“A transport corridor for Azerbaijan via Armenian territory — a plan that has stoked Turkey’s strategic ambitions in the region — remains on paper a year on, but that’s not the only obstacle to normalization between the three neighbors” says Fehim Taştekin in Al-Monitor.
A year after the Azerbaijani-Armenian war over Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey is extending an olive branch to Armenia, drawing on the self-confidence it has attained from the outcome of the conflict. During an Oct. 26 visit to Fuzuli, an area that Azerbaijan recaptured in the war, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stressed “no obstacles will remain for Turkey’s normalization with Armenia if Armenia displays a sincere will [to resolve its problems] with Azerbaijan.” Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, who attended Azerbaijani celebrations on the first anniversary of the armistice Nov. 9, called on Armenia “to seize upon the opportunity” offered by the peace gestures of the Turkish and Azerbaijani leaders.
Turkey’s military support, including armed drones and expertise, helped Azerbaijan prevail in the 44-day war, which ended on Nov. 9, 2020, with a cease-fire deal brokered by Russia. Though Azerbaijan recovered an array of territories under Armenian occupation since the early 1990s, critical issues such as the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh, border demarcation, the return of refugees and war prisoners were left unresolved. Crucially, a plan for the reopening of transport links in the region, outlined in the deal, remains shrouded in uncertainty.
Under the plan, Armenia would open a transport route across its southernmost province of Syunik, known also as Zangezur, which borders Iran and lies between mainland Azerbaijan and the autonomous Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. Russia would be responsible for the security of the route, as in the case of the so-called Lachin corridor between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.
Since Turkey shares a tiny border with Nakhchivan, the planned route fueled Turkish ambitions for stronger links with the Caspian basin and Central Asia via land roads, railways and energy routes. Ankara has proposed a six-way platform of cooperation with Azerbaijan, Armenia, Russia, Georgia and Iran, touting economic gains for everyone in the region.
Yet, advancing Turkey’s strategic dreams depends on Russia throwing its weight behind the proposal as a coordinator and guarantor, convincing Armenia, which is still reeling from the trauma of its military defeat, and easing the misgivings of Iran and Georgia, whose interests might be jeopardized. While Iran manifested its concerns by holding menacing military maneuvers last month, Erdogan has admitted that Georgia, too, has yet to be convinced.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline — major projects that Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey have realized since the collapse of the Soviet Union — rested on the logic of excluding Armenia from strategic equations in the region, while rewarding Georgia. The planned Zangezur route and an eventual reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border would strip Georgia of its privileged position. Also, a six-way partnership would require Georgia to mend its ties with Russia, which remain tense over Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s secessions from Georgia after military conflict in 2008.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan may be open to options that would ease his country’s besiegement and dependency on Russia, but has yet to cool the political anger at home over the Nagorno-Karabakh defeat. Also, before allowing the connection between mainland Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan, Yerevan wants to guarantee routes to Russia and Iran via Azerbaijan under an armistice provision that states, “All economic and transport links in the region shall be unblocked.”
In January, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia formed a high-level working group to deal with the issue of transport links. After eight meetings, the effort has yet to produce concrete results. Worse, the issue has stoked rivalries in the region. Baku has angered Tehran by charging fees from Iranian trucks on a road through southern Armenia, a section of which came under Azerbaijan’s control as a territorial gain from the war. Iran fears that a “sovereign” route running across Zangezur and parallel to the Iranian border would jeopardize its access to Armenia.
While the shipment of goods from Azerbaijan proper to Nakhchivan has largely proceeded through Turkey, natural gas shipments have relied on the Iranian route, with Iran getting a 15% commission. Those revenues top the list of potential Iranian losses from the planned Zangezur link between the two Azerbaijani territories. Passing through Iran are also Turkish trucks carrying goods to Central Asia.
Georgia, too, generates revenues — estimated at up to $85 million per year — as a transit land and rail route for cargo transportation. It could make losses also in terms of maritime transport should Armenians turn to Turkish ports as an alternative to Georgia’s Poti and Batumi ports. A highway to Russia via South Ossetia and a railroad via Abkhazia might prove a solace for Georgia, but such routes remain mired in controversy over the secession of the two regions.
Currently, Azerbaijan’s land access to Nakhchivan is through Turkey, via either Iran or Georgia. An array of rail links in the region have been interrupted due to political and territorial disputes in the region. The historical railroad from Nakhchivan to Azerbaijan proper is interrupted in Zangezur and between Megri and Horadiz, while the railroad from Yerevan to Iran is interrupted at the Nakhchivan border. The Tbilisi-Sochi route via Baku and Yerevan is cut in Abkhazia, and the railroad linking Yerevan to the Baku-Tbilisi railroad near Gazah, while the Kars-Gyumri railroad that connects to the main route between Yerevan and Tbilisi is interrupted at the Armenian-Turkish border.
The reopening of all those routes could make Armenia the gateway of the South Caucasus. Similarly, the reestablishment of the Iran-Russia, Armenia-Russia, Amenia-Iran, Turkey-Armenia and Armenia-Azerbaijan links could become possible. Of course, this would require the reconstruction of the disabled sections of the routes. Azerbaijan has already begun work on restoring the 108-kilometer (67-mile) route from Horadiz to Zangezur.
In a TV interview last week, Pashinyan lauded the trilateral group’s technical study of existing and potential routes as an “enormous job” and voiced support for the reconstruction of the Yeraskh-Ordubad-Meghri-Horadiz railroad along the southern borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan. He stressed that Yerevan was ready to provide Azerbaijan with a link to Nakhchivan through “the sovereign territory of Armenia,” and that Armenia, in turn, should be able to use links with Russia and Iran via Azerbaijan.
Earlier, the head of Armenia’s Security Council, Armen Grigoryan, ruled out any “sovereign corridor” on Armenian territory. The option of routes for the use of Azerbaijan and Turkey is possible, but “those roads will be under the control of the sovereign territory of Armenia,” he said.
In other words, Armenia talks about opening existing roads to the use of Azerbaijan and Turkey, while Baku wants a transit route free of customs. What the Armenian side imagines is Azerbaijani access to Nakhchivan through existing infrastructure via Tavush to the north or Syunik to the south in return for Armenia’s use of the Yerevan-Tbilisi-Baku railroad to access Russia and the Yerevan-Nakhchivan-Julfa railroad or land road to access Iran. Ostensibly, Armenia is concerned primarily about the status of the routes, but sees no sovereignty problem in cease-fire provisions that leave control of the roads to Russian forces.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has threatened to “enforce” the Zangezur corridor if Armenia refuses to go along. “The Azerbaijani people will return to Zangezur, which was taken away from us 101 years ago,” he said in April.
The six-way platform that Erdogan envisages requires regional integration, but the countries in question are short both of ground for reconciliation and political will to make it happen. Erdogan sees Yerevan as the problem, while Pashinyan rejects accusations that his government has been irresponsive to peace proposals. “We ourselves offered peace. We have done it many times. And the statements that Armenia did not react are very strange. Armenia reacted, Armenia declared that it is ready,” he said last week.
For Pashinyan, the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe remains the main platform to discuss Armenia’s disputes with Azerbaijan, including the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. As for the six-way format offered by Erdogan, he said that such a platform should not deal with issues that are already discussed in other frameworks such as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the reopening of regional links. According to Pashinyan, Armenia may be interested in that format if it brings a new, mutually acceptable agenda such as the exploration of economic transit possibilities in the region.
The Armenian occupation of Azeri territories in the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1993 was the reason why Turkey severed diplomatic ties and shut its border with Armenia. International recognitions of the 1915 Armenian genocide under the Ottoman Empire have added a further stumbling block on the way to normalization. Turkey refuses to face up to the past, limiting any reconciliation with Armenia to the situation in the Caucasus, which, in turn, discourages any opening by the Armenian side.
In sum, Turkey aspires for a win-win equilibrium involving the six countries in the region, but the removal of obstacles on the way requires Russia to step in. A planned trilateral summit between the Russian, Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders might prove crucial in this context. Speculation had swirled that the summit would take place Nov. 9 and that a new deal on regional links and border demarcation would be announced, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week that preparations were underway for a video summit on a yet undetermined date.
Al-Monitor, November 16, 2021, Fehim Taştekin