An Armenian conscript in Khor Virap with Mt. Ararat in the background (photo Avedis Hadjian January 2021)

The Borderization of Armenia and Artsakh


By Madlen Avetyan and Avedis Hadjian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

The predicament Armenia finds itself in invites comparisons with the fate of Palestine. Encroachments by Azerbaijani soldiers into Armenian territory proper since May 12 have followed catastrophic defeat in the 44-day war over the enclave of the Republic of Artsakh. More importantly, the war has brought Azerbaijani positions to within feet of the Armenian border and within a couple of hours, at most, from Yerevan and other targets of major strategic significance.

Armenia is not Palestine, but threats to its territorial integrity present similarities with the Palestinian case. Armenia is a recognized member of the community of nations, yet the war has crippled the country’s capacity to defend itself, increasing its dependence on Russia. While nominally the guarantor of its territorial integrity, Russia has responded with passivity to the acts of aggression by Azerbaijan and Turkey against Armenia.

The current process of gradual disintegration of Armenia’s sovereignty may be seen as a classic example of “borderization,” a term coined after the Georgian defeat in the war against Russian-backed Ossetia in 2008. A process of delimitation and demarcation ensued, during which Russian forces set up barbed wire, dug trenches and military checkpoints well inside Georgian territory, much like Azerbaijan is trying to do now in Armenia. Georgia has labeled these hostile demarcation activities as “creeping annexation,” which is apparently under way in the Armenian border areas with Azerbaijan as well.

The precarious status of the borders of its sovereign territory, violated by enemy forces that walked into it without firing a single shot, and the shrinking of Artsakh into an Armenian-populated pocket encircled by Azerbaijani-occupied territory and linked to Armenia through a corridor that at its narrowest is a two-lane road in Shushi, represent a sharp deterioration compared to the status quo ante. The war left more than 3,700 Armenian soldiers dead and the loss of approximately 80 percent of the territory of the enclave.

“We Are Our Mountains” (Tatik and Papik) monument in Stepanakert (photo Avedis Hadjian January 2021)

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The strategic value of Artsakh has been an article of faith for Armenians. So has been the notion that the loss of Artsakh would compromise Syunik, therefore threatening the territorial integrity of Armenia. The current border violations by Azerbaijan and pressure by both Azerbaijan and Turkey (with tacit Russian support?) to open a transport corridor across Syunik uniting Turkey and the Azerbaijani Nakhichevan exclave with Azerbaijan only confirm Armenian concerns, best expressed by a phrase attributed to Monte Melkonian: “If we lose Karabakh, then we will turn the final page in the Armenian history.”

This is not only a matter of psychological perception. History justifies Armenians’ suspicions. Syunik was defended against all odds in the final months of the First Republic (1918-1920) by General Garegin Nzhdeh who fought Soviet and Azerbaijani troops and disobeyed the orders of his own Armenian government in Yerevan ordering him to withdraw from Syunik and hand it over to Azerbaijan. That tongue of land today links Armenia to the outside world through Iran, if we exclude Georgia, unreliable in the best of cases and increasingly drawn into the Turkish sphere of influence by way of trade and defense agreements.

Let us now examine the case of Palestine and its similarities and differences with Armenia.

The Break-up of Palestine
After Ottoman rule, the Balfour declaration placed Palestine under British mandate in 1917. This status only changed with the birth of the state of Israel in 1948. While Israel became a sovereign member of the international community, Palestine never gained statehood.

In 1948, Jews legally owned slightly more than 6 percent of the land of Palestine. Lands legally and illegally owned by Jews were incorporated within the borders of the Jewish state in 1948 when Israel gained statehood. Laws were then passed to prevent Palestinians from reclaiming the lands they lost under illegal purchases.

After the Six Day War in 1967, Israel seized 52 percent of the West Bank and 30 percent of the Gaza Strip in violation of international law.  The confiscated land was used by the Israeli military and Jewish settlements after over 300,000 Palestinians were displaced. Israel also gained more control over water resources, restricting water usage in Palestinian areas. Jewish illegal settlements increased in the newly captured territories, even though they were in violation of the Geneva Conventions. New boundaries were also drawn in Jerusalem, placing several sections of East Jerusalem and a number of adjacent villages that mostly consisted of Palestinian residents under Israeli jurisdiction.

The Oslo Accords in the 1990s were an attempt to broker peace between Palestine and Israel, but the negotiations went nowhere as Israel either receded on its earlier agreements or refused to implement new agreements. While portrayed as a move for peace, Israel was driving a hard bargain with harsh requirements from Palestinians that essentially were cutting their country up into four separated entities with no territorial contiguity. Palestine was cut up from East to West and from North to South, turning Palestine into groups of islands surrounded by Israeli settlers and soldiers.

While the Oslo Accords negotiations were taking place the number of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories doubled. In the meantime, Palestinians’ freedom of movement was becoming even more restricted. In 1993, a massive new highway network was built by Israel on occupied Palestinian territories that isolated Palestinian towns from each other and from Jerusalem. Israeli military checkpoints were established to hinder Palestinian movement from one town to another. Palestinians have been living in an open-air prison for decades through a growing number of restricted areas, countless military checkpoints, and bypass roads built for Jews only that are designed to restrict the movement of Palestinians.

Artsakh after the 44-day War

The Armenian Republic of Artsakh has now been reduced to an Armenian-populated pocket centered around its capital of Stepanakert, surrounded by territory now under enemy control. The final say rests with the Russian peacekeeping forces that have a five-year mandate that can be renewed after the five-year period is up or rescinded, if either the Armenian or Azerbaijani side withdraws its agreement, according to the November 10 Armenian-Russian-Azerbaijani declaration that put an end to the war (the validity of which is open to question).

Evening traffic in the center of Stepanakert. The building of the National Assembly is in the background (right) (photo Avedis Hadjian January 2021)

There is now no territorial contiguity between Armenia and Artsakh except for a corridor under the Russian peacekeepers’ protection. In Shushi, now under Azerbaijani occupation, this corridor narrows down to a two-lane road with two Russian military checkpoints that control traffic into Stepanakert and out of it. In the Shushi stretch, this road is flanked by Azerbaijani forces just behind low fences, which leaves Armenian passengers extremely exposed.

A Russian military convoy on the Stepanakert-Karmir Shuka road in Artsakh (photo Avedis Hadjian January 2021)

Even if there is a lack of concrete evidence, the way the war unfolded suggests it may have been planned well before the beginning of hostilities: as soon as November 9/10 capitulation was signed, heavy Russian military equipment rolled into Stepanakert. The city escaped the war mostly unharmed: a visitor in January did not notice any sign of war in the city center. Had lines already been drawn when the war started? Why would otherwise Azerbaijan make no attempt to capture the capital of Artsakh that was defended by a force of no more than 250-300 men?

This state of limbo is certainly a catastrophic defeat for Armenia and Artsakh, yet it is not as certainly a victory for Azerbaijan. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian forces have returned to Azerbaijani territory. Or as a Radio Yerevan joke would tell it, when a listener called to ask whose side was Russia on in the Armenian-Turkish conflict, Radio Yerevan answered: “The conflict.”

Enclaves and Exclaves inside Armenia

Along with a rump enclave of Artsakh that is now de facto a Russian protectorate, the precariousness of Armenia’s border security exposes the country to the risk of territorial breakdown into unconnected pockets of Armenian enclaves fully encircled by enemy territory, perhaps connected with each other through highways under Russian or collective monitoring. Another point of friction may develop if a corridor is created connecting Turkey to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan, as both enemy nations demand. This may eventually degenerate into fresh clashes or conflict, cutting off Armenia from Iran, its most reliable neighbor.

In other words, Armenia would become a collection of three or four Bantustans with no territorial contiguity, much like Palestine today, following decades of Israeli colonization and military subjugation.

On May 20, dozens of Azerbaijani soldiers crossed into the territory of the Republic of Armenia without firing a single shot. Armenia did not repel this violation of its sovereignty, instead appealing to Russia to deploy additional troops in the southern region of Syunik. The Collective Security Treaty Organization limited itself to a perfunctory response to Armenia’s calls for the invocation of Article 2 of the treaty that commits the alliance to the defense of its members in case of major threats.

The number of Azerbaijani soldiers camping unmolested in Armenia’s territory hovers around 1,000 according to recent estimates. They occupy an area of approximately 40 square kilometers in the provinces of Gegharkunik and Syunik.

The focus of Armenian concern has been the strategic value of Syunik — a tongue of land that connects the country to Iran and as importantly, if not more, prevents it from being encircled by Turkey and Azerbaijan on the East, West and South, with only Georgia as the only non-Turkic, yet unreliable, neighbor to the North.

Yet there is more than meets the eye, literally. Much worthy of attention is the proximity of both regions to water sources, especially Gegharkunik, which includes Lake Sevan. While it exceeds the scope of this article, the Artsakh conflict can also arguably be seen as one of the water wars that are expected to multiply as global warming intensifies.

There is also a push by Azerbaijan to exchange its three exclaves inside Armenian territory that date back to Soviet times: Dikranashen, Voskepar, and Barkhudarly, for the Armenian exclave inside Azerbaijani territory of Artsvashen. These exclaves are now populated by Armenians and Azerbaijanis following the first Karabakh war. Yet there is a difference in their strategic value, for while the Azerbaijani exclaves are by roads that connect Armenia to Georgia and Iran, Artsvashen has no similar strategic value for Armenia.

Armenia’s major interstate road to Syunik, Artsakh, and Iran passes through Tigranashen. Armenia’s other main interstate road, which goes to Georgia, passes through Voskepar, another Soviet Azerbaijani enclave inside Armenia.

Stepanakert Bus Station (photo Avedis Hadjian, January 2021)

It is also disingenuous to believe that after the 44-day war any civilian population of either side will agree to resettle in either exclave. If such exchange did happen, they would most likely become military outposts. Hence, any exchange of Soviet-era enclaves would further compromise Armenia’s security interests.

Again, the multiple acts of provocation by Azerbaijan after the war that go unanswered by Armenia: the arson attacks against Armenian villages in Artsakh and border regions of Armenia; the rustling and destruction of cattle and flocks of Armenian peasants; and, most especially, the undisturbed deployment of Azerbaijani forces on Armenian sovereign territory, create the risk of normalization.

Not Quite the Same

While there are several differences between the Armenian and Palestinian cases, there are a number of important similarities that need to be considered by Armenians.

Palestine never became a state, which made it defenseless against many Jewish and later Israeli incursions due to lack of international legal protections. While Israel achieved statehood in 1948 on Palestinian lands, Palestinians have remained stateless with diminishing civil liberties. Despite Palestine declaring itself an independent state in 1988 at the United Nations, Palestinians are still considered members of a stateless nation, lacking legal protections that are available to sovereign nation states. This has allowed the gradual partition of Palestinian lands by Israel. In addition to its lack of statehood, the current political leadership of Palestinians, Hamas, is considered a terrorist group by Israel and several other UN member states.

In contrast to Palestine, Armenia has been recognized by the international community as a sovereign state since 1991 with a legitimate political leadership. This provides a number of legal protections to Armenia that can possibly deter land grabs by Azerbaijan. However, legal protections are not always a guarantee since Azerbaijan has violated countless international laws during and after the recent war without facing any real consequences.

The similarities between the two people generally revolve around ambiguous legal status of land.

The ambiguous status of Palestine has resulted in limited international legal protections against Israeli incursions. The thirty-year ambiguous legal status of Artsakh has made it possible for Azerbaijan to claim its legal ownership of the area and occupy a large portion of the region after the recent war based on Soviet boundaries, despite Artsakh’s independence referendum in 1991 and the fact that, according to its own constitution, Azerbaijan considers itself the continuation of the first republic of 1918-20 and crucially not of the Socialist Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. This ambiguity has led to seizure of land in Artsakh after the recent war since legal borders between Armenia and Artsakh were never established after the first Artsakh war by Armenian authorities. And this has resulted in Azerbaijani army’s incursions into Armenian sovereign territory in border areas, claiming Armenian lands based on Soviet era maps.

Israel has used post-war chaos and fatigue in the people of Palestine to gradually take over Palestinian areas through illegal settlements. As a result, Israel controls most of the water resources in Palestinian territories through strategic seizures of land.

Similarly, Azerbaijan has been using war fatigue and increasing apathy in Armenia to make gradual advances into Armenian sovereign territories. As a result of the recent war, Azerbaijan has gained control of most of Artsakh’s water resources used for irrigation and consumption by the Armenian population. This includes loss of Karvajar’s water resources and Azerbaijan making territorial claims in Armenia proper near Sev Lij to gain full control of the lake that provides water to several border villages and towns in Armenia. Loss of control of water resources is extremely dangerous, especially with the ramifications of global warming that is making water scarce in many areas, including landlocked Armenia.

The human rights violations of Israel and Azerbaijan are almost identical, with similar results. Amnesty International has recorded many human rights violations committed by Israel against Palestinians, while the UN has ruled against Israel for violating the Geneva Conventions for the illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. The UN has urged Israel to stop expanding settlements for decades, but Israel has ignored these calls and has continued its illegal expansion into occupied territories.

Like the Israeli case, Amnesty International has recorded human rights violations committed by Azerbaijan against Armenians during the recent war. Many countries have condemned the actions of Azerbaijan, including the illegal captivity of Armenian POWs and Azerbaijani military incursion into sovereign Armenian territory, but Azerbaijan has ignored these condemnations and is proceeding as it pleases. Despite the purpose of these international organizations to protect human rights, Armenia cannot rely on them to ensure Armenian security against a fascist enemy’s regime.

The Road Ahead

There is increasing post-war fatigue and apathy among Armenians, which is a normal reaction to high levels of stress during and after a war. However, Armenians in the homeland and the diaspora can’t afford apathy.

Praying at Gandzasar Church in Artsakh (photo Avedis Hadjian, January 2021)

While being a sovereign state provides some legal protections, Armenia is already in the process of being fully colonized again by Russia, while Artsakh has already been colonized. There is a difference between alliance and colonization — the current state is colonization. The presence of Azerbaijani soldiers on Armenian territory without any real response by the Armenian government, Russia or any other international bodies illustrates how the gradual Azerbaijani incursions can become normalized for people in Armenia.

To address the grave dangers associated with the apathy described above among Armenians, the Network State initiative seeks to build political agency by creating a decentralized, nationwide system to attend to the needs of the Armenian state and people. With an Armenia-centric conception — meaning its goal is to serve the homeland — the Network State offers a mechanism by which its constituent parts and citizens work towards the development of Armenia in different fields of strategic importance, everything from healthcare to finance and defense.

In response to the devastating loss of the recent war, Vahram Ayvazyan, an International Relations and Genocide scholar founded the Network State. “The Network State is a pan-Armenian movement to bring Armenians from all over the world together, with the aim of building a free, united, sovereign and prosperous Armenia, as well as to ensure the security and protection of the rights of the Armenians everywhere by consolidating intellectual and financial resources,” says Ayvazyan.

According to Ayvazyan, the Network State’s Armenia-centric policy provides a viable cooperation platform to orient resources for building up a strong state. It pursues the establishment of a pan-Armenian military-political elite to defend the national interest of Armenia, while also carrying out the protection and development of the Armenian statehood and Armenian civilization through its citizens, structures and mechanisms.

As Armenia learned last year, it cannot rely on foreign powers or alliances for its defense. War can only be prevented with full military and political readiness to respond to enemy aggressions.

The tides of history change all the time. This current tide has been disastrous for Armenians, but it does not mean that this needs to be our permanent state. Armenia’s current goal should be to become a country with agency, to ensure that the tides of history in the future work out in its favor.

(Avedis Hadjian is a journalist and writer. He is the author of Secret Nation: The Hidden Armenians of Turkey.

Madlen Avetyan teaches anthropology at Los Angeles Valley College and at Pierce College. She is the author of Ethnodoxy in the Diaspora: Armenian-American Religious and Ethnic Identity Construction in Los Angeles.)

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