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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.
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..