Control over enclaves/exclaves: Retain or transfer?
By Orkhan Amashov
Although, in the context of the border delineation between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the origins of the subject concerning enclaves – or exclaves, according to the prism from which they are regarded – date back to the Soviet era, its emergence as a matter of serious international disputation is relatively new.
At the outset, for the sake of clarity and terminological exactitude, it behoves one to distinguish between the terms "enclave" and "exclave", which are not mutually exclusive, yet not always mutually inclusive. This is a matter of perspective and a definitional criterion. The former, an enclave, is a territory completely surrounded by that of another state. Technically, an enclave could be an independent entity or an exclave of another state.
For a portion of a territory to be an exclave from its own internal perspective, it should be surrounded by more than one sovereign state. If surrounded by one state, it will only be an enclave, whereas, from the perspective of a larger territory, from which it is detached, it is always an exclave.
In international law and political cartography, both enclaves and exclaves have their subcategories and the whole picture is far more complex yet, for our purposes, the aforementioned distinction should suffice to address the subject at hand.
Seven+one vs one
At the time of the Soviet collapse, there were islands of Azerbaijani territory inside Armenia, seven villages of the Gazakh District and one Karki village of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, and one Armenian exclave inside Azerbaijan, namely the village of Bashkand (known as Artsvashen in Armenian) near Gadabay region.
All these settlements are enclaves from their own internal perspective, as they are surrounded by the territory of one foreign state, yet they are simultaneously exclaves from outside - through the prism of the state that claims to have sovereignty over them.
During the First Karabakh War, Armenia occupied the enclaves inside its territory, and Azerbaijan assumed effective control over the one within its borders. Over the succeeding 30 years of occupation, the issue cropped up with an irregular frequency but was never dwelt upon systematically. The key focus was the former Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast and seven surrounding territories.
It was after the Azerbaijani victory in the Second Karabakh War that Azerbaijan embarked on restoring its Western border with Armenia and the fate of the enclaves assumed heightened importance in the light of the delimitation and demarcation exigencies.
As anticipated, the conflicting sides differ regarding their view of legal ownership of the enclaves. The original post-war Armenian view, as expressed by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in late May 2021, was that enclaves were not to be exchanged; in other words, Baku was to retain control over the exclave of Armenia, and the latter would be entitled to retain control over the exclaves of Azerbaijan.
This view was reiterated by Armen Grigoryan, Secretary of Armenia's National Security Council, in early May this year. It was only when Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov openly rejected Yerevan's proposal, stating that Baku would assume effective control over its exclaves, that Yerevan shifted up its rhetoric gearing and expounded a novel idea that its claim over the Bashkend village was considerably more substantial than Baku's claims on the seven villages of Gazakh and Karki.
In this vein, Ambassador-at-Large Edmon Manukyan stated that Baku had to present a de jure proof as to its claim on the exclaves in question. Clairvoyance is unnecessary to establish that this new bargaining position is not necessarily driven by a quest for legalistic substantiation, but some other objective.
If a transfer of the exclaves comes to pass, Azerbaijan will regain a territory of 124 square kilometers, which is three times larger than the reclaimed Armenian exclave - Bashkand. Such a scenario equates to some effective territorial gain for Baku, but this is not everything.
The concession of sovereignty over the Azerbaijani exclaves may also have some strategic repercussions for Yerevan. The fear in Armenia is that control over the seven villages of Gazakh region and Karki settlement will enable Baku to gain supervision over the critical highways of Armenia, thereby causing some military risks.
These fears are not completely unsubstantiated, but they presuppose a permanent escalation and the absence of peaceful relations. The truth of the matter is that Armenia is geographically disadvantaged - it is landlocked and squeezed from the West and East by two neighbors, with which it should ideally normalize ties.
Even the security of the North-South road, the geopolitical import of which is viewed as of paramount importance by Yerevan, necessitates reliable relations with Baku. The danger of being cut off from Iran and Georgia preys heavily on the minds of nightmare-inclined Armenians.
Despite their importance, enclaves, in principle, remain secondary to the main themes of peace negotiations. The likelihood is that they will be settled in conjunction with major issues, and the subject should never be viewed exclusively in the context of the retain-transfer dichotomy.
It is possible that such a transfer could be exercised in relation to some exclaves, with others being retained. A rumor surfaced last year at the peak of the interstate border crisis, which suggested that Yerevan might concede control of the Gazakh District's exclaves, provided that Baku would withdraw its troops from their advanced position on a different section (southward) of the presumed delineation line.
Nothing eventuated from that, but this was a clear illustration of how these issues could potentially be dealt with - a compromise on the basis of bargaining chips. Indeed, compromise is key, but like any relationship, the same psychology is obligatory for both parties.
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