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New regional challenges might dampen the prospects of Pax-Caucasia

The 44-Day War in fall, 2020, that ended the almost three-decade-long Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territories brought new prospects for long-term peace and cooperation in the South Caucasus region. The November 10, 2020, trilateral declaration stipulated provisions relating to the unblocking of all communications in the region that, if properly implemented, would set the stage for ushering in an era of common interests, prosperity, and peace. The term Pax Caucasia, coined in the wake of the signing of the November 10, 2020, and January 11, 2021, agreements, implied that better times for the region may, indeed, be ahead. However, recent regional developments, especially those happening in the run-up to and after the June 20 parliamentary elections in Armenia, have stirred skepticism as to whether all parties are equally invested in making things move forward.

The establishment of the “Zangezur Corridor” became a bone of contention between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Article 9 of the November 10, 2020, agreement clearly states that all communications in the region will be unblocked, including between Azerbaijan and its Nakhchivan region. The exact wording of Article 9 is as follows:

“All economic and transport links in the region shall be restored. The Republic of Armenia guarantees the safety of transport links between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in order to organize an unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles, goods in both directions”.

The implementation of this article would create unique connectivity not only between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also with Russia, Turkey, and Iran and potentially even the greater neighborhood.

Armenia signed up to this and the subsequent January 11, 2021, Moscow Trilateral Agreement that established a working group and set out a timeline for the implementation of Article 9. However, after signing those documents, Armenia embarked on extensive tiptoeing around this issue and making controversial statements.

In the early post-war days, the then newly appointed Economy Minister of Armenia, Vahan Kerobyan, stated:

“Opening the borders will provide wide opportunities. Our exporters will be able to export their products to Russia or other countries through more convenient roads than we have now. Turkish ports will be open to us, and many wide opportunities will be provided. It’s possible that the Azerbaijani market will be open for us and ours for them”.

This was a rather pragmatic and positive statement that hinted to the understanding within Armenia’s political elite of the benefits of cooperation.

Nonetheless, post-reelection statements made by Nikol Pashinyan himself have left many baffled as to whether there is any clear vision in Armenia on the issue at all, let alone a genuine intent concerning the country’s obligations under the November, 2020, trilateral agreement. At a press conference with President of the European, Council Charles Michel, during his visit to Yerevan in mid-July, Pashinyan said that “the Azerbaijani authorities refuse to provide the Armenian side with a corridor for launching the Armenia–Georgia–Azerbaijan–Russia railway” and “threatening the occupation of the sovereign territory of Armenia.” This statement could not be further from the truth, as Azerbaijan has repeatedly made clear that it does not have territorial claims towards any country.

Unfortunately, so far, Armenia has opted to evade its obligations under the relevant agreements, specifically those concerning the Zangezur Corridor, and refuses to respond to Azerbaijan’s repeated calls to sign a comprehensive peace treaty.

The latest of such calls to sign a peace treaty was made by President Ilham Aliyev during his interview with CNN Turk on August 14, 2021, in which he said:

“I have repeatedly stated that we want a peace agreement with Armenia. Let Armenia and Azerbaijan recognize each other’s territorial integrity and begin the process of delimitation, i.e., demarcation of borders. But we have not received a positive response from Armenia yet”.

The president also noted:

“It seems that Armenia is not ready for this or is opposed to it. I said that it would be a huge blunder and that they would regret it. Because we do not have to keep this proposal on the table forever”.

Finally, the President was very clear in underlining:

“If they object to it, let them say it openly that they do not want to sign a peace agreement with Azerbaijan. In this case, we will pursue our policy accordingly”.

To make matters worse, it was also announced that the accuracy of the minefield maps very recently provided by Armenia to Azerbaijan is only 25%.

The situation is further aggravated by the repeated provocations carried out by the remnants of Armenian militias still positioned in the Azerbaijani territories where Russian peacekeepers are temporarily deployed. Recently, there have been cases of shelling of liberated Shusha by these Armenian militias. Unfortunately, the very occurrence of such incidents shows that the November 10 agreement is being breached not only by Armenia, but also by the peacekeepers themselves.

According to Article 4 of the trilateral agreement, “the peacekeeping contingent of the Russian Federation shall be deployed in parallel with the withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces,” which makes clear that no Armenian armed forces should now remain in the liberated Azerbaijani territories. This is a very serious issue, and any attempts on the part of Armenian officials to misinterpret this provision is nothing more than another attempt to violate the existing arrangements. This also shows that Armenia lacks goodwill to implement the body and spirit of this document. Therefore, we are currently witnessing attempts to mess with the language and text of the November 10, 2020, trilateral declaration.

Worse still, Armenia has made attempts to further infiltrate its armed troops into Azerbaijani territories where Russian peacekeepers are temporarily deployed. In a statement, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense underlined that:

“… Armenia having violated the trilateral statement by moving its armed forces to the territory of Azerbaijan, where Russian peacekeepers are temporarily deployed, is setting up its new posts near Mukhtarkend and Shushakend [near the city of Shusha], as well as in the territories to the east of the administrative boundaries of the Kalbajar and Lachin regions”.

The Azerbaijani MoD also called upon the Russian peacekeepers “to put an end to the deployment of the Armenian armed forces in the territories of the Azerbaijan Republic, where they are temporarily deployed.”

These dangerous trends are further aggravated by the repeated shelling of Azerbaijani positions in Nakhchivan and liberated Kalbajar from Armenia proper. Border provocations have been ongoing since the signing of the November 10 Trilateral Declaration but reached a peak over the past few weeks. In this light, the newly appointed Defense Minister Arshak Karapetyan’s heightened rhetoric definitely added more fuel to the fire when, referring to the situation along the Armenia–Azerbaijan border, he said that “Armenia reserves the right to settle the issue by the use of force if efforts for peaceful resolution fail.”

Moreover, external attempts to arm Armenia in the wake of the latter’s increasingly revanchist posture may bode ill for the prospects of Pax Caucasia and the security of the entire region. President Ilham Aliyev, during his recent interview with CNN Turk discussed above, also warned against such a possibility. As he specifically mentioned:

“At the same time our expectation is that Russia will not arm Armenia… We do not see it happening yet, but there have been statements by Russia. A few days ago, during a meeting with the Armenian defense minister, the Russian defense minister said that the process of sending Russian weapons to Armenia had begun. This is a very worrying issue; therefore, we hope that Russia does not arm Armenia because there is no need for that”.

The 44-Day War ended with Azerbaijan restoring its territorial integrity. For the first time in three decades there are chances for the region to heal old wounds and prosper. Pax Caucasia could be a real thing if all parties were equally interested in its materialization. However, the worrying events that have unfolded within the past few weeks could be harbingers of the troubled waters that the region might yet experience because of those who do not want to leave the past in the past and honor their commitments under the existing arrangements.

https://www.thetribune.com/opinion-new-regional-challenges-might-dampen-the-prospects-of-pax-caucasia/

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