Azerbaijan steps back on demands for “Zangezur Corridor”
Baku appears to be retreating from the grand vision of a corridor connecting the Turkic world for the sake of a more local strategic goal: cementing control over Karabakh.
Azerbaijan has offered a new proposal to Armenia in the ongoing peace negotiations between the two countries: to allow Armenian checks of Azerbaijani traffic along what Baku calls the “Zangezur Corridor,” in exchange for the establishment of Azerbaijani checkpoints on the road connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.
The move would effectively give up on the larger geopolitical vision of the Zangezur Corridor: a seamless transportation route connecting Azerbaijan to Turkey and beyond. At its most fanciful, it was envisaged as a road to "unite the entire Turkic world.” Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev has even repeatedly threatened to use force if Armenia doesn’t allow the corridor to be built.
Now, though, Aliyev says that Baku would accept Armenian checkpoints on the road when it enters and leaves Armenian territory. “It would be good if Armenia and Azerbaijan established checkpoints on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border bilaterally,” he told reporters on February 18. “Checkpoints should be established at both ends of the Zangezur corridor and the border between the Lachin district [of Azerbaijan] and Armenia.”
Aliyev said that he made that proposal formally to the Armenian side on the same day, when he met with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. “We will wait for a response from Armenia,” he said.
In a sense, the proposal is not strictly new. Azerbaijan has long argued that the statuses of the two roads should be equal: either checkpoints on both or on neither.
"Today, there are no customs [posts] in the Lachin corridor,” the road connecting Armenia to Karabakh, Aliyev said in December 2021. “Therefore, there should be no customs [posts] in the Zangezur corridor. If Armenia would insist on using customs facilities to control cargo and people, then we will insist on the same in the Lachin corridor. This is logical."
But the accent has always been on the no-checkpoint version. Just a month ago, an Azerbaijani official told Eurasianet that Azerbaijan’s demand was not only no Armenian checkpoints, but no Armenian security officers at all in a 2.5-kilometer buffer zone on the road as it passed through Armenian territory.
The would-be Zangezur Corridor would connect the mainland of Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhchivan through Armenian territory. It was borne out of the ceasefire agreement that ended the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the ninth point of which stipulated that Armenia would “guarantee the security of transport connections” to Nakhchivan “in order to arrange unobstructed movement of persons, vehicles and cargo in both directions.” Russian border guards would be responsible for “overseeing” the route.
The most disputed word in that provision was “unobstructed.” Armenians argued that passport and customs controls as the route entered and left Armenian territory did not amount to obstruction; Azerbaijanis argued that it did.
“How will this unobstructed movement be ensured? Will Armenians just sit and watch us? Let them watch. But the movement should be unobstructed. If there is a checkpoint there, it won’t be unobstructed,” said Farid Shafiyev, the head of a state-run think tank, in a November 2021 interview with RFE/RL.
“What Azerbaijan wants is no checkpoints, not to have to stop at the border,” Anar Valiyev, the dean of ADA University, told analyst Tom de Waal the same month. “We are in a situation where we have leverage, we have time and we can dictate terms.”
Armenians, for their part, consistently offered to open a road connecting mainland Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan, but that it couldn’t be an “extraterritorial corridor” over which it had no control.
As negotiations over a comprehensive peace agreement between the two sides have dragged on, with the nature of the Zangezur Corridor apparently the biggest sticking point, Azerbaijan launched a blockade of the Lachin Corridor. That blockade has continued now for more than two months; Azerbaijan claims that Armenians had been using the road to smuggle weapons in and valuable resources out of Nagorno-Karabakh, and that they need some sort of checkpoint to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Meanwhile, Baku was proposing a variant of the Zangezur Corridor in which checks could be carried out by Russian, but not Armenian, security officers. (While Aliyev wasn’t entirely explicit on who would operate the checkpoints on the Armenian side of the border under his proposal, a senior Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry official confirmed to Eurasianet, on condition of anonymity, that it would be Armenians.)
It is not clear whether Aliyev’s “new” proposal was inspired by changing circumstances or was the strategy all along – that is, the maximalist vision of the Zangezur Corridor was always a bargaining chip to gain control over Karabakh. In any event, the new Azerbaijani proposal amounts to a retreat from that public grand geopolitical strategy for the sake of a more local strategic aim: cementing its control over Karabakh.
And it could pave the way for Armenia to sign a comprehensive agreement more quickly. While allowing Azerbaijan customs and passport control is unacceptable to the Armenian population of Karabakh, that will not be a dealbreaker. Armenia and the American and European mediators who have been working on a peace agreement have been increasingly focusing on arranging some kind of direct relationship between the Karabakh Armenians and the Azerbaijani government, without involvement from Yerevan. Disputes over the Zangezur Corridor appear to have been the biggest impediment for Armenia, and now they may have been resolved.
The new proposal appears to have caught the Armenian side flat-footed. There has been little official response, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
The head of the ruling party faction in the Armenian parliament was asked about the proposal in an interview with RFE/RL, and repeated the talking points that Armenia would never accept an extraterritorial corridor. When the interviewer persisted, pointing out that the question was no longer about an extraterritorial corridor, the MP, Hayk Konjoryan, replied: “At the moment I don’t think the question deserves discussion.”
On February 22, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan addressed the proposal, saying that Yerevan rejected the proposal of setting up the checkpoint on the Lachin Corridor. On the Zangezur Corridor proposal, he said only that it was "not new."
Azerbaijani commentary, meanwhile, has tended to crow over Aliyev’s outmaneuvering of Armenia and its repeated objections to the notion of a “corridor,” while sidestepping the fact that that was precisely what Baku had been publicly demanding for so long.
An analysis on Caliber.az, a site associated with Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry, suggested that perhaps it was Russia who might want an extraterritorial corridor. (Russia has pushed the idea of the transportation routes being opened, all the more now that its options are constrained as a result of Ukraine war sanctions, but Moscow also has consistently opposed the idea of extraterritoriality.)
“Is the idea of an extraterritorial Zangezur Corridor no longer on Azerbaijan’s agenda? It’s possible that extraterritoriality is just as important to us as before, but Azerbaijan has decided to avoid involvement in this toxic-for-us issue,” Caliber wrote. “If Russia needs an extraterritorial corridor, then it should resolve that issue with the Armenians directly, but not at Azerbaijan’s expense.”
This post has been edited to add comments from Armenia's foreign minister.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.