Azerbaijan and Armenia took a step back from the brink of open war yesterday (16 May) as their presidents agreed to respect a ceasefire in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
In their first encounter since fierce fighting erupted last month, Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan also agreed to renewed peace talks in June.
The deal was also a rare joint diplomatic victory for the United States and Russia, one day before the rival great powers were to co-chair crisis talks on Syria.
The leaders of the bitter Caucasus rivals were summoned to Vienna by the ‘Minsk Group’ – Moscow, Washington and Paris – after the worst ceasefire breach in two decades.
Fighting erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh in early April, killing at least 110 people and wounding scores more.
After meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and France’s Minister for Europe Harlem Désir, the parties issued a joint statement.
“They reiterated that there can be no military solution to the conflict,” said the statement, released to reporters by the Minsk Group delegations.
“The presidents reiterated their commitment to the ceasefire and the peaceful settlement of the conflict.
“The presidents agreed on a next round of talks, to be held in June at a place to be mutually agreed, with an aim to resuming negotiations on a comprehensive settlement.”
The parties also agreed to beef up the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) ceasefire monitoring mission which presently has only six observers.
The Armenian presidency confirmed the agreement in a statement and, according to Russian news agencies, Lavrov welcomed the deal, saying: “Compromise is always possible.”
Russia, France and the United States hosted the talks in Vienna, the night before a similar crisis meeting of the 17-nation International Syria Support Group.
Before the Armenia-Azerbaijan talks, a senior US official said that a deal was possible because – unlike in the case of Syria – Moscow and Washington were in agreement.
“This is a solvable conflict, there are some conflicts out there that simply have to be managed. But this is one that can be solved,” a senior US official told reporters.
“This is an issue where we see eye-to-eye with the Russians. We have no differences of opinion.”
The crisis has long festered, with dozens killed every year, but April’s fighting was the worst since a 1994 ceasefire turned it into one of Europe’s frozen conflicts.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have feuded over Nagorno-Karabakh since Armenian separatists seized the landlocked territory in a war that claimed some 30,000 lives in the early 1990s (see background).
With peace efforts stuttering to a halt in recent years, both sides in the conflict began rearming heavily, with energy-rich Azerbaijan spending vast sums on new weaponry.
And yet, despite increasingly feverish rhetoric from the rivals, the recent flare-up still appeared to catch the international community by surprise.
While the two sides accused each other of starting the fighting, analysts said it seemed Azerbaijan – suffering from falling oil prices – launched the initial attack.
In the first shift in the frontline since 1994, Azeri forces seized key positions, some of which they managed to cling on to despite a fierce Armenian counterattack.
Moscow, which has sold weapons to both sides but has a military treaty with its close ally Armenia, is seen as central to stopping a conflict that some fear could spread.
Turkey – at loggerheads with Moscow since Ankara downed a Russian jet near its border with Syria last year – has pledged to support its ally Azerbaijan.