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Azerbaijan happy with EU, unhappy with Russia

24.07.23 20:01
Azerbaijan's government is sounding more and more positive about the U.S.- and EU-brokered negotiations with Armenia and increasingly negative about Russia's mediation efforts.

Those talks are taking place on a separate track, not coordinated with the Western mediators. Russia maintains a 2,000-strong peacekeeping contingent in Azerbaijan's Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh.

The latest meeting between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders on July 15 in Brussels, mediated by European Council President Charles Michel, didn't seem to advance the process too much, but it did introduce one new idea.

Michel welcomed Azerbaijan's "willingness to provide humanitarian supplies" to the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, via the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam.

The initiative was not received well by Armenians. Many interpreted it as a step toward normalizing and legitimizing Azerbaijan's seven-month blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh. Some residents of Askeran, an Armenian town close to Aghdam, reportedly vowed to install barriers on the Askeran-Aghdam road "in order to counter the so-called humanitarian aid predetermined by the Azerbaijani authorities."

Michel also "emphasized the need to open the Lachin road" connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Toivo Klaar, the EU's special envoy to the South Caucasus, told Armenian media that the Aghdam offer is "not an alternative but a complement to the Lachin road".

Azerbaijanis largely welcomed the Aghdam proposal, seeing it as an opportunity to advance the integration of the Karabakh Armenians into the Azerbaijani state.

"In case humanitarian aid will be accepted by the Armenian community, it could create a precedent (not massive) for them accepting the Azerbaijani citizenship in the near future," political analyst Fuad Shahbaz tweeted in English.

Vasif Huseynov, of the state-run Analysis of International Relations Center, wrote for the Jamestown Foundation that Michel's support for the Aghdam proposal was "another affirmation of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity by the EU and Armenia - to the dismay of some ultra-nationalist groups in Armenia and on the Russian side."

Azerbaijan's reaction to a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry on the same day, July 15, similarly highlighted its growing preference for the European track of talks.

The Russian statement opened by saying that "by recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijani territory," Yerevan had "cardinally changed the fundamental conditions" under which the Russian-brokered cease-fire that ended the 2020 Second Karabakh War was signed.

The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry soon released its own statement objecting to this line: "Russian MFA commenting on and setting conditions for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan in the context of the recognition of Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan by the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia, a country that occupied the territories of Azerbaijan for nearly 30 years, is unacceptable."

Both the Russian and Azerbaijani foreign ministries asserted that Armenia already recognized Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan while in fact it has only stated its willingness to do so.

This sort of verbal sparring between Russia and Azerbaijan isn't new since the 2020 Second Karabakh War. Azerbaijan has long accused Russia of failing to secure the withdrawal of what it calls "illegal armed Armenian groups" in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

In nearly every official utterance Azerbaijan is at pains to refer to the Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh as "temporarily stationed there." The peacekeepers' 5-year term of deployment expires in 2025.

Russia's war against Ukraine provided Baku with yet another platform to reproach Russia. Though Azerbaijan has never officially condemned Russia's invasion, nor voted for UN resolutions against Russia (in accordance with a strategic partnership agreement signed two days before Russia's invasion), Azerbaijani state media has clearly been taking the Ukrainian side. And Azerbaijan has regularly been providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine since the start of the war.

Baku has been taking advantage of Russia's preoccupation with Ukraine, seizing additional territories in Nagorno-Karabakh and placing the region under blockade.

This is widely seen as an attempt to change the situation on the ground in such a way to ensure that the peacekeepers leave Karabakh when their mandate expires.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Azerbaijan's strategic partner Turkey, recently threw his weight behind Azerbaijan's demand for the Russian peacekeeper's timely exit and expressed confidence that they would leave by 2025.

The existing discourse and latest statements suggest that Azerbaijan is working to secure Russia's exit from Karabakh, says Shujaat Ahmadzada, an analyst at the Topchubashov Center, a Baku-based think tank. He says Baku has two key levers it can use to make this happen.

"First, there is a need for rapid integration into the non-Western economic space for Russia. In this direction, the intensification of trade contacts with India, the Middle East and other actors is more relevant than ever. The full realization of the North-South Corridor passing through Azerbaijan is more relevant than ever for Moscow. For Azerbaijan, the North-South Corridor is not only an economic project, but also a political lever." Ahmadzada wrote on Facebook.

"Second, it is important for Russia that states do not join the anti-Russian front. Azerbaijan supports Ukraine and provides humanitarian aid, but does not join the anti-Russian front. In this case, Azerbaijan's 'neutrality' is more important than ever to Moscow."

Both these things are more important to Russia than maintaining peacekeepers in Karabakh, Ahmadzada said, Eurasianet reports.