Nakhchivan, an Azerbaijani exclave that could cause new problems for Armenia
While reporting from the South Caucasus has recently focused on Azerbaijan’s victory in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it is important to recognise the renewed importance of the Nakhchivan region. This autonomous republic is quickly becoming a key part of regional politics.
A little-known autonomous republic within Azerbaijan is another consequence of the Stalinist regime’s policy of “divide and conquer”. Having regained control of Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku has not hesitated to express its desire for a direct link with its exclave Nakhchivan, an intention that complicates relations with the EU and western partners.
This exclave, bordered by Armenia, Turkey and Iran, is located in a predominantly mountainous area, with the exception of plains to its west and south-west. It has a population of 461,500, who are mostly Azerbaijanis, and an area of over 5000 square kilometres. As an integral part of Azerbaijan, a country courted by the EU and other European countries for its energy resources, developments in the area cannot go unnoticed. In this article, we will discuss the region’s past and what the future may hold for the autonomous republic.
One of the oldest cities
The name of the region comes from its capital, Nakhchivan, which was founded around 1,500 BC as one of the oldest cities in the area. In the time of Alexander the Great, it was called Naxuana, and in Armenian it is called Naxcawan. In fact, for Armenians the name of the region and the city is linked to the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, as in Armenian it translates as “the place of the first descendants”, i.e. where the survivors of the Great Flood landed after reaching Mount Ararat.
Like other regions in the Caucasus area, it passed through the rule of Persia, Rome, Armenia, Mongolia and Turkey before becoming part of Russia in 1828. The area has been predominantly Azerbaijani in recent centuries. Thus, some sources mention that by 1914, the Armenian population had decreased by 40 per cent, while the number of Azeris in the region had increased by 60 per cent.
The Nakhchivan region was no exception to the chaos and revolution of 1917, as it was the scene of bloody fighting and purges between Armenians and Azeris who disputed its ownership. In 1918, the region was occupied by Ottoman troops, who engaged in massacres, with around 10,000 Armenians falling victim. The Ottomans later withdrew, with British troops moving into the area.
When the Soviets arrived in the region, the “Democratic Republics” of Armenia and Azerbaijan continued to struggle for dominance in the region. In July 1920, the Red Army invaded and occupied the area. The Nakhchivan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was declared, which in turn established close ties with the Azerbaijani SSR. In an attempt to gain political support, Armenia’s Bolshevik leaders promised to integrate Nakhchivan, Nagorno-Karabakh and the Zangezur region into the Armenian SSR. At one point this was supported by Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders in Baku.
However, the Soviets held a referendum in 1921, in which 90 per cent of the Nakhchivan population voted to remain part of the Azerbaijani SSR. The result was confirmed by the treaty of March 16th 1921 between Turkey and Soviet Russia. From 1924, it became an autonomous republic within the Azerbaijani SSR. During the Soviet period, the region’s Azerbaijani population continued to grow steadily, while the Armenian minority decreased from 15 per cent in 1926 to 1.4 per cent in 1979.
On January 20th 1990, the Supreme Soviet of the Nakhchivan ASSR voted to separate from the USSR and integrate into the Azerbaijani constituent state. The same Supreme Soviet would then elect Heydar Aliyev, the future president of independent Azerbaijan, as the leader of the region. Thus, the break-up of the Soviet colossus left the region part of independent Azerbaijan, which was subject to several blockades by Armenia starting in the 1980s and ending in the mid-1990s.
Returning to the present, the revival of the Nakhchivan exclave issue has again emerged in the public arena. Of course, this occurred after Azerbaijan defeated fighters from the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region. However, this is especially true following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to the region. At the invitation of Azerbaijan’s president, he made a statement stressing the importance of a corridor linking Turkey and Azerbaijan. He also suggested that, without Armenian support, it could cross Iran. Of course, this move has sparked discussion about its geopolitical implications and wider tensions in the South Caucasus region.
Recently, Politico wrote that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had warned a small group of lawmakers that his department is tracking the possibility that Azerbaijan could soon invade Armenia. Recently, the likelihood of escalated tensions has diminished as Armenia and Azerbaijan have both signaled their intention to sign a peace treaty in the coming months. However, concerns persist. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev’s reference to Armenia as ‘West Azerbaijan’ has raised eyebrows, suggesting underlying contentious issues. Meanwhile, Armenia’s efforts to strengthen its ties with Western nations, despite hosting Russian military bases, add a complex layer to the regional dynamics
However, this small territory does indeed have a small border with Turkey. Therefore, if Azerbaijan succeeds in bridging the divide between the mainland and this disconnected territory, it would establish a direct link for Turkey to access the Caspian Sea in the east. At the same time, Azerbaijan would gain a direct link to Turkey, which would give it access to the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and Europe. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has also expressed interest in creating a land corridor through Armenia to link his country to Turkey. This ambition is rooted in the region’s historical geopolitical landscape, as the Nakhchivan region is currently separated from the mainland of Azerbaijan.
Of course, Armenia has expressed concern about these developments, fearing that such a corridor could lead to further territorial losses. Armenia has also accused Azerbaijan of undermining the peace process and not fully implementing agreements related to the region. Over the last month, the Guardian has noted that more than 100,000 Armenians have fled Nagorno-Karabakh, which was recently conquered by Azerbaijan.
Creating the Zangezur corridor
The Zangezur corridor is a proposed land and rail route that would establish direct links between Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and other Azerbaijani regions. This corridor is considered a key infrastructure project that could strengthen links between Turkey and Azerbaijan. In fact, Turkish President Erdogan, as always, wants Turkey to dominate the Black Sea and Caspian region and is keen to turn the Zangezur and Lachin (linking Karabakh and Armenia) transport routes into “corridors of peace”. This peace would naturally benefit Ankara geopolitically and economically.
The possibility of the Zangezur corridor passing through Iran has raised questions. Moreover, Turkey has threatened Armenia that if it does not cooperate with the project, it could lead to the possibility of the corridor route passing through Iran. Erdogan has expressed optimism about Iran’s willingness to participate in the initiative. This is because it could provide a passage from Turkey to Nakhchivan and wider Azerbaijan. This would represent a new and extraordinary territorial configuration, according to the Anadolu news agency.
The Turkish journalist who wrote this article stated that “The Zangezur region was originally part of Azerbaijan, though the Soviets gave it to Armenia in the 1920s, leaving Azerbaijan deprived of a direct overland route to its exclave of Nakhchivan.” The source also notes that the corridor would be near or adjacent to Armenia’s border with Iran, which would concern Tehran regarding the project cutting across its border with Yerevan. Earlier, Erdogan said the opening of the corridor is a “strategic issue” for Turkey and is “very important” for ties between Ankara and Baku.
“In other words, Azerbaijan has become a serious player in a very large transport market. Of course, the realisation of the Zangezur corridor is a historical necessity. That’s why I said it will be done whether Armenia wants it or not. Although in Armenia they perceive it as another threat, we had no such idea. It is simply inevitable. It will happen sooner or later. Of course, we want it to materialise soon,” the Azerbaijani leader said in 2021.
Also, the signing of the construction of the Igdir-Nakhchivan pipeline will create conditions for the supply of natural gas to the Azerbaijani exclave through another route from Turkey. This will supplement (or replace) gas deliveries from Iran.
Instead of conclusions
The European Union has been working to diversify its energy sources and reduce its dependence on Russia for natural gas. Azerbaijan, notably through the Southern Gas Corridor, has become a strategic partner in this effort. As for the US, it has the first opportunity since the fall of the Soviet Union to gain a significant foothold in the South Caucasus by reimagining the region’s security architecture. However, Russia’s involvement in this complex puzzle of regional dynamics adds another layer of complexity to the situation.
Russia, as an important regional actor, has been closely monitoring the situation. Moscow has criticised Armenia’s handling of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and even accused Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of pursuing a pro-western agenda. The Zangezur corridor proposal and the potential involvement of Iran highlight the evolving dynamics in the South Caucasus region. It also shows that Russia is still not paying attention to the region, as Armenia, once one of the countries most aligned with Russian policy, has been left to fend for itself because of the war in Ukraine.
President Erdogan’s statements signal Turkey’s commitment to strengthening ties with Azerbaijan and finding alternative routes if Armenia does not cooperate. However, they do not rule out the possibility of new territorial seizures, as claimed in some Armenian circles. As tensions persist, regional actors such as Russia could play a key role in influencing the outcome of these geopolitical manoeuvres, making the situation in the South Caucasus one to watch closely in the coming months.
This article was originally published in Romanian on the website agora.md.
Cristian Bolotnicov is a Moldova-based journalist for Agora.md. He specialises in topics related to politics and history writing in-depth analyses and uncovering underreported issues from politics, justice, economy and technology.
Laurențiu Pleșca is a PhD candidate at the Doctoral School of Political Sciences of the University of Bucharest, researcher for the Romanian Centre for Russian Studies and analyst at German Marshall Fund of the United States. His main research interest is on topics such as Russia’s geopolitics in the Black Sea region, domestic and foreign policy of the former Soviet states (in particular the Republic of Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan).
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