Al Jazeera writes: Armenia has said three of its soldiers were killed and two wounded in border clashes with Azerbaijani forces in some of the heaviest fighting between the two neighbours since last year’s six-week war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Rahim Rahimov writes for Jamestown Foundation: During the latest session of the Council of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), on July 1, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the participants effectively introduced the category of a CSTO “partner state” by setting the criteria and provisions for granting such a status to a third country (Paodkb.org, Duma.gov.ru, July 1). The speaker of the Russian State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, declared that a number of states have already expressed interest in becoming a “partner” of the alliance. And the head of the Duma Committee on Eurasian Integration, Leonid Kalashnikov, specified inter alia Azerbaijan as a potential partner state, before backtracking slightly: “It is not customary to talk about that, though” (RIA Novosti, July 1). In May, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko said that the “doors of the CSTO are open” to Azerbaijan, with the major obstacle being the absence of diplomatic relations with Armenia, a member of the organization (Izvestia, May 24).
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Omid Shokri writes for The Jamestown Foundation: Despite a rapprochement of sorts in 2019 (see EDM, March 20, 2019), Iran’s relations with the Republic of Azerbaijan faced new strains and challenges during the final year of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency (set to end on August 3, 2021), especially following the outbreak of the Second Karabakh War in late September 2020. Azerbaijani officials and the media repeatedly protested and criticized Tehran’s foreign policy amidst the 44-day Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict (see EDM, October 21, 2020). While, domestically, Iran’s ethnic Azerbaijani population expressed outward support for Baku’s battlefield successes, much to Tehran’s discomfort (see EDM, October 22, 2020 and November 5, 2020); even local officials, members of parliament and clerics at Friday prayers in Iran’s Azerbaijani-populated northwestern border region demanded that the central government do more to back Baku’s position (Al Jazeera, October 5, 2020)
On June 15, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paid an official visit to Karabakh to meet with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, thus becoming the first foreign leader to visit the region following last year’s 44-day war.
On June 1, 2021, Yerevan announced the suspension of the Armenian-Azerbaijani-Russian working group, which was established during the January 11 trilateral leaders’ summit and tasked with presenting action plans (including implementation schedules) to their governments regarding regional railroad and highway projects (see EDM, January 12). Mher Grigorian, Armenia’s deputy prime minister, who also co-chairs the tri-partite working group along with his counterparts from the other two participating countries, claimed that the reason for Yerevan’s suspension was a lack of “an appropriate environment” for effective work (TASS, June 1). “When the situation on the border is like it is, I do not think that constructive work is possible in this format. Contacts in this format have stopped; we will see what happens in the future,” he announced at a parliamentary meeting, referring to the recent escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan at the state border (see EDM, May 18).
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has been continuing construction work on the railway connecting Fuzuli district and Agbend (Zangilan district of Azerbaijan), which is planned to be followed by a railway connection between Agbend and Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave via the Syunik region of Armenia (which Azerbaijan calls the Zangezur corridor) (see EDM, April 5). In early June, Baku also announced the launch of highway construction that will connect the village of Ahmadbayli (Fuzuli district) with Agbend (APA, June 9). The 124-kilometer road is foreseen to be part of a larger highway project linking mainland Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan.
Although the Armenian government had not previously opposed the railway project via the Syunik region connecting the two parts of Azerbaijan, Yerevan has explicitly rejected both the highway and the “Zangezur corridor” ideas promoted by Baku (see EDM, May 24). Azerbaijan, for its part, expects Armenia to adhere to the trilateral ceasefire accord from November 9, 2020, and to provide conditions along the Zangezur corridor akin to those Azerbaijan has provided to the Armenian side at the Lachin corridor (EurasiaNet, June 4). The absence of an agreement on these and other issues between the sides has been further exacerbated by the recently heightened border dispute.
A meeting in Moscow between Armenia’s deputy chief of the General Staff, Arshak Karapetian, the head of the Armenian border service, Arman Gasparian, Azerbaijan’s head of external intelligence Orhan Sultanov, and the commander of Russia’s peacekeeping mission in Karabakh, Rustam Muradov, on June 2, represented a new format of interaction among the three sides, though the regional transportation projects were probably not on the agenda (Sputnik Armenia, June 4). The participating parties reportedly discussed de-escalation on the border and humanitarian issues; but no concrete outcomes were made public.
Hence, it seems that amidst the hotly contested and increasingly combative pre-election period in Armenia (the snap parliamentary elections are scheduled for June 20), negotiations concerning the Zangezur corridor and other transportation projects have been put off until after Armenians go to the polls.
Meanwhile, the proposal to establish a Russian-mediated Armenian-Azerbaijani international commission to settle the two South Caucasus neighbors’ border disputes has yet to be followed up with any concrete actions (Civilnet, May 20). On June 12, at a meeting with foreign diplomats, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev lamented that Baku’s proposal to start negotiations on border delimitation and the establishment of a final peace agreement had so far been ignored by the Armenian side (Moscow-baku.ru, June 12).
Nonetheless, a week prior to Armenia’s parliamentary elections, a major breakthrough had, in fact, been achieved between the two conflicting states. This development has the potential to positively contribute to the emergence of a constructive environment for negotiations over other issues, including transportation projects and a settlement of the shared border. Namely, Yerevan handed over to Baku maps showing the location of 97,000 landmines that Armenian troops had laid in the territories of the formerly occupied Agdam district of Azerbaijan; in exchange, Baku released 15 Armenian detainees(Mfa.gov.az, June 12). These issues had been among the top concerns of the two sides since the establishment of the Russia-brokered ceasefire on November 9.
The breakthrough came as a big surprise for most observers as Armenia had previously, at various official levels, denied the existence of any such minefield maps when presented with repeated Azerbaijani demands to see them (EurasiaNet, June 11). Following the recent swap, however, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian admitted that the maps provided to Baku represented only a tiny fraction of such charts owned by Yerevan (TASS, June 13). He also expressed hope that this constructive cooperation would continue—although he specifically refused to call what transpired an “exchange of maps for detainees” (Hetq.am, June 12).
This swap was possible thanks to the mediation of the United States and Georgia (see EDM, June 14), and as such, it represented the first major development between Armenia and Azerbaijan with no Russian involvement since the end of last year’s 44-day war. That said, there is little to no chance the West can continue to play an impactful mediating role between the two conflicting sides. In the aftermath of the parliamentary elections in Armenia, Moscow will do all it can to preserve its position as primary mediator in the post-war negotiations between Baku and Yerevan, including over key issues like the unblocking of regional transportation routes and border delimitation.
The released Armenian POWs. [Facebook page of the PM of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan]
Azerbaijan on Saturday (12 June) released to Armenia 15 prisoners of war captured last year during hostilities over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, under a deal mediated by Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and saluted by the US and the EU.
According to the foreign ministry in Baku under the deal Yerevan reciprocated by providing Baku with maps of minefields in the conflict zone.
The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated that the US was “grateful” to the Government of Georgia for its “vital role in facilitating the release”, and Garibashvili said he was “proud” of the role his country played in close coordination with US Acting Assistant Secretary Philip T. Reeker.
Fighting broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia in September 2020 over Nagorno-Karabakh, claiming around 6,000 lives over six weeks.
The war ended in November with a Russian-brokered ceasefire under which Yerevan ceded swathes of territory it had controlled for decades.
On Saturday, “Azerbaijan handed over to Armenia 15 detained Armenians in exchange for the map of 97,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines in the Agdam district,” one of the territories Armenia has ceded to Baku, Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
The ministry also thanked US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, top US diplomat for Europe Philip Reeker, European Council President Charles Michel, and the OSCE Swedish chairmanship for their roles in the negotiations.
“Our brothers returned to their families thanks to the efforts of Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, our Georgian brothers as well as our partners from the US and EU,” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told journalists.
He said he had earlier “provided Azerbaijan with a certain number of minefield maps through Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.”
Garibashvili’s office said in a statement: “An important step has been made towards the amelioration of the security environment in the South Caucasus region.”
A senior EU diplomat said Michel helped broker “parallel humanitarian gestures” prior to the agreement’s announcement.
Michel considered it “a first step towards renewing confidence, an effort the EU is ready to fully support”, the diplomat added.
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell also welcomed “the actions taken by Armenia and Azerbaijan and facilitated by Georgia”. He said that these gestures would “hopefully open the path for further cooperation between the sides and the ultimate release of all Armenian detainees, as well as the handing over of all available maps of mined areas to avoid further civilian casualties.”
Russia, which has deployed peacekeeping troops to Karabakh, also welcomed the move.
“Wonderful and long-awaited news. We welcome such steps,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Telegram.
The mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the most heavily mined places in the former Soviet Union.
Seven Azerbaijani troops and 18 civilians have died and 110 have been wounded by mines in and near Nagorno-Karabakh since the ceasefire, the Azerbaijani government says.
Both Azerbaijani and Armenian forces planted mines during a bloody conflict in the early 1990s.
Tensions have been again running high since May, when Armenia accused Azerbaijan’s military of crossing its southern border to “lay siege” to a lake shared by the two countries.
Pashinyan at the time asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for military support.
Moscow said it would help with the delimitation and demarcation of the neighbours’ borders.
The President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev said last month that Azerbaijan was ready for pace talks with Armenia, while Pashinyan announced later the two ex-Soviet nations were holding discussions on the delimitation and demarcation of their shared borders.
Ethnic Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union collapsed, and the ensuing conflict has claimed around 30,000 lives.
The head of the East Azarbaijan province’s Agriculture Jihad Organization highlighted Iran’s potential in making investments in extraterrestrial cultivation and said his organization is currently awaiting final agreements with Azerbaijan and Georgia in this regard.
Akbar Fathi said on Monday that extraterrestrial cultivation is different from from importing agricultural products from other countries.
Some countries have the capacity to produce agricultural products, but they do not have the knowledge and tools to produce them so identifying their potential could help cultivate desired products, he added.
Fathi added that extraterrestrial cultivation plan is being carried in the context of an understanding with Georgia for corn production.
Through a series of territorial encroachments Azerbaijan is applying maximum pressure in advance of a formal demarcation of its border with Armenia.
On May 17, Armenia’s caretaker prime minister, Nikol Pashinian, convened a Security Council meeting to discuss the latest tense developments on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border (see EDM, May 18; see below).