Azerbaijan revives demand for corridor through Armenia

Jan 17 2024
Ani Avetisyan Jan 17, 2024

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has called Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's latest remarks about border delimitation/demarcation and transit links "totally unacceptable" and a "blow" to the peace process. 

"I promise a financial reward to anyone who finds the term 'Zangezur corridor' in the November 9 agreement," Pashinyan told a group of MPs on January 13. 

It was an ironic reference to the Azerbaijani side's contention, reiterated recently by Aliyev, that the provision on opening transit links in the Russian-brokered peace accord that ended the 2020 Second Karabakh War stipulates a seamless corridor through Armenia connecting mainland Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan exclave, without Armenian border or customs checks. 

That idea is referred to in Azerbaijan as the "Zangezur corridor" and Baku has pushed for it with varying degrees of intensity since the 2020 ceasefire. Early last year it seemed to back down on the demand in the context of the peace talks. 

In early October, shortly after Azerbaijan's lightning offensive to seize the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh, the corridor project seemed to be off the table after ground was broken on an alternate route through Iran.  (Tehran, like Armenia, is vociferously opposed to the Zangezur corridor idea.)

The issue, which has long inspired Armenian fears of an Azerbaijani invasion, is now back on the agenda, as Aliyev said in a January 10 interview that if the corridor was not opened, "Armenia will remain in an eternal deadlock. … If the route I mentioned is not opened, we will not open our border with Armenia anywhere else. So they will do themselves more harm than good."

In October last year, the Armenian prime minister introduced an initiative called "Crossroads of Peace" aimed at regional cooperation. That proposal includes linkages between mainland Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan with Armenian border and customs checks. Azerbaijan has dismissed it out of hand as "PR." (According to the 9 November 2020 agreement that ended the Second Karabakh War, the route linking mainland Azerbaijan Nakhchivan is to be monitored by Russian border troops.)

Exclaves and villages

Elsewhere in his January 10 interview, Aliyev demanded the return of enclaves and border villages that have been under Armenian control since the First Karabakh War three decades ago. 

Pashinyan seemed to back the idea of an exchange of enclaves, with a "mutually agreed map" as part of the process, but said that if Azerbaijan demanded the return of eight villages, Armenia would "raise the issue of 32." 

That was a reference to several bits of former Soviet Armenian territory that have similarly been controlled by Azerbaijan since the first war, as well as to the territory inside Armenia, estimated to total about 215 square kilometers, that Azerbaijani troops have occupied following several incursions between May 2021 and September 2022. 

Armenia and several Western states have demanded the withdrawal of Azerbaijani troops from Armenian lands. But Baku has refused, citing the lack of demarcation of the borders as justification. 

And Aliyev said explicitly he had no intention of withdrawing them in his January 10 remarks. "We are not taking a step back because that border must be defined. However, our location, which is currently disputed by Armenia, does not include any settlement."

The delimitation and demarcation of state borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as the opening of transport links, remain the most contested issues between the two countries following Azerbaijan's takeover of Karabakh in September. The border commission working on the delimitation and demarcation issues held its latest meeting late last year and the next one, according to Aliyev, is to be held this month, with the question of the border villages in the Gazakh region of Azerbaijan being on the agenda.

Although the principles of a peace deal were said to be agreed upon in November, the sides seem to have dismissed each other's draft proposals for the peace agreement. 

Additionally, the sides disagree on who should mediate the talks. Yerevan opposes Moscow's mediation, while Baku has turned down EU or US-initiated talks in recent months. 

In December, the two countries managed to issue a joint statement and agree on a prisoner exchange, but they do not have a clear plan to continue the bilateral talks.