Sev Lij (Iravaban.net photo)

Armenia Rules out Border Demarcation Talks until Azerbaijani Forces Pull out of Armenian Territory

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YEREVAN –– Armenia will only agree to start border demarcation negotiations once Azerbaijan fully evacuates the area around Lake Sev and ceases further intrusions into Armenian sovereign territory, officials announced this week.

Azerbaijan sparked this ongoing standoff two weeks ago when several hundred Azerbaijani soldiers infiltrated on foot some 3.5 kilometers (2.1 miles) the international border area around the remote Ishkhanasar in Armenia’s Syunik province before being halted by Armenian forces around Lake Sev (Sev Lij). A similar intrusion was also halted south of the village of Verin Shorja in the Gegharkyunik province.

At a press event on Friday, May 18, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anna Naghdalyan insisted that in addition to Azerbaijani withdrawal to their positions as of May 11, the processes of border delimitation and demarcation between Armenia and Azerbaijan should be part of the comprehensive peace settlement of the conflict. Naghdalyan added that this framework would include the “de-occupation of the territories of the Artsakh Republic” as well as a final settlement to the unrecognized nation’s legal status under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk group.

The Foreign Ministry’s statement seemingly corresponds to an earlier comment by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan concerning a leaked document purportedly exposing plans to cede more territories to Azerbaijan. Pashinyan confirmed the authenticity of the document which was first shared on social media by Mikael Minassian, the exiled son-in-law of former President Serzh Sargsyan, but insisted that it was “100% pro-Armenian.”

The heavily-redacted document, accompanied by allegations from Minassian himself that Pashinyan had agreed to hand over chunks of Armenian sovereign territory to Azerbaijan including half a dozen villages, sparked more protests in the Armenian capital as well as condemnation from opposition politicians. During an emergency parliament session held on Thursday, May 17, Bright Armenia Party leader Edmon Marukyan insisted that a bilateral agreement could not be signed by an interim government and insisted that the Prime Minister hold off until after the June 20 election.

This call was also supported by Transparency International‘s Armenian branch as well as several other civil liberties watchdogs. Human Rights Ombudsman Arman Tatoyan called on the government to publish the uncensored draft in its entirety to “prevent the outflow of information of such exclusive importance from unofficial sources, and avoid an irreversible loss of public trust in state bodies.”

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The fully declassified draft agreement, which was published later that same day, revealed none of the attributions made by Minasyan. Rather than an agreement to cede Armenian territory, the document commits Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia to form a border demarcation committee “in accordance with their respective national laws.” This committee would meet at the end of June at the earliest to discuss a framework for conducting future demarcation activities along the two countries’ border. The document provides no timeline as to when such activities will commence or end.

Despite the innocuous nature of the draft agreement, some have expressed concern that Armenia would not be on an equal bargaining position as the loser of the recent war against a vengeful Azerbaijan. Three soviet-era exclaves of Azerbaijan, which lie entirely within Armenian territory, in Tavush and Ararat mazes respectively, have been the center of particular attention given their proximity to two of Armenia’s major international highway connections. During Thursday’s parliamentary session, Security Council chairman Armen Grigoryan refuted the idea as being impractical. Indeed, none of those three exclaves, which have been under Armenian control since 1991, would be viable if handed to Azerbaijan. They are not accessible to mainland Azerbaijan which would make infrastructure projects and administrative tasks impossible. Grigoryan also reminded listeners that Azerbaijan also controls the Armenian exclave of Artsivashen which is larger than all three Azerbaijani exclaves combined, and holds strategic value due to its altitude.

During the same question period, Pashinyan also suggested that one likely outcome of the border demarcation is that the de facto frontier, which mostly follows a system of trenches across mountain tops built in during the First Karabakh War, might simply remain as is. A similar solution to the exclaves question had been part of the aborted 1996 peace treaty. “Azeri military positions remain on territory of the Republic of Armenia since the 1990s, similarity some Armenian trenches sit within the soviet-era boundaries of Azerbaijan,” Pashinyan said. Agreeing on an international border would be one way to solve this issue according to the prime minister, who suggested that negotiations may go on for years.

Currently, only Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran are fully demarcated as both coincide with the former Soviet Union’s international boundaries along the Arax river. A similar delimitation committee to the newly proposed one has yet to complete demarcation of the Armenian-Georgian border after almost thirty years of work.

While Pashinyan has deemed border demarcation to be a necessary process as part of the reintegration of regional trade routes, and thus providing easier access to new markets for Armenian goods, he has made it conditional on Azerbaijan respecting its commitments to the November 9 ceasefire agreement. “There’s a chance that we might not even sign [the document]” Pashinyan announced to Parliament, adding “Nothing will be signed until Azeri troops withdraw from Armenian territory.”

Responding to the crisis, Baku denied that its troops were even inside Armenian territory, claiming instead that the entirety of Sev Lake falls within its own borders. In an attempt to soften decades-worth of racist and denigrating comments towards Armenians, Azeri dictator Ilham Aliyev told the Russian state-owned TASS agency that “Azeri and Armenian peoples need to learn to live side-by-side again.”

Despite faux-conciliatory rhetoric coming from Azerbaijani leadership, international pressure has continued to mount on Baku to pull its troops out of Armenian territory, free Armenian POWs from captivity and cease its belligerent rhetoric. The United States, Canada, Greece, India, Iran and France have all condemned Azerbaijan’s aggression. The European Union recently voted to demand that Azerbaijan release Armenian prisoners of war. The EU’s representative in Armenia, Ambassador Andrea Wiktorin, who visited Sev Lake as part of a delegation of European ambassadors and military attachés, confirmed Armenia’s sovereignty over the area, saying “It’s obvious from the maps that the greater part of Lake Sev is located in the territory of the Republic of Armenia.”

The ambassador also confirmed that the EU was using all levers at its disposal to support Armenia’s sovereignty.

Back in Yerevan, Security Council Chair Gevorgyan explained that  while Azerbaijan provoked this incident as a deliberate attempt to escalate tensions, Armenia has not yet exhausted its diplomatic means to solve the stand-off in its favor peacefully. The Ministry of Defense, for its part, confirmed that “the Armed Forces reserve the right to resolve the issue by any means, including force.” On Sunday, the Ministry reported that a portion of the Azeri forces in the area had already left, but some still remain.

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