May in the Caucasus: crisis at the Armenian-Azerbaijani border4 min read
Tensions are growing at the southern border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. A number of encroachments along the international border of Armenia by Azerbaijani soldiers have been reported in several Armenian provinces.
On 12 May 2021 authorities in the province of Syunik made public that Azerbaijani forces advanced 3 kilometers into Armenia’s territory. Negotiations to end the escalations coordinated by General Rustam Muradov, the commander of the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh, have thus far been unfruitful. The Armenian Defence Ministry has threatened to use force should Azerbaijani soldiers not leave “within a reasonable time.” So what is happening down south?
The Tripartite Peace Declaration concluding the 2020 war stipulates that Armenia must guarantee the safety of transport links between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan. It also underlines that any new infrastructure linking the two must be approved by all parties to the agreement, including Armenia and Russia.
Before this most recent border incident, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev threatened to use force to establish a corridor through Armenia to connect Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan. He maintains that Syunik is the Azerbaijani region of Zangezur that remains occupied by Armenia. In late April Aliyev declared, “We are implementing the Zangezur Corridor, whether Armenia wants it or not. If Armenia wants it, then the issue will be resolved earlier, if it does not want it, we will decide it by force. Just as before and during the war, I said that they must leave our lands, or we will expel them by force. And so it happened.”
These are chilling words. Aliyev’s modus operandi is threatening the territorial integrity of Armenia and with that Armenians’ peace of mind. Aliyev does not even bother to disguise his true intentions: the ethnic cleansing of Armenians. His comments provoked fear and outrage in Armenia. Residents of Syunik fear for their safety as Azerbaijani troops seem now closer than ever.
A village divided
For more than 30 years Armenian military forces controlled the territories of what is internationally recognized Azerbaijan. Now with these territories under Azerbaijan’s control, they are now undertaking the complicated process of border delimitation and demarcation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has offered assistance to Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolve these border disputes but even so, for some this offer comes too little too late.
Shurnukh, a village in the Syunik province, was nearly divided in half between Armenia and Azerbaijan after last year’s war. Those with farms have lost access to their fields, crops have been lost, and many Armenian houses ended up on the now Azerbaijani side of the border.
As for the current crisis concerning Azerbaijani encroachment on Armenian territory, acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has stated that “Armenia is intensifying procedures under the Collective Security Treaty and the Armenian-Russian strategic system” but this does little to quiet fears in Armenia. As a member of the CSTO, Armenia has a mutual defense pact with Russia but skepticism that Russia will come to Armenia’s aid is high.
With all the uncertainty and heightened fears of ceding more land, rumors swirl in Armenia with dizzying effects. After the Armenian government’s loss of Shushi (Shusha), Armenians are loath to trust their words. Opposition parties state that the Azerbaijani soldiers will leave Armenia with preconditions but do not specify directly what these mysterious preconditions are.
With confidence lacking in the current government, snap elections have been called for 20 June in Armenia. Azerbaijani experts consider that Armenian politicians such as candidate and former President Robert Kocharyan are exaggerating these incidents to whip up support for their campaigns. Aliyev and Azerbaijani diplomat Jeyhun Bayramov echo these assertions and have claimed that there are no clashes at the border and that the situation remains stable.
Caucasus experts like Laurence Broers posit that any securitization of the border plays into further embedding Armenia into its security regime. Indeed, earlier in May Russian military units came to occupy two new sites in Syunik to provide an “additional security guarantee” to the region.
Geopolitics aside, the danger feels real. Whether Russia is trying to further bring Armenia into its sphere of influence, or Armenian parties are making up rumors to sway opinions in their favor for the upcoming elections, or whether Aliyev is just posturing to his domestic audience, no one who lives near these contested border regions will benefit from the uncertainty caused by this situation. Especially not the people whose entire lives have been upended by violence and loss.
A new deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan may soon come into force. A shadowy agreement, of which in Armenia seemingly only Pashinyan has knowledge of, may be signed alongside Ilham Aliyev and Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the current crisis. The heavily redacted version of the document was leaked by vocal critic (and son-in-law of former President Serzh Sargsyan) Mikayel Minasyan and Pashinyan himself confirmed its authenticity. With a lack of information on the agreement’s contents, the idea that more lands will be ceded to Azerbaijan has sent Yerevan into a frenzy in what promises to be a volatile summer for Armenia.