(Bloomberg) -- The US, European Union, Russia and Turkey welcomed a joint statement by Armenia and Azerbaijan as a potential breakthrough in efforts to end decades of conflict.
The endorsements followed an announcement of “tangible steps” to build confidence in the statement by the offices of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The two countries “share the view that there is a historical chance to achieve a long-awaited peace,” according to the statement late Thursday.
The rare direct contact between the South Caucasus neighbors follows repeated wars over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than three decades ago. Armenia and Azerbaijan have previously negotiated through mediators such as Russia, the US and the EU in an effort to end the conflict that has killed tens of thousands and created more than 1 million refugees.
Azerbaijan announced it’s releasing 32 Armenian military prisoners and Armenia said two Azerbaijani servicemen were being freed. Armenia also said it’s withdrawing a bid to host the COP29 United Nations climate summit and supporting Azerbaijan’s candidacy instead, while the government in Baku reciprocated by backing Armenia for membership of the Eastern European Group COP Bureau.
READ: Baku May Host COP29 After Armenia and Azerbaijan Peace Talks
The joint statement is an “unprecedented opening in political dialogue,” European Council President Charles Michel wrote on X, formerly Twitter, “I now encourage the leaders to finalise the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace deal ASAP.”
The US “will continue to strongly support efforts to reach a durable and dignified peace,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement commending Aliyev’s and Pashinyan’s “joint efforts.” Assistant Secretary of State James O’Brien visited Baku on Wednesday for talks with Aliyev.
Armenia and Azerbaijan should sign a peace deal “as soon as possible” to bolster stability in the region, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement welcoming the confidence-building steps. Turkey backed its ally Azerbaijan in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and is in talks with Armenia on establishing diplomatic relations.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the prisoner exchange “opens up new opportunities” to normalize relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Azerbaijan took full control of Nagorno-Karabakh in a lightening military operation in September that was condemned by the US and EU and triggered an exodus of 100,000 Armenians into Armenia. The mountainous region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but had a majority ethnic Armenian population.
READ: Armenian Exodus Marks a New Front in East-West Power Tussle
Armenian forces took Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts from Azerbaijan in a war in the early 1990s. Azerbaijan reclaimed most of the territory in a 2020 war that ended when Russian President Vladimir Putin brokered a truce agreement.
International efforts to reach a final peace deal haven’t succeeded so far. Tensions have flared over the future of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians as well as access to Azerbaijan’s exclave of Naxcivan, bordering Turkey and Iran, and the two sides haven’t yet agreed on demarcation of their common border.
--With assistance from Zulfugar Agayev.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.