In a first-of-a-kind bilateral statement, without any external participation, Azerbaijan and Armenia have arrived at an extremely important humanitarian and diplomatically symbolic agreement. It is the first time Azerbaijan and Armenia agreed to coordinate on any international matter.
The humanitarian aspect is that the Republic of Azerbaijan—”driven,” according to the statement, “by the values of humanism and as a gesture of goodwill”—agreed to the release of 32 Armenian military servicemen, while the Republic of Armenia, equally “driven by the values of humanism and as a gesture of goodwill,” is releasing two Azerbaijani military servicemen. But that’s not all.
The Twenty-eighth Session of the Conference of Parties (COP28) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is now concluding in Abu Dhabi. The Twenty-ninth Session (COP29) will be held next year somewhere in Eastern Europe. In what might be called the most constructive and progressive act that “climate diplomacy” has ever accomplished, Armenia has withdrawn its own candidacy to host COP29 in support of Azerbaijan’s bid.
“The Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan,” the joint statement says, “do hope that the other countries within the Eastern European Group will also support Azerbaijan’s bid to host.” In return, Azerbaijan is supporting the Armenian candidature for membership in the Eastern European Group COP Bureau. This choice has now garnered Russia’s backing.
The choice of venue for COP29 requires unanimous consent of all the Parties. Russia had vetoed the bid of Bulgaria, the candidate from the European Union, but now Bulgaria has also withdrawn its candidature. The COP29 would have been held by default in Germany, if no universal agreement had been possible.
The bilateral statement reconfirms the two countries’ intentions “to normalize relations and to reach a peace treaty on the basis of respect for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.” It concludes that they “will continue their discussions regarding the implementation of more confidence-building measures,” to take effect in the near future, that “will positively impact the entire South Caucasus region.” This agreement was worked out through direct contacts between the Presidential Administration of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Office of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia.
All third-party mediation, with the possible exception of the American initiative, had collapsed by mid-2023. In fact, this new first-ever agreement illustrates how direct bilateral talks, on which Azerbaijan had insisted for some time, can be more efficacious than mediated negotiations. The latter provide the mediator with the opportunity to insert their own interests into the bilateral relationship, thus actually complicating the negotiations.
After the November 2020 Trilateral Statement on the cessation of hostilities, agreed in Moscow through direct high-level mediation, Russia dominated the peace process (such as it was) for about a year. Of course, Russia’s main motive at the time was to delay or make impossible a full and authoritative resolution of the conflict, in order to conserve its dominant position in the South Caucasus.
This monopoly began to be broken in December 2021, when President of the European Council Charles Michel hosted the first of several meetings between the two leader, under the auspices of his good offices in Brussels. Tangible progress in that format continued through subsequent meetings in February, April, May, and August 2022.
French President Emmanuel Macron shoehorned his way into that process in October 2022 at the first summit of the European Political Community (EPC), in Prague. This led to the breakdown of the process, as German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz was subsequently added in. The early-October fiasco of the Grenada meeting put paid to Michel’s autonomous initiative.
Not only was a request that Turkey—a key regional actor—should participate alongside France and Germany explicitly refused. Moreover, the attempt was made to ambush Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev with a previously prepared statement, and to compel his agreement with it. Sensing the trap, Aliyev simply declined to attend, on the basis that repeated declarations by Macron and actions by the French parliament incontrovertibly demonstrated France’s incapacity to be an impartial arbiter.
American diplomacy entered the scene in early 2023. After over two years of confusion following the 2020 war, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken initiated a meeting held, in February between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, also attended by Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried as well as by newly-appointed Senior Advisor for Caucasus Negotiations (finally no longer representative to the defunct OSCE Minsk Group) Louis Bono.
An intensive meeting in Washington in May, mediated by Blinken between the two countries’ foreign ministers represented that rare diplomatic phenomenon, a genuine breakthrough. Armenian-American interest groups continually militated against peace through their strong influence in the Congress. Over the summer, they reasserted this influence, obtaining the appointment of James O’Brien to the post of Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs.
O’Brien gave disastrously misinformed testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on November 15, during which he announced suspension of all military and other assistance to Azerbaijan and, among other things, confused the Russian troops based inside Armenia at Gyumri with the Russian troops deployed in the formerly Armenian-occupied area of Azerbaijan. He also repeated the Armenian lobby’s baseless contention that Azerbaijan was preparing a military attack against the territory of Armenia.
An informal ban on high-level Azerbaijani visits to Washington was soon announced, but this was rescinded after President Aliyev reciprocated by cutting off all U.S. official visits to Baku. He rescinded this move after Blinken telephoned him personally to ask to allow O’Brien to visit Baku in early December, in return for which Aliyev received the rescission of the informal American ban on Azerbaijani visits to Washington.
When O’Brien met with Aliyev in Baku on December 6, he was exceptionally accompanied by the U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan. According to the State Department communiqué, they “discussed our countries’ deep historical ties and the importance of the bilateral relationship,” and O’Brien told Aliyev that “Secretary Blinken looks forward to hosting Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov and Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan in Washington soon for the next round of peace negotiations.”
In return, and in a final desperate attempt to block peace, the principal Armenian interest group in Washington has begun a campaign against giving Bayramov a visa to enter the United States. It seems, nevertheless, that U.S.–Azerbaijani relations are now more or less back on track; however, given the bilateral and various regionally-focused forums now available, what the U.S. can specifically contribute to peace in the South Caucasus remains to be seen.