Monday December 4 2023

Connectivity looms large again, but problems persist

29 May 2022 16:20 (UTC+04:00)
Connectivity looms large again, but problems persist

By Orkhan Amashov

A year and a half on from the November 2020 ceasefire deal, Baku and Yerevan remain at loggerheads on the mode of unblocking communications. The former resolutely propounds what it calls the "Zangazur Corridor" project, aimed at ensuring unobstructed movement between its western territories and Nakhchivan, whereas the latter vehemently opposes the idea, seeing it as an encroachment on its sovereignty, with fateful consequences to come.

Connectivity, collectively referring to the reopening of economic and transport links and the building of new ones, as envisaged in Article 9 of the 2020 trilateral declaration, is a perfectly plausible notion, and there is no generic objection to this. Individual protestations boil down to specific principles and the nature of the proposed unblocking steps.

Both Moscow and Brussels, two key platforms driven by their own geopolitical interests, support this. The latter views rewired connectivity as a mode for reshaping the South Caucasus in a way that will strengthen its ties with Russia. From the EU perspective, the more integrated the region, the more profound Brussels' capabilities to penetrate it economically and thereafter influence it politically.

Azerbaijan views connectivity as essential in the context of post-conflict normalisation and key to a future peaceful order. Armenia is perfectly cognisant of the benefits offered by the unblocking of communications, but worried about Baku's objectives. The most vexatious subject for Yerevan is the "Zangazur element" of the connectivity agenda. Actively promoted by Baku and Ankara, the term and its practical application have, for the past 18 months, been a source of continuous concern for Yerevan.

There are two dimensions to the debate concerning the corridor. The first one is what was originally meant by virtue of Article 9 of the 10 November ceasefire deal, a foundational document of the currently evolving post-conflict normalisation architecture. The second part relates to what the parties could realistically agree on, when the matter is looked at through the prisms of bargaining chips and practical ends.

Original intent

The bona fide meaning of Article 9 is a starting point for any sensible inquiry into the Zangazur Corridor. It states that that "all economic and transport connections in the region shall be unblocked". It goes on to specify that "Armenia shall guarantee the security of transport connections between the western regions of Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan in order to arrange the unobstructed movement of persons, vehicles and cargo in both directions".

In the view of the provision in question, not only existing but nonfunctional routes will be revived, but also new arteries will be built to connect Nakhchivan with western Azerbaijan. Very importantly, the Border Guard Service of Russia's Security Service will be responsible for overseeing the transport connections.

Article 9 was included in the trilateral statement upon the insistence of Baku, and the original design aims to ensure an overland passage, uniting Azerbaijan's mainland territory with its exclave. The primary intent is based, inter alia, on three linchpins, which are (i) unobstructed connection, (ii) the absence of border or customs checkpoints, and (iii) the provision that Russian - not Armenian - service personnel shall provide security along the route.

The Armenian side believes that Baku deliberately overlooks the pervasive precept of Article 9, expressed in its first sentence, which mandates that all communications must be unblocked, not just the shortest link passing through Southern Armenia.

Baku is not against the reopening of the Yerevan-Ijevan-Gazakh route, which is circuitous, it is just that by specifically incorporating the transport connection between Nakhchivan and Western Azerbaijan in the text of the trilateral deal, it has set the primacy in favour of its priority.

The whole purpose behind Article 9 is to achieve an obstructed passage via the Syunik province of Armenia. Plus, the Azerbaijani view is that the Zangazur Corridor will seamlessly weave into a larger web of communications, benefitting Armenia and other regional actors.

Armenian fear

In Yerevan's view, the proposed terms for the corridor mean that it will be unable to control this portion of its territory. The Armenian side is convinced that Baku's plan is tantamount to the bisection of the Syunik province and the effective violation of the nation's sovereignty. In December 2021, President Aliyev stated that if Yerevan insists on rejecting the corridor project, Azerbaijan will revise the terms pertinent to the Lachin corridor.

One contrived, but nevertheless consequential, concern preying on the minds of some Armenians is that, by agreeing to Baku's "corridor" plan, the Syunik region could entirely be lost. Some fearmongers have gone so far as to suggest that, after "the loss of Karabakh", Yerevan is facing the danger of being compelled to cede half of Armenia itself.

This doomsday streak in Armenian society, despite its ludicrous propensity, seems to be influential and not in short supply of creativity. Grigory Ayvayzan, for instance, a flamboyant Yerevan-based pseudo-historian with bombastic and imaginative ideas that have long been a source of amusement for the Azerbaijani public, stated that Armenia is already an enclave inside the Turkic world, and the Zangazur project will only formalise this sorry fact.

Latest developments

On 22 May, Charles Michel, the European Commission President, in his post-trilateral meeting statement, declared that on the subject of connectivity, the leaders agreed on "the principles governing transit between western Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan" and "between different parts of Armenia via Azerbaijan", as well as "international transport through the infrastructures of both countries".

Three separate, yet interconnected, elements can be discerned here. The first corresponds with the route identical to the Zangazur Corridor in terms of its geography. The second is commensurate with a transport chain involving Yerevan, Ijevan and Gazakh and possibly other routes on which Armenia has been insistent. The third element entails the opening of communications in the context of the East-West transportation network.

In line with the self-same statement, the parties also agreed "on the principles of border administration, security, land fees, but also customs, in the context of international transport". What is clear is that the parties have concurred on a certain set of precepts, the content of which is yet to be revealed.

The question is if the cumulative effect of the principles thereby established would amount to a regime which is going to be commensurate with what one may conditionally call a corridor - a link providing unobstructed and unimpeded access. If not, how obstructed is this link going to be? Will it be a half-corridor of some sort? Or will it be an international transit zone?

The truth is, at this stage, there is no crystal-clear answer. This ranges from the wide interpretation approach advocated by Baku to the narrow reductionism of Armenia.

Connectivity, as one of the critical components of interstate normalisation, is far from a finished article. In fact, it is just beginning to acquire a discernible shape. Armenia is still in the clutches of parochial crudity, afraid of widely opening the windows of its decrepit abode.

Being the winner of the war, strongly supported by Ankara and tacitly, but not unreservedly backed by Moscow, which has reservations about the corridor logic, Baku finds the bargaining chips in its favour. Simultaneously, Azerbaijan, despite its determination to make the corridor an outcome of the current process, is measurably pragmatic, exercises realpolitik and is ready to consider sensible and equally acceptable alternatives.


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