Decisions in Dushanbe?
Image: Foreign Ministry of Armenia
The CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) is a loose organization of former Soviet countries, a kind of semi-voluntary USSR-lite. Twice a year, the foreign ministers of all nine members (plus ‘observer’ Turkmenistan) meet in a special council to discuss “current international issues and interaction among CIS states.” These are frequently little more than formalities, producing few newsworthy results. This week’s meeting in Dushanbe, however, feels rather different. It’s the first such meeting since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has put new stresses on the relationships between members and Russia (and with one another).
It also comes at a time when Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been concerned with each other’s advanced weapons purchases. The two Central Asian neighbours had border skirmishes in 2021, and Bishkek remains frustrated by Dushanbe’s slow delineation of their 972km mutual border. A third of it has yet to be demarcated. Curiously the council meetings were timed to coincide very closely with the Parliamentary Forum of Central Asian States held on May 12 in Ashgabat. That brings together the parliamentary speakers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Russia, giving “another dimension” to the “dialogue” between Russia and Central Asia. Central Asian diplomats are getting busy these days.
However, for Caucasus watchers, what is more interesting about the CIS FM Council meeting is that it brings together both Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers, providing another opportunity for the process of dialogue towards a peace settlement through quiet, off-the-record in-person chats.
On May 12, the day before the council’s official opening, Russia’s Sergey Lavrov flew in from Oman and promptly met with Azerbaijan's Jeyhun Bayramov on subjects of mutual interest, including the moves towards an Azerbaijan-Armenia peace agreement. This appeared to be something of a preparatory briefing session before a trilateral meeting later that included Armenia’s Ararat Mirzoyan.
Triangular desks for the trilateral meeting between foreign ministry teams of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia on the fringes of the CIS Council in Dushanbe. Image: Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs
This aimed at seeing “how the three trilateral statements adopted by [the countries’] presidents over the past year and a half are being implemented” – referring to statements made by the parties on November 9, 2020 (the ceasefire), January 11, 2021 (in Moscow) and November 26, 2021 (in Sochi). In principle, the Aliyev and Pashinyan governments have both claimed to be willing to move swiftly towards a complete peace agreement and have urged their foreign ministers to press on. After two direct phone calls between Mirzoyan and Bayramov, the outline for a Joint Border Commission was agreed upon, so it was hoped that in person – and with Russian pressure too – more steps can be taken following conversations in Dushanbe. How much this has come true remains somewhat opaque, judging from the blandly worded press releases that followed the trilateral meeting. What does seem encouraging is that the terminology in referring to the goals of negotiations has subtly changed from discussing a ‘peace agreement’ to discussing ‘normalization of relations’ between Armenia and Azerbaijan. And there’s also the hopeful announcement of follow-up meetings in Moscow next week to discuss border delimitation processes and communications between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The full CIS FM Council on May 13, with Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers, seated side by side. Image: 1lurer.am
All this happened before the CIS Council had even officially convened. When it did, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan found themselves seated side by side at the big round council table. From a procedural angle, this could be passed off as the pure chance of alphabetical ordering, but it’s a potentially convenient one.