In recent days, news has been circulating that a peace agreement could be in sight in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, putting an end not only to the decades-old conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, but to the old conflict between the two states in the South Caucasus.1 However, this agreement is not yet wrapped-up: The war in Ukraine and geopolitical concepts could still derail the project.
On 9 November 2020, a ceasefire agreement came into force through Russian mediation, putting a temporary end to the six-week war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The bone of contention in the peace negotiations was the so-called Zangezur corridor, which is supposed to connect the Azerbaijani motherland with the exclave of Nakhichevan, which lies to the west of Armenia. The Azerbaijani leadership has always been adept at exerting political pressure by military means. To this end, Baku has not shied away in recent months from shelling Armenian territory and occupying parts of the terrain that cannot be doubted as belonging to Armenia. Apart from words, however, the West has so far had little to offer the Armenians.2
A chequered history
In Armenia's chequered history, the historical region of Zangezur was part of the Syunik region, which was considerably larger than today’s province of the same name in southern Armenia. After the October Revolution of 1917, disputes arose between the newly independent republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan over the ownership of some areas with mixed populations, including Zangezur. After fierce Armenian-Azerbaijani disputes, most of the region was annexed to the Armenian SSR in 1924, which had become part of the Soviet Union in the meantime. As a result, ethnic Azerbaijanis migrated from this area.3 The discussions about Zangezur now arouse fears that Azerbaijan could lay claim to these territories as well.
The ceasefire agreement of 9 November 2020 includes not only military-style ceasefire provisions but also those aimed at settling political disputes. In particular, the lifting of all traffic blockades in the region is one of them.4 This would be tantamount to a major step forward, as the borders between Armenia on the one side and Turkey and Azerbaijan on the other had been hermetically sealed since the end of the war in 1994 and were not even permeable to diplomats and OSCE ceasefire monitors. An agreement on the end of the blockade between Turkey and Armenia had been negotiated in Zurich on 10 October 2009, but had never been implemented.5
However, opinions differ on exactly what the provision for the lifting of all blockades in the ceasefire agreement means: Armenia has proposed the reopening of border crossings with the Azerbaijani motherland in Karahunj and Sotk, as well as one with the Azerbaijani province of Nakhichevan in Yeraskh. The one in Karahunj in particular would be important in several respects, as it would not only open the road from Goris in Armenia to Qubadli in Azerbaijan, but also facilitate travel on the road to Syunik in Armenia, that runs along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border for long stretches. There had already been disputes over the use of this road last year when the Azerbaijani authorities suddenly demanded customs duties from Iranian transport companies.
Azerbaijan, on the other hand, insists on opening the road and rail link along the Arax River, which forms the border between Iran and Armenia. But Baku wants more than that: it wants to carry out transports on this route without Armenian control.6 In the ceasefire agreement of November 2020, it had been agreed that the transport routes between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan should be under the control of the Russian border troops.7
The very name “Zangezur Corridor” arouses suspicion in Armenia, because the comparison with the Laçin Corridor (Armenian Berdzor) is not far off. This corridor connects Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia and represents a piece of territory, originally belonging to Azerbaijan, that remained under the control of the Republic of Artsakh under the ceasefire of November 2020.8 Yerevan fears that the Azerbaijani side has a similar solution in mind for the region along the Arax River and that it will lose control over the border region as a result. But this would mean that the most important border crossing between Agarak in Armenia and Nurduz in Iran would be under Azerbaijani control. And this, in turn, reawakens the old mistrust that Azerbaijan and Turkey are ultimately not concerned with the opening of transport routes in the region, but with the total isolation of Armenia.9 There was never any mention of a cession of Armenian territory to Azerbaijan in the ceasefire agreement, and such a cession on the Armenian-Iranian border would be exactly the opposite of what was actually intended.
From the Armenian point of view, it is a question of the existence or non-existence of the Armenian state and its people, including those of Nagorno-Karabakh. Recent reports of NATO courses in Azerbaijan and joint exercises by the Azerbaijani, Turkish and Georgian armies reinforce Armenians’ fears of being wedged between the arch-enemy and NATO state Turkey, an increasingly hostile Georgia and Azerbaijan, which can get away with anything thanks to its importance as a supplier of natural gas to Europe.10 At the same time, Armenia is threatened with isolation from Iran, with which it had previously maintained good relations, and its ally Russia.
Role of Pan-Turkism
But this struggle is about much more than the South Caucasus region. In recent years, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan in particular has been pushing his vision of the Turkic-speaking world, which finds its political-diplomatic expression in the organisation of the Turkic States. In this hitherto rather loose group of states, which in addition to Azerbaijan also includes the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, Turkey, as the most populous country, lays claim to leadership.11 The supporters of Pan-Turkism are only too happy to seize on such aspirations and remind us that Turkic-speaking minorities also live in Greece, Bulgaria, Crimea, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, China, Moldova and Russia. With the Zangezur Corridor, Azerbaijan would create a land link between the Turks on the Mediterranean and the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. The country would then play a key role within the group of states. With the natural gas supply contract that Azerbaijan recently concluded with the EU, the country has already realised the economic aspect of this claim, namely that of being a hub for the trade in oil and gas from the Caspian Sea region.12
Of course, the Central Asian member countries do not want to snub Turkey, but they have different historical experiences, socio-cultural norms and political systems.13 These countries had ambivalent experiences with Russia and the Soviet Union, but they were not involved in the arch-enmity that separated the Russian Tsarist Empire and the Ottoman Empire. On the contrary, the Soviet Union and Russia in particular played a major role in the development of the Central Asian region in the 20th century. The Turkish claim to leadership meets with a certain scepticism there. The self-confidence of these nations with their rich cultural and historical heritage is too strongly developed for that.
Armenia’s Allies and Neighbours
However, several Central Asian states are also members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and thus military allies of Armenia.14 By virtue of its size and military strength, Russia naturally has a leading role in the CSTO, while the armed forces of the Central Asian republics – with the exception of Kazakhstan – are probably not as strong as the publicly available figures suggest. The fact that Russia is currently militarily tied up in Ukraine may have encouraged President Aliyev to adopt a somewhat bolder approach towards Armenia. Ukraine and the West could try to motivate him to demand even more far-reaching concessions. Alone, it would be enough for the Central Asian states to signal to Baku that nothing will come of the desired ties with Central Asia if Azerbaijan continues to lay a military hand on its ally.
For many Armenians, the behaviour of Georgia, whose history has significant parallels with Armenia's, may be particularly disappointing. As a small, predominantly Christian country on the border between two great empires and surrounded by Muslim-majority areas, Georgia would actually be considered a natural ally of Armenia. In Yerevan, however, nothing good is expected from the Georgian leadership’s flirtations with the EU, NATO and its Turkish neighbour.
In the last few days, Russian diplomacy has apparently brought the adversaries in the South Caucasus to the negotiating table once again.15 But Western geopoliticians already see their chance here in the fight against Iran and, in a broader sense, in the struggle for supremacy in the Middle East16 and could try to thwart peace efforts. In this competition, the West has recently been losing ground since Turkey and, in recent months, Saudi Arabia have increasingly resisted Western influence. Interference by geopoliticians from Washington and Brussels, who believe that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh will gain them a toehold in the region, would be the last thing the people in the region need. •
1 See Orkhan Nabiyev: “Baku, Yerevan agree on main points of peace treaty – Turkish FM”, in: Trend News Agency of 11 October 2022, online at https://en.trend.az/azerbaijan/politics/3655527.html and “Armen Grigoryan: Peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan to be signed by the end of the year”, in: Arka News Agency of 14 October 2022, online at http://arka.am/en/news/politics/armen_grigoryan_there_is_agreement_to_sign_peace_treaty_between_armenia_and_azerbaijan_by_end_of_yea/
2 See “PACE president calls on Armenia and Azerbaijan to step up efforts to resolve conflict”, in News.am of 11 October 2022, online at https://news.am/eng/news/724499.html, “Ombudswoman briefs French OSCE Minsk Group co-chair on consequences of Azerbaijani attack on Armenia”, in News.am, 11 October 2022, online at https://news.am/eng/news/724505.html, and “Azerbaijan must withdraw its forces from Armenia’s sovereign territory: PACE lawmaker haunted by Azeri war crimes”, in: Armenpress of 11 October 2022, online at https://armenpress.am/eng/news/1094605.html
3 See “Zangezur, now part of southern Armenia, has been a disputed territory since World War I”, in: TRT World of 29 June 2022, online at https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/what-is-the-zangezur-corridor-and-why-does-it-matter-to-eurasia-58405
4 See Article 9 of the ceasefire agreement of 9 November 2020, online at https://www.bbc.com/russian/news-54886782 in Russian and https://web.archive.org/web/20201111212431/http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/64384
5 See “Switzerland as mediator between Armenia and Turkey”, in: Human Rights of 29 October 2009, online at https://www.humanrights.ch/de/ipf/menschenrechte/aussenpolitik/schweiz-vermittlerin-tuerkei-armenien
6 see “Yerevan, Baku agree to most of ‘Zangezur corridor’, Russian newspaper reports”, in: Civilnet of 29 June 2022, online at https://www.civilnet.am/en/news/666581/yerevan-baku-agree-to-most-of-zangezur-corridor-russian-newspaper-reports/
7 See Article 9 of the ceasefire agreement of 9 November 2020, op. cit.
8 See Article 6 of the ceasefire agreement of 9 November 2020, op. cit.
9 See Arshaluis Mgdesyan: “Attacks on Armenia highlight ongoing disputes over ‘corridor’ for Azerbaijan”, in: Eurasianet of 14 September 2022, online at https://eurasianet.org/attacks-on-armenia-highlight-ongoing-disputes-over-corridor-for-azerbaijan
10 See “Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey share experience on Caucasus Eagle defence exercises”, in: Agenda.ge, 11 October 2022, online at https://agenda.ge/en/news/2022/3944, and Ministry of Defence of Azerbaijan: Baku host NATO training course, 10 October 2022, online at https://mod.gov.az/en/news/baku-hosts-nato-training-course-43145.html. On the natural gas supply agreement between Azerbaijan and the EU, see “EU signs deal with Azerbaijan to double gas imports by 2027”, in: Reuters from 18 July 2022, online at https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/eu-signs-deal-with-azerbaijan-double-gas-imports-by-2027-2022-07-18/
11 cf. the organisation’s homepage at https://www.turkkon.org/en/uye-ulkeler. Hungary(!) and Turkmenistan have observer status in this organisation.
12 See “EU signs deal with Azerbaijan to double gas imports by 2027”, in: Reuters, op. cit.
13 On this aspect, see in particular Matthias Wolf: “Zwischen Osmanismus, Lenin und Turan – Warum die Turkvölker Zentralasiens ‘auf andere Art türkisch’ sind” (Between Ottomanism, Lenin and Turan – Why the Turkic Peoples of Central Asia are “Turkish in a Different Way.”), in: German Centre for South Caucasus of 27 February 2021, online at https://sudkaukasus.de/zwischen-osmanismus-lenin-und-turan-warum-die-turkvolker-zentralasiens-auf-andere-art-turkisch-sind/
14 see the official homepage of the CSTO: https://en.odkb-csto.org/
15 See “As a result of the Russian side’s mediation activities, military clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia ended – President Ilham Aliyev”, in: Trend News Agency of 14 October 2022, online at https://en.trend.az/azerbaijan/politics/3657048.html
16 Symptomatic of this is the article by Cavid Veliyev: “Iran's Frustrations With the Zangezur Corridor”, in: Eurasia Daily Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, 23 September 2022, online at https://jamestown.org/program/irans-frustrations-with-the-zangezur-corridor/
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