Railway Linkages Between Armenia and Azerbaijan to Restart – Brussels Meeting Produces an Apparent Breakthrough
On December 14, the President of the EU Council, Charles Michel, hosted a dinner in Brussels with the leaders of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. It’s only the third formal encounter between Nikol Pashinyan and Ilham Aliyev since the end of the 2nd Karabakh War and the first without Russian mediation. So Michel was not exaggerating when he called it a “significant meeting.”
Nikol Pasinyan (left), Ilham Aliyev (centre) and Charles Michel contemplate a Belgian working dinner.
Few observers had expected concrete results, and many of the repetitions of commitments to minimize further conflict were predictable. However, the evening – which also included a pair of one-to-one meetings with Michel – did produce one notable breakthrough. This is the announcement that both sides have essentially agreed to resume railway connections between Azerbaijan and Armenia. At least, once the tracks have been repaired. The plan should allow the first direct transport links between the countries since the early 1990s, re-establishing the line between Baku and Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchivan (through Armenia) while also allowing Armenia to restart rail links to Russia and Iran (via Jolfa in Nakhchivan).
The plan’s ease of workability will be contingent on a further agreement over customs checks. At a press conference with NATO boss Jens Stoltenberg [before the Charles Michel dinner], Aliyev had underlined this issue, pointing out that Armenia currently enjoys control-free access through the Lachin Corridor to Khankendi (called Stepanakert by Armenians). It would seem only fair, he suggested, that Azerbaijan should gain a similar agreement for customs-free access through Armenia to Nakhchivan. However, it was up to Armenia, he said, claiming that Azerbaijan is “ready for both options. Either no customs on both, or both customs on the two.”
Constructive meeting with @azpresident Ilham Aliyev at #NATO today. Security and stability in the South Caucasus is important for all of us, and NATO supports the normalization of relations between our valued partners #Azerbaijan and #Armenia, to ensure a peaceful future for all. pic.twitter.com/6xmmTF9FKZ— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) December 14, 2021
It appears that – for now at least – the imposition of customs on both routes is the more likely direction since, according to press reports after the Michel meetings, announcements mentioned “appropriate border and customs controls, based on the principle of reciprocity.” It’s not clear how this will play out since Armenia has previously been adamantly opposed to the linkage of the two issues.
On the next day, while still in Brussels, Aliyev and Pashinyan met with French President Emmanuel Macron in what appears to have been an impromptu extra encounter. Macron – who has to tread carefully due to the significant Armenian diaspora in France, later tweeted a video of himself hugging Pashinyan with a comment in French that “we will not abandon the Armenians,” but his carefully worded message stressed the search for lasting peace.
The meetings took place on the sidelines of the EU’s 2021 Eastern Partnership summit. Charles Michel told journalists that the EU is committed to playing a positive and useful role in bringing improved stability, security and prosperity to the South Caucasus. Some commentators had questioned whether Moscow might be angered by the holding of talks in Brussels at a summit which on some issues implicitly aims to circumvent Russian influence. This, however, seems unlikely given a clear statement that the EU sees the Sochi understandings as the basis on which to continue de-escalation.