Perspectives | On the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, the map is not the territory
The end of the war created cartographic complications that have real-life implications for people on the ground. So where will the line be drawn?
In mid-December, a reporter for Sputnik Armenia came across a curious scene in the southern town of Kapan: an excavator digging a trench that, he said, was marking the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The journalist asked another man at the scene to explain where he was digging, and the man pulled out his phone and showed the reporter Google Maps and a line marking the border. “We are here, got it,” the reporter said as the camera focused on the little blue dot on the web map.
As a result of the November 2020 agreement ending 44-days of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a substantial amount of territory was handed over from Karabakh-Armenian to Azerbaijani control. What had been a spongy border between Armenia and Armenian-controlled territory in the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh has now become a hard international border between unfriendly neighbors.
The re-drawing of an international boundary is a rare event, and in this case the stakes are particularly one-sided. For Azerbaijan, this change represents only territorial gain with little to lose. In one gloating response to the Sputnik video, an Azerbaijani writer called it something “that should have been done in 1991.”
On the Armenian side, however, the border demarcation presents several logistical problems with the potential of prolonging the already traumatic experience of the war.
Formal demarcation discussions between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia began on November 26, but the process has not been well-publicized save for its more controversial results. Along with the sudden creation of new frontier towns, the border has thus far cut through a gold mine, sliced off part of a village, and so closely abuts the runway of a newly renovated regional airport that flight patterns might have to change.
But how do we know where the “real” border is? To simply revert to the borders of the Soviet-era republics might seem straightforward, but in reality the process is mired in difficult technical issues.
Armenia and Azerbaijan, for their entire history as independent states, have never had a fully agreed upon boundary between them. And the November ceasefire statement gave no indication as to how the border should be drawn or to what standard.
In absence of any official border agreement, the best reference data the border working group has comes from Soviet topographical maps from the 1980s.
This series of maps is incredibly detailed and designed for tactical use. Indeed, the maps published by the new Russian peacekeeping contingent are clearly based off these topographic charts.
But they represent a different period in history, when the boundaries between union republics were less important and were unproblematically tangled with infrastructure like roads and irrigation canals, or grazing land. Further, being topographic maps, they are more oriented toward precisely representing the contours of the landscape rather than delineating administrative boundaries. This results in situations as shown below, where the boundary between Soviet Armenia and Azerbaijan appears as a broken line, so as to better illustrate topographical features.
As a result, even the most precise Soviet-era maps are an incomplete reference.
The siren song of Google Maps
Meanwhile, out on the street or next to an excavator, the use of Google Maps and other mapping apps is inescapable.
But these maps present even more problems than the topographic maps. For one, the data they use for international borders are derived from some unknown baseline data (typically volunteered by governments) processed within Google. And because they are oriented toward driving directions, they have a much more sophisticated approach to mapping roads than other features. Road data in Google Maps, no matter how they were originally drawn, are constantly being refined by satellite imagery, traffic data, and ground-truthing by individual users. International boundaries, invisible on the ground and not subject to user-generated validation, are not verifiable in the same way.
This laser crisp highway information can give the impression that all the data on Google Maps is equally authoritative. But good road data doesn’t denote the same quality for other aspects of the map. Further, the details of the process of mapping things in a private company is proprietary information to which a typical user does not have access.
On top of this, Google Maps has a long history of dodging difficult political questions about disputed borders by changing how they represent the boundary based on the viewer's IP address. That is to say, there is no guarantee that a user in Azerbaijan and a user in Armenia are seeing the same map, an unfortunately apt analogy for the incommensurate realities with which people in both countries are currently contending.
And it’s not only Google; the problems are the same for any mapping app. In fact, comparing how various apps depict a particularly contentious stretch of the Goris-Kapan road which runs alongside (and possibly across) the Azerbaijani border, illustrates how there is no canonical map, especially in the digital sphere.
Yandex Maps shows a road neatly aligned to the international border, while Google puts long stretches squarely in Azerbaijani territory. The community-derived Open Street Map also shows the road crossing into Azerbaijan but not quite in the same way that Google does, placing a bit more of the curving road north of Shurnukh on the Azerbaijani side. None of these platforms have access to special information on the border demarcation process, but all of them do a good job at creating the illusion of geographic authority.
This illusory authority invariably shapes laypeople’s discussion of the border. Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Arman Tatoyan, has been calling on citizens to not take Google Maps as the last word. “It’s not clear which version Google Maps is based on when Google itself acknowledges that there are various versions of its maps available online. Or, if we have clarified that, which specific algorithm or geolocation mechanism is the map based on?” he wrote in one Facebook post. “This is about the defense and security of our state and our people.”
Drawing the line
From a cartographic perspective, there is no magic bullet of a map to solve the difficult diplomatic work of agreeing on a new shared border. However, this diplomatic process does require technical expertise in both countries to support whatever political decisions are agreed on.
In Armenia, as it happens, the body that would previously have been tasked with this, the Geodesy and Cartography state non-commercial organization, was dissolved in April 2020. The responsibility now lies with the Cadastre Committee of the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure.
The head of that committee, Soren Tovmasyan, said in an interview in December that the only demarcation that had taken place for Armenia in the past decade was on the Georgian border, meaning that there is little institutional experience in delineating the now-critical border with Azerbaijan in southern Armenia.
Armenian President Armen Sarkissian was asked last month about the border demarcation process and in response he issued a blanket criticism of not only consumer mapping applications, but the very concept of using satellite technology for border demarcation at all. Sarkissian responded that “it is unacceptable to demarcate the border using GPS or similar instruments [...] this is a complex process. The first step should be the formation of a state position and carrying out the corresponding work.”
While Sarkissian is right to assert the need for the political work of agreeing on a shared border to come before the technical work of delimiting it, the two processes will inevitably inform one other. Drawing a line on a map in a board room somewhere and “drawing” a line into the earth itself with an excavator are fundamentally different tasks. It remains to be seen how either will be accomplished.
Evangeline McGlynn is a PhD candidate in Geography focused on the Caucasus.