This is a commentary prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu. This commentary was first published in the fortnightly electronic newsletter Karabakh Concise of 18 August 2022.
Discussions on the Lachin Corridor linking Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh, and its equivalent in the South linking mainland Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan, have been ongoing for decades. The fate of these two transport routes and that of the future of Nagorno-Karabakh are closely interlinked, the commonspace.eu editorial team argue in this commentary.
Without a “Zangezur Corridor” there won’t be a Lachin Corridor, and without a Lachin Corridor there won’t be a Nagorno-Karabakh. Conversely, as long as there is a “Zangezur Corridor” there will be a Lachin Corridor, and as long as there is a Lachin Corridor there will be a Nagorno-Karabakh. This finely balanced arrangement may initially require Russians or others to guarantee it, but once it settles down it could be the bedrock on which the future peace of the region will be ensured.
Since the first discussions in the 1990s about how to find a solution to the conflict that erupted between Armenians and Azerbaijanis around Nagorno-Karabakh, one topic has been constant, and has exercised the minds of diplomats, experts and pundits alike: how to deal with the issue of the “Lachin Corridor”, the sliver of land belonging to Azerbaijan that is the shortest land connection between Armenia and territory of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast within the Azerbaijan SSR. This area has an Armenian-speaking majority and seceded upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, declaring itself as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR).
Not waiting for an answer, between 1992-94 the Armenians used a moment of particularly acute internal turmoil in Azerbaijan to seize the Lachin Corridor, and many other areas adjoining the NKR. The Lachin Corridor was the most prized piece of this territorial acquisition. This remained the status quo until September 2020, when Azerbaijani patience ran out and they launched a 44-day war which ended on 10 November 2020 with a trilateral declaration brokered by Russia. Armenia lost the war; Azerbaijan wanted its lands back.
But despite the fact that Lachin was de facto under Armenian control between 1992 and 2020, the debate about it and how it could be managed under any future agreement raged on. There were three main considerations around which a certain amount of consensus – within the international community at least, if not amongst the conflict parties themselves – could be noticed:
First, unimpeded access between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh was considered essential, not only to facilitate links between Karabakh Armenians and their brethren in Armenia, but also to give them peace of mind that there was always an escape route. For Armenians, brought up with the memories of the genocide, this consideration was, and still is, central. Since Lachin was the only place where this could happen, the area was dubbed the Lachin Corridor;
Second, it was broadly understood that nominal sovereignty over the Lachin Corridor had to remain with Azerbaijan, whilst the actual safety and integrity of the Corridor had to be delegated to a third party, at least for some time;
Third, in return for agreeing to the Corridor, Azerbaijan would get its own unhindered access between its mainland and its exclave, Nakhchivan, through Armenian territory in the South. Thinking on how this could work was not as developed as it was on the Lachin Corridor, but this was always conceived as a quid pro quo.
For nearly thirty years this was all a hypothetical discussion in academic conferences, and in the secretive formats of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair framework.
The Armenians were fairly entrenched in the town of Lachin (Berdzor) and nearby villages; all Azerbaijanis left in a hurry in 1992 as Armenian forces advanced. The Armenians burned down the Azerbaijanis’ houses indicating they were not expecting them to return any time soon. Later, the Armenians started a process of populating the Lachin Corridor with Armenians from the Levant who were escaping from the wars in Syria and Lebanon. The Armenian diaspora provided the money for small but comfortable houses to be built, however municipal facilities were at a minimum. The Corridor was to remain Armenian forever.
The Azerbaijani military victory of 2020 changed all the certainties around the Karabakh issue and Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. Most of the territories around Karabakh lost to the Armenians in the 1990s were either retaken by force during the war, or ceded as part of the 10 November trilateral declaration signed by Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, ending the war and establishing a road-map for the future. Dealing with the Lachin Corridor required a more elaborate arrangement, however.
Point 6 of the trilateral declaration is the longest and most detailed. It says:
“The Republic of Armenia shall return the Kalbajar District to the Republic of Azerbaijan by November 15, 2020, and the Lachin District by December 1, 2020.
The Lachin Corridor (5 km wide), which will provide a connection between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia while not passing through the territory of Shusha, shall remain under the control of the Russian Federation peacemaking forces.
As agreed by the Parties, within the next three years, a plan will be outlined for the construction of a new route via the Lachin Corridor, to provide a connection between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, and the Russian peacemaking forces shall be subsequently relocated to protect the route.
The Republic of Azerbaijan shall guarantee the security of persons, vehicles and cargo moving along the Lachin Corridor in both directions.”
Since then Azerbaijan has tried to move quickly to implement the agreement, building a new 32km parallel road further east, which will take the town of Lachin and surrounding villages out of the present 5km security corridor. Armenia was to build the remaining 4 kilometres of the road in land still under Armenian control, but that will only be finished in spring. The Azerbaijanis said they will not wait and asked the Russians to move the corridor immediately. It was finally agreed that the Armenian villages will be evacuated by 25 August when Azerbaijan will take them over, and when the new corridor may start operating, even if the ride on the Armenian side will remain bumpy, at least until March.
Most of the media attention is now focused on this process. The business of evicting the several hundred Syrian and Lebanese Armenians from Lachin and the nearby villages was always going to be a sensitive issue. Under international law their presence was illegal: a country that occupies a part of another country cannot settle new inhabitants in it. But given all the issues of jurisdiction related to the Karabakh conflict this argument was lost in the detail. What was more important was that the Armenian government essentially agreed with the move, even if reluctantly, offering both financial compensation to all those who were giving up their houses in the Lachin Corridor and resettlement elsewhere. The de facto authorities in Stepanakert acquiesced, again, even if reluctantly. The Azerbaijani government on its part insisted that the settlers were illegal, and unlike the other Armenians in Karabakh, were not welcome to stay under Azerbaijani jurisdiction.
Facilitated by the Russian military contingent, tense discussions at an operational level on the ground on executing the evacuation have now continued for months. This included discussions between the Azerbaijani military and officials of the de facto NKR administration in Stepanakert.
Read more: Situation around Karabakh is calm amid reports of operational contacts between representatives of the sides on the ground.
The sides appeared to genuinely want an orderly transition, and wanted to avoid scenes of current settlers’ houses being burned down. They were told that if they burnt down their house they would not get financial compensation. Some Armenian journalists reported that the settlers were made a counteroffer by some hardline diaspora groups: if they burnt down their house before they left they would be given a financial compensation larger than the sum the government was offering. At least one took up this offer, and filmed himself setting his house on fire. Azerbaijani social media went hysterical. But so far it appears that, by and large, the villages will be left intact. It is likely, given the strategic importance of the area, that the Azerbaijanis will move very quickly to populate them, possibly with their previous occupants who left hurriedly in 1992, and maybe with others too. Incidents, as happened in the first week of August, showed how quickly things can spiral into violence if not properly managed. Here the Russians can be given both blame and credit. Their performance has been uneven, particularly after Russia once again invaded Ukraine in February.
Beyond the drama of these events there remains however a fundamental question: Will the Lachin Corridor remain, and under what form?
Here two important considerations should be taken into account: first it is difficult to speak about a future for the Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh without a Lachin Corridor that safely and without hindrance connects this community with Armenia;
Second, conversely however, for as long as the Lachin Corridor exists, it is difficult to say that Nagorno-Karabakh no longer exists as a particular entity with an Armenian identity, regardless of status. After all, what exactly is the Corridor connecting?
The 10 November 2020 declaration specifies that Russian forces will “protect the route”. But what happens if their mandate is not renewed when it expires in 2025?
Here enters the third element, the quid pro quo discussed in those academic conferences of pre-2020, and so intensely within the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair format for decades: the connection between the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan and the Azerbaijani mainland. Here too, the 10 November trilateral declaration speaks with some detail, though perhaps not enough to preclude some interpretative wriggle room. It says:
“All economic and transport connections in the region shall be unblocked. The Republic of Armenia shall guarantee the security of transport connections between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in order to arrange unobstructed movement of persons, vehicles and cargo in both directions. The Border Guard Service of the Russian Federal Security Service shall be responsible for overseeing the transport connections. As agreed by the Parties, new transport links shall be built to connect the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and the western regions of Azerbaijan.”
The word “corridor” is not mentioned, and instead of the Russian Army it is the Russian Border Guard Service that shall “oversee the transport connections”. The Azerbaijanis now call this the “Zangezur Corridor” and appear to suggest that the arrangements here should mirror those in Lachin. The Armenians have so far disagreed, but the Azerbaijanis are saying that they will not take no for an answer.
What we have therefore, beyond the optics of burning houses, displacement of people and the fresh smell of tarmac on newly constructed roads, is the following piece of South Caucasian political tapestry that may well be the basis for the future relations in the region.
There is no Nagorno-Karabakh without the Lachin Corridor, but equally as long as the Lachin Corridor exists it is not possible to say there is no Nagorno-Karabakh; it was always understood that in return for agreeing to the Lachin Corridor the Azerbaijanis will get an equivalent, connecting Western Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan (they call it the “Zangezur Corridor” but this is a self-proclaimed name).
So in essence, without a “Zangezur Corridor” there won’t be a Lachin Corridor, and without a Lachin Corridor there won’t be a Nagorno-Karabakh. Conversely, as long as there is a “Zangezur Corridor” there will be a Lachin Corridor, and as long as there is a Lachin Corridor there will be a Nagorno-Karabakh. This finely balanced arrangement may initially require Russians or others to guarantee it, but once it settles down it could be the bedrock on which the future peace of the region will be ensured.