The prime minister of Armenia and the presidents of Azerbaijan and Russia released a joint statement this week agreeing to unblock all economic and transport links in the region following trilateral talks at the Kremlin.
The four-hour summit in Moscow on January 11 took place at the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin with the purpose of outlining the next steps in the implementation of the trilateral ceasefire agreement signed on November 9, 2020 ending the second Artsakh War. It was the first meeting between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan since November 9. “Today, we can state with satisfaction that the trilateral agreements are being consistently implemented,” Putin shared before the start of the meeting. “In our opinion, this creates the necessary prerequisites for a long-term and full-scale settlement of the long-standing conflict on a fair basis, in the interests of both the Armenian and Azerbaijani peoples.”
The joint statement is meant to accomplish the ninth point of the ceasefire agreement, which states that all regional economic and transport links will be opened to allow for the unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles and goods between Azerbaijan and the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic through Armenia. The statement takes this point a step further by providing Armenia with railway access to Iran through Nakhichevan and Russia through Azerbaijan. Both routes were actively used during the Soviet era, yet they have not been in operation since the first Artsakh War in the early 1990s.
A tripartite working group consisting of the joint chairmanship of the deputy prime ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the deputy chairman of the Russian Federation and experts on rail and road communications will be created to lead this process. Its first meeting will take place on January 30, 2021, and the necessary transport infrastructure is scheduled to be built by March 1, 2021.
During a press conference following the summit, the Russian President reiterated his view that the terms of the ceasefire agreement are generally respected. His Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev assented, remarking, “The Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) conflict is in the past, and we must think about the future [and] how to live together in the neighborhood.” However, Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan asserted that the conflict has not been resolved, since a litany of grave issues remain including the undecided status of Artsakh.
A resolution on the exchange of prisoners of war and detained civilians was notably absent from the joint statement. The eighth point of the ceasefire agreement mandates that the parties exchange all prisoners and casualties. Yet Azerbaijan has refused to comply with this measure, artificially protracting the process while keeping dozens of captured Armenian soldiers and civilians imprisoned. The return of prisoners, the clarification of the status of the missing and the identification of the bodies of the dead are the highest priorities for the people of Armenia, who have been awaiting the news of their relatives and loved ones since the end of the war amid reports by human rights groups of cruel and inhuman treatment of POWs by the Azerbaijani armed forces.
“Unfortunately, today we were not able to resolve the issue of prisoners of war, and this is the most sensitive, painful issue, because it is a humanitarian issue, and we agreed that we will continue working in this direction,” Pashinyan said during the press conference. “The eighth point of our joint statement, unfortunately, is not fully implemented, and I hope that we will be able to come to a concrete decision as soon as possible.”
Nonetheless the PM conveyed his optimism about the positive benefits of the joint statement for the investment potential and economic attractiveness of Armenia. “The implementation of the agreements of this statement can change the economic image and image of our region and economic innovations can also lead to more reliable security guarantees, and we, of course, are ready to work constructively in this direction,” he continued, “but, as I said, unfortunately, it is impossible to resolve all issues during one meeting.”
Since the end of the war, a Russian peacekeeping contingent has been deployed to monitor compliance with the ceasefire, with 23 observation posts set up along the new line of contact in Artsakh and along the Lachin corridor connecting Artsakh to Armenia. Russia has also delivered 800 tons of construction material to Artsakh to rebuild destroyed infrastructure, provided the population with medical assistance and destroyed 22-thousand mines, while escorting over 48-thousand refugees from Armenia to Artsakh. The January 11 joint statement reflects the further consolidation of Russian influence in the region in the postwar period, as the Russian government will oversee the future establishment of trade networks in the South Caucasus while the roads connecting Armenia, Azerbaijan and Artsakh will be controlled by Russian peacekeepers.
Azerbaijan confirmed that it holds at least 62 Armenian POWs captive in a letter addressed to the Secretary General of the United Nations written by Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov on December 28. The letter states that 62 Armenian soldiers were captured in mid-December during an “anti-terror operation” in the Hadrut region of Artsakh and suggests that they might face criminal charges. On December 11, the Azerbaijani armed forces attacked the communities of Khtsabert and Hin Tagher in Hadrut, violating the first point of the end-of-war agreement ordering each party to stop at their positions and cease fire.
The Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement condemning the prosecution of Armenian POWs by Azerbaijan. “It should be noted that the Armenian servicemen were captured as a result of the violation of another provision of the trilateral statement,” the statement reads. “Notably the Azerbaijani side announced the prosecution of POWs about a month after the capturing of Armenian servicemen, which demonstrates that Azerbaijan is using Armenian prisoners of war as hostages to advance its political agenda.”
Armenia’s Human Rights Defender Arman Tatoyan criticized Azerbaijan for politicizing the process of exchanging POWs by linking the humanitarian issue with territorial issues. “It is a matter of fundamental importance that the Azerbaijani authorities are delaying the return of 62 Armenian prisoners of war by distorting the legal process, and by artificially labeling them with the status of ‘suspects’ or ‘an accused,’ and are using detention as a form of punishment,” he wrote on Facebook. “The Azerbaijani authorities are unquestionably abusing legal processes to achieve their goals.”