Echo of the second Karabakh war: why Baku got the opportunity to blockade the south of Armenia
The southern border of Armenia can be blocked at any moment, some of its settlements may be cut off from the rest of the country. This has become a reality that Armenia had to face at the end of August, when the Azerbaijani Armed Forces blocked the road connecting it with Iran. After lengthy negotiations, the road was unblocked but there are no guarantees that it will not be closed again in the future.
What kind of road is this, how did Azerbaijan get the opportunity to block it, why it happened and what to expect in the future.
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The 44-day war in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in the fall of 2020 turned out to be one of the bloodiest and most violent modern conflicts. However, it did not lead to a final solution of either the Karabakh issue itself or the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation.
The post-war period is accompanied by almost daily border skirmishes and logistics-related incidents. Armenia is getting used to new realities and is trying to get out of the situation with minimal losses. However, the possibility of further unfavorable developments is being actively discussed in society and it seems that this is the case, it is not without a reason.
Another reason for the intensification of conversations about the further intentions of Azerbaijan was the closure of the republican highway M-3 in the Goris-Kapan section in the south of Armenia. Baku decided to block a section of the road under its control after the war. As a result, several settlements in Armenia were cut off from the main communications.
Which section of the road does Baku control and why?
After the signing of a statement on the cessation of hostilities in Karabakh, on November 9, 2020, along with other regions, the Karvachar region (in Azerbaijan it is called Kelbajar), which borders the Syunik region of Armenia, was also passed under the control of Azerbaijan.
The main highway of Armenia, connecting the south of the country with the Armenian-Iranian border, runs through this region. The road was built back in Soviet times, when the administrative-territorial division, although existed, was not formal. Therefore, some sections of the road were laid through the territory of the Karvachar region.
Before the 44-day war, this state of affairs, of course, did not cause any inconvenience to Yerevan. The post-war realities led to the fact that Azerbaijan had the opportunity to block one of the main transport arteries of Armenia, which Baku took advantage of on August 25.
The incident came as a surprise to the Armenian society. After the war, the situation in this region was not easy but the road continued to function.
The Azerbaijani side cited the alleged penetration of the Armenian military into their positions and the infliction of knife wounds to the Azerbaijani border guards as the reason for blocking the road. However, this rationale is considered far-fetched in Armenia. Yerevan asked for evidence supporting Baku’s claims in order to launch an investigation into the alleged knife attack but there was no reaction from Azerbaijan to this request.
The talks lasted for two days and were conducted with Russian mediation. As a result, the road was opened, but the question remained open – for how long?
Cut-off villages and the significance of the road
Azerbaijan blocked the highway in several places at once. From the direction of the city of Goris, near the village of Vorotan and a section of the road near the village of David Bek in the south. As a result, a section of the Vorotan-David Bek road was blocked.
Together with the road, several communities were actually cut off from the “mainland”, including the aforementioned Vorotan, as well as Shurnukh and Bardzravan.
Goris-Kapan remains the only road connecting these villages to the big cities. The blockade of the road means that the villages will not be supplied with food, and ambulances will not be able to reach them – as was the case on August 25-27.
But an even greater issue for the Armenian authorities is the economic threat posed by the potential closure of the highway since at the moment, this is the main route linking Armenia with Iran.
The blocking of the road led to the accumulation of Iranian trucks and buses with tourists near the city of Kapan.
By closing the road, Baku is effectively blocking overland trade between Yerevan and Tehran, as well as cutting off southern Armenia from the rest of the country.
Expert opinion: why did Azerbaijan block the road
The Ombudsman of Armenia has repeatedly warned that the Goris-Kapan road is unsafe for citizens and even the Russian checkpoints set up in several places could not inspire confidence in people that no incidents could happen in this area.
The close proximity to the road of the Azerbaijani armed forces is already a weighty factor for many citizens to refuse to travel to Syunik.
Armenian experts also spoke about the likelihood of the road being closed. It all came down to specific dates.
After the road was closed, the Armenian authorities said that Azerbaijan was violating the trilateral agreements of December 2020 apparently referring to the verbal agreement between Yerevan, Moscow and Baku on the functioning of the highway.
Political observer Tatul Hakobyan notes that Baku does not hide the fact that sooner or later the road will be completely closed:
“Azerbaijan clearly states that Armenia is temporarily using this road. We all know that after our defeat, the sides had to refer to the Soviet borders. We have roads that either pass in the immediate vicinity of the Azerbaijani border, or even end up running through these lands”.
The expert is sure that by such actions Azerbaijan is trying to put pressure on Armenia in the issues of border demarcation and delimitation, as well as the provision of a corridor through Meghri, which will connect Azerbaijan with its exclave Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic and Turkey. Tatul Hakobyan emphasizes Baku’s extreme interest in getting a road through the south of Armenia, and not, for example, through Ijevan-Dilijan:
“The reopening of communications which is mentioned in the agreement of November 9, means that roads with a special status are not needed. And just as we use the territory of Georgia for communication with Russia, Azerbaijan can also reach Turkey through Armenia. However, Baku senses the weak positions of Yerevan and is trying to cut off a piece from the sovereign territory of Armenia in order to ensure communication with Nakhichevan and Turkey, without having to deal with the Armenian customs service and border guards”.
The expert is also sure that the Russian side is not particularly interested in any outcome of any of the problematic issues. Moscow has already achieved the main goal of deploying its border guards throughout Armenia.
Speaking about the reasons for the current situation, historian Amatuni Virabyan points out that this is the result of erroneous steps taken by the current authorities of Armenia:
“Why on November 9, realizing that this is a vital road, did the Armenian authorities not set a condition that it should be under the control of Armenia? And now the Azerbaijanis came and took the road”.
Is there an alternative road for Armenia
An alternative to the M-3 Goris-Kapan highway is the Tatev-Akhvani-Kapan road. This is a dirt road, which these days was only partially able to replace the Goris-Kapan highway.
The construction of Tatev-Akhvani-Kapan began in 2020. In December this year, the road should be fully ready and put into operation.
In total, Armenian builders will have to build 43 kilometers of road from scratch. The work is complicated by rocky mountains that have to be drilled to widen the roadway.
Although the persons responsible for the constructrion assure that after the overhaul the road will be able to completely replace the Goris-Kapan highway, the current state of the road shows that its passability, especially for trucks with trailers, will be lower. And nevertheless, Armenia will build this road at a fast pace.
Another communication route that may become key in the future is the North-South highway. Yerevan will receive money for its construction from the European Union. However, the final completion of the project will take years.
With the North-South highway in place, Armenia can become a transit country. From the north, it will connect Armenia with Georgia and provide access to the Black Sea and European countries. From the south, the highway will connect the country with Iran. The construction of the highway began in Armenia in 2012. In 2019, the road was planned to be fully completed and commissioned, but so far about 20% of the highway has been built. The European Union will provide 600 million euros for the construction of the most difficult sections of this road.