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  5. Fred Weir:Not partners, but on same page: Russia, West push Armenian-Azeri peace

Fred Weir:Not partners, but on same page: Russia, West push Armenian-Azeri peace

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A peace deal to end the bitter, three-decade-long conflict over the fate of the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan appears almost within reach.

Perhaps most remarkably, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been brought to the brink of accord by Western and Russian diplomacy – working in parallel, if not in sync.

The agreement comes as an exhausted and disillusioned Armenia, decisively defeated in a 2020 war, concedes to most of Azerbaijan’s demands in hopes of being able to chart a new course without the albatross of endless war hanging around its neck. The deal may be reached as early as June 1, as Armenian and Azeri leaders attend the European Political Community (EPC), an intergovernmental forum on Europe’s future, in Chisinau, Moldova.

Even while starkly divided over the war in Ukraine, Russia and the West show hints of being able to find common ground on other issues of importance, as evidenced by an imminent Armenian-Azeri peace treaty.

But while the agreement may leave Armenians dissatisfied, it does hint at still-existent areas of common ground between Russia and the West, even if the two are at odds over Ukraine. Over the past several months, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev have shuttled between Washington, European capitals, and Moscow, in each receiving a similar message about the necessary shape of a durable settlement. A week ago, President Vladimir Putin told the two Caucasus leaders that, despite a few technical details, a deal that Russia supports is nearly ready.

“You couldn’t say that Russia and the West were working together on this. Rather say that they were on the same page,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “Their interests coincided in this case, even if that sounds a bit unusual in the present context.”

“Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity”

The conflict has been raging since the Soviet twilight years, when Armenia and Azerbaijan engaged in mutual rounds of brutal ethnic cleansing. That was followed by a bloody war that subsided in the early 1990s with a victorious Armenia in control of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as a huge part of Azerbaijan proper.

Tens of thousands of Azeris were displaced by Armenian occupation, and a vengeful President Aliyev, interviewed by the Monitor many years ago, vowed to use Azerbaijan’s oil wealth to build a military machine capable of recovering those lost lands. In 2020, he succeeded in ejecting Armenia from most occupied territory. But Russia, the traditional power broker in the region, stepped in to impose an armistice that injected Russian peacekeeping forces to protect the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh.

But Russia’s influence was already waning in the region, while Turkey’s sponsorship of victorious Azerbaijan was a new balance-tipping factor. Following the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s grip weakened further. Western powers saw an opening to pry Armenia, with its pro-Western leader, Mr. Pashinyan, out of Moscow’s orbit.

Over the past year, Mr. Aliyev has become much more assertive in seeking an end to the conflict that leaves Nagorno-Karabakh, with its 120,000 Armenian inhabitants, inside Azerbaijan. He has recently dropped earlier offers of autonomy and insisted that since Nagorno-Karabakh is part of sovereign Azerbaijan under international law, the territory must be ruled from Baku, the Azeri capital, and its people must accept the terms of Azeri citizenship or leave.

Until recently, that has been impossible for Armenia to stomach. But after several rounds of shuttle diplomacy to the United States, Europe, and Russia, Mr. Pashinyan finally offered the icebreaking concession on May 22. For three decades, Russian and Western diplomacy have agreed that Nagorno-Karabakh is legally part of Azerbaijan, and for the first time, an Armenian leader has, however reluctantly, acknowledged that.

“Armenia recognizes Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity of 86,600 square kilometers, assuming that Azerbaijan recognizes Armenia’s territorial integrity as 29,800 square kilometers,” Mr. Pashinyan said. “Those 86,600 square kilometers also include Nagorno-Karabakh.”

The future of Nagorno-Karabakh

The remaining sticking point is how to deal with the now-stranded population of the tiny, mountainous, self-declared independent statelet, which Armenians call Artsakh.

“Once the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan is established, then the population of Nagorno-Karabakh becomes an internal concern,” says Ilgar Velizade, an independent political expert in Baku. “This is a serious hitch, but I am sure it will be solved. This is the foundation upon which good neighborly relations can be built.”

Atom Mkhitaryan, co-chair of the Armenian Association of Political Scientists, says Mr. Pashinyan’s concession was made on condition that the “rights and security of Armenians who have lived on their native land [Karabakh] for thousands of years are respected. But not a word is heard about what those rights are or how their security will be ensured. … It remains unclear how Russia or the West will use their levers and means to guarantee and monitor the implementation of the agreements.”

It has been a basic assumption for three decades that no Armenian government could abandon the Armenians of Karabakh and survive politically, says Mr. Lukyanov. But Mr. Pashinyan appears ready to do just that.

“It looks as though the suggestion that Pashinyan wants to rid himself of the burden of Karabakh might have been right,” Mr. Lukyanov says. “But the mystery is, why is Armenian society so passive about it? Agreement is possible now, after Azerbaijan reshaped the balance, because Armenia now finds this outcome acceptable. If Armenians are fine with it, why shouldn’t everyone else be?”

The future of the Karabakh Armenians will probably be settled by evacuation to Armenia, most experts warn. Neither the West nor Russia seems prepared to press Baku on establishing autonomy for that beleaguered population, whose always-doubtful viability as an independent state has totally collapsed since Armenia’s defeat three years ago.

The agreement that may soon be reached would open the region to economic development, including long-blockaded transport corridors, pipelines, and tourism. Russia and the West, though de facto partners in securing accord, will quickly revert to overt rivalry, says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent political think tank in Moscow.

“Russia and the West weren’t cooperating, just competing over who could get the two sides to sit down and sign an agreement,” he says. “Russia will want to maintain its traditional role in the region, with its peacekeeping mission continuing. The West will want to reduce Russia’s role and make its peacekeeping force leave after an agreement is signed. Interests may have briefly coincided, but competition will be lasting.”

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