Lower Askipara. (Photo: Gasan Dzhalal via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Armenian PM Signals Willingness to Make Territorial Concessions to Facilitate Border Deal

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Realizing his bargaining position is limited, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is making a pragmatic play to secure a border delimitation agreement with Azerbaijan: he appears willing to offer a unilateral give to ultimately get what Armenia needs.

Delimitation discussions appear stuck at present over Azerbaijan’s demand that it gain control of eight villages in border areas currently under Armenian jurisdiction. Pashinyan in comments to journalists signaled a willingness to unilaterally hand over four of the disputed villages. In doing so, he also suggested a practical way of settling the boundary between the two states. His initiative appears intended to deprive Azerbaijan of a pretext to launch new military action to seize territory, including any assault that could cut Armenia’s direct access to Iran.

“The de jure border that existed at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union was reaffirmed by the [1991] Alma-Ata declaration and not only by that declaration, but also by the agreements held in Prague on October 6, 2022,” Pashinyan said at a March 12 news conference.

Four of the disputed villages – Baghanis Ayrim, Lower Askipara, Kheyrimli, and Gizilhajili – were on the Azerbaijani side of the border between the two former Soviet republics and were occupied by Armenian forces in the 1990s, during the first Karabakh war, which concluded in 1994 after the signing of the Alma-Ata declaration.

Citing the Alma-Ata and Prague agreements, Pashinyan acknowledged that “the former administrative border, which existed during the Soviet Union, is somewhat beyond that present administrative border.” He went on to call for both states to reaffirm the frontier defined by the Alma-Ata agreement.

“In the process of [border] delimitation, we must work on reproducing that border in any format,” the Armenian prime minister said. “We must proceed from the de jure reality. What is Armenia is Armenia, what is not Armenia is not Armenia.”

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Following Pashinyan’s logic, that means the Armenia’s immediate return of the four villages within Azerbaijan at the time of the Alma-Ata agreement. Earlier in 2024, Armenia maintained that Azerbaijan currently controls 31 villages situated in roughly 200 square kilometers of land that are rightfully Armenian. There had been some talk in Yerevan of proposing a trade involving all the disputed settlements. But Pashinyan in his most recent comments made no mention of such a swap.

The remaining four villages that Azerbaijan is seeking is a trickier matter to settle. All are associated with one of the most bedeviling legacies of the Stalin era: they are village-sized exclaves that were primarily inhabited during the Soviet era by Azerbaijanis while being surrounded by Armenian territory.

On March 15, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan reaffirmed Pashinyan’s position during a meeting with lawmakers.

“The process of mutual recognition of territorial integrity and subsequent border delimitation must be based on the Alma-Ata declaration,” he said, referring to a 1991 document that committed newly independent ex-Soviet republics to recognizing their Soviet-era borders. Alma-Ata is presently known as Almaty, Kazakhstan’s commercial capital.

“There is more mutual understanding on this issue now than, for example, a month ago,” added Mirzoyan. “At least at the moment, I have the impression that we are very close to reaching a mutual agreement on this issue.”

Prior to Pashinyan’s March gambit, Azerbaijan had staked out an intransigent position about the return of the eight villages. “As for the four non-exclave Azerbaijani villages occupied by Armenia, their affiliation to Azerbaijan is beyond any doubt and they are subject to immediate liberation,” Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev said in the statement issued March 9, two days after the latest round of border delimitation talks. Mustafayev leads the Azerbaijani negotiating team.

“The issue of liberation of four of Azerbaijan’s exclave villages occupied by Armenia will also be resolved within the delimitation process,” he noted.

There has not been a specific Azerbaijani response to Pashinyan’s gambit. But in a March 14 speech in Baku, President Ilham Aliyev indicated that Azerbaijan and Armenia were close to a peace deal.

“Now that the Karabakh issue is closed, we are very close to peace. That’s what we think,” Aliyev said. “Meetings at the level of the foreign ministers of both countries have now resumed, and we think that peace is reachable. That is what we want. We restored historical justice and international law, and now it’s time to put an end to hostility in the region.”

The villages that Pashinyan seems willing to unilaterally hand back are important to Armenia from an infrastructure point of view. A highway to Georgia, as well as a pipeline carrying Russian gas to Armenia, pass through these villages. Pashinyan also addressed the issue in press comments, saying that he has instructed relevant state bodies to “reroute those lines so that they pass through Armenia’s de jure territory and so that we don’t have problems in that area.”

The prime minister’s remarks triggered an immediate outcry from long-standing government critics, who accuse Pashinyan of treachery and a failure to defend state interests.

“By unilaterally giving in, not only do you not create a guarantee that Azerbaijan will not attack, but on the contrary, you give them better conditions to attack you from those positions,” Anna Grigoryan of the Hayastan alliance said in comments broadcast by RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.

(This story originally appeared on the website eurasianet.org on March 18.)

 

 

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