Armenia always supported the idea of restoring communications and developing economic relations with Azerbaijan as a tangible way of confidence building says Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed. However Azerbaijan has to give up its inflammatory and disruptive rhetoric about the "Zangezur corridor", and its thinly veiled threats to take over the Syunik province from Armenia.
The 10 November 2020 tripartite statement signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia ended the war in Nagorno Karabakh, but evidently, did not bring peace to the region. A range of complex issues remain to be settled – the future of Nagorno Karabakh, relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the security dynamics of the broader region. Given the Russian military presence in Karabakh, the region's future now mostly depends on the Kremlin, and neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan has much room for manoeuvre here. The status of Karabakh will remain a topic in bilateral Russia–Azerbaijan and Russia–Armenia discussions, but Moscow will do whatever it thinks it is necessary to do. Even the OSCE Minsk Group has little capacity to impact the situation. Azerbaijan rejects any prospects of discussing Karabakh status within the Minsk Group format or in bilateral talks with Armenia and, no one is able or willing to press Baku to change its mind.
The November 10 statement stipulates the opening of regional communications. It will contribute to the region's stabilisation, and all external players – Russia, Turkey, Iran, EU, and the US – are interested in having a stable South Caucasus, at least in a short/mid-term perspective. The recent EU offer to provide significant financial support to Armenia, up to 1.6 billion Euro between 2022 and 2025, is a clear sign of the EU’s interest in contributing to regional stability. Another trilateral statement, signed by the Russian, Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders in Moscow on 11 January 2021, envisages the establishment of a high-level working group to prepare concrete road maps to open regional communications. The incursion of Azerbaijani troops into the Armenian provinces of Syunik and Gegharkunik on 12-13 May 2021, and the election campaign in Armenia ahead of early parliamentary elections scheduled for 20 June 2021, have significantly slowed the work of that working group. However, the landslide victory of Nikol Pashinyan's 'Civil Contract' party in the elections paved the way for accelerating that process. Immediately after the Armenian elections, President Putin held phone conversations with President Aliyev and the Armenian prime minister, Pashinyan, and highlighted the significance of the trilateral efforts to restore economic ties and transport communications in the South Caucasus. Putin and Pashinyan also discussed this issue during their 7 July meeting in Moscow. It appears that all sides are interested in pushing forward the restoration of transport communications without connecting this issue with the final status of Nagorno Karabakh.
It should be noted that Armenia was always supporting the idea of restoration of communications and developing economic relations with Azerbaijan as a tangible way of confidence building. However, official Azerbaijan rejected any such idea and argued that no co-operation is possible before changing the post-1994 status quo in Karabakh. Armenia was also ready to open up its communications with Turkey as a result of the 2008-2009 normalisation process. However, at the end of the day, Ankara brought in the settlement of the Karabakh conflict as a precondition for normalising its relations with Armenia. Many in Armenia continue to support restoring all transport routes in the region even after the 2020 Karabakh war launched by Azerbaijan. Armenia needs economic recovery, and restoration of communications may play a significant role here. However, the constant statements from the Azerbaijani leadership, including President Aliyev himself, about the necessity to launch the "Zangezur corridor" through the Syunik province of Armenia, which should connect Azerbaijan with the Nakhijevan Autonomous Republic and unite the artificially separated Turkic world, trigger huge negative perceptions in Armenia. President Aliyev's recent statement about Azerbaijan's readiness to open the "Zangezur corridor" by force followed by the incursion by Azerbaijani troops in Syunik province only fuelled concerns in Armenia.
All this rhetoric coming out from Azerbaijan creates a perception in Armenia that the restoration of communications is only a curtain to cover Azerbaijan's real intention – to establish de facto and later de jure control over the Syunik province. As a result of the 2020 Karabakh war, Syunik is squeezed between Azerbaijan proper and the Nakhijevan Autonomous Republic, in its narrowest point separating them by less than 30 km. In this context, references to the "Zangezur corridor" only discredits the idea of restoration of transportation routes in Armenia and equals it to the de facto or even de jure occupation of Syunik province by Azerbaijan. The absolute majority of Armenian society firmly rejects this prospect, and it negatively impacts their perception of the restoration of transportation routes. Thus, Azerbaijan's emphasis on the "Zangezur corridor" may significantly derail the process of restoration of communications in the South Caucasus, impeding the efforts of the international community to stabilise the situation. One possible way forward is to provide other routes for Azerbaijan to be connected with the Nakhijevan Autonomous Republic, which will not pass the Syunik province. The Ghazakh–Ijevan–Yerevan–Yeraskh–Nakhijevan railway and highway may connect Azerbaijan with Nakhijevan without passing through the Syunik province. If Azerbaijan's only goal is to restore communications, it should not demand the routes only through Syunik.
Meanwhile, Russia may also use the Ijevan–Ghazakh railway and highway to connect with Turkey and Iran via Azerbaijan and Armenia. Russian trains may enter Turkey from Armenia via the Ijevan–Gyumri–Kars railway and reach Iran via the Ijevan–Yerevan–Yeraskh–Nakhijevan–Iran railway. The opening up of the Iran–Nakhijevan–Armenia railway will contribute to the establishment of the 'Persian Gulf–Black Sea' multimodal transportation corridor, which will connect Iran with Europe via Nakhijevan, Armenia, and the Georgian Black sea ports. In its turn, Armenia may use the Yerevan–Nakhijevan–Iran railway to export to Iran and further to the Middle East and Central Asia and use the Gyumri–Kars railway to export to Europe via Turkey's Mediterranean ports. Thus, if Azerbaijan is smart enough to abandon its rhetoric on the Zangezur corridor, and establish a connection with Nakhijevan through the Ghazakh–Ijevan–Yerevan–Yeraskh route, it will significantly contribute to regional stability. As all external actors – Russia, Turkey, Iran, the EU, and the US – are interested in having a stable South Caucasus, they should convince Azerbaijan to give up its inflammatory and disruptive rhetoric about the "Zangezur corridor" and its thinly veiled threats to take over the Syunik province from Armenia.
source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
photo: The town of Goris in Armenia's Syunik Region (archive)