A tale of two briefings and one thread
By Orkhan Amashov
What the year 2023 has in store for the next phase of the tug-of-war involving Azerbaijan and Armenia, for all its general uncertainty, orbits around one probable pattern: in the face of Yerevan’s continuous disinclination to fulfil the provisions of the 10 November 2020 declaration and unwillingness to sign a peace treaty, Baku will narrow the negotiable agenda items by irreversibly changing the facts on the ground, gradually entrenching its means of influence, both within the zone under Russian temporary control, and enhancing its military positions along the currently undelimited interstate border.
The press conferences of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, both held on 10 January, provided a fairly elucidating glimpse into the official lines to which the sides will adhere in their further dialogue. In Baku’s view, Yerevan’s insistence on the inclusion of the Karabakh theme in the text of a peace treaty is a major stumbling block. Armenia is conscious of the inevitability of recognising Azerbaijani territorial integrity, including this region, but it hopes to incorporate some form of a fluid formula, theoretically keeping alive ‘secessionist” ambitions.
Pashinyan’s task regarding this critical point remains within the pre-existing parameters. During the 10 January press conference, he said: “The international community perceives Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan and we may not have been pragmatic when we thought the four UN Security council resolutions were simply written texts we could ignore”. And then he added that, in this light, Armenia “has the choice to follow the logic of international developments or go against this logic”.
This may superficially sound groundbreaking but, in fact, it is not, for similar confessions have been made before, with belated corrections and additional nuances corrupting their original meaning. By following such a gloomy line, Pashinyan seems to explain to Armenian society that it is inevitable that Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh must be recognised by Yerevan, stressing that it is not his fault, but due to the failures of his predecessors.
Simultaneously, his message to Baku could be construed as one suggesting there is a limit as to how far Yerevan could acquiesce with Azerbaijani demands, with treaty-based guarantees for the Armenian population of Karabakh being a necessary condition. The likely probability is that Pashinyan will continue to argue within the self-same parameters, incrementally ditching his reservations in a semi-surreptitious manner. Doing so, before Azerbaijani positions are entrenched in the zone of the Russian ´peacekeeping’ contingent, would make a great deal of sense for him. However, cold, hard reason is an unaffordable luxury for him at the moment.
The situation over the Lachin Road, Armenia’s disgruntlement with perceived Russian inaction and anti-Kremlin protests in Gyumri have considerably deteriorated Yerevan-Moscow relations, with some suggesting that the government of Pashinyan may take steps to leave the Kremlin-led organisations, namely the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Eurasian Economic Alliance. In reality, the situation is not as on such a knife-edge as may be superficially apparent. Even those who believe such future moves to be necessary still consider these to be currently unwise.
President Aliyev has also clarified that the Russian ´peacekeeping’ contingent has manifestly failed to fulfil its duties, resulting in the misuse of the Lachin Road. The road’s regime might have been agreed on a trilateral basis via the 10 November 2020 declaration, but its real future is likely to be the subject of the negotiations between Baku and Moscow, which manifested itself earlier, during the construction and completion of the new route, in relation to which Armenia had negligible leverage.
The net effect of the decrease in the Kremlin's influence in the region has had its share of impact on the Moscow-Baku-Yerevan triangle, with its various internal ad hoc alliances being reshaped in a way that gradually increases Baku's prospects and diminishes Yerevan's maneuverability.
Azerbaijan’s determination to make the Zangazur Corridor project a reality remains steadfast and augmented, with Yerevan’s resistance gradually losing its trenchant propensities. With work within its jurisdiction in full swing, Baku will continue to capitalise on the cumulative force emanating from the geopolitical equilibrium favouring its interests to make Armenia come to terms with the necessity of providing a two-way communications route between Nakhichevan and the rest of Azerbaijan.
With Russia’s influence in the region gradually receding, both Baku and Yerevan are displaying a degree of assertiveness, for the former being a mode of behaviour of practical import, with the latter being circumscribed to rhetoric and unsubstantiated warnings. The two briefings held on 10 January reflected two contrasting narratives, albeit not completely devoid of elements pointing to possible commonalities. As Neil Watson, British Journalist, commented: “The gradual closing of the zoo door on the Russian bear is enabling both Armenia and Azerbaijan to reduce the impact of their mutual past colonial oppressor, and that can only be good for measured constructive dialogue.”
There is also a discernible thread exemplifying the pattern that is likely to be central to future Baku-Yerevan dynamics: progress is likely to be achieved not through perfectly constructive diplomatic dialogue, but via a complex array of tug-of-war chess moves, with Azerbaijan’s coercive assertiveness gradually forcing Armenia’s hand and compelling it to reluctant acquiescence.
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