All transport and communication lines in the South Caucasus remain closed. This failure can largely be attributed to the shift of connectivity from a concept intended to build trust to one tied up with security arrangements in the post-2020 era. "Instead of fostering closeness between the parties, concepts that were supposed to enhance cooperation were perceived as threats to territorial integrity and sovereignty", writes Shujaat Ahmadzada in this op-ed for commonspace.eu. "One should not overlook the fact that the November 10 statement and many of its components have been fundamentally and operationally Russia-centric, implying that the Armenian-Azerbaijani disagreements have to be settled around a third party – albeit not an ordinary one but one with hegemonic ambitions."
Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations are currently at their lowest point. Moscow, Brussels, and Washington tracks have all stalled, with no resumption in sight. Efforts to restart negotiations have repeatedly failed, making it a problem to determine how to revive the process. Where to go on from now? The military escalation in Karabakh on September 19-20, followed by the mass exodus of the ethnic Armenian population from the region, has significantly transformed the negotiations landscape. Nevertheless, border and connectivity issues continue to be fault lines between Baku and Yerevan. Any potential agreement will surely have to focus on these two problems.
Connectivity stands out as one of the most misused terms in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, representing a dual nature: fostering confidence in theory serving as a divisive force in practice. But the concept of connectivity in itself is not a recent one to emerge on the negotiations agenda; it has consistently been part of conflict resolution proposals within the OSCE Minsk Group from 1994 to 2020. Many talks on connectivity have often been rooted in the Kantian vision, envisioning a resolution where both nations would go for mutual concessions and prefer a pragmatic, win-win approach with clear economic benefits over the prospect of war. Yet the war in 2020 not only exposed the deep systemic gap between proposed liberal frameworks for conflict resolution and the illiberal tactics employed but also fundamentally reshaped the discourse on connectivity, making it another side of a security coin. The trilateral statement of November 10, 2020, considered the most significant yet equally problematic document in the history of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, transformed the opening of communications into a legally binding obligation for both states.
In the statement, Armenia and Azerbaijan committed to unblocking all communication lines. Additionally, they agreed to establish two distinct transport routes—one in Lachin and the other in the southernmost regions of Armenia. However, the operation of one was limited to just 29 months, while the other, initially conceived on paper, never came to fruition. As it stands, all transport and communication lines in the region remain closed. This failure can largely be attributed to the shift of connectivity from a concept intended to build trust to one tied up with security arrangements in the post-2020 era. Instead of fostering closeness between the parties, concepts that were supposed to enhance cooperation were perceived as threats to territorial integrity and sovereignty. One should not overlook the fact that the November 10 statement and many of its components have been fundamentally and operationally Russia-centric, implying that the Armenian-Azerbaijani disagreements have to be settled around a third party – albeit not an ordinary one but one with hegemonic ambitions.
The third-party reliance became a real problem when the rivalry between great powers peaked after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Caught between two mediation platforms that were growing increasingly antagonistic towards each other, neither side could decisively move forward, despite the similarity in the substance of the discussions on both ends. However, this does not imply that the parties, particularly Azerbaijan in this case, did not benefit from forum-hopping by playing one platform against the other.
But not all agency is held by the great powers. In fact, an enduring debate in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict revolves around the question of whether agency resides at the top, representing the superpowers, or at the bottom, representing the conflict parties. Perhaps a more nuanced answer lies somewhere between these two extremes. Over the past three decades, Armenia and Azerbaijan have become adept at playing the peace process — participating in it but exerting minimal effort to make substantive progress. This is also one of the reasons why the connectivity debates of the past three years rather resulted in a further disconnection between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Now, this framework has largely collapsed. As the need for a new framework is increasing each passing day, it is crucial to avoid replicating past mistakes. Firstly, the negotiations on connectivity must be conceptually de-securitized. Secondly, the nature of connectivity arrangements should inherently possess a bilateral character. Thirdly, connectivity talks should not be treated in vacuum but rather as an integral element of the peace process, with being in concert with other components. For this to happen, it is essential, first and foremost, to set up the foundational columns that will govern the reopening of transport and communication links between these two countries. Connectivity arrangements, if developed upon the principles of mutual sovereignty and equality, have the potential to address the current quagmire effectively. The most recent “The Crossroads of Peace” initiative of the Armenian government does herald these principles on the paper, but the question remains if they will have the political will and strength to put them in practice.
Considering that Russia-centered connectivity arrangements have unequivocally failed and exacerbated the Armenian-Azerbaijani rivalry, there is a necessity to redefine political solutions for the transportation issue and integrate them into the comprehensive agreement package. However, this doesn't imply a reduction in the role of international actors in this context. For instance, in various aspects, substantial involvement of international donors will be essential for the reconstruction of existing and severely deteriorated transport communication lines, as well as for the construction of new ones.
Above all, it is crucial to avoid repeating the most significant mistake of the post-2020 period. The connectivity talks must unequivocally constitute an integral component of a comprehensive, detailed and sustainable peace process, rather than existing in the vacuum. Discussing progress in transport communication lines amidst a border conflict proves futile. Hence, a comprehensive approach is needed. In the event that this occurs, there is a potential for the connectivity standoff finally coming to an end, but with a positive outcome. This could result in the eradication of one of the most socioeconomically burdensome legacies of the conflict and significantly benefit Armenia and Azerbaijan in adapting to evolving global transit trends. Crucially, it has the capacity to render any agreement sustainable and effective, since true sustainability of peace can only be achieved when it is experienced in daily practice.