On December 13, Armenia and Azerbaijan exchanged prisoners that each side had detained at different times since the end of the Second Karabakh War in November 2020 (Turan.az, December 13). This historic exchange was made possible thanks to a significant breakthrough between the two countries on December 7. Baku and Yerevan issued a joint statement announcing a list of confidence-building measures to normalize relations and reach a peace agreement (Azertag, December 7). Azerbaijan agreed to release 32 Armenian servicemen as part of the agreement, and Armenia reciprocated by releasing two Azerbaijani soldiers. While a number of unresolved issues remain, the recent success in bilateral consultations has given new hope for a comprehensive peace agreement between the two sides.
The deal included other concessions beyond the exchange of prisoners. For example, Armenia agreed to support Azerbaijan’s bid to host the 29th Conference of Parties (COP29) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. During the COP28 summit in Dubai, the countries of Eastern Europe agreed to back Baku’s bid, with Yerevan withdrawing its candidacy and throwing its support behind Azerbaijan (Azertag, December 11). The breakthrough was internationally lauded, with the United States, the European Union, and others issuing statements that supported progress toward a peace treaty (US Department of State, December 7; Twitter.com/charlesmichel, December 7).
The agreement was made possible through direct bilateral negotiations between Baku and Yerevan, without the involvement of third parties. This represents a key development and underscores the potential for increased bilateral engagement in the future (see EDM, October 25). The Western track of negotiations facilitated by the European Union and the United States has faced obstacles, resulting in the cancellation of several scheduled peace summits this year (see EDM, November 27). Simultaneously, Russia has been unable to reclaim its once-dominant mediator role in the region following the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Baku and Yerevan have now turned their attention to finalizing the details of a prospective peace treaty. Some major questions remain regarding, among other issues, the inclusion of territorial and sovereignty guarantees in the peace deal, the return of ethnic Armenians to the Karabakh region, the re-opening of transportation channels, and the fate of the two countries’ exclaves on the territory of the other (see EDM, November 28). On December 6, during an international forum in Baku, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev stated his government’s position on most of these questions, declaring that Baku expects “firm, verified guarantees that there will be no attempt at revanchism in Armenia” (President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, December 6).
Armenia responded resolutely to Aliyev’s statement. A parliamentarian from the ruling Civil Contract Party denied any intention on Yerevan’s part to retaliate militarily, characterizing a possible renewal of conflict with Azerbaijan as suicidal for Armenia (Azatutyun.am, December 11). Baku feels that it is imperative to secure formal guarantees that Armenia will not violate any future peace treaty based on the occupation of thousands of square kilometers of Azerbaijani territory, the massacre of civilians, and, most importantly, the present revanchist sentiments among some members of Armenian society (Civilnet.am, October 23; YouTube, December 2). Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan earlier agreed that the lack of trust between the two countries is a challenge for peace talks. He emphasized that the development of a “mechanism” for the resolution of disputed issues and the creation of security guarantees are among the issues currently being discussed (Arka.am, November 16).
On the return of Armenian refugees, Aliyev reaffirmed that Azerbaijan is ready to accept the Armenians who left the Karabakh region in the aftermath of Baku’s “anti-terrorist operation” in September (President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, December 6). The Azerbaijani president said that those who want to return to the region can apply through the reintegration portal that Baku launched earlier this year (Reintegration.gov,az, accessed December 14). He also assured that the property and cultural heritage of these refugees will remain untouched and protected. Aliyev concluded that this process needs to be reciprocated in Armenia, with Yerevan providing opportunities for the return of Azerbaijanis to their ancestral homes in Armenia.
The European Union has voiced its support for Azerbaijan’s provision of security and protection of any Armenians returning to Karabakh. In an interview with the Armenian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, European Council President Charles Michel stated that the security of Karabakh Armenians should be enshrined within Azerbaijan’s constitution (Azatutyun.am, December 13). Michel added that “the authorities of Azerbaijan should be the guarantors of this issue” and dismissed demands from some Armenian groups for international guarantees.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have yet to agree on the re-opening of transportation links, including the future status of the Zangezur Corridor. Yerevan’s refusal to open Zangezur in accordance with the trilateral statement of November 10, 2020, has complicated negotiations. Azerbaijan has stated that it remains committed to the tripartite agreement and characterizes Armenia’s position as a violation of the document’s provisions (President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, December 6). The Azerbaijani government expects Armenia to provide easy passage through the Zangezur Corridor, which would mean no customs duties, no border checks, and no border security for cargo and passengers traveling from the western parts of mainland Azerbaijan to the country’s Nakhchivan exclave. Additionally, the construction of the Armenian section of the road has yet to begin, while the Azerbaijani portion is close to completion. Aliyev has asked that Yerevan or other international actors provide adequate investment for the completion of the Armenian part of the corridor.
Recent breakthroughs in peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan give hope that the unresolved issues will soon be addressed in a comprehensive manner to facilitate a lasting peace treaty. On December 14, Pashinyan stated that the exchange of prisoners between the two countries would stand as a “zero point” for resolving the remaining disagreements (News.am, December 14). Baku and Yerevan’s ability to find mutually beneficially compromises will be vital in providing for the future stability and security of the South Caucasus.