Border Incidents Muddle Restoration of Transit Links Between Armenia and Azerbaijan

Orkhan Jalilov Feature 9 June 2021
Border Incidents Muddle Restoration of Transit Links Between Armenia and Azerbaijan

As Azerbaijan expresses its readiness to restore transport routes across the region through southern Armenia, the number of incidents increases in the border areas of the two countries.

In late November, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia signed a trilateral statement, which brought an end to the conflict's military phase. Russia deployed a peacekeeping contingent to safeguard the ceasefire in the region under the agreement. 

The document also envisages the restoration of all economic and transport links in the region, and Armenia guarantees the safety of transport links between the western regions of Azerbaijan and its exclave the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in order to organize an unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles and goods in both directions.

However, the Armenian public and opposition are skeptical about the restoration of the Zangezur (Meghri) corridor, as the transit link has a high priority for both Azerbaijan and Turkey. Now, the restoration process has temporarily suspended due to the recent border incidents which is a consequence of the ongoing demarcation of the Azerbaijani-Armenian border.

Hostages or saboteurs?

On June 8, Azerbaijan returned an Armenian soldier who was detained in Lachin District on the Azerbaijani-Armenian border, regained following the Second Karabakh War in 2020. Artur Kartanyan "penetrated the territory of Azerbaijan not for the purpose of committing provocation", and crossed the Azerbaijani border because he lost his way, the Azerbaijani Defence Ministry said in an official statement late in the evening of June 8. 

However, the ministry said earlier that the Armenian soldier was a member of "an Armenian reconnaissance-sabotage group", and provided geographic coordinates of the area where the incident happened, saying that the group's task was to plant landmines.

Dozens of Armenian soldiers remain in captivity in Azerbaijan, and Baku refuses to consider them as prisoners of war and release them. Armenia claimes that 188 of its soldiers remain in captivity while Azerbaijan acknowledges only 72 Armenian captives in their custody. 

Moreover, the Azerbaijani side regards 57 soldiers among those captured after November 10, 2020, as “saboteurs” who must be held accountable before a court of law, while the Armenian side says the captive soldiers are prisoners of war (POW) and insists that Baku must release them in line with the November peace deal. 

Azerbaijan released 58 Armenian captives by February, according to the European Convention on Human Rights' count, after which Azerbaijan has been arguing that it has no more prisoners of war. 

In a reply to remarks of Armenian ex-president Serzh Sargsyan, who said that Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian should exchange his son for 20-25 war prisoners, Pashinian officially announced on June 8 that he was prepared to trade his son Ashot for the remaining Armenian hostages held in Azerbaijan. After his father's remarks, Ashot Pashinian shortly thereafter posted on Facebook that he was prepared to take part in the swap. 

On June 3, a preliminary investigation had been completed into the cases of 14 Armenian men detained in Karabakh in December 2020. They are charged with terrorism, armed assault, illegal border trespassing, and other crimes. On June 7, Azerbaijan's State Security Service and the Prosecutor-General’s Office said that a preliminary investigation had been completed into the case of 27 captive Armenian soldiers who are charged with terrorism and crossing into Azerbaijan, and will soon stand trial.

The trial of a Lebanese citizen of Armenian descent, Vigen Abraham Euljekchyan on terrorism charges, who fought as a mercenary in the 44-day war on the Armenia side, was also held in Baku, on June 8. 

Meanwhile, the Armenian foreign ministry accuses Azerbaijan of using captive Armenian servicemen and civilians as "political hostages and tools to pursue other goals". 

Border crisis

Following the liberation of the Azerbaijani lands, Baku launched measures to create and strengthen the border protection system along the Azerbaijan-Armenia border, a part of which was out of Azerbaijan’s control during the years of occupation by Armenia. However, the Armenian authorities describe these developments in the border as intervention by the Azerbaijani military, and accuse them of violating Armenia's border.

The two states have been locked in a border crisis since mid-May after the reported movement of the Azerbaijani troops into two sections of Armenia's state border - one in the Syunik Region and the other in the Gegharkunik Region. 

The situation further escalated on May 27, after Azerbaijani troops besieged and captured six Armenian saboteurs who were trying to plant mines on the routes used for supplying the units of the Azerbaijani army stationed along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. A total of 24 Armenian diversionists have reportedly infiltrated the Azerbaijani territory on the same day to commit provocations. 

Azerbaijani authorities say those who resorted to provocations against the Azerbaijani forces after the ceasefire was signed are terrorists. However, Armenia said the soldiers had been "kidnapped".

Later, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry and State Border Service said in a joint statement on 2 June that a group of about 40 Armenian soldiers had crossed 400 meters into Azerbaijan's Kalbajar district on the evening of 1 June. Azerbaijani troops reacted immediately and forced the Armenian soldiers to leave, but no weapons were used, the statement added. 

On 1 June, Yerevan announced that the trilateral group set up by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia for unblocking transport communications in the region has suspended its work due to tensions on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.

The three countries agreed to set up the trilateral working group to start unblocking regional transport communication lines between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Moscow on 11 January. According to the agreement, the working group will submit for approval by the country leaders the list and schedule of measures to be taken to reconstruct and build new transport infrastructure facilities required for organizing, implementing and ensuring safety of both international and local transport through Azerbaijan and Armenia by March 1, 2021.

On 30 May, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said that "there are good results" regarding the transport corridor that is to connect mainland Azerbaijan with its exclave of Naxcivan and further with Turkey via Armenia. Speaking about the transport corridor on the same day, Nikol Pashinyan said that "it is a matter for the future. At the first stage, we consider the issue of railways to be important. We are talking about the opening of railways that had been operated during the Soviet Union". 

The OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs which have been mediating a settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict over the past 29 years, offered to facilitate negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the delimitation and demarcation of their state border in a statement on 28 May.  

In response, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Ceyhun Bayramov said in a telephone conversation with the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus Toivo Klaar that Baku “supports the proposal to establish an appropriate trilateral (Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia) commission on delimitation and demarcation of the border”.