Armenia could have gotten a better deal in the prisoner exchange with Azerbaijan

Guards at the Armenia-Azerbaijan border during the prisoner exchange on Dec. 13, 2023 ( screen grab)

Thirty two Armenian prisoners of war, languishing in a Baku jail for a long time, were finally freed and returned to their overjoyed families. I will analyze the background and circumstances of their release, pointing out why Armenia should have gotten a much better deal.

1) The agreement to end the 2020 Artsakh War, signed by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, included a clause mandating that “an exchange of prisoners of war, hostages and other detained persons and bodies of the dead is to be carried out.” Pashinyan’s blunder was that no deadline was set for the implementation of this clause, thus allowing Azerbaijan to keep the Armenian prisoners as long as it wished.

2) Pashinyan’s second mistake was that, shortly after the end of the 2020 war, Armenia released all the Azeri prisoners, while Azerbaijan released only some of the Armenian prisoners. There was no all-for-all exchange.

3) Even though the 2020 agreement did not impose any preconditions for the release of the Armenian and Azeri prisoners, Pashinyan made his third mistake by turning over to Azerbaijan maps of Armenian landmines in Azeri-occupied Artsakh in return for Azerbaijan’s release of a few more Armenian prisoners. Pres. Aliyev learned the valuable lesson that he can extract more concessions from Armenia by the slow and gradual release of the Armenian prisoners. In other words, Aliyev discovered that the Armenian prisoners were more valuable for him if he kept them in a Baku jail, and released a few at a time in return for further concessions from Armenia.

4) Pashinyan’s obsession over an unnecessary ‘Peace Treaty’ with Azerbaijan provides yet another opportunity for Aliyev to extract further concessions from Armenia, including the demand for additional Armenian territories during border adjustment negotiations, the return of Azeris to their previously inhabited villages inside Armenia, and acceptance of the so-called ‘Zangezur Corridor’ linking Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhichevan instead of a road under Armenia’s control, as mentioned in the 2020 agreement.

5) Pashinyan should have refused all meetings and negotiations with Azerbaijan until the removal of its forces from the territory it occupies inside Armenia and the return of all Armenian prisoners of war.

6) Azerbaijan agreed to exchange two Azeri soldiers with 32 Armenian prisoners of war, because Armenia withdrew its own candidacy and lifted its veto for Azerbaijan to host next year’s prestigious international climate change conference (COP29) in Baku. This is the only reason why Aliyev agreed to such a lopsided exchange of prisoners. None of the other publicly mentioned reasons are true. Contrary to baseless speculations, the U.S., EU, NATO, Russia, Turkey and Iran played no role in arranging this prisoner exchange. It was Aliyev’s strong desire to use the conference as a means to show off Baku as an internationally significant capital in order to deflect attention away from Azerbaijan’s serious human rights violations and war crimes. Aliyev had gone to great lengths to host other major events in Baku, such as the Formula One Car Race, the Non-Aligned Conference Summit, Eurovision, European Games, etc.

7) Given Aliyev’s fixation on hosting the Climate Summit in Baku at any cost, Armenia should have sought the release of all Armenian prisoners of war, not just 32 of them. In addition, Pashinyan should have demanded the release of the high-ranking Artsakh officials who were captured and jailed by Azerbaijan at the end of September 2023.

8) In the meantime, over 100,000 exiled Artsakh Armenians are suffering in Armenia, deprived of the most basic necessities, such as housing, food and medicines. Artsakh Armenians have left behind all of their possessions. The Armenian government should file a lawsuit in the World Court demanding that Azerbaijan pay compensation for the confiscated properties of Artsakh Armenians.

9) The above cited issues raise serious questions about the high praise lavished on Pashinyan by his supporters, who are proud that he scored a major success with the release of 32 Armenian prisoners. Little do they know that a more competent Armenian leader could have gotten many more concessions from Azerbaijan.

10) Pashinyan’s supporters are also ecstatic that various international leaders expressed their satisfaction with the exchange of the prisoners, hoping that this would lead the two countries to signing a ‘Peace Treaty.’ What Pashinyan’s supporters do not understand is that a ‘Peace Treaty’ would not actually bring peace to the two countries, since Aliyev has already violated most of the terms of the 2020 agreement. What assurance can anyone have that he will respect future agreements?

These foreign powers care about only one thing: their self-interests rather than the national interests of Armenia.

They are pleased that Pashinyan is making repeated concessions to Azerbaijan, so that the international community can benefit from Azerbaijan’s oil and gas, while ignoring Armenian interests and turning a blind eye to Aliyev’s violations of the human rights of his own people.

Harut Sassounian

Harut Sassounian

California Courier Editor
Harut Sassounian is the publisher of The California Courier, a weekly newspaper based in Glendale, Calif. He is the president of the Armenia Artsakh Fund, a non-profit organization that has donated to Armenia and Artsakh one billion dollars of humanitarian aid, mostly medicines, since 1989 (including its predecessor, the United Armenian Fund). He has been decorated by the presidents of Armenia and Artsakh and the heads of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. He is also the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

1 Comment

  1. Armenia will have to conclude some form of settlement with Azerbaijan in turn Turkey, ignoring the reality around it is part of why the 1994 victory was gradually squandered. Leaving it until later will only worsen Armenia position it was doing this and not accepting more favourable settlement in the 1990s whilst Azerbaijan picked itself up and eclipsed Armenia who in effect fell asleep and rested on its laurels and harked back to old glories.

    It’s easy to talk tough with strong rhetoric when not far from the actual situation. A settlement doesn’t necessarily mean that there will never be another war either. The truncated boundaries of Armenia were drafted under Moscow’s auspices something which shouldn’t be ignored either.

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