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Sochi summit: Wheels are in motion

29 November 2021 15:33 (UTC+04:00)
Sochi summit: Wheels are in motion

By Orkhan Amashov

The Sochi meeting was another critical diplomatic round in the post-war negotiations; it laid down the provisional foundations of the future delimitation and demarcation of the Azerbaijani-Armenian state border and reiterated the centrality of the format of the negotiations, the origins of which go back to the 10 November ceasefire deal.

It perhaps would require a slight stretching of one’s imagination to define the meeting as a triumph, as such a lofty appellation is better preserved for the occasions of a grander scale and achievements of far more fundamental essence, but it was most certainly a significant step in the right direction and a considerably important move within the best interests of Azerbaijan and the whole region.

Three sets of issues have been discussed within the summit, namely, the delimitation and demarcation of the Azerbaijani-Armenian state border, the unblocking of communications, and humanitarian matters. The final statement made public after the trilateral meeting entails elements pertaining to the first two, whereas as to the third subject, although the sides discussed it extensively and expressed the intention to take certain actions, there is no written formulation concerning these.

Some observers, including former Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Tofig Zulfugarov, believe that the final three-way communiqué does not reflect upon the full spectrum of agreements that were orally agreed upon in Sochi, and the implications of the 26 November summit will be revealed at a later stage.

Border delimitation, demarcation

On the subject of the delimitation and demarcation of the Azerbaijani-Armenian state border, the final statement incorporates a substantively new element. The parties agreed to work towards the creation of a bilateral commission that will deal with the delimitation of the border and with its subsequent demarcation, in relation to which Russian consultative support could be provided upon request.

Putin informed journalists that, by the end of the year, a mechanism necessary to delimit and demarcate the border between the two countries would be put in place.

Igor Korotchenko, a Russian political-military expert, believes that a “bilateral basis” suits the interests of Baku, as Yerevan had been hoping for a trilateral mechanism, within which Armenia’s interests could have been lobbied by Russia.

Another point worthy of mention is that Pashinyan’s request for “a reciprocal pullout of Armenian and Azerbaijani troops from the border to their permanent bases” has not been met with approval. The implication of this could be that, irrespective of which Soviet maps will be used for the determination of the border issue, Azerbaijani military forces will not be required to move back from the locations at which they are currently stationed.

Unblocking of communications

In relation to the unblocking of all economic and transport communications in the region, the language of the post-meeting statement is confidence-inducing but quite generic and tentative. It appreciates the activities of the Trilateral Working Group, established in accordance with the statement of January 11, 2021, under the joint chairmanship of the Azerbaijani, Armenian and Russian deputy prime ministers, and emphasises the need to launch specific projects to unlock the economic potential of the region. Most observers believe that Putin's use of the term “corridor” is important, and adds another layer of recognition to Azerbaijan’s Zangazur corridor plan.

Despite the scarcity of specific nuances in the statement, the post-conference remarks made by the leaders show that some significant progress must have been made. For instance, Putin admitted that “very soon” an agreement on transportation would be reached, and he emphasised Russia’s own interest in the whole scheme. Pashinyan, without revealing particular details, confirmed that the sides were very close to an agreement on transportation, as there is a common understanding of how those communications would work.

Peacekeeping forces

Despite the fact that the presence of the Russian peacekeepers is not unanimously well-received and, in fact, there have been some debates as to the question of whether they have been acting strictly in line with their mandate, President Aliyev’s evaluation of the issue was very plausible. The central line of his assessment was that the systemic crisis was out of the question. In light of the competing considerations, the likelihood of the ultimate rightfulness of his move is incredibly high.

Brussels after Sochi

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Sochi meeting was its timing and its implications for the meeting in Brussels, set to take place on December 15. Experts were intrigued if the EU summit would be more consequential than the Sochi meeting.

The November 26 meeting reiterated the centrality of the trilateral format and reaffirmed all the issues that are key to the negotiations at present. The issue of the Armenian detainees held in Azerbaijan, to whom Yerevan refers as "PoWs", was not touched upon. Neither was a single word said about the so-called status of “Karabakh Armenians”.

One may conclude that the Sochi meeting reinstated the scope of the substantive issues that fall within the rubric of the present negotiations, leaving a number of humanitarian issues for the Brussels forum.

Armenia has long been deeply uncomfortable with the construction evolved subsequent to the November 10 deal and has, for some time, been attempting to involve the U.S. and France in the region so as to revive the much maligned OSCE Minsk Group process. It is possible or perhaps certain that Yerevan will make another attempt to revive the deceased, namely, the so-called status of Karabakh, and bring back the issue related to Armenian detainees held by Baku. The former is to be remorselessly blocked, whereas the latter could be discussed in conjunction with the thorny subject of the neutralisation and removal of mines, which could only be solved through the issuance of mine maps by Yerevan to Baku.

On reflection, the results of the Sochi meeting have consolidated Azerbaijan's gains, reiterated its advantageous diplomatic position, given an impetus for further developments and largely curtailed the scope of discussions that are to take place in Brussels in two weeks.

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