Aliyev, airports and an autonomous republic: Is Azerbaijan in its construction renaissance?5 min read
“If we are not given access, then it will be difficult to talk about peace”: these are the words of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev during the IX Global Baku Forum on 16th June. The statement came after a lengthy back-and-forth between Baku and Yerevan over Azerbaijan’s proposed construction of the Zengezur Corridor — a transport corridor which aims to more easily connect Azerbaijan with its landlocked Nakhchivan exclave and its strategic partner Turkey. But why is Armenia unhappy about these plans? And, what’s with all the airports?
Announcements about airfields are hardly my usual go-to deep dive, but last month one such announcement caught my eye. Azerbaijani media recently reported that construction of the Zangilan International Airport is well underway and set to be completed by autumn this year. The airport will be located in the Zangilan District of the East Zangezur Economic Region — one of last year’s newly established economic regions created out of territories gained in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War.
The building of one single airport is hardly worth deep analysis. However, what does warrant it is the fact that this is not the first international airport built in previously Armenian-controlled territory, nor is it the last. In October 2021, the 44-million-USD Fuzuli International Airport was inaugurated by Aliyev and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after its rapid completion within a mere eight months. A third airport is set to be commissioned in 2024, located in the Lachin District of East Zangezur. Three new international airports built within a 40-kilometre radius by 2024? It does seem on the hastier side of things for a region that currently has little in the way of tourism.
Airports are not the only construction project Azerbaijan has seen as of late. Just a week after Azerbaijan’s victory in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Aliyev placed the foundation stone for the 101-kilometre “Victory Road” — a highway connecting the newly recaptured cities of Fuzuli and Shusha (known in Armenian as Shushi). Only a few months later, Aliyev placed down yet another stone: this time for the 44-kilometre Aghdam-Barda highway. In the Zangilan region, the Aghali Smart Village just opened: the first of several planned state-of-the-art village complexes, prioritising sustainability and economic efficiency. Azerbaijan’s construction sector certainly has been taking off.
The “Great Return”
All this building is not down to Azerbaijani construction workers having a bit too much time on their hands. In fact, it is part of a much larger project that will see widespread infrastructural development in the regions gained following the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Part of what Azerbaijani authorities have long dubbed the “Great Return” programme, this large-scale construction project seeks to revitalise the economy of the previous conflict zones.
Integral to this project is the so-called Zangezur Corridor. President Aliyev has long advocated for unblocking the connections between western Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. If implemented, the Zangezur Corridor would allow Azerbaijan to access Nakhchivan without Armenian checkpoints through the Syunik province in Armenia — referred to as Zangezur in Azerbaijan. It also seeks to make Azerbaijan a regional transport hub by connecting it to Turkey. Thus, the mystery of all those airports is solved.
One of the most significant aims of the Zangezur Corridor is to unite the Turkic world by creating a transport corridor stretching from Istanbul to Zangezur. By doing so, Aliyev also envisions that this will open Azerbaijan to easier links with Europe. Many view this project simply through a realist lens, highlighting the economic benefits of a more interconnected region. Others have been more sceptical of the wider aims, with several critics — particularly from neighbouring countries Iran and Armenia — accusing Azerbaijan of having an agenda grounded in pan-Turkism. The claims have only been further spurred by Aliyev’s assertion that he will “solve the [Zangezur Corridor] issue by force” if Yerevan refuses to cooperate.
Armenian Anxiety: the “corridor” debate
Azerbaijan’s grand plans have encountered some turbulence along the way. Earlier in June, President Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan came together in Brussels to discuss ongoing peace negotiations between the states — the third of a series of meetings mediated by President of the European Council, Charles Michel. Following the meeting, Baku announced that agreements had been met between the two over the Zengezur corridor. Michel later challenged this with a cautious ‘not quite’.
On the surface, much of the contention over the Zengezur corridor may appear to be a simple matter of semantics. Although Yerevan has stated it is in favour of unblocking regional communications, it remains staunchly against the term “corridor”. While this may seem a small distinction, for Armenian authorities, it remains an important one as they argue the term implies a loss of sovereignty over this territory.
Adding to these concerns is the use of the name “Eastern Zangezur” to refer to the economic region bordering Armenia’s Syunik province. As Laurence Boers writes for Eurasianet, this name implies there is a “Western Zangezur”, which would correspond to Armenian land. Although this might seem paranoid, President Aliyev confirmed this mindset in a speech last July, stating: “Western Zangezur is our ancestral land […] we must return there and we will return.”
All in all, the Zangezur Corridor debate goes far beyond semantics. While official statements for Charles Michel claim peace negotiations between Aliyev and Pashinyan are advancing productively, it still seems as though long-standing tensions over territory mean concrete agreements are struggling to lift off. Only time will tell whether Azerbaijan’s progress with the Zangezur Corridor will cruise along smoothly or be met with a bumpy landing.