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Speech by Armenian PM Pashinyan in Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) capital Stepanakert 5 Aug, including assertion that NK was part of Armenia, angered Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan called speech “aggressive” and “major blow” to negotiations. Armenia dismissed criticism as misunderstanding of speech’s “context and content”. Azerbaijan 12 Aug said it had detained Armenian soldier who same day crossed front line in NK from Armenian-controlled territory to Azerbaijani trenches.
Security along front lines improved slightly after late June meeting between Armenian and Azerbaijani FMs, but both sides continued to report security incidents mainly along state borders, which increased in frequency in second half of July. Azerbaijan 18 July said Armenian sniper fire injured one of its border guards on shared border; Armenia did not confirm. Armenian defence ministry said Azerbaijan injured one of its soldiers 27 July and killed another 28 July, Azerbaijan did not confirm either incident. Armenian FM 5 July visited de facto Nagorno-Karabakh (NK), met local leadership and signed annual plan to consult with de facto foreign ministry. U.S. House of Representatives 10 July adopted two amendments related to NK conflict as part of its National Defense Authorization Act; first blocks U.S. spending on transfer of defence articles or services to Azerbaijan that could strengthen its air capabilities, and second calls on both sides to strengthen NK ceasefire at Line of Contact by refraining from deploying “snipers, heavy arms, and new weaponry”, deploying “gun-fire locator systems”, and increasing OSCE observers along line. OSCE Parliamentary Assembly members 8 July adopted Luxembourg declaration; document endorses multilateral approach to addressing challenges, including arms control and conflict resolution, and encourages dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan within mediation process led by OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs and calls on both sides to take “specific and tangible measures to reach a peaceful solution to the conflict”.
Killing of four soldiers in conflict zone raised tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia and talks between govts in U.S. yielded no significant progress. Two Azerbaijani and two Armenian soldiers reportedly killed at Line of Contact 30 May-13 June. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia voiced strong concerns about killings and blamed each other for failing to sustain environment conducive for talks. Azerbaijan reported that it had conducted military exercises close to conflict zone 12 and 21 June, while Armenian troops conducted drills inside conflict region 17-20 June, prompting concerns on both sides. Both FMs met in Washington 20 June and discussed range of issues including common humanitarian projects; OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs reportedly proposed plans for projects’ implementation. Azerbaijani FM 24 June told press that conversations were taking place with Armenia “on substance” along suggestions by OSCE Minsk Group’s co-chairs and that draft agreements considered “withdrawal of armies and possible deployment of peacekeepers”. Armenia and Azerbaijan 28 June exchanged one detainee from each side with support from International Committee of the Red Cross.
Dialogue continued between Azerbaijan and Armenian leaderships despite ongoing incidents along front lines, while visit by Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group mediators late month included discussions of possible support to recently agreed humanitarian and security measures. Armenian and Azerbaijani leadership continued dialogue with another brief informal meeting in Brussels 13 May during EU Eastern Partnership Summit; Armenian side reported that they discussed two incidents at countries’ state border and in southern direction of Line of Contact (LoC) in Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict zone that left two Armenian soldiers wounded 30 April and 4 May. Both sides allegedly preparing to implement commitments made at March meeting of leaders in Vienna and April meeting of FMs in Moscow. OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs late May visited Yerevan, Stepanakert and Baku to discuss possible support to humanitarian and security measures agreed by sides during Vienna and Moscow meetings; reciprocal visits by journalists; also reportedly discussed support to relatives of detainees kept by parties to conflict. Co-chairs’ 30 May statement announced upcoming meeting of the two countries’ foreign ministers. On last day of co-chairs’ visit, Azerbaijan 30 May reported one soldier killed at central location of LoC; Armenian side denied responsibility. With both leaderships continuing to face domestic public criticism over their contacts with other side, including growing criticism by de facto NK leadership of Armenia’s PM Pashinyan, latter’s spokesperson 6 May produced rare media comment on details of communication with Baku over recent incidents along front lines.
Meeting between Azerbaijani and Armenian FMs in Moscow 15 April resulted in agreement on further measures to de-escalate tensions, mitigating negative environment created by aggressive rhetoric by both sides’ military leaderships that followed late March commitments between Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders. At Moscow talks, Armenian and Azerbaijani FMs agreed to encourage people-to-people contacts including visits by journalists, and further stabilisation of situation in conflict zone, in particular during agricultural activities including through contact with military leaders. Azerbaijani foreign ministry stated support for mutual visits by journalists, despite opposition among Azerbaijani journalists and opposition groups, particularly hardline Karabakh Liberation Committee, which declared it will prepare list of Azerbaijanis who wish to visit Armenia.
Despite tensions between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaderships over Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) peace process early March, much-anticipated official summit 29 March resulted in commitment to strengthen ceasefire, improve communications and implement humanitarian projects. Armenian defence minister late Feb announced military strategy that would consider possible attacks at enemy positions rather than just self-defence, while Azerbaijani President Aliyev 14 March accused Yerevan of attempting to block Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group-led negotiation process after Armenia proposed discussion on inclusion of de facto NK leadership in negotiations. After Director of Armenia’s National Security Service during visit to NK conflict zone 27 Feb announced full support to local nationalist calls for continued development of Armenian settlements, Azerbaijan 11 March announced launch of large-scale military exercises close to NK conflict zone – first since Armenian PM Pashinyan took office in May 2018. Armenia 12 March convened first-ever joint Security Council meeting with NK leadership in de facto NK capital Stepanakert, during which Pashinyan reiterated support to existing negotiation format and framework, and stated that inclusion of de facto officials not a pre-condition, but necessary for a more effective peace process. Azerbaijan 26 March reported one soldier killed in exchange of fire in southern direction of Line of Contact (LoC) in NK conflict zone. First official summit between Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Aliyev held in Vienna 29 March: both leaders assessed meeting positively and voiced readiness to continue talks. Minsk Group co-chairs released statement together with Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers which highlighted commitment of leaders “to strengthening the ceasefire and improving the mechanism for direct communication”; also mentioned agreement on “a number of measures in the humanitarian field”.
Preparations continued for first official meeting of Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders, as Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group co-chairs 20-21 Feb visited the two leaders to monitor progress of their recent informal meetings and discuss possible official summit between them on Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) peace process. Other positive steps included de facto NK’s 2 Feb release of Azerbaijani soldier arrested after crossing Line of Contact in 2017; and Armenia’s accreditation to journalist from leading Azerbaijani news agency to conduct interviews with officials and experts in Yerevan. Tens of thousands marched with Azerbaijani leadership in Baku 26 Feb to commemorate 1992 Khojaly massacre, which took place during NK war and in which hundreds of ethnic Azerbaijani civilians including women and children died. In ongoing arms race, Armenia 4 Feb announced new deliveries of light rifles and fighter jets from Russia, and Azerbaijan 17 Feb signed new contract with Israeli drone maker.
Armenia and Azerbaijan both issued unusually conciliatory statements following meeting of their foreign ministers in Paris 16 Jan for talks mediated by Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group co-chairs. Azerbaijani foreign ministry stated “importance for building more understanding and confidence”, while Armenian foreign ministry spoke of need to build contact to help in “establishing broader mutual understanding and trust”. Co-chairs’ statement discussed need to launch work to prepare populations for peace, importance of possibly mutually beneficial economic initiatives, and plan to visit regional capitals to launch preparations for possible official summit of Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders. Media on both sides speculated about agreement on major concessions, however both sides reiterated that no change to their core demands will be possible in the near future. Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders held unofficial face-to-face meeting while attending World Economic Forum in Davos late Jan, reportedly exchanging views on peace process. Situation in conflict zone remained calm with no fatalities reported in Dec and Jan, which in past three years has been deadliest period of year.
Armenia and Azerbaijan continued to exercise restraint along front lines, with no casualties or major attacks reported since end of Sept, when they established new direct communication channel to prevent and resolve incidents. Azerbaijani and Armenian foreign ministers met in reportedly positive meeting 6 Dec, confirmed readiness to continue efforts for restraint; expected to meet again in coming weeks to possibly start preparations for senior leaders’ talks. Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders again informally met on sidelines of an international summit 7 Dec in Russia, after which both tweeted readiness to engage in negotiations. Tensions continued to grow between new Armenian govt and de facto NK leadership after statement by ally of PM Pashinyan calling country’s April 2018 revolution more important than Armenian military victory in NK war in 1990s, prompting cascade of protest statements in NK. Pashinyan criticised reaction and called for resignation of all de facto officials involved; de facto NK defence minister announced his resignation soon after elections.
Armenia and Azerbaijan continued efforts to exercise restraint in conflict zone, using newly-established communication channel to manage incidents on line of contact. During 28 Nov pre-election rally in Tavush province, acting Armenian PM Pashinyan, who heads electoral list of the My Step alliance, said that Armenia used communication channel to discuss fate of one Armenian citizen detained in Azerbaijan in July. Efforts by both sides to secure release of prisoners (at least three on each side), which some hope could help further build trust, leaked to press early Nov; sides remain unable to agree on conditions. De facto NK President Bako Sahakyan visited France 15 Nov, U.S. 16 Nov and Russia 24 Nov, taking part in annual fundraising events hosted by local Armenian diaspora organisations; Baku strongly criticised Paris, Washington and Moscow for granting entry permits, 24 Nov said such visits by “‘head’ of the illegal regime” to Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Minsk Group co-chair countries “can lead to an unpredictable development of the situation around the conflict”; said Armenian side would bear entire responsibility.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan took actions to implement late Sept agreement to establish communication channel which started operating during month, while international partners voiced support, and situation in conflict zone remained calm. Yerevan and Baku both identified representatives within their govts to stay in direct contact for communication channel, intended to support (but not limited to) efforts to prevent incidents on Armenia-Azerbaijan state border and on Line of Contact in NK conflict zone, especially as Armenia prepares for snap parliamentary elections (see Armenia). Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Minsk Group co-chairs started regional visit in late Oct. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton visiting region 24-26 Oct met with Azerbaijan and Armenian leaders, reasserting U.S. commitment to peaceful resolution of NK conflict; asked about arms sales to Armenia and Azerbaijan, he noted Russian provision of these had not produced peace but that U.S. should consider provision. Azerbaijani foreign ministry 23 Oct summoned French Ambassador to express discontent regarding recent “illegal” visits of French officials to NK. Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey adopted statement calling for peaceful resolution of NK conflict “based on the principle of territorial integrity” at meeting in Istanbul 29 Oct; Armenia downplayed importance of statement.
Armenian and Azerbaijan foreign ministers met at UN General Assembly 26 Sept, second such meeting since change in Armenian leadership in April; ministers reportedly continued negotiations on peaceful settlement of conflict; Minsk Group co-chairs’ released statement which “underscored that a comprehensive settlement will require compromise on all sides” and sought clarifications on some recent statements and incidents. Earlier in month, Azerbaijani foreign ministry condemned remarks by Armenian PM Pashinyan at 8 Sept meeting of businessmen in Russia that he wanted to see NK eventually become part of Armenia. Continuing to favour more agency for NK de facto leadership – a red line for Baku – Pashinyan in 10 Sept interview with Russian newspaper said issue of return of lands should be discussed with de facto leadership, which effectively controls the territory. Amid tensions over Armenian statements, several reports of exchange of fire at Armenia-Azerbaijan border, with two soldiers killed: one Azerbaijani 5 Sept, and one Armenian 20 Sept; three more Armenian soldiers reported dead 22 and 26 Sept in isolated incidents at Line of Contact. Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders 28 Sept had brief informal exchange at Commonwealth of Independent States Summit in Dushanbe; both sides reached preliminary agreement on establishing an operational channel that should help sustain ceasefire regime through direct communication between Yerevan and Baku.