A map showing the section of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border between the Tavush province of Armenia and the Qazax district of Azerbaijan

Emotions High as Four Villages in Tavush Province Are Returned to Azerbaijan

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YEREVAN (Azatutyun) — Senior US and European Union diplomats discussed with Armenia’s leaders on Monday, April 22, the implementation of their controversial border delimitation agreement with Azerbaijan hailed by Western powers.

The issue was understood to be high on the agenda of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s meeting with Toivo Klaar, the EU’s special envoy to the South Caucasus. According to an Armenian government statement, Klaar reaffirmed EU support for “the agreement to launch the delimitation process on the basis of the 1991 Alma-Ata Declaration” signed by newly independent former Soviet republics. The latter thus recognized each other’s Soviet-era borders.

Following the eighth round of talks between Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigoryan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Shahin Mustafayev that was held at an undisclosed section of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border on April 19 the parties announced a preliminary agreement that the initial stage of the delimitation process will involve sections between four villages in the territory of Armenia’s Tavush province and four abandoned villages that used to be part of Azerbaijan’s Qazax district in the Soviet times.

The deal commits Armenia to making unilateral territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. The four areas used to be occupied by small Azerbaijani villages captured by Armenian forces in 1991-1992. For its part, Azerbaijan had seized at the time large swathes of agricultural land belonging to several Tavush villages. None of that land will be given back to Armenia under the terms of the preliminary border deal reached on April 19.

The border area in the Tavush province of Armenia

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan defended the deal welcomed by Western powers, saying that it will help to prevent another war with Azerbaijan. However, many residents of the Tavush villages close to the contested border areas are strongly opposed to it, saying that they would lose access to their existing agricultural land, have trouble communicating with the rest of the country and be far more vulnerable to Azerbaijani armed attacks. .

The delimitation on the mentioned sections is to be completed by the middle of May, the parties agreed.

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The announcement has triggered angry protests by residents of border villages in Armenia’s northern Tavush region that will be seriously affected by it. The Armenian opposition has also strongly condemned it.

Residents in the villages of Kirants and Baghanis, in particular, blocked traffic at sections of the road linking their villages to the towns of Ijevan and Noyemberian, respectively.

Some residents of Voskepar, another Armenian village that is going to be affected by the planned border demarcation, claimed, meanwhile, that what was officially announced by the authorities contradicted what Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had said when he held a closed-door meeting with residents in the village earlier this week.

Angry residents of Voskepar village confront military personnel trying to demine a contested border area, April 22, 2024.

Residents are particularly concerned that the demarcation of the border with Azerbaijan in accordance with the Soviet-era configuration will deprive them of access to their farmlands and complicate their communication with the rest of the country due to the fact that some parts of the road in the area will fall under Azerbaijani control.

Besides, they voice concerns that Armenia’s withdrawal from its current military positions will make the local civilians far more vulnerable to Azerbaijani armed attacks.

The Armenian Prime Minister’s Office provided explanations on Friday, addressing some of the concerns of residents of borderline communities.

“For the first time, there will be a demarcated state border between our countries [Armenia and Azerbaijan] in the section of the four villages,” he said, as quoted by Armenia’s state-run Armenpress news agency.

“Let’s note that Azerbaijan is very close to those villages even today and they are under direct fire. Yes, as a result of this process, the border guard service of Azerbaijan will get closer to the villages of Kirants and Voskepar, but their villages and ours will be separated by a delimited state border. This is a key factor and let’s not forget that the border protection will be carried out by the border guards of the Republic of Armenia. In addition, there are many details of providing security, which will also be discussed and detailed in the near future,” Pashinyan’s Office said.

It acknowledged that “a few hundred meters of the road outline” will have to be changed in the section of the village of Kirants, which it said “is not something difficult and will be implemented within a few months.”

“But this is not the only road for Kirants. The Kirants-Acharkut-Ijevan road will be repaired, maybe rebuilt as well. We mean, Kirants also has an alternative road, and practically there are no major problems,” the premier’s office said.

“It is also important to record that the Commissions agreed that in the entire process of border delimitation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, they will rely on the 1991 Alma Ata Declaration, which is recorded as a fundamental principle of the border delimitation process,” it stressed.

Meanwhile, the deal was touted as another success of the government in Azerbaijan.

“Armenia has agreed to return four villages under occupation since the early 1990s,” Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aykhan Hajizada wrote on social media, describing it as a “long-awaited historic event.”

Residents of border villages in Tavush province block a highway outside Kirants village, April 20, 2024.

Protests Held

The Armenian opposition groups have also condemned Pashinyan’s latest concessions to Baku, They argue that the areas in question are strategically located along one of the two main Armenian highways leading to the Georgian border as well as the pipeline supplying Russian natural gas to Armenia via Georgia.

Azerbaijan would gain control of a section of that highway adjacent to the Tavush village of Kirants as a result of the planned Armenian troop withdrawal. Scores of residents of Kirants and several other border communities rallied there early on Saturday in a bid to scuttle the land handover to Baku. They were joined by Bishop Bagrat Galstanyan, the outspoken head of the Tavush Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

“The delimitation process must take place in a comprehensive, package manner, with clear rules and maps, in accordance with Armenia’s laws, through a referendum, and with international guarantees,” Galstanyan insisted on Monday.

The protesters unblocked the road section on Saturday night after Grigoryan agreed to meet with the heads of the village administrations on Monday. They blocked it again the following morning amid reports that the Armenian military is about to start demining the border areas in preparation for their handover to Azerbaijan. The military did not comment on those reports.

“They told us to open the road so that they give us an answer on Monday,” one woman from Kirants told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “But they fooled us. We woke up this morning and witnessed another incident. That’s why we don’t trust in their words anymore.”

“We will keep spending nights here,” said another protester. “For a couple of times, police forces came here to try to convince us to reopen the road, but that obviously hasn’t happened.”

There were strong indications of unfolding demining work outside the nearby village of Voskepar on Monday. A group of angry villagers confronted military personnel who appeared to be trying to clear a contested area next to a 7th century Armenian church of landmines. They demanded an immediate halt to the apparent demining. Bishop Galstanian also arrived at the scene, effectively urging the military to defy Pashinyan’s withdrawal orders.

Riot police cordoned off the church to keep Voskepar residents and other protesters from approaching it and disrupting the mine clearance seen as a preparation for the area’s handover to Azerbaijan. The tense standoff there continued for a few hours, with the protesters eventually being given access to the church.

 

 

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