Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev pledged to de-escalate tensions and restore railway lines during a summit in Brussels hosted by European Council President Charles Michel on December 14.
The trilateral meeting was arranged following a deadly outbreak of fighting along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. At least 13 soldiers were killed on both sides, and 32 Armenian soldiers were taken prisoner following an attack on the eastern Armenian border by the Azerbaijani Armed Forces on November 16. Tensions along the border remain high, with renewed clashes between December 8-10 resulting in the deaths of two Armenian soldiers and one Azerbaijani soldier.
According to a statement released by Michel after the meeting, Pashinyan and Aliyev agreed to take “further tangible steps” to “reduce tensions on the ground to ensure a conducive environment” for negotiations on delimitation and demarcation of the state border. The EU committed to providing an expert consultative group to provide technical assistance in the delimitation and demarcation process.
The leaders also agreed to “proceed with the restoration of railway lines, with appropriate arrangements for border customs and controls, based on the principle of reciprocity.” According to Pashinyan, the railways will operate “within the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the countries,” and Armenia will have railway access to Iran and Russia.
Pashinyan and Aliyev agreed to unblock regional transportation and communication links in the ceasefire agreement ending the 2020 Artsakh War, a commitment they reaffirmed during trilateral meetings mediated by Russia on January 11 and November 26. However, Aliyev has repeatedly called for the creation of a “corridor” passing through southern Armenia under Azerbaijani control.
On the morning of the December 14 meeting, Aliyev said that the so-called “Zangezur corridor” should operate similarly to the Lachin corridor connecting Armenia and Artsakh. Russian peacekeepers have been deployed along the Lachin corridor since the signature of the November 9, 2020 ceasefire statement to guarantee secure passage between Armenia and Artsakh.
During a press conference following a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels, Aliyev said that there should be no customs or border control along the Zangezur corridor to provide Azerbaijan “unimpeded access” to the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic.
In response, Pashinyan said that Azerbaijan is attempting to bring negotiations on the opening of transport links to a deadlock.
“The attempts by the president of Azerbaijan to draw parallels between the opening of regional communications and the Lachin corridor have nothing to do with discussions held and statements signed on that topic to date and are unacceptable to Armenia,” he wrote on Facebook.
In addition to addressing transport issues, Michel called for the “full and speedy resolution of all humanitarian issues” during the December 14 summit, including the “release of further detainees and addressing the fate of missing persons.” He said the EU will “continue to support humanitarian demining efforts” and “assistance to conflict-affected populations, rehabilitation and reconstruction.”
Azerbaijan has confirmed the continued detention of 45 Armenian prisoners of war, while Armenian authorities say up to 107 soldiers remain in Azerbaijani captivity, excluding the several dozen soldiers detained on November 16.
Armenian authorities have brought charges against five POWs repatriated to Armenia on December 4.
On December 11, the Investigative Committee announced that it had submitted motions for the arrest of five soldiers for violating “rules for performing military service” that resulted in “severe consequences.” Two of them have been arrested, while one motion for arrest has been rejected.
The charges have been raised amid controversial comments from Armenian authorities questioning the circumstances of the capture of POWs.
The day after the border incursions, Pashinyan said that it “must be clearly investigated in all cases, what it means to fall prisoner, and under what circumstances.”
“Military regulations clearly state in which cases falling prisoner is not considered a crime, and we must investigate each case,” he said while answering questions from parliamentary deputies.
National Assembly speaker Alen Simonyan sparked outrage when a video circulated online on December 7 in which he said that in his view Armenian POWs “don’t exist anymore.”
The video captures his conversation with members of the French Armenian community during his visit to Paris. In the conversation, he accuses POWs of being deserters who “put down their weapons and ran away” and were subsequently captured.
Simonyan claimed the video was misleadingly edited, and an extended version was published soon after. In that video, Simonyan claims that Azerbaijan is exploiting POWs as leverage to gain other concessions in negotiations with Armenia, including a corridor through southern Armenia and renunciation of Artsakh.
“If I’m going to lose Syunik, Sisian because of those POWs, sorry, I may be wrong, but I believe those POWs don’t exist anymore,” he said.
Throughout the video he repeats that he cannot say these comments out loud. He also says that it is “not debatable” that Armenia will repatriate the remaining POWs.
The video drew the ire of relatives of POWs awaiting the return of their family members. They held rallies on December 7 and 8 outside of government buildings to demand that Simonyan meet with them and explain his statements.
“We are ready, let them bring our children to the homeland, and if my child is a traitor, try him under the strictest laws. If I learn that my child has committed treason, revealed state secrets to the Turks, I will not accept such a child. But didn’t our sons go to war for the sake of the homeland?” one parent at the protests told reporters.
Human Rights Defender Arman Tatoyan, as well as Siranush Sahakyan and Artak Zeynalyan, two attorneys who represent POWs in the European Court of Human Rights, condemned the dissemination of the video.
“We consider it unacceptable to record and share an individual’s private relations or comments without their consent,” they said in a joint statement.
“We strongly urge high-ranking individuals to avoid speaking out on sensitive issues, not to exploit them for political or other purposes, since Azerbaijan successfully uses them in international organizations, including the judiciary, to defend itself for its benefit and to the detriment of the rights of Armenian POWs,” they continued.
The Armenia Alliance, the largest opposition parliamentary faction, has since formally demanded Simonyan’s resignation.
While presenting the impeachment motion, Armenia Alliance secretary Artsvik Minasyan said that statements made by Simonyan regarding POWs harm Armenia’s foreign policy and defense capabilities.
Simonyan dismissed the demands, describing the proposal for a vote of no confidence as a “culmination of the opposition’s impotence.” PM Pashinyan has not publicly endorsed or criticized Simonyan’s comments regarding POWs.