Staunton, January 11 – One of the many reasons why talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan have not produced results in the past is that they have taken the form of occasional meetings of the Azerbaijani president and his Armenian counterpart rather than continuing meetings at lower levels which can come up with possible solutions their leaders can then ratify.
Today in Moscow, Vladimir Putin, Ilham Aliyev and Nikol Pashinyan agreed to form a working group formed by the deputies of the Azerbaijani and Armenian level and then to create working-level subgroups to discuss issues and come up with specific ideas on all issues (rbc.ru/politics/11/01/2021/5ffc676f9a794718f2c0e3c6).
Putin made clear that the groups will focus in the first instance on the unblocking of transportation routes both north-south and east-west, something Russia and Azerbaijan are especially interested in. As a result, many Armenians and some others were disappointed because they had hoped for progress on other issues.
Among those these latter hoped for progress in Moscow was the exchange of prisoners and the bodies of those killed in the fighting, greater clarity on the status of the remaining Armenian officials in Qarabagh, and even larger questions like the final status of those officials and that territory.
They did not get any of that. But the creation of working groups opens the way for real progress especially as the November 10 declaration which some have presented as a peace deal in fact is no more than the establishment of a new ceasefire with a new contact line between the forces and Russian peacekeepers as guardians of that line.
If these working groups take off, the January 11 summit will be even more important for the future than the November 10 one was because all these issues can no be thrashed out by lower-level officials who are likely to be able to explore more possibilities than presidents and prime ministers can in brief meetings under the bright light of publicity.
And what this development also likely means is a further sidelining of the OSCE Minsk Group, however often Putin declares that he is seeking to implement that body’s goals. Instead, forward motion now is likely to depend almost exclusively on bilateral contacts between Baku and Yerevan, with Russia seeking to be the guiding force behind them.
Moscow may might it hard to achieve that exclusive position but not because of challenges from Minsk but rather from Turkey which is taking an increasingly active line in the region, something that will tilt the talks in the Azerbaijani direction and increasingly put on the defensive and isolate Armenia.