is back to its policy of creating tension on its border with Armenia or the line of contact with Artsakh to pressure the Armenian authorities to accept Baku’s conditions. Consequently, in order to be able to mediate Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks productively the West needs to exclude the possibility of the threat of or use of force. The Armenian side should insist that this point be emphasized in press releases around the Armenian-Azerbaijani talks.
Perhaps the most important obstacle for peace in the South Caucasus remains Azerbaijan’s state sponsored anti-Armenian propaganda. Interestingly, the issue of problematic rhetoric was addressed by Charles Michel as well in his statement following the latest round of talks in Brussels. “With all these discussions, I would like to underline that it is important to take the population along on both sides and prepare them for a long-term sustainable peace. Public messaging is critical in this regard – in a sensitive situation like this, every word spoken in public is obviously heard by the other side and weighed,” he mentioned without specifying which side he was directing his comment to.
On August 30 2022, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) published findings on several countries, including Azerbaijan, that were under review. While noting the efforts of Azerbaijan to ensure accountability for the violations, including the investigation of some incidents, the Committee, the report noted, is deeply concerned about: “Incitement to racial hatred and the propagation of racist stereotypes against persons of Armenian national or ethnic origin, including on the Internet and social media, as well as by public figures and governmental officials, and the lack of detailed information on investigations, prosecutions, convictions and sanctions of such acts.” It also highlighted the “allegations of severe and grave human rights violations committed during the 2020 hostilities and beyond by the Azerbaijani military forces against prisoners of war and other protected persons of Armenian ethnic or national origin, including extrajudicial killings, torture and other ill-treatment and arbitrary detention as well as the destruction of houses, schools, and other civilian facilities.” The President of the European Council also touched upon the topic of Armenian POWs, saying that “he stressed to Azerbaijan the importance of further release of Armenian detainees.” The fact that almost two years after the end of the 2020 Artsakh War, Azerbaijan continues to keep the Armenian POWs as hostages speaks volumes about Baku’s disinterest in peace.
Anti-Armenian hatred is very important to Aliyev and his autocratic regime. Casting Armenians as the external enemy helps overcome many domestic challenges the dictatorship of Baku faces. That’s why following the 44-day war, throughout 2021 and 2022, Aliyev continued his anti-Armenian hate propaganda with renewed enthusiasm and belligerence. He even proudly stated that the young generation had been purposely raised up in a spirit of hatred towards Armenia and the Armenian people. “I said that every single one of us must work hard to bring this holy day closer every day. There was no more important and noble task than to work towards the liberation of our lands from occupation. This is why the army building process was carried out swiftly, this is why Azerbaijan has acquired a modern army, this is why the young generation was brought up in the spirit of patriotism, hatred of the enemy and loyalty to the Fatherland, and this is why economic reforms were carried out,” Aliyev stated in April 2022. Even when Russian-Armenian businessman Ruben Vardanyan announced his intentions to move to Artsakh and create a security and development front there, Baku unofficially threatened “to make his life hell”. The goal is to keep Artsakh in full isolation and every step taken against that goal enrages Azerbaijan.
While Armenia’s peace agenda is mostly reactive to Azerbaijan’s and lacks clear goals, Azerbaijan’s rhetoric is characterized by Aliyev’s anti-Armenian hatred and the policy of creating permanent tensions on the borders to pressure Armenia for further concessions. This policy will hardly make real peace possible in the South Caucasus. This is the biggest challenge the EU needs to face if it is honest in its commitment to make peace possible in the region.