Peace and stability in the South Caucasus has been an elusive project, but this weekend a major breakthrough was achieved with Turkey and Armenia. The foreign ministers of the two countries met in Switzerland, and in the presence of the U.S. Secretary of State and other European foreign ministers, signed an agreement to open the border and restore diplomatic relations. The deal still has to be approved by the two Parliaments, but the act of signing this agreement has sent shockwaves through the region.
For one, the decision-makers in Baku have taken note of it. Azerbaijan is the energy rich South Caucasus neighbor, where Armenian troops occupy more than twenty percent of the country’s territory. This is the leftover from the 1993-94 war, which Armenia and Azerbaijan fought for the control of the Nagorno-Karabakh province of Azerbaijan. The Armenian troops today not only sit in Nagorno-Karabakh but also occupy the seven territories surrounding it.
Supported by the U.S. and Turkey and focused on the energy developments on its territory, Baku has preferred a diplomatic solution to a military one. But the new Turkish-Armenian agreement has turned the tables and now Baku finds itself under pressure. Any military solution would clearly be a disaster for regional peace and stability, but feeling isolated Baku may go for the jackpot. The international law is on the side of Azerbaijan – the principle of territorial integrity guarantees state sovereignty – so the pretext for going to war exists.
Having secured an opening with Turkey thanks to the help of the international community, it is now Yerevan’s turn to push for peace and begin a phased-out withdrawal of its troops from the seven occupied territories around Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku has already made it clear that it is willing to open up the border with Armenia and begin full cooperation in all areas, including energy and economy, if Yerevan puts into motion the policy of withdrawal.
By pulling its troops out of Azerbaijan, Armenia could finally be integrated into the South-Caucasus infrastructure projects aimed at connecting Europe to Central Asia through major energy, transport and telecommunication lines. Yerevan should see an inherent interest in being an equal partner in the east-west corridor and not just a crossing point for trade moving between Turkey and Russia.
If Yerevan would agree to withdraw its troops, Europe should agree to take on the security and administrative oversight of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. This can be supplemented with Russian and U.S. assistance. Nagorno-Karabakh could also receive European financial aid in addition to European know-how.
Having restored its relations with Armenia, Turkey is now the ideal third-party mediator that could move the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process forward. This should be done in parallel to the already existing Minsk Process, which is a format that keeps the U.S., Russia and Europe engaged directly in shaping the security parameter of the South Caucasus. This means the Ankara initiative should have a narrow focus with a clear goal in mind – the withdrawal of Armenian troops from Azerbaijan as a precondition for peace.
Borut Grgic, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, is the founder and chairman of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Brussels.