History has brought about new opportunities for cooperation and peace in the South Caucasus following the 44-day Karabakh War. Armenia and Azerbaijan, the two countries of the region that were embroiled in a nearly three-decades-long conflict, are cautiously working towards normalization of their relations based on existing commitments, particularly the November 10, 2020, Trilateral Declaration. Among other issues (i.e., political, humanitarian, etc.), the November Declaration places special emphasis on the opening of all economic and transport communications in the region. Article 9 of the Trilateral Declaration clearly states that:
All economic and transport links in the region shall be restored. The Republic of Armenia guarantees the safety of transport links between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in order to organize an unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles and goods in both directions. Control over transport shall be exercised by the bodies of the Border Guard Service of the Federal Security Service (FSB) of Russia.
This new connectivity line, quickly dubbed the ‘Zangezur Corridor,’ aims to facilitate ‘unimpeded’ movement in both directions and finally end Armenia’s decades-long isolation from all regional infrastructure and connectivity projects. “Zangezur” is the historic Azerbaijani name for the territories through which this corridor is proposed to pass. These territories used to belong to Azerbaijan but were, however, ceded to Armenia by Soviet Russia in the early 20th century. Reconstruction of roads and other infrastructure in the liberated territories is in full swing and, among other projects, are the Horadiz–Aghband highway and railway, which constitute the Azerbaijani portion of the Zangezur Corridor. Some 60 of the 100 km of the railway are reported to have been completed by Azerbaijan, with the remaining 40 km set to be finished in early 2023.
Nonetheless, alongside other remaining problems with the full implementation of the November 10 Declaration (Article 4 demanding full withdrawal of Armenian forces is also not fully implemented), the state of affairs in regard to Article 9 concerning connectivity issues is also a matter of concern. Unfortunately, Armenia’s position in this regard is still inconsistent. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has sent often contradictory signals as to whether the opening of all communications between Armenia and Azerbaijan is what Armenia wants, although Article 9 of the 10 November 2020 statement clearly defined the parties’ obligations to provide unobstructed movement upon the opening of all communications in the region.
While trying to complete its own portion of the work, Azerbaijan has also complained on numerous occasions that Armenia’s tiptoeing around the issue and attempts to procrastinate create unnecessary complications. Delays on the part of Armenia in providing the geographical coordinates for the highway through the Meghri region as well as in starting the feasibility study for the construction of the railroad are all creating headwinds for this process.
Apparently, Armenia seems to be unhappy with the use of the word ‘corridor’ which, according to their perception, grants some sort of extraterritoriality to a portion of Armenia’s territory. Azerbaijan, in contrast, believes that the word ‘corridor’ could be used interchangeably with terms such as ‘passage,’ ‘route,’ etc., and does not carry a specific meaning other than simply indicating the freedom of passage along the indicated route, in accordance with the November 10, 2020, Declaration. It is also noteworthy that Armenia’s position seems to soften after each meeting mediated by the EU. For instance, if, before and between the EU-mediated meetings of the parties in Brussels, Armenia was sending very controversial messages as to the possibility of the Zangezur Corridor, in the aftermath of the agreements reached during the meetings Nikol Pashinyan announced that both a railway and highway connecting Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the wider neighborhood may be possible.
However, later statements by Armenia’s Prime Minster again leave little room for optimism. For instance, in a recent interview with the Armenian press in early October, Armenia’s Prime Minister again said that “there can be no question of an extraterritorial corridor, that is the loss of sovereignty over a road connecting Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan.” Although the above statement may seem like another verbal battle over the semantics of the matter or how Armenia feels about the usage of the word “corridor,” Mr. Pashinyan’s later comments in the same interview actually showed an attempt to deviate from the implementation of the existing commitments under the November 10, 2020, Declaration. More specifically, he added that the issues related to border controls and customs may be resolved by “delegating control to specialized international originations” if “Azerbaijanis would not want to communicate with Armenian border guards or customs officers while crossing the border.” These statements by Mr. Pashinyan clearly breach the letter and spirit of the November Trilateral Declaration that, alongside defining an “unimpeded” regime of movement through the corridor, also states that “control over transport shall be exercised by the bodies of the Border Guard Service of the Federal Security Service (FSB) of Russia,” as opposed to the proposed “specialized international organizations.”
However, Azerbaijan has also made it clear that, if Armenia continues to hold the issue of the Zangezur Corridor hostage, Azerbaijan may also pursue alternatives. The signing of a memorandum of understanding with Iran about new communication links that envisages the establishment of new transport and electricity supply routes connecting Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan via Iran and mirroring the Zangezur Corridor is a case in point. Azerbaijan signaled that, if Armenia refuses to implement its obligations regarding Article 9 of the November 10, 2020, statement on the opening of all communications, things may well be promoted without its participation.
There is a unique opportunity for peace in the South Caucasus after decades of hatred and conflict. The political process for Armenia–Azerbaijan normalization and the signing of a peace treaty is under way, mostly through the facilitation of the European Union. However, ultimate normalization and peace in the region cannot happen without economic interdependence, which also has to be preceded by the opening of all communications and building solid connectivity. Let us hope that things will ultimately move in the right direction.
Dr. Esmira Jafarova is Board Member of the Center of Analysis of International Relations (AIR Center), Baku, Azerbaijan.