Azerbaijan might be signaling a major shift in its foreign policy. Its relations with the West have visibly deteriorated since its September blitzkrieg which caused the entire Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh to flee.
The fall of the enclave removed a major hurdle to a peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Moreover, the Armenian leadership has chosen a pragmatic approach toward Azeri sovereignty, effectively signaling its willingness to recognize its neighbor’s territorial integrity within the borders established during the Soviet era.
Another significant hurdle has been the issue of the so-called Zangezur corridor via Armenia’s southernmost province of Syunik to the Azeri exclave of Nakhchivan. Armenia has feared that this might provide the grounds for another war.
But for now, that seems to have diminished as Azerbaijan agreed in October to develop a transit route through northern Iran. This appeared designed to remove the threat to Armenia and to assuage Iranian concerns about Azeri intentions; Tehran remains Armenia’s most effective ally and has threatened military action if Azerbaijan pushes it too far.
In the past couple of weeks, Armenia and Azerbaijan have reportedly found consensus on three major principles. These include mutual recognition of territorial integrity, demarcation of the border, and the opening of communication channels. Far from being a comprehensive peace, it nevertheless might serve as the basis for a future normalization between the two rivals. Indeed, Armenia has submitted its sixth updated proposal on a peace agreement to Azerbaijan, the country’s Foreign Ministry said on November 21.
The barriers to a deal remain formidable. For example, despite a World Court ruling, it is unlikely Azerbaijan will allow the return of the 120,000 Armenians who left following its September victory.
That is only one of many continuing grievances, which include the question of exclaves in each other’s territory. Azerbaijan claims eight villages in Armenia, which claims at least one in Azerbaijan.
Along with this issue, there remains the significant question of where a peace deal should be signed. This is far more than symbolic.
There have been two separate negotiation tracks: one led by Russia and another by the West, mostly the European Union (EU.) And here there is a major shift underway. If before the September attack, the Azeris were fairly open to Western initiatives, after the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh there are reasons to believe Azerbaijan favors Moscow.
Azerbaijan sees French support for Armenia as a major hurdle in peace treaty negotiations. This includes Paris’s activism at the UN Security Council, where it is one of the five permanent members, and its recent decision to sell arms to Armenia, including air defense radars and missiles.
Furthermore, occasional calls within the EU for tough sanctions against Azerbaijan because of ethnic cleansing fuel hostility among President Ilham Aliyev and his entourage. These calls are based on allegations of ethnic cleansing. Additionally, the EU’s insistence on discussing the return of ethnic Armenians to Karabakh is opposed by Azerbaijan, which considers Karabakh’s displaced population an internal matter. A recent Azeri reproof of the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, is a good indication of the state of bilateral affairs.
There is a downward trajectory in the relations with the US too. Officials in Washington have expressed concerns over events and have suspended military aid to Azerbaijan. While this might not greatly impact its military capabilities, it signals that Azerbaijan should refrain from further potential military moves against Armenia. The Azeris have meanwhile pulled out of planned peace negotiations in Washington, and the country’s foreign ministry even stated that US officials were unwelcome in Azerbaijan.
More recently, on November 21, Hikmat Hajiyev, Assistant to the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan argued that “Armenia should understand that the roots of peace are not in Washington but in the region”. This follows what Azerbaijani officials signaled during the recent 3+3 summit in Tehran, (this is a grouping of the three big states of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, along with the three South Caucasus nations, although Georgia was absent), the need to solve regional conflicts without the involvement of outside powers.
Russia has also been overtly supportive of the Azerbaijani position. The trend has been strengthened by the Kremlin’s sharply worsening relations with its officially close ally, Armenia. Not only have the Armenians been outraged by the Kremlin’s refusal to make good on common defense treaties, but also by the implicit assumption that it simply matters less than Azerbaijan.
Armenia has effectively pulled out of the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) but now appears to have gone much further, with unconfirmed reports that it plans to transfer up to 200 SS-21 ballistic missiles to Ukraine. The Kremlin has already been issuing hostile statements aimed at Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who has suggested his country needed to “diversify” its security relationships.
So while there is increasing momentum for a peace agreement, significant tensions must still be resolved. For now that suggests that the dominant partner, Azerbaijan, is unwilling to engage in a Western-led settlement and would prefer an outcome led by the Kremlin.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor of international relations at European University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and a scholar of silk roads.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.