Coercive bargaining is stifling plans for a newly connected South Caucasus after last year's second Karabakh war. Without a different approach, regional fracture will continue, writes Laurence Broers, South Caucasus Programme Director of Conciliation Resources.
Article 9 of the 10 November 2020 ceasefire declaration bringing the 2020 Karabakh war to an end stipulated that ‘all economic and transport links in the region’ should be unblocked. With the OSCE’s Minsk Group, and the Armenian-Azerbaijani peace process mediated by it, swept aside by the war, this clause in the declaration has since become the sole vector for discussions around post-war stabilisation and the prospects for peace.
Much of the discussion has focused on the only route explicitly mentioned in the ceasefire declaration: Armenia’s commitment to safe passage – under the supervision of the Russian Federal Security Service – to transit across its southernmost Syunik region, thereby connecting mainland Azerbaijan and its exclave in Nakhichevan. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Zangezur corridor’, a reference to a historical place-name used on both sides, that this is the only route actually mentioned reflects the balance of power at the war’s end. President Ilham Aliyev has framed the ceasefire agreement’s inclusion of a corridor across southern Armenia – an idea that Presidents Heydar Aliyev and Robert Kocharian had previously discussed in 1999-2001 as a quid pro quo for very significant Azerbaijani concessions – as a historic achievement for Azerbaijan.
Overcoming regional fracture?
Yet the implications for the South Caucasus of fully opening up all economic and transport communications are much wider. Over the three decades of its post-Soviet independence, the South Caucasus has been a striking example of what political scientist Anna Ohanyan calls ‘fractured regions’. These are weak, often post-colonial regional systems which may be integrated in some dimensions, yet fail to generate a common governance infrastructure at the political level normalising regional interactions into a stable community of common interest. Article 9’s mandating of the opening of all economic and transport links poses the possibility of overcoming regional fracture, and the potential for the South Caucasus to transform into something more than a residual imperial cartography riven by frontlines and blockades.
While Azerbaijan would secure a long-coveted direct connection to Nakhichevan, and beyond that to Turkey, the incentives for Armenia revolve around the ending of the decades-long blockade. The blockade has rendered Armenia dependent on a narrow and remote border with Iran, and a border with Georgia vulnerable to geopolitical crises. The opening of the Nakhichevan route would ostensibly allow for an Armenian rail connection with Russia, through a route running from Yerevan through Nakhichevan, on through southern Azerbaijan to Baku and north to the Russian Federation along the Caspian littoral, rather than a weather-prone road via the Upper Lars checkpoint in Georgia. The route would also allow for rail connectivity with Iran, via Julfa in Nakhichevan, rather than the very mountainous road route via Meghri. Armenia could also become a transit zone for trade between Iran and the Black Sea.
This was the vision displayed on a map accompanying the first post-war meeting of Ilham Aliyev and Nikol Pashinyan in Moscow on 11 January. At this meeting the leaders agreed with President Vladimir Putin on the formation of a working group under the vice-prime ministers of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The working group was tasked with drawing up proposals for infrastructural projects providing for the implementation of Article 9. Positively glossed, these outcomes can be framed as a win-win-win for Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, with collateral benefits for Turkey and Iran. Only Georgia, which has provided the sole east-west transit route from the Caspian to the Black Seas, would lose out, though Georgia would also in theory benefit in the long-term from a genuinely stabilised and economically thriving region. These projections of a newly opened South Caucasus underpin the crisp language of a new ‘3 + 3 format’ encompassing a new regional dispensation among the region’s three nation-states and the three surrounding regional powers.
The pacifying impacts of trade and economic interdependencies are a staple of International Relations and peacebuilding scholarship, with roots in utilitarian philosophy and ideas of ‘commercial pacifism’ in the writings of Jeremy Bentham and others. Put simply, weave new mutually beneficial interdependencies, the thinking goes, and a community of stakeholders can emerge invested in peace and less likely to commit to violence. A research report issued by Berlin Economics just two years before the Second Karabakh War suggested that under conditions of complete normalisation, Armenia and Azerbaijan would enjoy substantial peace dividends deriving from reduced military expenditures, complementarity in energy and water resource management, increased investments and growth in trade.
Obstacles to integration
In practice, however, many challenges remain. A first is geography. If connecting Armenia and Russia is seen as an important objective for Armenia, then doing so via a circuitous route through southern Azerbaijan and along the Caspian Sea is not the shortest route. For Armenia, rehabilitating the much shorter railway between Yerevan, Ijevan, Qazakh and then Russia is far preferable, providing both a more direct route and a longer trajectory through Armenian territory.
A second issue is cost. The above-mentioned routes require substantial rehabilitation after many years in desuetude. The cost of rehabilitation is reportedly not that significant compared to other infrastructural projects in the post-Soviet South Caucasus, yet who pays is a profoundly political issue. While Azerbaijan can cover the cost of tracks across its territory, Armenia faces a Catch-22 situation. To cover the cost of a Syunik route, seen domestically as a capitulation, in isolation from other routes also opening up would be politically very challenging for any Armenian government. But if Russia covers the cost, this will also lead to domestic challenge as compounding an already significant loss of sovereignty to Moscow over the area of the proposed corridor. That leaves external donors, such as the World Bank or European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). However, external investors in Armenian-Azerbaijani infrastructure will be conscious of the security of their capital in the absence of a comprehensive settlement.
This draws attention to a third obstacle - risk. The ceasefire declaration explicitly stipulates that Azerbaijani transit across Syunik would be overseen by the Russian Federal Security Service. No such guarantees extend to future Armenian transit traversing Azerbaijan, generating concerns about the sequencing of construction and whether routes constructed later will enjoy the same guarantees as those built first. Where those guarantees do not exist, there will be incentives for procrastination and delays. These dynamics ironically replicate previous patterns over the prospective sequencing for the implementation of the Basic Principles, the peace proposal on which Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks were based from 2007 to 2020. Whichever party feels its interests are neither served in the short term, nor guaranteed in the long term, will play for time.
This highlights the fact that regional connectivity is currently being talked about in isolation from a wider political settlement. What is being discussed today is a kind of transactional stabilisation of the South Caucasus, separated from a political transformation in the governance of regional relationships. Many Azerbaijani commentators have emphasised the need for a forward-looking agenda avoiding sensitive political issues, while some joint Armenian-Azerbaijani commentaries have emphasised economic incentives as the pathway to peace. Yet under conditions of continued enmity, the basic expectations of predictability and security that could underpin new economic ties, and the investment needed to bring them into being, are absent.
Resistance and continued rivalry
Negative views in Armenia on the prospects for Armenian-Azerbaijani coexistence are hardly surprising. Yet more than half (53%) of Armenian respondents in a March 2021 poll also held a ‘completely negative’ attitude towards the opening of transport routes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. And 59% believed that the opening of a transit corridor through Syunik would pose a threat to national security. These are perhaps counter-intuitive data for respondents in a country that has existed under blockade for 30 years, and relate to lingering, as well as new, crises in the post-war context.
From the continued retention of Armenian detainees amid reports of their maltreatment and reported deaths in custody, to Azerbaijani territorial encroachments reported along the un-demarcated Armenia-Azerbaijan border in the same Syunik region designated as the site for a new transit corridor, to threats that Azerbaijan will establish a corridor to Nakhichevan by force if necessary, narratives of new regional connectivity are promoted alongside the undiminished prevalence of coercive bargaining tactics. Plans for regional connectivity are consequently embedded within a dichotomous strategic vision of open borders on the one hand, and on the other tactics reproducing the same conflict dynamics that led to closed borders in the first place. This tension eventually played out with the suspension on 1 June of the working group on infrastructural projects established nearly six months earlier, due to the tensions along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.
The undiminished salience of conflict dynamics is consequential not only in the short-term but in the long-term for the prospects of Azerbaijani communities displaced in the 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Azerbaijanis will now be able, once de-occupied areas are made safe from mines that are still claiming Azerbaijani lives, to return to areas restored to Azerbaijani jurisdiction in 2020. Many of these communities will live in close proximity to the borders with Armenia, and with the Armenian population in Nagorny Karabakh. If the Armenian-Azerbaijani rivalry does not subside, these communities will return to highly securitised, geographically remote and economically challenging frontiers, characterised by sustained mutual hostility and suspicion with the Armenian communities with whom their future prosperity is inextricably linked. This is not a vision of regional connectivity, but of renewed regional fracture.