Armenia and Azerbaijan stalled in negotiations over "corridor"
Azerbaijan's blockade of the Lachin Corridor comes as it accuses Armenia of dragging its feet over the fate of another critical route, the would-be Zangezur Corridor.
In the background of Azerbaijan’s ongoing blockade of the only road in and out of Nagorno-Karabakh lies the fate of another critical transportation route: the would-be “Zangezur Corridor.”
In the ceasefire agreement that ended the 2020 war, Armenia agreed to “guarantee the security of transport connections” between Azerbaijan’s mainland and its exclave of Nakhchivan, allowing “unobstructed movement of persons, vehicles and cargo in both directions” through Armenian territory.
More than two years on, though, the two sides have failed to come to an agreement on how to implement that. It remains the issue on which the two sides are farthest from compromise, and as the process drags on Azerbaijan continues to threaten force if Armenia doesn’t allow the route to be set up. “The Zangezur Corridor is a historical necessity,” President Ilham Aliyev said in a January 10 television interview. “It will happen whether Armenia wants it or not.”
For Baku, the promise of the corridor and the geopolitical advantages it would bring helped convince it to stop its offensive in the 2020 war and accept the presence of Russian peacekeepers in the territory. Those peacekeepers are now effectively keeping Baku from completing its victory and retaking control of all of its territory in Karabakh.
“Two years on from the November ceasefire, we see that the primary benefits for Azerbaijan to compensate for the Russian deployment of peacekeepers – namely the transit route across Armenia – has not taken place,” Laurence Broers, an analyst of the Caucasus at Chatham House, told German newspaper Der Spiegel. “This may result in Baku feeling that it needs to scale up the pressure on Armenia.”
That scaling up came on December 12, when a group of Azerbaijani government-backed protesters began a demonstration on the Lachin Corridor, the road in and out of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani officials have consistently drawn parallels between that road and the would-be Zangezur Corridor.
While the details of the negotiations over the transportation routes are secret, Yerevan regularly accuses Azerbaijan of demanding an “extraterritorial” road over which Armenia will have no sovereignty. It rejects the term “Zangezur Corridor” on the grounds that the word “corridor” implies this extraterritoriality. Azerbaijan, for its part, says that it does not claim the territory that the road would go through but insists on no Armenian presence on it, even passport or customs checks.
“Depending on who you talk to, they are almost there or they are far apart,” one foreign diplomat familiar with the negotiations told Eurasianet on the condition of anonymity. “Baku says ‘we’re there, we have made all the concessions that the Armenians want, there is no question of extraterritoriality, let’s just move ahead.’ And the Armenians are saying ‘no no no, there are important issues that need to be sorted out.’”
What Azerbaijanis expect, one senior government official told Eurasianet on condition of anonymity, is a dedicated road with no entrances or exits, leading from the western edge of its mainland to the eastern edge of Nakhchivan. It would be accompanied by a railroad line and electricity transmission lines. The only security presence, the official said, should be officers from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the body that is specified in the 2020 agreement as being “responsible for overseeing the transport connections.” Any Armenian officers should be at least 2.5 kilometers distant on either side.
The official said that in the negotiations over the 2020 ceasefire there was a “verbal agreement” clarifying that “unobstructed” meant no checks at all from the Armenian side. “But Armenia is trying to play a game now, it won't work,” the official said. (Armenia has denied the existence of a verbal agreement, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called it an “absurdity”.)
That Baku is proposing full Russian control over the route puts Yerevan in a bind, the foreign diplomat said: “Of course the Russians can’t be against the FSB controlling everything, so the Armenians feel cornered.” The diplomat added that the negotiations for now appear to be focused specifically on the railroad.
While the 2020 ceasefire agreement identifies the FSB as the body that is supposed to control the transportation routes, “Armenia doesn’t want that any more and needs reassurances about who would be conducting controls on its territory,” the diplomat continued. “Armenia-Russia relations have soured to a great degree. And from an Armenian perspective, they are saying ‘We need to have sovereign control over this. We can have certain arrangements [with the FSB] but the fundamental authority controlling that railroad has to be Armenia. Someone can do it on behalf of Armenia.’”
A spokesperson from Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment for this article.
Armenia wants either sole control of any road in Syunik or joint control with Russians, said Benyamin Poghosyan, an analyst in Yerevan who has been involved in expert-level discussions between Armenian and Azerbaijani analysts on issues including transportation. “Armenia says that ‘unobstructed’ does not mean the absence of Armenian officers,” Poghosyan told Eurasianet.
Armenia’s hard bargaining on the transportation issue comes as it is increasingly distancing itself from Nagorno-Karabakh and focuses on shoring up its sovereignty within its own borders. Officials in recent months have made repeated references to Armenia’s 29,800 square kilometers of territory. “It is not the government of Armenia that should decide the fate and relations of Nagorno-Karabakh. The people of Karabakh should decide for themselves,” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said on January 11.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.