- Frustrations in Baku, Yerevan, and Moscow are growing over delays in Armenian-Azerbaijani peace negotiations, as key differences remain on unblocking regional transit corridors.
- Azerbaijan remains committed to opening the Zangezur Corridor, while the Kremlin calls for Russian border guards to oversee administration of the route.
- Armenia seeks to bypass trilateral agreements with its “Crossroads of Peace” project in opening alternative passages with international support.
On January 18, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed frustration about the endless delays in peace negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia during his annual press conference in Moscow (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, January 18). Despite hopes that an agreement to normalize relations could be within reach, progress remains stunted by several outstanding issues increasingly entangled in competing geopolitical interests (see EDM, December 18, 2022). This is most evident in the failure to unblock regional economic and transit ties following the Second Karabakh War in 2020. Harsh rhetoric from both Yerevan and Baku shows no sign of abating and threatens to derail the peace process (see EDM, January 24).
Key differences remain between Azerbaijan and Armenia on implementing the trilateral agreement ending the Second Karabakh War. According to the ninth point of the November 2020 ceasefire statement signed by Yerevan, Baku, and Moscow, “all economic and transport connections in the region” should be unblocked, including those between the “western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic” (Kremlin.ru, November 10, 2020). The agreement also states that the transit of people, vehicles, and cargo should be “unhindered,” while Russian border guards would be “responsible for overseeing the transport connections.” As Yerevan increasingly turns its gaze toward the West and the European Union and the United States seek to diminish Russia’s role in the South Caucasus, Armenia continues to show reluctance in fulfilling its commitments. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is growing increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress since 2020, specifically concerning the restoration of its Soviet-era connection via Armenian territory to the Nakhchivan exclave.
This is a far cry from more recent trilateral statements signed by the three countries in 2021. Those agreements initially reaffirmed a commitment to unblocking transit corridors, with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan openly declaring that there was a “common understanding of how the routes will operate” (Kremlin.ru, November 26, 2021). Not one route, however, has been restored, and no reinstitution of the Soviet-era Nakhchivan line running through Armenia’s Syunik region (also known as Zangezur) has taken place.
Moscow’s war against Ukraine has made both Armenia and the West more reluctant to see the Kremlin reap any benefits or influence from unblocking transit lanes in the South Caucasus. For its part, Russia is concerned that the European Union and the United States seek to oust it from the region (Azatutyun.am, May 23, 2023). Azerbaijan has not helped either by referring to the link through Armenia to Nakhchivan as the “Zangezur Corridor,” leading to claims from Yerevan that Baku harbors extraterritorial claims.
Armenia is working on its own corridor—the North-South Road Corridor—that will stretch from Iran to Georgia with the active involvement of Tehran (Arka, October 23, 2023). Reference to opening transit corridors is common practice internationally (Mediamax, May 26, 2023), leading Azerbaijan and Russia to accuse Armenia of simply seeking to delay opening the Zangezur Corridor. Yerevan, however, fears that there will be no border or customs checks on its territory in contravention of Armenian law.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexey Overchuk, one of the three co-chairs of the trilateral working group, told the media that new technologies could seamlessly expedite customs and border checks (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 30, 2022). Since the September 2023 exodus of over 100,000 ethnic Armenians from the Karabakh region, Pashinyan has claimed that the November 2020 trilateral statement is no longer valid given Azerbaijan and Russia’s breach of that agreement (Azatutyun.am, January 15). Lavrov has lambasted such claims as false and instead points the finger at alleged Western meddling (Azatutyun.am, January 18). Russian border guards already control Armenia’s border with Iran, where the Soviet-era railway from Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan would resume (National Security Service of the Republic of Armenia, accessed January 25). Since Pashinyan came to power in 2018, pro-Western civil society groups in Armenia have increasingly scrutinized the Russian presence, aiming to end the over 30-year operation (Noyan Tapan, September 31, 2022).
At the end of 2021, Yerevan introduced its initial vision for unblocking regional transportation without an agreement with its immediate neighbors, instead seeking international support. The “Armenia Crossroads” project envisions an expansion of the North-South Road Corridor to include east-west connections (Armenian Public Radio, February 17, 2022). The project also involves restoring the Armenian section of the Yeraskh-Julfa-Ordurabad-Meghri-Horadiz railway without consulting Azerbaijan and Türkiye (Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia, December 16, 2021). The transit mega-project has since undergone a rebranding in recent months. Pashinyan now refers to it as the “Crossroads of Peace,” as articulated in a speech delivered to the European Parliament last year (Armenian Public Television, October 17, 2023). Referring to agreements reached in the EU-facilitated talks with Azerbaijan in Brussels, the Armenian project ignores the Russian-mediated trilateral agreement and the trilateral working group on economic cooperation and transit routes.
The European Union, the United States, and Russia all see the value in restoring the Soviet-era railway across Armenia’s southern border with Iran. The debate over control of the roads, however, obstructs any multilateral agreement. Armenia has not included the resurrection of a Soviet-era road from mainland Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan via its territory in the “Crossroads of Peace” plan, instead favoring alternative routes.
In 2023, Azerbaijan and Türkiye declared that they could complete the long sought-after route via Iran rather than Armenia. That position has since changed. At the beginning of 2024, Baku demanded again that the Zangezur Corridor be opened and operated via Armenian territory (JAMnews, January 11). Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has further alleged that Pashinyan’s “Crossroads of Peace” project is a “PR exercise intended to prevent the implementation of the Zangezur Corridor.” This assertion has been supported by some Armenian analysts who commend Pashinyan for this tactic (Armenian Weekly, January 2).
Other analysts believe that Pashinyan’s approach is missing the point. The route from Azerbaijan through Armenia to Nakhchivan is considered a fundamental underpinning for any durable peace between the two countries (Commonspace.eu, January 31, 2022). The restoration of the Azerbaijan-Nakhchivan link has been discussed in all peace proposals since 1994, including in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group package plan and the OSCE Minsk Group Basic Principles (International Criminal Court, July 31, 1997; Aniarc, April 11, 2016).
Concrete details on unblocking regional transit routes could be omitted from any framework agreement to normalize relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The danger here, however, is that further delays could lead to future conflict if transportation issues are left unresolved. Azerbaijan hopes to complete its section of the Zangezur Corridor by the end of 2024. Baku has warned that, until the direct link to Nakhchivan is established, it will not unblock any other passages between Armenia and Azerbaijan (Trend, January 10).