Azerbaijan-Armenia road feud threatens South Caucasus peace: Analyst

Azerbaijan-Armenia road feud threatens South Caucasus peace: Analyst

Armenia needs to ‘start thinking strategically’ about normalization with Azerbaijan, says researcher

By Burc Eruygur and Esra Tekin

ISTANBUL (AA) – The Lachin road has been at the center of growing tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia in recent months, two countries struggling to strike a peace deal since their conflict in fall 2020 ended with a cease-fire brokered by Russia.

The road, which passes through the district of Lachin on the Azerbaijani side of the border, is Armenia’s only land route to Karabakh.

It is being monitored by a Russian peacekeeping contingent under the Nov. 10, 2020 truce, known as the Tripartite Declaration, and its control has been a major issue in relations between the two former Soviet countries.

Tensions grew significantly in December 2020, when Azerbaijani environmentalists staged protests demanding an end to what they said was Armenia’s illegal exploitation of mineral deposits in parts of Karabakh under the supervision of Russian peacekeepers.

The protests ended when Azerbaijan set up a checkpoint on the road, saying it took the step because of “threats and provocations” from the Armenian side and on the grounds that the road was being used by Yerevan to smuggle military arms and equipment into Karabakh.

Armenia has since accused Azerbaijan of causing a “humanitarian crisis” in the region, which Baku has vehemently denied and pointed out that vehicles of the International Committee of the Red Cross are able to freely use the route.

- Point about Lachin road ‘abused by Armenia’

For Turgut Kerem Tuncel, a senior researcher at the Center for Eurasian Studies of the Turkmeneli Cooperation and Culture Foundation, Azerbaijan’s steps in the region are justified in terms of international law, considering the problems that have emerged in the implementation of the cease-fire.

On negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the past three years, he said one of the major issues has been Armenia’s misuse of the article related to transportation along Lachin road.

“The problem with Lachin is that ... one of the articles in this declaration was the free access or the free transportation on the Lachin road. However, what we see is that this article … is abused by the Armenian side,” Tuncel said.

This prompted Baku’s decision to establish a border checkpoint at the road’s entrance, which “makes sense from the point of view of international law,” he said.

Armenia has raised concerns because it wants “unimpeded transportation,” he said.

“But this unimpeded transportation is abused by the Armenian side, because there is evidence that illegal military materials and equipment are transferred,” he added.

He said there has been “very strong, very powerful propaganda” in the Western world, both by Armenian media outlets and members of the Armenian diaspora, claiming that Azerbaijan is pushing an “ethnic cleansing policy” against Armenian residents in Karabakh.

- Aghdam-Khankendi route proposal

About Azerbaijan’s proposal to use the Aghdam-Khankendi road, Tuncel highlighted what he said were “questionable” claims being pushed by Armenian media and diaspora.

“This (road) is still not under Azerbaijan’s control. So, Azerbaijan says that cargo could pass from Aghdam to Askeran and then reach Khankendi,” he explained.

“Very interestingly, while the Armenians are arguing that there is a humanitarian catastrophe going on in Karabakh, they, on the other hand, don’t accept this cargo transport from Aghdam.”

Armenia only wants cargo transportation through the Lachin road, which raises questions over its claims of a crisis in Karabakh, he said.

“If there’s such a big humanitarian crisis, why doesn’t the Armenian side allow the cargo coming from another road? If what is at stake is human lives? Then, I think all alternatives should be utilized,” he said.

The basis for Armenia’s opposition to this alternate route is that its use would mean the “integration of the Karabakh region to Azerbaijan,” he added.

“That is why they just accept the Lachin road because it directly connects the Armenian-populated parts of the Karabakh region to Armenia,” said Tuncel.

“All this discussion, all these disagreements are political, and at the core of this lies the approach of the Armenians in Karabakh to not integrate with Azerbaijan.”

- Zangezur corridor another alternative

Tuncel also touched upon the wider Zangezur corridor, where Azerbaijan has focused on planned connections, including motorways and a 43-kilometer (26-mile) railway.

This corridor is important for connectivity between Türkiye and Azerbaijan, but must also be viewed from a regional perspective, he said.

The issue here then becomes the Middle Corridor, he added, referring to the transcontinental route which begins in Türkiye, passes through the Caucasus via Georgia and Azerbaijan, crosses the Caspian Sea, traverses Central Asia, and reaches China.

For this corridor to materialize, there must be stability in the entire region, including the South Caucasus, which is why “we need normalization between Azerbaijan and Armenia,” he explained.

He said the Zangezur corridor significantly shortens the distance between Türkiye and the western shores of the Caspian Sea, while also adding “another alternative” for other routes in the region, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway.

Tuncel said Armenia, despite its obligations under the Tripartite Declaration, is doing “everything” to hinder transportation connections in the South Caucasus.

The Zangezur corridor could actually benefit Armenia, maybe even more than Türkiye and Azerbaijan, as it would end its regional isolation, he said.

“For this reason, I think Armenia should start thinking strategically, and do its best to normalize its relations with Azerbaijan and Türkiye, and be a part of the large, globally important infrastructure projects (in the region),” he concluded.

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