The timing of new U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which had been expected to start Monday, is now uncertain despite the U.S. administration's conviction that direct dialogue between the two nations is key to any stable peace agreement.
"At the request of the Azerbaijani side, the next round of discussions planned to take place next week in Washington D.C. is postponed," Armenia's foreign ministry spokesperson Ani Badalyan said in a statement Thursday on social media. "The public will be duly informed on the new timeframes of the meeting."
Badalyan had previously stated that foreign ministerial talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan scheduled for June 12 would be aimed at stabilizing relations between the neighboring rivals and reaching a peace treaty.
The countries have had a decades-long conflict involving the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is inside Azerbaijan but populated predominantly by ethnic Armenians.
When asked Thursday whether the talks have been postponed, a State Department spokesman told VOA, "Regarding the date of the next round of talks, we don't have any specific dates to announce at this time."
Experts predict difficult talks whenever they begin, saying there are many obstacles to a durable peace deal between the two countries.
"Even though the [Nagorno-Karabakh] region is recognized as a part of Azerbaijan, the Armenia government will likely not sign a peace treaty with Azerbaijan unless the Azerbaijan government provides assurances about the security and safety of the Karabakh Armenians," said Heather Ashby, acting director for U.S. Institute of Peace's Center for Russia and Europe program.
"Azerbaijan's plan for incorporating Karabakh Armenians into Azerbaijan will play an important role in the peace talks," Ashby told VOA on Thursday.
Armenia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs on June 6 tweeted that Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan and the State Department's principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian affairs, Dereck Hogan, had "discussed key issues of normalization process" of Armenia-Azerbaijan relations ahead of the talks.
They discussed "border delimitation and security" as well as the "rights and security" of people living in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the ministry tweeted.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov had acknowledged the coming meetings and the need to prepare an agreement to normalize relations with Armenia, while expressing uncertainty about the duration of the peace process, according to VOA's Azerbaijani service.
At the State Department, deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters during a briefing this week that the United States looks "forward to hosting another round of talks in Washington as the parties continue to pursue a peaceful future in the South Caucasus region."
"We continue to believe that direct dialogue is key towards reaching a durable and dignified peace," said Patel, while declining to confirm the date that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would host the peace talks.
If the meetings take place next week, they will follow peace talks hosted by the State Department in early May, when Blinken said "tangible progress" had been made toward an agreement.
The top U.S. diplomat said he believed a peace deal was "within sight, within reach" at that time.
Meanwhile, tensions remain high between the two former Soviet republics over Azerbaijan's blockade of the Lachin Corridor, which is the only land route giving Armenia direct access to Nagorno-Karabakh.
"As a starting point for improving security, we call on Azerbaijan to take steps to ensure constant gas and electricity supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as to ensure the free flow and movement of goods and people, including through the Lachin Corridor," said Ambassador Michael Carpenter, the U.S. envoy to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, on June 6.
He urged all sides to "refrain from provocative, threatening, or hostile actions or rhetoric," while pledging Washington's support for "a durable and sustainable peace agreement."
The Lachin Corridor allows supplies from Armenia to reach the 120,000 ethnic Armenians in the mountainous enclave. The corridor has been policed by Russian peacekeepers since December 2020.
The blockade has left those ethnic Armenian residents in Nagorno-Karabakh without access to essential goods and services, including life-saving medication and health care, according to Amnesty International.
The rights group said Azerbaijan's government has failed its human rights obligations by taking no action to lift the blockade.
Azerbaijan maintains the land route is open for humanitarian deliveries, emergency services and peacekeepers.
In November 2022, Blinken hosted foreign ministers from Armenia and Azerbaijan for peace negotiations at Blair House in Washington.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev held face-to-face meetings hosted by Blinken on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in February.
"For any sustainable peace, the populations of Armenia and Azerbaijan also need to see the value of peace," USIP's Heather Ashby told VOA.
"For 30 years, they have lived through violence and conflict between the two countries. A peace agreement will have a significant impact on the populations of both countries and it is important not to lose sight on how they may respond and accept a treaty."
VOA Armenian and Azerbaijan services contributed to this report.