An unlikely peace process takes shape in Armenia. Could it help Ukraine?

Police detain demonstrators during a protest against the government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Yerevan, Armenia, on May 5. (Vahram Baghdasaryan/Photolure/AP)
Police detain demonstrators during a protest against the government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Yerevan, Armenia, on May 5. (Vahram Baghdasaryan/Photolure/AP)

In the shadow of the war in Ukraine, an unlikely peace process is taking shape to normalize relations between Armenia and its historic adversaries, Azerbaijan and Turkey. What is surprising about this diplomacy is that it appears to have the support of both the United States and Russia.

The negotiations are controversial in Armenia, which was battered by Azerbaijan in a bloody 2020 war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and still bears deep emotional scars from the 1915 genocide under the Ottoman Empire. Protesters in Yerevan have denounced Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s opening to Baku and Ankara and have called for his resignation.

At a time when the world is focused on the intense combat in Ukraine, diplomatic issues in the Caucasus may seem like a sideshow. But helping resolve these intractable conflicts would not only be good for its own sake; but also it offers a potential point of convergence for U.S. and Russian interests that could open useful avenues of common dialogue.

Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan explained the normalization moves in an interview last week in Washington, where he was visiting Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The two signed a memorandum of understanding to provide U.S. help for Armenia’s nuclear power industry and assistance in its struggle against corruption. State Department officials have also visited Armenia and Azerbaijan in recent weeks to bolster the peace effort.

“We should look not only to the past but to the future”, Mirzoyan told me. He said that if Armenia continues to be in a “zero-sum” game with its neighbors, “our region will be in a vicious circle”.

Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Britain and former ambassador to the United States, offered a similar “cautiously optimistic” assessment. “Azerbaijan has repeatedly expressed hope for the soonest normalization and signing of a peace agreement”, he said in a telephone interview.

Armenian critics argue that Pashinyan is negotiating from weakness and is under pressure from Russia, which brokered a cease-fire in the 2020 war and then a meeting between Pashinyan and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev last November. Certainly, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a self-interested and unreliable mediator. Armenia is still reeling from a war that cost thousands of lives and traumatized the country.

Armenia’s best protection against a coercive peace would be participation by the United States and Europe in the negotiating process. One pathway for such a joint effort would a revival of the so-called Minsk Group, co-chaired by the United States, France and Russia. But Moscow is boycotting the group. Instead, the European Union has joined Russia as a co-sponsor of the talks, hosting a Pashinyan-Aliyev meeting in Brussels last month. That provides a Western leg of support for normalization.

This week, Mirzoyan, the Armenian foreign minister, will lean toward Russia, Armenia’s historic protector, as he meets in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, with foreign ministers of other former Soviet republics. That gathering is expected to include a three-way conclave with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov to discuss a peace treaty.

Armenia is also negotiating an opening with Turkey. Last week, special representatives of both governments gathered in Vienna for a third discussion about a joint statement described as “full normalization of relations”. Recently, scheduled air flights resumed between the two countries. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan still refuses to acknowledge the 1915 genocide, but normalization appears to suit his wider diplomatic aim of reducing conflicts in the region.

The most intriguing but also precarious player in this diplomatic round is Pashinyan. He became prime minister in 2018 after leading a protest movement against the corrupt establishment that had led Armenia since its independence in 1991. With little political experience, he struggled to implement reforms.

Then came the disastrous war in 2020, which forced Armenia to give up much of Karabakh after nearly 30 years of control of the region, which is legally part of Azerbaijan but populated mostly by ethnic Armenians.

Pashinyan decided it was time to consider what generations of Armenians had regarded as unthinkable — negotiating without preconditions with Turkey and Azerbaijan. In a remarkable speech last month, he accepted “guilt and responsibility” for the “catastrophic” 2020 defeat. But he went on to say that his “real fault” was not stating before the war that Armenia needed to make territorial compromises over Karabakh, because Armenia’s unyielding diplomatic position had been “unequivocally” rejected by the international community.

“Signing a peace treaty with Azerbaijan as soon as possible is part of our plans”, Pashinyan said during his April 13 speech. Already, the two countries have agreed to establish a joint commission to define secure borders. Protesters are outraged, but U.S. officials don’t think they will topple Pashinyan.

Pashinyan, though dependent on Russia for military protection, shares the United States’ concern about the invasion of Ukraine — and he wants U.S. economic and diplomatic support. One sign was his insistence that Armenia join the U.S.-sponsored “Summit for Democracy”, which took place virtually in December, despite Russia’s strong opposition to its presence.

Armenia has a problem that Ukrainians may eventually have to confront. After suffering so much in battle, how can a nation make peace with countries that have caused so much pain and suffering? It’s an age-old problem, especially for a nation like Armenia that has experienced genocide. Blessed are the peacemakers, even if they’re not very popular right now in a still-grieving Yerevan.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin”.

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