Azerbaijan and separatists from Karabakh have held their first direct peace talks as Baku claims full control of the breakaway region following a lightning military operation.
Representatives from both sides met for talks in the city of Yevlakh Thursday to discuss the future of the mountainous region, which is home to a predominantly Armenian population.
Karabakh is recognized as part of Azerbaijan by the international community. Ethnic Armenian authorities who have run the region’s affairs without international recognition since the early 1990s declared on Wednesday that local “self-defense forces” would lay down their arms and disband under a Russia-mediated ceasefire.
The truce halted Azerbaijan’s 24-hour offensive – an artillery barrage and drone attacks against outnumbered and under-supplied pro-Armenian forces - to retake the territory.
The office of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev issued a statement on Thursday, saying that the meeting, focused on reintegration, was constructive.
“The discussions held in a constructive and positive atmosphere focused on reintegration of the Armenian population of Karabakh, restoration of infrastructure and organization of activities on the basis of Constitution and laws of the Republic of Azerbaijan,” said the statement, carried by Azerbaijan’s state news agency (AZERTAC).
It added that the point person for contacts with Armenian residents of Karabakh, Ramin Mammadov, presented reintegration plans. He is also a member of the National Assembly of Azerbaijan
“The sides reached an agreement to hold the next meeting soon,” the statement further said.
In a televised address to the nation, Aliyev trumpeted victory, saying Azerbaijan’s military had restored its sovereignty in Karabakh.
Since gaining independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, the two neighboring countries have fought two wars, in 1994 and 2020, over the mountainous territory.
Tensions remain high and skirmishes along the shared border have been a regular occurrence despite mediation efforts by the European Union, the United States and Russia.
During the 2020 conflict, more than 6,500 people from both sides lost their lives within a six-week period. The war concluded with a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia, which led to Yerevan relinquishing control over significant portions of Azerbaijani territory that it had held for many years.
Accusations of ceasefire breaches, however, are regularly exchanged between both parties.
Moscow, Yerevan’s main economic partner and ally, has since deployed about 2,000 troops to the region to serve as peacekeepers. Russia has also a military base in Armenia.
Despite strong ties between Moscow and Yerevan, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has been growingly critical of Russia’s role, saying his country needs to turn to the West to ensure its security, leading to Russian indignation.