Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan

Since Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s March 18 visit to Voskepar and Kiranc villages in the Tavush region, discussions and debates have been underway in Armenia on the situation along the Armenia – Azerbaijan border in that region. The visit took place after the statement of the office of Azerbaijan’s Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev, demanding the immediate return of “four non-enclave Azerbaijani villages’” located in Tavush along the Armenia – Azerbaijan border to Azerbaijan which were in principle covered in the demarcation and delimitation negotiations. During his meetings with villagers, the Armenian prime minister stated that “the process of delimitation and demarcation between Armenia and Azerbaijan was entering the practical stage.” Despite acknowledging that there were no agreements on maps and principles of the process and that Azerbaijan would not leave the Armenian territories currently under its control, the prime minister argued for withdrawing from those villages to avoid a new war. After these meetings, some representatives of the Armenian leadership, including the speaker of the National Assembly, started to state that those territories were not part of Armenia and should be returned to Azerbaijan.

What are the implications should the Armenian government unilaterally concede to these Azerbaijani demands? The consequences can be divided into three categories: logistical, military, and geopolitical.

Part of the Yerevan – Dilijan – Ijevan – Noyemberyan highway, one of the two main highways connecting Yerevan with the Bagratashen border crossing point located on the Armenia – Georgia border, passes through this area. It is most likely that this highway section will be closed the same way as Azerbaijan closed the Goris – Kapan highway in late 2021. Armenia has three border crossing points with Georgia – Bavra, Gogavan, and Bagratashen, with Bagratashen being the primary one, located only 70 km. away from the capital Tbilisi. The closure of this highway will not cut Armenia completely off from Georgia, as it remains possible to reach the Bagratashen crossing point via the Yerevan – Vanadzor – Alaverdi highway, plus Armenia may construct an alternative road to circumvent the areas to be given to Azerbaijan. However, all options will significantly impact Armenia–Georgia traffic and put additional pressure on the Armenian economy. According to the Armenian Statistic Committee, in recent years at least 70 percent of Armenia’s trade turnover passes via Georgia, and Bagratashen is the primary point here. In 2023, 2,855,821 persons passed through Bagratashen crossing point, while only 695,427 crossed Bavra and 166,173 the Gogavan crossing point.

Further, the Russia – Georgia – Armenia gas pipeline passes through the area, which Azerbaijan demands. In light of the Azerbaijani precedent of cutting the gas supply to Nagorno-Karabakh as soon as Azerbaijan took control of part of the Armenia – Nagorno Karabakh gas pipeline in the summer of 2022, chances are high that Azerbaijan will use the same tactics as leverage to put additional pressure on Armenia for further concessions. Technically, it is possible to construct a new section of gas pipeline, circumventing those areas, but again, it will require time and resources from Armenia.

Several Armenian-inhabited villages around the area — Voskepar, Baghanis, and Berqaber — will be partially circled by Azerbaijani territory and its inhabitants forced to make detours to travel in and out. In case Azerbaijan deploys troops to these territories, many Armenian houses as well as administrative and educational buildings will be located only a few meters from Azerbaijani military positions, putting additional pressure and suffering on the population living there and triggering a potential migration.

According to several Armenian military experts, the Tavush region has Armenia’s most advanced and well-constructed defense positions. Any territorial changes in that area will undermine Armenia’s defense and give Azerbaijan favorable positions for further advances in Tavush and the Lori region. In this case, Armenia should spend significant resources to construct new positions and relocate new forces to the area to increase its defense capacities.

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The above-mentioned points outline the severe weakening of Armenia, explaining the acute risks of giving these areas to Azerbaijan unless the decision is part of a comprehensive deal, which should cover all outstanding issues between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

There is still one argument about why Armenia should not give these territories to Azerbaijan.

There could be no negotiation process without agreements on maps and agreements on principles of delimitation and demarcation. What Azerbaijan demands has nothing to do with the delimitation and demarcation process; it is a land grab by use or threat of use of force. It undermines the rules-based international order and sets a dangerous precedent, with far-reaching repercussions in our region and elsewhere. In this context, it is perilous to legitimize land grab describing it as the start of the legitimate delimitation and demarcation process.

Instead of submitting to Azerbaijan’s bullying methods with public statements that those territories are not part of Armenia and Armenia should give them to Azerbaijan, the Armenian government should apply to all international organizations and to all states that have a presence and peace interests in the South Caucasus (the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the EU, Russia, Iran, US, EU member states, and India), stating that Azerbaijan attempts to implement a land grab either by threat of use of force or actual force and that those steps are undermining international law.

Indeed, even if Armenia agrees to give these territories to Azerbaijan, it will be a violation of international law and will allow Armenia to add additional pressure on Azerbaijan in the international arena. Otherwise, if Armenia agrees to give these territories to Azerbaijan, stating that it was done as a part of the delimitation and demarcation process, it will legitimize the land grab. Even more dangerous, statements that these territories are part of Azerbaijan may justify the use of force by Azerbaijan to take these territories. Azerbaijan would argue that it had no alternative, as Armenia, while recognizing these areas as Azerbaijani territories, rejected to withdraw from them.

Thus, what is at stake in the Tavush region does not relate only to Armenia’s security. Suppose Azerbaijan succeeds in making a blatant land grab under threat or actual use of force. In that case, it will be another blow to the rules-based international order within Europe’s borders, which may have far-reaching ramifications well beyond the South Caucasus.

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