Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan will hold a meeting for the first time in more than a year, Serzh Sargsyan’s office reported on October 13. A day earlier, a senior Republican party lawmaker Armen Ashotyan told news media that the summit was discussed at the governing party’s leadership meeting. Ashotyan said that expectations from the meeting were limited to “improving the atmosphere” to make more substantive negotiations possible.
Last month, Ashotyan and another parliamentarian Mane Tandilyan visited Baku for an event organized by the European Parliament, first such visit since the April 2016 escalation in fighting in Karabakh. That escalation was followed by two Aliyev-Sargsyan meetings, organized through the OSCE Minsk Group, where the parties agreed to expand international monitoring of the cease-fire and introduce further security mechanisms. Aliyev subsequently declined to implement these agreements.
In the 18-month period since the April war, Azerbaijani forces launched four relatively small-scale rounds of escalation, but in each case quickly de-escalated after Armenian forces retaliated.
In February, two groups of Azerbaijani special forces attacked Armenian positions but withdrew, suffering losses. In May, Azerbaijani forces fired guided missiles at an Armenian air defense unit, resulting in retaliatory Armenian mortar attacks. In June, three Armenian servicemen were killed when their frontline post was hit by a high-powered grenade launcher; the Armenian side once again retaliated with mortar fire. And in July, for the first time since April war, Azerbaijani forces launched unguided missiles, 122-mm artillery and two armed drones at Armenian positions; the Armenian side reportedly responded with artillery fire. Since July, the Line of Contact has been relatively quiet, although sniper fire continued apace.
The Armenian side has insisted that without implementation of 2016 agreements no good faith negotiations on Karabakh resolution were possible. The Azerbaijani side though views occasional attacks, as well as a threat of larger war, as its main leverage vis-a-vis Armenia, particularly since these escalations so far carry no international sanctions. This stalemate continues to define the current stage of the conflict, where mediators’ focus has been on trying to bring the presidents together, even though likelihood of productive negotiations is low. In the last several weeks, Aliyev and Sargsyan had at least two opportunities to meet. The two were at the United Nations General Assembly in New York and earlier this week at the summit of former Soviet republics in Russia, but neither President Donald Trump nor President Vladimir Putin were eager to host a meeting.
The latest Aliyev-Sargsyan meeting also comes as Sargsyan enters the last six months of his presidency. After April 2018, chief decision-making authority in Armenia will transfer to prime minister. At this point it is not clear if incumbent prime minister Karen Karapetyan will retain the support of Sargsyan-led Republican party and how the future balance of power will evolve.
Azerbaijan for its part is expected to hold a presidential elections in about a year. While the Aliyev regime has jailed or exiled most significant opponents, the appointment last February of Aliyev’s spouse Mehriban Aliyeva as the country’s 1st vice president may be indicative of some fissures within the regime, particularly between Aliyeva’s side of the regime and the old allies of Heydar Aliyev.