The trilateral commission: rumors and rifts in the Caucasus

The trilateral commission: rumors and rifts in the Caucasus

A leaked border commission agreement is unlikely to lead to a resolution.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

On May 20, acting Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan confirmed the authenticity of a leaked redacted document that would establish a trilateral commission with Russia for the delimitation of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Russia’s inclusion in the document’s proposed commission and response to a disputed border breach indicates it is attempting to shift to a balancing approach and an arbiter role in the Caucasus
– The leaked document has likely harmed the prospects of the ruling party in upcoming elections
– Incomplete archival maps and domestic opposition likely rule out a border agreement in the near term

BLURRED BORDERS, DOMESTIC DIVIDES

The rumored Azerbaijan-Armenia border delineation deal and as-yet unconfirmed claims by its leaker, Mikayel Minasyan, that it would result in ceding small pieces of territory led to protests in Armenia’s capital and in the city of Stepanakert in the long-disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Minasyan is a major Pashinyan critic and son-in-law to former Armenian Prime Minister and President Serzh Sargsyan, and has released sensitive information in the past that was subsequently confirmed.

The domestic political opposition in Armenia has come out against the measure, insisting that no such agreement can be made without parliamentary approval, and arguing that the interim nature of the current government makes it unauthorized to ratify this type of document. Other key officials denied that they had knowledge of the agreement prior to Pashinyan’s confirmation of the deal’s legitimacy, likely in an attempt to politically distance themselves from a controversial policy matter — as well as from the controversial Pashinyan himself — in the leadup to upcoming elections.

The controversy follows a disputed territorial incursion several weeks earlier. According to Armenian authorities, Azerbaijani troops had crossed several kilometers over the Armenian border in Syunik Province and in two other sections on May 12 and 13. Azerbaijan insisted it was merely reinforcing formerly inaccessible positions on their border in the spring thaw, and emphasized that the bilateral border had never been fully demarcated since the fall of the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan then announced on May 28 that an Azerbaijani soldier had been wounded by Armenian forces along the border. It also later stated that the border was violated on June 1 by 40 Armenian military personnel. Armenia denies both claims. The Armenian and Azerbaijan defense ministers met in Moscow at the end of May to discuss the border dispute, and trilateral consultations with Russia followed in early June.

Troop movements and border issues are especially sensitive due to the recent conclusion of large-scale conflict between the countries. For decades, Armenia and Azerbaijan had been embroiled in intermittent clashes and skirmishes over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous area that fell within Azerbaijan under the late USSR but was largely populated by ethnic Armenians. This dispute predated the fall of the Soviet Union and had prevented the newly independent states from agreeing upon a definitive bilateral border in the time since. However, on November 9, 2020, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia signed a peace deal that halted renewed fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh and other border areas with significant territorial gains for Azerbaijan. Russian peacekeepers were deployed along the frontline and a land corridor to Armenia for a five-year period. After the peace deal, mass protests and outcry from domestic political leadership called for Pashinyan’s resignation. Pashinyan resigned in April to run in snap elections in late June, and parliament was dissolved in early May after its second failed attempt to elect a prime minister.

RUSSIA’S ROLE

Vladimir Putin 2017 01 17

Photo: The Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

The recent border deal controversy highlights Russia’s evolving role in the Caucasus. Russia is officially Armenia’s military ally through the de facto Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and has a military base in the country. Despite the alliance, Pashinyan’s direct appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene militarily after Azerbaijani forces only partially complied with an agreement to withdraw from disputed border areas did not bear fruit. Armenian authorities also expressed frustration at the absence and delay of what they saw as an appropriate CSTO response to Azerbaijan’s alleged incursion. However, Russian Foreign Minister Maria Zakharova stated on May 26 that Moscow was prepared to help Armenia and Azerbaijan with border delimitation in any capacity.

Russia’s involvement in both the earlier ceasefire deal and the rumored border commission indicates that it is currently distancing itself from its longstanding pro-Armenian position stance in favor of establishing itself as a broker of power and peace in the region. This is not the first time that Russia has balanced its interests in the Caucasus, having previously sold arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan during periods of conflict. In its recent attempts to be viewed as an arbiter of peace, by contrast, Russia is likely seeking international prestige in the light of waning Western interest and involvement in the Caucasus as well as leverage and power in what it considers to be its regional sphere of influence.

MAPS, GAPS, AND MPs

Stepanakert

Photo: Peter Fitzgerald

Regardless of the geopolitical factors at play, the actual process of determining an agreed-upon Armenia-Azerbaijan border may prove difficult. Existing Soviet-era maps that would most likely be used to delimit the bilateral border have a topographical rather than practical infrastructural basis as well as many variations and gaps. What’s more, domestic political divisions and the upcoming election could also put obstacles in the path of the rumored agreement. Although 33% of Armenians polled in February 2021 — a significant plurality — indicated they would vote for the Pashinyan-led Civil Contract party, the recent controversy stirred by the leaked document and claims surrounding it will likely further erode support for the faction in the leadup to the June parliamentary elections. In light of the public outcry, domestic political opposition, and calls for an agreement to pass through the parliament, any border deal would almost certainly be slow to advance through the legislative approval process and be highly unpopular with the public. A range of local and international NGOs signed a joint statement urging Armenia to approve agreements on territorial changes exclusively via referendum, citing Article 205 of the Armenian constitution. Although a similar proposal by Bright Party leader Edmon Marukyan to require a referendum did not go forward due to a lack of support from the ruling coalition, this issue may very likely be raised again after elections. If put to a public vote, recent demonstrations indicate that any agreement that Armenians perceive as conceding territory would be unlikely to pass.

If formalized and finalized, the border commission outlined in the document recently leaked by Minasyan could constitute a means for Russia to consolidate its leverage in the Caucasus and bolster its international standing but is unlikely to result in an agreed-upon border in the near term.

Any views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Internews.