Aliyev and Pashinyan are playing three “cards” at once: Russian, French and Turkish

MOSCOW, 29 Dec 2021, RUSSTRAT Institute.

Meetings and negotiations between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Brussels cannot be attributed to events of ordinary significance, both because of the rapidly changing formats and the use of the “ambush regiment” technique, when French President Emmanuel Macron “unexpectedly” appeared on the scene. And the very content of the negotiation process, first with the mediation of the President of the European Council Charles Michel, then in the tete-a-tete version of Aliyev-Pashinyan, with the subsequent involvement of Macron, refuted all the forecasts that numerous experts had previously made.

The intrigue here is that Moscow was preparing to hold the third personal meeting with the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia, which was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the signing of the trilateral peace agreement on November 9, 2020. In this regard, Azerbaijani publications reported that new documents on the demarcation of the border between the two countries were allegedly being prepared in Moscow. But Yerevan refused to hold this event. And then unusual events followed.

A meeting and negotiations between the Foreign Ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia, Jeyhun Bayramov and Ararat Mirzoyan, took place in Paris with the mediation of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, one of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries. The unusual situation was manifested in the fact that Baku, after the second Karabakh war, demanded a change of mandate in the OSCE Minsk Group in order to eliminate the “pro-Armenian” France. Therefore, the fact that Aliyev decided to accept Paris’ mediation efforts may be coupled with some new, not yet completely unknown conditions put forward by France.

But, anyway, in this context, the meeting of the two leaders in Brussels was perceived as a continuation of the “French line” of transferring the negotiation process on the settlement of relations between the two countries from the Russian to the Western platform.

But Moscow “unexpectedly” intervened in this process. At the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a trilateral meeting with Aliyev and Pashinyan took place in Sochi. Back then the parties limited themselves only to a general statement. It was stressed  in it that the parties are ready to “work towards the creation of a bilateral commission on the delimitation of the border between states”, as well as to intensify the process of unblocking “all economic and transport links in the region”, which is spelled out in the agreement of November 9, 2020. At the same time, the preparation and signing of new agreements was for later.

Commenting on the current situation, the American “Eurasianet” noted that “the hastily organised talks in Sochi just a few days before the talks in Brussels demonstrated Russia’s desire to maintain as bigger as possible control over the peace process”.

In this regard, many Russian, Transcaucasian and European experts argued that at the meeting in Brussels, Aliyev and Pashinyan “will discuss exclusively humanitarian issues” and the issue of the demarcation and delimitation of the border is unlikely to be raised, since “it is difficult to discuss this issue without Moscow’s participation”. Let’s add to this the statement of Russian President Putin that “we do not need another side to conduct demarcation and delimitation”.

But after the negotiations in Brussels, several points that deserve some analysis began to catch eye. Suddenly, the parties declared that they had “managed to come to an agreement on the Zangezur corridor” and were ready to “proceed with the restoration of railway lines with appropriate border and customs control measures based on the principle of reciprocity”, although a few hours earlier Baku and Yerevan had exchanged sharp critical remarks about each other.

Another important point: it is indicated that “the EU will provide an expert mission to support the delimitation and demarcation of borders by providing technical assistance to both countries”. In fact,  the same formulations that were previously published by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which tried to bring the positions of Baku and Yerevan closer, but with the EU’s own participation. Now the initiative of the peace process was partially intercepted by Paris.

Probably, it’s not a coincidence that French President Macron personally decided to join the Aliyev-Pashinyan dialogue. And again, intrigue. Macron used to bet only on Armenia, and more recently Baku accused Paris of pro-Armenian sentiments. Now Baku has changed its position and willingly accepts the mediation services of Paris. Moreover, France is given a chance to identify itself in Transcaucasia, in addition to Russia and Turkey, as another influential external player.

On the other hand, the process of rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey began at the same time. Therefore, outwardly it seems that Pashinyan and Aliyev decided to play Russian, French and Turkish “cards” among themselves.

One can only guess what such a “confidential” policy of Paris, Baku and Yerevan is connected with. For example, Brussels promises to allocate experts (a group of consultants) to support the demarcation and delimitation of borders between the two republics, although this process started from the very beginning under the patronage of Moscow.

One more thing. In Brussels, the Armenian side was silent on the issue of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, which casts doubt on the stated and not publicly refuted agenda of the OSCE Minsk Group. The paradox is that, in a broad sense, this narrows the EU’s opportunities for active participation in the negotiation process together with Russia, creates conditions for Baku and Yerevan to move exclusively to a bilateral negotiation process without the participation of intermediaries to form a new geopolitical configuration in Transcaucasia. So they believe that they will be able to “eliminate the consequences of the conflict between the two countries and create prerequisites for signing a peace treaty.”

But the further course of events in the region will show whether all participants of  multi-way geopolitical combination will be able to play their game with the help of political manoeuvring between different “centres”. In the meantime, President Aliyev is demonstrating his art of virtuoso diplomacy, narrowing the room for manoeuvre for his Armenian partner Pashinyan, who continues to rush from side to side.

If to assume that the Karabakh conflict is really over, then the transition to post-conflict normalisation is underway. Pashinyan expressed readiness to continue contact with Aliyev “to overcome existing differences”. So the “game” in Transcaucasia continues and Baku is in a hurry to take advantage of the historical chance provided. But will it have time?

Institute for International Political and Economic Strategies – RUSSTRAT

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