Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday hosted his counterparts from Armenia and Azerbaijan to discuss reopening transport routes in the region that have been paralyzed for nearly three decades amid a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The talks came two months after a Russia-brokered truce ended weeks of fierce fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces that left more than 6,000 people dead.
Greeting Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in the Kremlin, Putin said that the peace agreement has been successfully implemented, “creating the necessary basis for a long-term and full-format settlement of the old conflict.”
The Nov. 10 peace deal ended 44 days of hostilities in which the Azerbaijani army routed Armenian forces and reclaimed control over large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas.
Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but had been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994. That war left Nagorno-Karabakh itself and substantial surrounding territory in Armenian hands.
Hostilities flared up in late September and the Azerbaijani military pushed deep into Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas, forcing Armenia to relinquish control over a significant part of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas.
Under the peace deal, Russia has deployed about 2,000 peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh for at least five years.
The peace agreement was celebrated in Azerbaijan as a major triumph, but sparked outrage and mass protests in Armenia, where thousands repeatedly took to the streets demanding Pashinyan’s resignation. Scores of protesters on Monday tried to block a highway linking the Armenian capital with the airport to prevent Pashinyan from traveling to Moscow, but police dispersed them.
The Armenian prime minister has defended the deal as a painful but necessary move that prevented Azerbaijan from overrunning the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey have shut their borders with Armenia ever since the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict erupted decades ago, a blockade that has crippled the economy of the landlocked country.
The Russia-brokered peace deal envisaged the reopening of transport routes, including a corridor linking Azerbaijan and its Nakhchivan exclave that borders Armenia, Turkey and Iran. Armenia, in its turn, will be able to use transit routes to Russia and Iran via Azerbaijan’s territory.
Putin noted Monday that senior officials from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia will set up a working group to discuss specific moves related to the restoration of transport routes in the region.
“The implementation of those agreements will benefit both the Armenian and Azerbaijani people and the entire region,” Putin said after four hours of talks in the Kremlin before sitting down for separate meetings with Aliyev and Pashinyan.
Aliyev hailed the importance of reopening transport links, saying it will help bolster regional stability.
“It opens completely new perspectives that we couldn’t even imagine in the past,” he said, adding that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has become history.
Pashinyan contested that claim, arguing that the status of Nagorno-Karabakh is yet to be determined, but he also hailed the plans to restore transit routes.