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The price of the strategic roads

Recent clashes along a contested road between Armenia and Azerbaijan have only further revealed the weaknesses of last year’s ceasefire agreement between the two states. Despite this, talks regarding this issue may present a path towards a more durable peace.

December 15, 2021 - Alina Nahapetyan - Articles and Commentary

Syunik gate in the Vorotan pass Photo: James Finnerty

Skirmishes on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border continue despite warnings from the international community. The border situation between the two countries is particularly tense in Armenia’s Syunik and Gegharkunik regions, as well as the village of Yeraskh that borders the Nakhchivan exclave of Azerbaijan. The borders of these territories have remained in dispute since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result, these territories became frontline zones during last year’s war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Following an Armenian troop withdrawal from contested areas along Armenia’s Syunik province last December, Azerbaijan gained control over a 21 kilometre section of land. This controversial decision to withdraw was ordered by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

First Azerbaijan took control of portions of a strategic road in Syunik province. This connects the cities of Goris and Kapan. Azerbaijani soldiers then set up customs points on a section of the road that runs through its territory. The checkpoint, which was set up on September 12th, demanded taxes from Iranian commercial trucks transporting cargo to and from Armenia. Azerbaijan also announced that border controls and customs checks would be applied to all Armenian traffic from November 11th. All traffic from this section of road was subsequently redirected to an alternative route that bypasses the border area. The 70 kilometre bypass road has been mostly rebuilt in recent months. Armenia’s prime minister acknowledged that the route is still not convenient enough for heavy trucks and needs further upgrades. In a statement released on November 14th, Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) announced that the country will also set up border and customs points on the Kapan-Chakaten section of the contested route. The NSS said that an alternative road for this section will be ready before the end of the year.

Armenia’s political leadership has said that continuing to use the Baku-controlled road section would mean agreeing to the “corridor logic” advanced by Azerbaijan. Pashinyan suggested that Baku imposed the border checks due to Yerevan’s refusal to agree to a special transport corridor that would connect Azerbaijan to its Nakhchivan exclave through the portion of Syunik bordering Iran.

Border clashes versus delimitation and demarcation

Issues related to the use of roads emerged amid another military escalation along the Armenia-Azerbaijan state border in the southern Syunik region on November 16th. This was halted later that day through Russian mediation. This escalation resulted in the worst outbreak of fighting since the war last year, which claimed at least 6,500 lives. In a statement released by the Armenian Ministry of Defence, it was revealed that at least six Armenian soldiers had been killed in these latest clashes. Whilst 24 other Armenian soldiers had been lost, 13 troops had been taken prisoner by Azerbaijan. Eduard Aghajanyan, member of parliament for the ruling Civil Contract party and chairman of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, stated earlier that 15 Armenian soldiers had been killed in the fighting.

Pashinyan stated in parliament that Azerbaijan had been occupying 41 square kilometres of Armenia since May 12th. “It is not that the territory is completely and fully controlled by the Azerbaijani armed forces. Due to the process that took place after May 12th, our positions and those of Azerbaijan in different parts have been arranged in a checkerboard way, sometimes clashing with each other. Even before May 12th, about 40 or more square kilometres of Armenia was under the control of Azerbaijan, as a result of the first war. Also as a result of the first war, there are territories of Soviet Azerbaijan, which were and are under the control of Armenia. These circumstances make the process of demarcation and delimitation very important,” Pashinyan said.

Meanwhile, the Security Council of Armenia drew the attention of Russia, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), and the international community by stressing “the ongoing aggressive actions of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces”. The Security Council of Armenia emphasised that “these actions are against Armenia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, regional security, and stability, as well as the provisions of the November 9th trilateral statement.” 

The secretary of the security council said that his personal appeal for assistance would also be followed by a more formal written declaration. Later, Russia’s TASS news agency quoted the Armenian ambassador to Moscow, Vardan Toghanyan, as saying that Moscow and Yerevan are currently conducting consultations via military and diplomatic channels over the escalation along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. It was also reported that the situation on the border was discussed during a phone call initiated by Armenia between Nikol Pashinyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Armenia’s foreign ministry also issued a statement stressing that under the UN Charter the country has the right to repel aggression against its territorial integrity and sovereignty “by all available means”.

One day after the border clashes, Pashinyan said in parliament that the delimitation and demarcation of the border with Azerbaijan is a national priority. He also accused Azerbaijan of delaying the process by not responding to three Russian proposals on border delimitation and demarcation. The earliest of these appeals was made in May, when the current crisis began along the border. Azerbaijan denied these accusations, claiming that its troops were stationed in territories that Baku regained as a result of last year’s war.

Two days after the border clashes, the Armenian leader said that the proposals of Russia’s defence ministry “on the preparatory stage of delimitation and demarcation” were acceptable to Armenia.

During a meeting with Armenian Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoryan in Moscow, his Russian counterpart Nikolay Patrushev said that Moscow was ready to provide relevant assistance to Armenia and Azerbaijan in the delimitation and demarcation of their border. 

Armenian-Azerbaijani Talks in Russia

On November 26th, hours before the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan met for talks in Sochi, Azerbaijan released two Armenians. One of these figures was a 28 year old serviceman who was taken prisoner during the November 16th clashes, while the other man was a civilian who had strayed into territory controlled by Azerbaijani soldiers. 

During the meeting at the Black Sea resort, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan expressed their readiness to engage in the process of delimitating and demarcating their Soviet-era border and pursuing the unblocking of regional infrastructure.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said that the incidents in the conflict zone over the past year had not been of a systemic nature. He also stressed that the section of last year’s ceasefire agreement that discussed regional unblocking had yet to be implemented. At the same time, the Azerbaijani leader reiterated Baku’s readiness to start the process of delimitating the Soviet-era border between the two countries. The Armenian leader said that despite the fact that the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is neither delimitated nor demarcated, “the state frontier still does exist”. Pashinyan also said that the ceasefire agreement’s demand that all prisoners of war and other detainees be returned to their respective sides had not yet been fully implemented by Azerbaijan. He also reiterated Yerevan’s position that the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue should proceed within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group. Furthermore, Pashinyan expressed Armenia’s readiness to engage in the process of delimitation. He also stated that regional unblocking is also very important to Armenia.

A trilateral statement released after the meeting announced that the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan had agreed “to take steps to increase the level of stability and security on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and to work towards the creation of a bilateral commission on the delimitation of the state border between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia with its subsequent demarcation with the consultative assistance of the Russian Federation at the request of the parties”.

The statement said that the parties also agreed “to intensify joint efforts aimed at the earliest possible resolution of the remaining tasks arising from the statements of November 9, 2020 and January 11, 2021”. This includes the resumption of all economic and transport links in the South Caucasus.

The third round of talks between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan since last year’s war will take place on December 15th as part of the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels.

Alina Nahapetyan is an Armenian journalist. She graduated from Yerevan State University and currently a student at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw, Poland. She has been working as a journalist for the various Armenian television channels and media outlets since 2014 mainly covering human rights issues, domestic violence, politics, and EU-Armenia relations.

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