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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.
Political leadership in Armenia and Azerbaijan made some positive public statements about peaceful resolution of conflict and continued building contacts, including launch by Armenian PM Pashinyan’s wife of new campaign “Women for Peace”, which was well received in Baku; Armenian PM’s office said her speech was not a policy statement, but reflected general mood in new administration. Azerbaijani leadership also toned down its rhetoric, and took down website of major local news-agency APA after it reportedly misquoted words of President Aliyev by attributing to him statement “we will bring Armenia to its knees”. However military leaderships on both sides continued to make inflammatory public statements, amid continued instability and uncertainty at Nakhchivan section of state border. FMs widely expected to meet in coming weeks, but many in both capitals believe that genuine dialogue can take place only after anticipated snap elections in Armenia.
Armenian and Azerbaijani FMs with Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group co-chairs 11 July held first official meeting on Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) issue since recent change in Armenian leadership; no detailed information or date for further meetings released. Amid uncertainty over position of new Armenian govt on peace process, Armenian PM Pashinyan at 20 July press conference did not provide direct response to question on whether he believed territories around NK were to “go back” to Azerbaijan, saying that no decision would go against will of Armenian people; some observers interpreted this as indication that Pashinyan will not favour territorial concessions. Incidents along border between Armenia and Azerbaijan included 1 July exchange of fire near Nakhchivan; Azerbaijan reported detention on 15 July of Armenian national, accusing him of “sabotage” attempt against army; Armenia denied, said he was civilian with health problems. Azerbaijan 21 July reported one soldier killed as result of ceasefire violation in unspecified location. Azerbaijani armed forces started large-scale exercises 2 July; Ministry of Defence said exercises aimed at “the liberation of the occupied territories [Nagorno-Karabakh]”.
New Armenian leadership continuing to search for ways to promote PM Pashinyan’s idea of need for having de facto Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) representatives at peace talks, rejected by Baku. Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Aliyev reportedly shook hands at opening reception of FIFA World Cup in Russia, amid speculation FMs might meet at NATO summit in July. One Armenian soldier reported killed 10 June while co-chairs of OSCE Minsk Group were preparing for their first meeting with Pashinyan; Yerevan accused Baku of increasing tensions in region, Azerbaijan denied. Situation in conflict zone remained stable overall. Azerbaijani and Armenian media since May reporting that Azerbaijani army took control over new territory in Nakhchivan area, large autonomous republic separated from core Azerbaijani territory by slice of Armenian land. Some Armenian experts claim shift in control line took place after Azerbaijani army moved forward location of two of its positions, bringing armies closer together by several kilometres. Azerbaijani Defence Minister Zakir Gasanov 20 June confirmed his army took control of three mountainous points, claiming this provided control over main southern road leading from undisputed Armenia to NK conflict zone. At 26 June military parade in Baku commemorating centennial of Azerbaijan’s armed forces, Aliyev said Baku would never accept “occupation” of NK and that “the war is not over”; Armenian FM tweeted calling it “sabre-rattling”, called for more responsible approach at negotiation table. June saw failed attempt to challenge long-serving de facto NK leader Bako Sahakyan, with unprecedented street rallies of up to around 200 people in de facto capital Stepanakert after two local men were beaten by security officers 1 June. Protests ended after 4 June appeal by Pashinyan, arrests of officers suspected in beating, and resignation of three ministers. Local opposition National Renaissance Party attempted to continue protests demanding Sahakyan’s resignation, but police blocked main square and surrounded activists. Sahakyan 11 June announced he would not run in 2020 presidential elections; during 17 June visit to NK, Pashinyan voiced his “unconditional support” to Sahakyan.
New Armenian PM Pashinyan indicated in various public statements and interviews there will be no softening in Armenian position on main issues related to Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) peace process. During 1 May debate in parliament Pashinyan commented that he did not advocate for return of any territories in conflict zone to Azerbaijan; in statement to parliament following week, Pashinyan said any deal on NK would have to guarantee local Armenians’ right to self-determination; at one point said NK and Armenia should unite. Pashinyan visited NK 9 May (traditional day for Armenian leaders to visit region), said he wanted to see NK representatives part of settlement framework; Azerbaijani FM Elmar Mammadyarov 25 May said “such wish of Armenians was aimed to damage peace process” and that he had already passed this message to Minsk Group co-chairs. Azerbaijani Defence Minister Zakir Hasanov 12 May said Pashinyan’s comments on NK were “unacceptable” and that Azerbaijan is prepared for “large-scale military operations”. Minsk Group co-chairs 15 May announced visit to region and possible meeting with new Armenian leadership in June. Currently no contact between Azerbaijan and Armenia on NK or clarity on when and how the two sides will meet; in 28 May statement, U.S. State Department called on parties “to resume intensive negotiations as soon as possible”. French FM Jean-Yves Le Drian during tour of South Caucasus 27 May said France plans to “work more actively to search for the ways of settling the Karabakh conflict”. One Armenian soldier reported wounded in north-western location of Line of Contact 13 May. One Azerbaijani soldier reported dead in Azerbaijan’s south-western region Nakhchivan at state border with Armenia 20 May.
With threat of military escalation still high, observers warned that political turmoil in Armenia (see Armenia) increases risks in Nagorno-Karabakh and could create temptation for Yerevan or Baku to launch new attacks in conflict zone. Armenian side 22 April distributed video footage of Azerbaijani tanks moving close to southern location of Line of Contact (LoC); Azerbaijan denied, while OSCE Minsk Group 23 April called for restraint “at this delicate time”. Overall situation in conflict zone stayed tense but calm, with sides reporting slight increase in exchanges of fire. Three Armenian soldiers reported killed at military units in southern (9 April) and northern locations (15 and 17 April) of LoC with no connection to attacks from Azerbaijani side. Azerbaijan 18 April reported one civilian wounded at central location of LoC; Armenian side denied. Marking second anniversary of “Four-Day War” 2 April, Armenian and Azerbaijani officials made statements blaming other side for conflict.
Situation remained calm along Line of Contact (LoC), with sides reporting regular exchange of sniper fire and overflights of drones. HALO Trust demining charity 29 March reported death of three of its local staff members, and two injured, by accidental detonation of anti-tank landmine in Martakert region. Both Azerbaijan and de facto Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) army conducted military exercises 12-17 March and 12-13 March respectively; Baku showcased large numbers of troops and biggest ever number of rocket launchers, prompting Armenian protest and complaint over lack of advance notice of exercises. De facto NK leader mid-March visited U.S. Congress for the first time since 1999, prompting Baku to send official protest to U.S..
Baku and Yerevan both continued exchange of harsh statements. Azerbaijani President Aliyev 8 Feb told congress of ruling New Azerbaijan Party that Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, and some Armenian regions were Azerbaijan’s historic lands and “… we, the Azerbaijanis, must return to these historical lands”. Statement produced outcry in Armenia; President Sargsyan at Munich Security Conference 17 Feb portrayed it as new territorial demand. Heated rhetoric came as Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) de facto govt staged rallies in region’s main towns to celebrate 30th anniversary since start of Armenian Karabakh movement street protests in 1988; and comes ahead of electoral tests in March/April for Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders. Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group co-chairs early Feb toured five territories adjacent to NK in its Soviet administrative borders, which Azerbaijan declares “occupied” and wants to retake from Armenian side’s control; many on Armenian side consider these territories “liberated”. Following tour, co-chairs issued statement 11 Feb asking sides to “refrain from inflammatory statements and provocative actions”. Yerevan and Baku again failed to finalise deal on increased numbers of OSCE observers and their functions during tour. Some observers in region said Baku is losing hope for successful talks, as Azerbaijani MP Rovshan Rzayev 1 Feb proposed law on occupied territories to reinforce pressure on Armenian side; and Azerbaijan’s foreign minister in interview with French newspaper 9 Feb appeared less optimistic than previously about possible outcome. Month saw continued slight increase in shootings at Line of Contact: two Armenian soldiers reported dead 7 and 22 Feb. Baku 11 Feb reported provocation by Armenian soldiers at international border between the two countries; Armenia denied.
Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers 18 Jan met in Poland, following earlier meeting in Oct 2017, but again failed to produce final deal on increasing number of Organization for Co-operation and Security in Europe (OSCE) observers in conflict zone; sides have in principle agreed on increase from six to thirteen observers, but disagree on modalities, including locations. OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs said sides would finalise issue as soon as possible. Baku expressed “welcome and support” for 16 Jan statement from UN Secretary-General Guterres on need to revitalise peace processes in post-Soviet conflicts; also welcomed Russian foreign minister’s 15 Jan call for step-by-step approach to resolving NK conflict, rather than through a single deal. In speech at Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Armenia’s President Sargsyan 24 Jan said his country already implemented all its international commitments and recognition of NK independence was only way to resolve conflict, called on international community to make Azerbaijan tone down its “unrealistic” demands. Foreign ministers discussed possibility of new international assessment mission to territories (last one was led by OSCE Minsk Group in 2010). Month saw overall security situation unchanged, though with slight increase in shootings reported by sides. One Armenian soldier reported killed 7 Jan by sniper, two more injured; Azerbaijan 19 Jan reported one soldier killed. Armenian side 20 Jan reported drone attack at its positions and on 25 Jan an attempt to “penetrate its positions” in southern location of LoC; Baku denied involvement. Armenian side 29 Jan reported one soldier killed in northern section of LoC. Azerbaijani President Aliyev late Dec signed 2018 state budget approving 3.7% increase in defence-related costs, up to $1.6bn, around half on procurement.
During 7 Dec meeting, Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers were not able to reach final agreement allowing expansion of office of Personal Representative of OSCE Chairman-in-Office, under debate since soon after April 2016 escalation and seen by Armenian side as precondition for launching detailed substantive talks, including on return of lands, future status of conflict region and security guarantees. Sides expected to meet again in Jan and agree on adding several more “field assistants” to special representatives’ office in region, but disagree on their location. Foreign ministers of OSCE Minsk group co-chair countries (Russia, France and U.S.) 7 Dec issued special statement: supported resumed and intensified diplomacy, called for agreement on expansion of special representatives’ office, and urged sides to look for compromise on “substantial issues of political settlement”; said further delays will complicate situation and could call into question commitment to reach lasting agreement. Amid intensified diplomacy, month saw low number of incidents and rare shootings at Line of Contact, with Armenia and Azerbaijan reporting two military casualties 11 and 14 Dec. President Sargsyan 1-4 Dec went to NK to inspect local military and watch war games reportedly involving more 1,000 soldiers, dozens of tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery systems, as well as what an Armenian military official called a major new type of weapon. In 14 Dec interview, Sargsyan said there could be no peace process without pacified situation in conflict zone. President Aliyev 21 Dec continued to speak about no status outside of Azerbaijan for NK and need to fully restore Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.
Intensified attempts by main mediators to restart Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) negotiation process continued. On Russian side, PM Medvedev visited Yerevan 24 Oct; President Putin mid-Nov met with Armenian President Sargsyan in Russia; and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov conducted shuttle diplomacy between Baku and Yerevan 20-21 Nov. Supportive of restarting talks, Lavrov cautioned both capitals that negotiations would take a long time. Ahead of planned meeting between Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers at margins of annual OSCE Ministerial Council in Vienna scheduled for late Dec, OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs met with both ministers to discuss agenda; issued statement 16 Nov saying sides are expected to finalise talks over expansion of the Office of the Personal Representative. During discussion at OSCE Permanent Council 9 Nov, both Russians and Americans called for increasing number of monitors in region. All sides and mediators made public announcements during Nov that all elements of a possible settlement plan are already on the table; agreed that any plan should include most controversial issues: status and land return. De facto NK authorities 22 Nov reported three fighters killed by land mine near line of contact previous day.