There is broad consensus in the region and in the international community on the need to restore communications in the South Caucasus and on the possibility of finding mutually accepted solutions for this to be achieved. However the constant focus on the routes passing via the Syunik region and connecting Azerbaijan with Nakhijevan has made the whole process of restoration of communications a bone of contention for both sides, argues Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed. The restoration of communications may still play a positive role in the establishment of good neighborly relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, by creating conditions from which both societies can benefit. However, if the sides continue this tit-for-tat discussion around the "Zangezur corridor," blaming each other for violating previous agreements, the restoration of communications issue will only deepen the mistrust between them, he adds. Starting instead with a railway connection between Armenia and Nakhijevan via Yersakh on the other hand, requires only a further 1 km of railroad to be constructed, and will serve as a significant confidence-building measure between Armenia and Azerbaijan and will make it easier for Armenia and Azerbaijan to agree on the modalities for the restoration of other routes.
Armenia and Azerbaijan negotiations are focused on three main tracks – the restoration of communications, the launch of the border delimitation and demarcation process, and the signing of a bilateral relations agreement or peace agreement. These issues are being discussed in Moscow and Brussels. There is a no common view if the sides should seek to achieve agreement on all issues, discussing them as one package, or whether the main efforts should be directed to the restoration of communications, and the launch of delimitation and demarcation process. a bilateral “peace agreement”, including a common understanding on the status of Nagorno Karabakh appears still far from reach. However, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, the EU, and the US all agree that the restoration of communications is an area where mutually accepted solutions can be found.
The restoration of communication links was included in the November 10, 2020, trilateral statement. According to article 9 of the statement, all regional economic and transport links should be unblocked. Armenia guaranteed the safety of transport links between the western regions of Azerbaijan and the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic to organize the unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles, and goods in both directions, while control over transport communication should be exercised by the Border Guard Service bodies of the Federal Security Service of Russia.
This issue was further discussed during January 2021 Moscow meeting between Prime Minister Pashinyan, President Aliyev, and President Putin. The three countries agreed to establish a trilateral commission chaired by their Deputy Prime Ministers. The commission started its work immediately after the signing of the January 11, 2021 statement. However, the ambiguous wording of the November 10 statement resulted in different interpretations from the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. Azerbaijan argues that the wording “unimpeded movement” means that no Armenian passport or customs control should be implemented in the Syunik region when Azerbaijani citizens and goods pass Syunik to reach Nakhijevan from Armenia. According to the Azerbaijani logic, the routes connecting Azerbaijan with Nakhijevan via Syunik should have the same legal modalities as the Lachin corridor, which connects Armenia with Nagorno Karabakh and which has been solely under the control of Russian peacekeepers since November 2020 without any Azerbaijani passport or customs control. The comparison with the Lachin corridor brought about in circulation by the Azerbaijani side the term “Zangezur corridor." Meanwhile, Azerbaijan never discusses the possibility of implementing no passport or customs control for Armenian citizens and goods that may pass Nakhijevan to reach Iran or pass through mainland Azerbaijan to reach Russia.
The Armenian side strongly rejects the term “Zangezur corridor," claiming that it will establish an extra-territorial route on the territory of Armenia. Armenia argues that in the November 10, 2020, statement, the term corridor was used only once – describing the Lachin corridor connecting Armenia with Nagorno Karabakh. Thus, all attempts to equal the routes via Syunik with the highway passing via Lachin violate the November 10, 2020 statement. Since December 2021 EU has fostered its efforts to reach a solution in this area. The restoration of communications was among the main issues discussed during December 2021, April, and May 2022 meetings held in Brussels. However, despite optimistic statements after the meetings, no breakthrough has happened. The trilateral Armenia – Azerbaijan – Russia commission held a meeting on June 3, 2022, after a 6-month pause, but no breakthrough was registered in that meeting either.
Azerbaijan has already started the construction of a railway and highway from Horadiz to the Armenia – Azerbaijan border, and according to several estimates, it may reach Armenia – Azerbaijan border in the Summer of 2023. However, Armenia has not launched the construction of a 44 km railroad in the Syunik region along the Araks River. According to the Armenian government, it will take two years and cost approximately 200 million USD, but Armenia will start the construction only after clarifying all legal modalities concerning the functionality of routes. Given the current stalemate on legal issues, even in the best-case scenario, the railroad in the Syunik region will be ready by the end of 2024.
Focusing solely on the routes passing via the Syunik region and connecting Azerbaijan with Nakhijevan has made the whole process of restoration of communications a bone of contention for both sides, creating negative feelings among the expert community and society in general. Nevertheless, the wider objective of restoration of communications may still play a positive role in the establishment of good neighborly relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, by creating conditions from which both societies can benefit. However, if the sides continue this tit-for-tat discussion around the "Zangezur corridor," blaming each other for violating previous agreements, the restoration of communications issue will only deepen the mistrust between them. It will make any long-term regional stability even less likely.
One of the ways to overcome this vicious circle is to concentrate efforts on areas where the restoration of communications needs much less time and money, and is less contentious. The railway connection between Armenia and Nakhijevan is one such area. Currently, there is only a missing link of up to one km of a railroad to connect the Armenian village of Yeraskh in the Ararat region with the Nakhijevan border, while Yeraskh has a working railway connection with Yerevan. The restoration of a 1 km railroad requires only a few million USD investment and may be finished within two months. The launch of the Yerevan - Nakhijevan railway via Yeraskh, in parallel with the opening of the Armenia-Turkey (Gyumri-Kars) railway, will open several international routes. Nakhijevan will have a railroad connection with Turkey via Gyumri-Kars railway and with Georgian Black Sea ports via Yerevan-Tbilisi-Poti/Batumi railroad. Iran will have a railway connection with Turkey via Nakhijevan-Yeraskh-Gyumri-Kars line, with Russia via Nakhijevan-Yeraskh-Yerevan-Gyumri-Tbilisi-Baku line, and with the Georgian Black Sea ports via Nakhijevan-Yeraskh-Yerevan-Tbilisi-Poti/Batumi railway. It will effectively launch the Persian Gulf-Black Sea transport corridor, connecting the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas with the Georgian ports of Poti and Batumi.
In that scenario, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Georgia, and Turkey may sign an intergovernmental agreement fixing simplified transit procedures for the passage of goods, facilitating the trade along these railways. Launching these routes will serve as a significant confidence-building measure between Armenia and Azerbaijan and contribute to regional stability and economic connectivity. The success of this project will make it easier for Armenia and Azerbaijan to agree on the modalities for the restoration of other routes, including Azerbaijan-Nakhijevan via Syunik.