COMMENT: An Armenia-Azerbaijan ‘peace’ is further away than ever

COMMENT: An Armenia-Azerbaijan ‘peace’ is further away than ever
A raft of incontrovertible issues remains between the two sides, particularly rooted in Azerbaijan’s escalating demands while it continues to exert military pressure on Armenia. / bne IntelliNews
By Neil Hauer in Yerevan February 8, 2024

Over the past few months, speculation over an impending Armenia-Azerbaijan peace treaty has reached a fever pitch. Numerous articles have suggested that the two sides are close to a final agreement, while both EU and US officials have expressed optimism on the long-running negotiations.

Perhaps the most positive outlook has come from officials of the two governments themselves: Top Azerbaijani officials expressed in late December that the two sides were “not that much far away from a final agreement”, while Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated in October that his government was ready to sign a peace treaty by the end of 2023.

But these rosy public proclamations are a poor reflection of reality. A raft of incontrovertible issues remains between the two sides, particularly rooted in Azerbaijan’s escalating demands while it continues to exert military pressure on Armenia. Barely four months after the full-scale ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh of its ethnic Armenian inhabitants following Azerbaijan’s military offensive there in September, the list of sticking points for a peace agreement is growing, not shrinking.

Despite the public enthusiasm by both Armenian and Azerbaijani representatives, the talks themselves have long since stalled, analysts say.

“I think we are nowhere,” says Gevorg Melikyan, head of the Yerevan-based Armenian Institute for Resilience and Statecraft, when asked where talks are at now. “This process is not moving forward. It is just more and more demands by the Azerbaijani side, more and more preconditions,” he says.

Armenia has shown a willingness to compromise on many issues, most notably that of Nagorno-Karabakh. Already in May 2023, the Armenian government announced it would recognise the disputed region as part of Azerbaijan, although this did not stop Baku’s then-ongoing blockade of the region or forestall its eventually military takeover.

Armenia has also proposed numerous suggestions for unblocking regional transport links, something that was stipulated as part of the November 2020 trilateral ceasefire agreement signed between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia to end the 2020 Second Karabakh War.

Azerbaijan, however, has been obstinate. The Ilham Aliyev regime insists on the opening of what it calls the “Zangezur corridor”, envisioned as a road along Armenia’s southern border with Iran that will connect mainland Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhchivan. Azerbaijani officials have insisted that Armenia will not be allowed to exercise any customs control over the road, despite it passing through Armenia’s sovereign territory.

“[What the] Azerbaijani government actually wants is that Armenia will not have any control over this corridor, over anything passing over the territory of Armenia to Nakhchivan,” says Altay Goyushov, head of the Baku-based Baku Research Institute. “I think this is the most important thing for Azerbaijan, but at the same time, it’s not the only thing. Azerbaijan is using different kinds of excuses to avoid the peace agreement – demanding changes in the [Armenian] constitution, demanding the return of exclaves, and other things. All of these [elements] are combined to put pressure on the Armenian side,” he says.

Public backlash

The recent demands by Azerbaijan to modify Armenia’s constitution have become another sticking point. Pashinyan and other top Armenian officials have mooted the idea recently, resulting in major controversy and a public backlash.

“This is a totally unacceptable demand, and something that the [Armenian] government seems to not really understand the scope of, especially in the way it is presenting it,” Melikyan says. “Having one man [Pashinyan], who wakes up in the morning and thinks that it’s in Armenia’s interest to change the constitution, is not acceptable [to society].

“If Pashinyan tries to make a referendum [with these changes], he will fail, because it means that every time Azerbaijan wants to make a change to Armenia’s symbols, history, narratives, whatever, that we must do it,” he says.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of Azerbaijan’s rhetoric is its repeated references to ‘Western Azerbaijan,’ an irredentist political concept used to extend territorial claims to the entirety of the present-day Republic of Armenia.

Far from a fringe suggestion, the concept of ‘Western Azerbaijan’ – and of Baku’s rightful sovereignty over it – has been mentioned repeatedly by Azerbaijan’s highest official. Aliyev is a noted proponent of the idea, lamenting in a January 10 speech how “ancient Azerbaijani lands” – including the Armenian capital, Yerevan – were “given” to Armenia a century ago. The loss of these lands, according to Aliyev, was “a great historical crime”.

Invoking this sentiment is a clear declaration of Aliyev’s intention to create a pretext for a broader invasion of Armenia, under the guise of “reclaiming” ancient Azerbaijani land, Melikyan says.

“It’s very serious. I don’t know why people think [these statements] are just a bluff,” he says. “It’s a strategic approach to say, ‘we have legal rights to take over Yerevan, we have the legal right to enter it’. When autocratic states start a war, they find pseudo-legal justifications for it. In this case, they will say, ‘well, we don’t want to attack, but we need to restore justice’. And in the name of justice, people go to war,” Melikyan says.

Internal messaging

Another explanation for such statements is that of internal messaging, an attempt to consolidate Aliyev’s legitimacy among the population, Goyushov says, while not excluding the possibility of further military action on the same basis.

“There’s no doubt that [this talk] has some elements of putting pressure on the Armenian side,” he says. “But the most important is the internal audience. Firstly, it’s about [directing society] to focus on the foreign enemy, which is Armenia. It’s important [for Aliyev] to galvanise society around his only achievement, the war in Karabakh. It’s also kind of a competition against the leaders of the First Republic [of Azerbaijan, 1918-20], to downgrade their achievements by saying that they made a lot of mistakes. That’s why even in this speech, Aliyev says that the mistakes stopped being made when Heydar [Aliyev, his father] came to power [in 1969],” Goyushov says.

But even if this sort of messaging is the main point, a further war based on the same logic can hardly be ruled out.

“He’s a dictator, and dictators are unpredictable,” Goyushov says. “They can make reckless decisions. What should be taken into account is the way that it can have an impact on the public in general, where people then ask, if Yerevan is our city, why are we not liberating it?” he says.

While the idea of the public taking such claims seriously may seem farfetched, Goyushov emphasises that the degree of mass inoculation by state propaganda in Azerbaijan makes such a possibility entirely plausible.

“People in Azerbaijan, young people especially, they really believe this [falsified history],” says Goyushov, who also lectures at Baku State University. “For example, when I am teaching a class about the Crusades and I mention their interactions with Armenia, students will stand up and ask me how that’s possible. They say that Armenians were not here then [in the Middle Ages], that they were only brought by the Russian Empire. So that’s what makes [these irredentist claims] so dangerous and unpredictable,” Goyushov says.

In such an atmosphere, it’s very difficult to imagine any genuine progress towards a mutual understanding, let alone a durable peace agreement.

“We have so little information on what is actually being discussed that we can only guess,” says Melikyan. “Despite the fact that we [Armenia] are supposedly democratic, we have almost no more information about what Pashinyan is saying than Azerbaijan does [about Aliyev]. We can say that [Pashinyan] is very eager to sign some sort of agreement, maybe not even a peace treaty, but Azerbaijan is not willing,” he says.

For Aliyev, meanwhile, the only real priority is to continue entrenching his control over the country – something that leaves room only for more militarism and violence.

“Despite everything, despite his victory, Aliyev still feels insecure,” Goyushov says. “That’s why we see these North Korea-style elections, the most controlled we have ever had. Meanwhile, the economy is declining, people are only going to be faced with more problems, while Aliyev and his family are only going to face more pressure [from society]. Things here are bad, but they are going to get much worse.”