South-Caucasus Geopolitical Watch – from March 26 to April 1st, 2022

03/26-28/2022: The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry denies Armenian-Russian denunciations of Azerbaijani encroachment on the area of responsibility of peacekeeping forces in Karabakh.

Following the incidents at the end of last week in the Farrukh and Khramort districts of Karabakh, the Russian Defense Ministry declared on March 26 “from March 24 to 25, the armed forces of the Republic of Azerbaijan, violating the provisions of the tripartite declaration of the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia dated November 9, 2020, entered the area of ​​responsibility of the Russian peacekeeping contingent in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and set up an observation post” and denounced “four strikes [which were] carried out by an unmanned aerial vehicle of the type Bayraktar-TB 2 on units of the armed formations of Nagorno-Karabakh in the area of ​​​​the settlement FURUKH”. He thus informed of a request for the withdrawal of Azerbaijani troops from the aforesaid area. The Azerbaijani MFA responded the same day expressing its “regrets regarding the unilateral statement of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation […], which [according to it] does not reflect reality“, calling for the completion of the withdrawal of “Armenian remnants and illegal Armenian armed detachments from the territory of Azerbaijan” and recalling that “there is no administrative-territorial unit called ‘Nagorno-Karabakh’ on the territory of Azerbaijan” and stating that “the name of the village mentioned in the statement is not Furukh, but Farrukh“.

A new bulletin of the Russian peacekeeping forces published by the Russian Defense Ministry on March 27 reported two violations of the ceasefire regime by the Azerbaijani side in the Askeran region which allegedly ended by two wounded on each side and announced the withdrawal of the Azerbaijani armed forces from the Furukh settlement area. Three columns would thus have been escorted down the Lachin Corridor.

This bulletin was also denied by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense on the same day, which stated that “there has been no change in the positions of the Azerbaijani army in the village of Farrukh and in the surrounding highlands, which are part of the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan” and that “the statement by the Russian Ministry of Defense that the ceasefire was violated by Azerbaijan is also false and no injuries were reported. has been reported among the Azerbaijani military“. He also pointed to a “lack of respect for the territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan recognized and accepted by the international community, including the Russian Federation“, recalling that “there [was] no administrative or territorial unit called “Nagorno-Karabakh” in the territory of Azerbaijan“.

The Armenian MFA press release of March 28, together with maps drawn up by the Russian contingent, according to which “the incursion of Azerbaijani units into Nagorno-Karabakh in the area of responsibility of the Russian peacekeeping contingent continues” and that “the map showing the situation at 9 a.m. on March 28, 2022 shows that [three] Azerbaijani positions are located in the area of responsibility of the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh” also made the subject of a comment rejecting “categorically the false and fabricated statement of the Armenian Foreign Ministry” on this subject and stating that “it is Armenia which pursues its clear territorial claims against Azerbaijan in the post-conflict phase” and that it “continues to send troops to the region via the Lachin Corridor” and stating that “the request expressed by the Azerbaijani side is not addressed to citizens of Armenian origin living in the Karabakh region of our country, but to the remnants of illegal Armenian military units which are to be withdrawn from the region, as envisaged by the Tripartite Declaration“.

On March 27, Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to France, Rahman Mustafayev, said: “The control of the height of Farrukh (Fərruh, is in the Khankendi-Askeran-Aghdam road) by the army of Azerbaijan takes on a critical importance to the objectives of securing the city of Aghdam and controlling the Khankendi-Khojaly-Askeran and Khankendi-Aghdere highways“.

The US State Department’s March 25 statement expressing concern over “Azerbaijani troop movements” was also the subject of a critical statement by the Azerbaijani FM the next day denouncing that “unfortunately, the United States, as co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk group, has not taken any effective measures to end Armenia’s military aggression against Azerbaijan, which has lasted for almost 30 years” and that it was “irresponsible for a US State Department official to make such a statement based on false Armenian propaganda“.

03/27/2022: Armenian-Azerbaijani disagreement on the causes of the gas supply disruption in Karabakh.

The Azerigaz company explained in a statement on March 27 that “the failure of gas distribution lines in the territory of the Karabakh economic region, which have been operating for many years without maintenance, has caused problems with the gas supply “, also mentioned the snowfall complicating the intervention of its employees. It announced a restoration of supply to Khankendi and its surroundings for March 28 for test purposes before a final restoration on March 29.

The company Artsakhgaz denounced in response “provocative disinformation, the insidious purpose of which is to take advantage of the current difficult situation and mislead the Armenians of Artsakh and the international community” explaining that “natural gas is supplied to the territory of the Republic of Artsakh through a single gas pipeline from the territory of the Republic of Armenia, the supplier is Gazprom Armenia, which is a 100% subsidiary of Gazprom” and that “therefore, […] SOCAR, or its subsidiary Azerigaz mentioned in the press release, cannot be involved in the process of supplying gas to the Republic of Artsakh. Such a situation is unthinkable even from a technical or geographical point of view”. The MFA of “Artsakh” confirmed on March 29 the resumption of gas supply to the region.

On April 1, representatives of the Azerigaz company held a press conference during which they declared: “The cities of Khankendi, Shusha Agdam and Fizuli are part of the Karabakh economic zone. The liberated lands are the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan and any work on the infrastructure, in particular the gas infrastructure, can only be carried out by the competent structures of Azerbaijan”.

03/27/2022: The Prosecutor General of Azerbaijan initiates criminal proceedings against a member of the Duma.

On March 27, Mikhail Delyagin, deputy chairman of the State Duma’s Economic Policy Committee, called Azerbaijan a “satellite of the Americans” and a “Turkish proxy” saying “If we don’t directly and severely punish Azerbaijan for this, why do we need the Azerbaijani oil and gas industry? We don’t need it. If people don’t understand the words, then maybe we need to take action,” after which he posted a poll via his Telegram account asking if it would be justified to “destroy the Azerbaijani oil industry with a nuclear weapon.” Condemned by the Russian authorities, in particular Dimitri Peskov, spokesperson for the Kremlin or Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the MFA, this approach was also the subject of the launch of criminal proceedings on March 30 for “open calls to start a war of aggression” by the Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office, which said the MP from the ‘A Just Russia – Patriots – For the Truth’ party had been placed on Interpol’s international wanted list.

03/29/2022: Opening of the Media Center of the “Ministry of Foreign Affairs” of Abkhazia with the editor-in-chief of Russia Today.

On March 29, Aslan Bzhania, “President of the Republic” of Abkhazia officially inaugurated the “Ministry of Foreign Affairs” media center in Sokhumi, which is to operate “with the support of the Department of Information and Press of the Russian Foreign Ministry, as well as Russian news agencies”, with Margarita Simonian, Editor-in-Chief of Russia Today who said: “We know that the citizens of Abkhazia are now taking part in a special operation with Russia. We are very grateful to them”. On this occasion the Abkhazian MFA said: “We live in the age of information and we all witness the huge role it plays today. Properly verified information support is an indispensable tool to extend the international recognition of our country, reinforcing its positive international image. In this regard, the opening of the media center is of great significance and will contribute to solving the problems facing the country today.”

03/30/2022: Meeting of Azerbaijani and Armenian representatives in Brussels facilitated by the European Union Special Representative for the South Caucasus, Toivo Klaar.

On March 30, Hikmet Hadjiyev, Advisor to the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, and Armen Grigorian, Secretary of the Armenian Security Council, met in Brussels separately and also together with Toivo Klaar, EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus, in order to prepare a meeting between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and European Council President Charles Michel, which should take place on next 6th April. On this occasion, they addressed all the questions relating to the follow-up to the agreements concluded during the meeting of the leaders of the two countries and President Charles Michel in Brussels on 14 December, as well as those related to the prospect of an agreement of peace between them.

The day before, the Azerbaijani MFA had declared that: “the main reason for the escalation of tensions in the region [was] Armenia’s failure to fulfill its obligations“, recalling that “humanity [had] not yet developed better means of international deterrence than international law” and that the “Azerbaijani side [had] offered to sign a peace agreement with Armenia at the highest level a year ago, and [had] expressed a month of the precise principles on which the agreement should be based” in response to statements by the Armenian Prime Minister’s press service on March 28, following the meeting of the Armenian Security Council, stating that “the Republic of Azerbaijan, trying to find imaginary justifications, [opened] the way for further provocations and attacks in the direction of Nagorno-Karabakh” and that “it was necessary to launch international containment mechanisms to prevent a further military escalation and ethnic cleansing in the region“.

03/29-30/2022: Alleged discovery of new human remains in Karabakh.

Several Azerbaijani media reported on March 29 about human remains discovered during excavation and engineering works carried out by the Azerbaijani army in the village of Farrukh in Khojaly district. These could belong to people killed on the night of February 25 to 26, 1992 during the Khojaly massacre. Several human remains were reportedly discovered in three different locations the following day. The trail of Azerbaijani soldiers who died in the battle of Mount Farrukh was also mentioned. A statement from the State Commission on Captives, Hostages and Missing Persons on March 31 published a list of 62 servicemen missing in the battle of Farrukh while mentioning 46 additional servicemen missing in Khojaly. Announced the forthcoming intervention of a team of specialists to carry out searches and exhumations in the area given “the possibility of mass graves“.

03/30/2022: The South Ossetian “President of the Republic” officially declares himself in favour of integration into the Russian Federation.

During a special video address, Antoni Bibilov, “President of the Republic” of South Ossetia, who is currently campaigning for the elections on April 10, and while the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces announced that he had sent up to 1,200 Russian and Ossetian soldiers from the 4th military base in South Ossetia, delivered a speech on March 30 during which he officially spoke out in favour of the region’s integration into the Russian Federation explaining that “the main historical and strategic goal of the Ossetian people, a divided people, is to unite as one state. This state is the Russian Federation”. He thus declared that “the Russian world today defends the interests of those who are committed to it, of those who oppose Nazism and respect universal human values ​​as well as fundamental rights and standards accepted by the entire international community“. He also assured that South Ossetia would take “corresponding legal measures in the near future“. “The Republic of South Ossetia will be part of its historical homeland, Russia,” he added.

On the same day, Leonid Kalashnikov, Chairman of the Duma Committee on CIS Affairs, Eurasian Integration and Relations with Compatriots, said that: “South Ossetia [could] express its desire to make part of the Russian Federation, and legally it [was] entirely possible”. “In any case, nothing will change for Russia, which today largely protects and maintains this republic, and perhaps even improves economically,” he added. Andrei Klimov, senator and Deputy Head of the United Russia Commission on International Cooperation, meanwhile, explained: “When all the legal formalities are completed, there are no legal obstacles to realize the old dream of the people of south-Ossetia [which] is going to become part of the Russian Federation. We are waiting for these procedures to be completed. On our side, all the necessary legal issues were resolved 20 years ago […] For this, the main thing is the expression of the will of the Ossetian people. This can be done by referendum“. The speaker of the “Parliament of South Ossetia”, Alan Tadtaev, declared on the same day that “the question of holding a referendum, which will take place in the near future, [was] under development“.

The following day, March 31, the “President of the Republic of Abkhazia”, Aslan Bzhania, said he welcomed “the desire of the people of South Ossetia to reunite with North Ossetia within the framework of the Russian state“. while adding “we are convinced that this step fully meets the interests of South Ossetians. […] Sovereign independent Abkhazia is building and will continue to build relations with fraternal ally Russia in strict compliance with the treaty of November 24, 2014”. Thus, Sergei Shamba, head of Abkhazia’s security council, said that Abkhazia, for its part, remained in favour of independence, saying: “There are no such feelings in society. We paid a high price for independence…I know of no political force in Abkhazia, no party or social movement that would proceed from such a possibility of giving up independence.

On the same day, the Georgian MFA, David Zalkaliani, spoke in Tbilisi on this subject during a press conference in the company of his Danish counterpart, Jeppe Kofod, deeming the talks on a possible referendum “unacceptable“, recalling that “the legal assessment [of the occupation of Georgian territories] is contained in the decision of the European Court of Human Rights, which says that there is an occupation“. “No referendum will have any legal effect under the conditions of occupation, especially when hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens are expelled from their homes as a result of ethnic cleansing and are not allowed to return […] We want to share the benefits of European integration with our brothers and sisters who live on the other side of the occupation line. This is our contribution to the policy of peace, to which Georgia remains committed,” he said.

Jeppe Kofod, meanwhile, commented on the press release: “Today, as the occupied Tskhinvali region plans to hold a referendum, we stand with Georgia. While a very dangerous authoritarianism is rising in the world and Russia is waging a war against Ukraine, and Russian troops are still stationed in the occupied territories of Georgia, the West firmly supports Georgia and all countries that adhere to international rules and values. We have to stop Russia. Democratic countries and the democratic world stand together.

Ned Price, spokesman for the US State Department, said: “Just as the United States failed to acknowledge the illegal seizure and attempted annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 and just as we did not recognize the Kremlin’s cynical attempt to recognize the independence of the so-called DPR and LPR in eastern Ukraine, just before it launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, we do not recognize the results of any effort by Russia or its proxies to partition Georgian sovereign territory.”

This initiative was also criticized by the former “President of the Republic of South Ossetia”, Eduard Kokoïty, who declared: “Only people who are weak in politics can say that South Ossetia should be part of Russia. Ossetia has made its choice and Russia has recognized its statehood. We must take into account the opinion of the Russian Federation, and not play populist games. Ossetia is already a de facto part of Russia. Today, we must seize the opportunity to strengthen the state and develop ourselves.

03/30/2022: OSCE Chairman-in-Office Zbigniew Rau visits Tbilisi before travelling to Baku and Yerevan.

Zbigniew Rau, Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE and Polish MFA traveled to Tbilisi on March 30 to meet President Salomé Zurabishvili, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani. He also visited the line of contact with South Ossetia near Odzisi together with the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM). Emphasis was placed on the importance of an effective co-chairmanship of the Mechanism for Prevention and Response to Incidents (MPRI). He also reaffirmed his support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty as well as the country’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration. During his joint press conference with the Georgian MFA, he said: “Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine and destructive actions against several other countries in the OSCE area, Georgia being the one of the most visible examples, are clearly an attempt to forcefully redraw the borders in Europe“. The following day, Zbigniew Rau was visiting Baku where he met the President of the Republic, Ilham Aliyev. He also met with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on April 1.

03/30/2022: Retreat of South Ossetian soldiers from Ukraine.

A Telegram channel and a blogger from South Ossetia revealed on March 30 the return of several soldiers from the Ukrainian theatre of operations. About 300 of the 1,200 soldiers serving in the 4th military base under Russian command and deployed in Ukraine since March 20 would thus have returned by their own means, hitch-hiking, using the Roki tunnel from North Ossetia, thinking ” being left for dead during a special operation in Ukraine” according to the blogger. The former leader of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoïty, had declared on March 23 against his successor that “The attitude of the authorities towards our soldiers [had] shocked the entire Ossetian people“. Upon their return, he also said, “No one has the right to condemn these guys or accuse them of cowardice. […] It is necessary to understand the root causes of what happened and how their participation was organized […] to carefully investigate the situation when soldiers are sent into combat operations without full gear nor stockpiles of weapons, warm clothing and protective equipment“.

03/31/2022: Speech by the Prime Minister of Armenia on the Karabakh conflict resolution process.

On March 31, Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian leader gave a long speech about the worsening border tensions in Karabakh ahead of the cabinet of ministers meeting in Yerevan. He thus denounced an attempt by Azerbaijan to “legitimize a large-scale attack on Nagorno-Karabakh and the Republic of Armenia“. He reported “disinformation” from the Azerbaijani side deemed “scandalous“, particularly concerning the sending of four Armenian SU-30 SM fighter jets to Russia to serve in Ukraine or the transit of foreign fighters through Armenia. He reaffirmed Armenia’s willingness to sign a peace agreement with its neighbour while stressing the need that “the question of the rights of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh [be] addressed within the framework of a comprehensive settlement“.

He also reaffirmed the legitimacy of the use of the term “Nagorno-Karabakh” in these terms: “Yet the use of this name is unequivocally legitimate, logical, among others, because the trilateral declaration of November 9 clearly uses the Nagorno-Karabakh and Nagorno-Karabakh conflict“. He accused the Azerbaijani side of making “arbitrary interpretations of the Nov. 9 trilateral statement” including regarding “the withdrawal of the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army” which would not appear in the document, as well as “Azerbaijan’s policy of removing everything Armenian from Nagorno-Karabakh, including thousand-year-old churches, khachkars and inscriptions“. “Parukh’s events show that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh must be protected, otherwise they will become victims of genocide,” he added. He stated his expectations of the Russian peacekeeping contingent, namely, ” that he take measures concrete measures to ensure the withdrawal of Azerbaijani troops from the peacekeepers’ area of responsibility and to restore the status quo established by the trilateral declaration of November 9, 2020“.

Regarding the Zangezour Corridor project, he said: “The comparison of the Lachin Corridor with the road to be opened through the territory of Armenia is unacceptable, because the declaration of November 9 does not envisage the existence of any corridor through the territory of Armenia and Armenia has not and will not accept any corridor logic, but we are ready to open the road and the railway within the framework of our proposals”.

On the same day, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts. The parties renewed their agreement on the implementation of the trilateral declarations of November 9, 2020, January 11, 2021 and November 26, 2021. Nikol Pashinyan reported, on this occasion, “details of Azerbaijan’s actions aimed at intimidating the inhabitants of the villages of Nagorno-Karabakh with loudspeakers and to exert psychological pressure” and expressed his expectations in this regard.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish President, said the same day that “the most important thing is to ensure the complete withdrawal of illegal armed Armenian elements from the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan in accordance with the provisions of the Trilateral Declaration“.

03/31/2022: Shusha declared “cultural capital of the Turkish world”.

During a meeting of the Permanent Council of the International Organization of Turkish Culture, bringing together the Ministers of Culture of the Member States, the city of Shusha in Karabakh was declared “cultural capital of the Turkish world”.

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