World War II veteran Ivan Timchenko, 103, with his granddaughter in Baku, Azerbaijan during the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory. Photo by Aziz Karimov/Getty Images.

World War II veteran Ivan Timchenko, 103, with his granddaughter in Baku, Azerbaijan during the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory. Photo by Aziz Karimov/Getty Images.

Eighteen months on from a reported agreement by Armenia and Azerbaijan’s foreign ministers to prepare their populations for peace, both states have in reality remained largely preoccupied with consolidating domestic power due to enduring socio-economic frustration and populations radicalized by the ‘four-day war’ back in 2016.

A rapidly evolving international context since then has been dominated by regional tensions in Ukraine and the Middle East, and between the United States and Iran. And the COVID-19 pandemic now presents both Yerevan and Baku with new threats and problems.

Armenia’s measures to contain the virus were roundly criticised as ‘too little, too late’, while the de facto authorities in Nagorny Karabakh were rebuked by many in civil society for pressing ahead with elections despite risks to public health. Azerbaijan appears to have contained the pandemic more effectively, but long-term impacts on the oil price threaten to expose its vulnerability to external shocks.

Symbolic politics are prevailing

Under such circumstances it is unsurprising to see an instinct to rally populations around the symbolic politics of the conflict prevailing, although President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan – to their credit – did take the unprecedented step of appearing together on a podium at the Munich Security Conference in February.

But their debate dismayed an international community looking for an articulation of strategies for peace, as each leader reverted to a traditional repertoire of historical-legal claims and conspiracy theories. This was followed in May by both countries trading accusations over alleged collaboration with the Nazis in the Second World War.

Adding to this tension was the decision to hold the inauguration of the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s new leader Ara Harutyunyan in the city of Shusha - overwhelmingly populated by Azerbaijanis prior to the 1992-94 war and a key symbol of Azerbaijan’s claim to the territory. This aroused considerable anger in Azerbaijan, which was then added to by Pashinyan’s presence at the inauguration.

Aliyev appeared to reciprocate by reiterating claims that modern Armenia is in fact founded on ancient Azerbaijani territory after a group led by an Azerbaijani academic in Turkey declared the founding of a ‘Republic of Western Azerbaijan (Irevan)’ in exile, laying claim to substantial areas of Armenia – and implying that not only is an Armenian claim to Nagorny Karabakh illegitimate, but also to most of the territory forming Armenia including its capital Yerevan.

Then, on June 8, Karabakh Armenian leader Harutyunyan said the construction of a third road across Armenian-occupied territories, connecting the southern Armenian town of Kapan with Hadrut in Nagorny Karabakh, would proceed soon. Initially announced in July 2019, Yerevan and Stepanakert frame the road as a humanitarian necessity. Baku sees it as confirmation of an annexation policy.

The challenging atmosphere was not helped by the European Court of Human Rights handing down its judgment in the notorious Ramil Safarov case, an army officer extradited and pardoned by Azerbaijan after being convicted of murdering an Armenian counterpart in Budapest in 2004. Although many Azerbaijanis have now distanced themselves from support for Safarov, the judgement still ‘fell short’ for many Armenians.

Some of these incidents are felt much more deeply than others and inflict greater damage on the prospects of a meaningful peace process. But both sides can plausibly point to adversarial moves as evidence that good faith in such a process is lacking. Collectively, each side’s symbolic offensives have fed the other’s cynicism.

Deadlocked negotiations

Formal negotiations between the two have been anchored for more than a decade by the Basic (‘Madrid’) Principles - but these too are now under pressure. Within the framework of the Minsk Process mediated by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), uncertainty over where the parties stand vis-à-vis the principles is both a driver of further polarization and indicative of a lack of new ideas.

Armenia’s post-Velvet Revolution leadership - depicted as ‘weak on security’ by the previous regime - dismissed the principles as a legacy associated with previous incumbent Serzh Sargsyan, and Pashinyan proposed an alternative set of ‘Munich Principles’ in the aftermath of his encounter with Ilham Aliyev in February. But these amounted more to a set of positions and red lines than to a proposed set of mechanisms for resolving the conflict.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov added to Yerevan’s discomfort with the principles by making comments appearing to confirm a ‘phased’ approach to their implementation. This is widely assumed to accord more with Azerbaijan’s interests, as concessions in the form of territorial withdrawals are presumed to come first without a clear settlement of Nagorny Karabakh’s status.

In the current climate, Lavrov’s comments have only hardened Armenian scepticism towards the principles reinforced by the fact that, as recent research shows, informal ‘Track-II’ dialogue across the Armenian-Azerbaijani divide is at its lowest level since the beginning of confrontation in 1988.

Buffeted by so many external shocks and internal challenges, little progress can be expected on the core political issues dividing Armenia and Azerbaijan. But the prolonged reduction of violence on the Nagorny Karabakh Line of Contact does mean that discussion of ‘low-cost’ confidence building is still possible. Small-scale positive-sum measures that do not imply new structures or mandates could enable Baku and Yerevan to step away from symbolic battlegrounds and stop feeding the cycle of cynicism.