This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1994 ceasefire agreement that put fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the Soviet-era mainly ethnic Armenian Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) on hold – or at least until it escalated into war in 2016 and more devastatingly in 2020. Despite the involvement of international mediators, peace remained elusive despite occasional claims to the contrary. The sides were said to have gotten close, but never enough to prevent tens of thousands dying in over three decades of conflict.
The terms of the 1994 ceasefire agreement, after all, were never implemented and despite hopes that the trilateral ceasefire statement signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia in 2020 could have been different, the time since has proven that it mostly wasn't. The situation on the ground is now diametrically reversed, of course, and especially since last year’s exodus of Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population, but one thing has remained constant – the need to unblock regional economic and transport routes and particularly between Azerbaijan and its Nakhchivan exclave.
In October 1993, Chairman of the the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE)’s Minsk Conference, Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Mario Raffaelli, had proposed the restoration of the gas pipeline, the Ijevan-Gazakh railway, and then all other forms of communication. But as is the case now, stumbling blocks emerged. In particular, while Baku wanted restoration of the connection through Armenia to Nakhchivan, Yerevan did not. By 1997, however, it was included as the “Baku-Horadiz–Meghri–Ordubad–Nakhichevan-Yerevan route” in the OSCE-proposed “package deal" and later as “direct and immediate land access for Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan” in the OSCE Minsk Group Madrid Principles.
Most recently, in the 2020 trilateral ceasefire statement, it was referred to as “unhindered […] transport communication [between the] western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic” as part of unblocking all “economic and transport links in the region […].”
Again, there was dissent, especially among analysts and the opposition in Armenia, but this was largely welcomed by foreign commentators and even Yerevan, albeit reluctantly. Just as Azerbaijan could reach Nakhchivan by rail, and possibly by road too, Armenia could also reach its markets in Russia and Iran more effectively than today’s more arduous routes. The border between Armenia and Turkiye was also expected to open, though not explicitly mentioned in the ceasefire statement.
Instead, disagreements re-emerged. Armenia especially objected to the use of the term “Zangezur Corridor” by Baku in relation to the Siunik region of Armenia. The issue here was not “Zangezur,” a name also used in Armenia for the region, but use of the term “corridor.” Baku again explained that it simply referred to expedited passage as most transit corridors do. Failure to agree on reciprocity with the Lachin Corridor connecting Armenia with Karabakh also led to the partial and then total blockade of Karabakh from December 2022–September 2023.
But as Russia and the West came to blows over the February 2022 invasion by Moscow of Ukraine, geopolitics confused things even further. According to the ceasefire statement, unblocked transportation would be overseen by the Russian Federal Border Guard Service. As Yerevan increasingly started to turn West, it appeared reluctant to fulfil that part of the agreement. Both the European Union and especially the United States were likely against it too as they sought to punish Russia economically as well as militarily.
A trilateral working group to address such issues, headed by the Deputy Prime Ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Russian Federation and established in January 2021, went silent after June 2023.
Others also charged that Armenia could be split into two and risked losing its border with Iran, though this never happened during the Soviet years and nobody ever explained how this would or could happen today. Indeed, Yerevan’s claims of the loss of sovereignty along its border with Iran was more likely tied to the reference to Russian Border Guards overseeing the route even though they have been a constant presence since 1992.
Notably, Armenia has not officially objected to the resurrection of the railway line and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan now even includes it in his recent “Crossroads of Peace” initiative, a rebranded version of the “Armenian Crossroads,” itself an extension of the North-South Road Corridor running from Iran through Armenia to Georgia. However, there is no mention at all of any road link from Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan parallel to the railway, perhaps indicating where the current impasse lies. In 2022, Pashinyan instead offered to open three road crossings in the north.
The southernmost, however, transited via Sisian in the very north of Siunik, some 180 kilometres away from the Armenia-Iran border, even though it seems unlikely Pashinyan would agree to the deployment of Russian border guards in such a densely populated area. And though Pashinyan has since announced the establishment of a special police division to guard transit routes, the road through Sisian is prone to accidents and closure because of ice and snow in the winter.
Further south, the mountainous terrain makes the construction of any other route implausible only until reaching the Meghri municipality of Armenia’s Siunik region where the existing Soviet-era railway lies. There was likely a practical reason why such a route ran along the Iranian border in the past.
Regardless, no work has been undertaken on restoring that railway and there has also been no apparent discussion as to how Armenia could benefit from routes passing from Yerevan through Nakhichevan to the Iranian border or through Azerbaijan to Russia. Significantly, border and customs control for that route have not been discussed openly though in recent weeks some Azerbaijani analysts have again raised the issue of reciprocity.
But more than three years since the November trilateral ceasefire statement, it is high time that these issues are finally resolved, something the European Union and the United States hope for. Yes, this should be with the concerns and interests of the main stakeholders in mind, but also without the geopolitics that could see the unblocking of regional communications again remain on paper.