Alternative to the Zangezur corridor



According to American sources, Yerevan is considering the possible resettlement of refugees from Karabakh to Syunik Province in southern Armenia. There are, in our opinion, at least two reasons for this.

The first is related to the desire of the current Armenian leadership to send as quickly as possible and preferably far away from the capital and the capital region refugees who have no reason at all to feel any sympathy for Nikol Pashinyan and his regime.

In this regard, it should be noted that official Yerevan not without reason believes that refugees, if they remain in the capital and its environs, will certainly support the opposition. And here we should not forget that at present the most prominent opposition Armenian politicians who can aspire to the highest office in the country are the natives of Karabakh, fellow countrymen of the refugees. In particular, former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan.

The second reason is to increase the population of the region in case of possible aggravation of the situation in this area, which separates the Nakhchivan autonomy from the rest of Azerbaijan and across which the notorious Zangezur corridor may take place.

So far, no more than 130 thousand people live on the territory of this 4,500 square kilometer area, which is considered depressed, and their attitude to the construction of the Azerbaijani infrastructure project can generally be qualified as indifferent. But the resettlement of at least a couple or three tens of thousands of more than a hundred thousand refugees from Artsakh, who are extremely anti-Azerbaijani, can radically change the mood in Syunik. And thus significantly complicate the construction of the Zangezur corridor.

At least, this is how Baku views the possible consequences of the resettlement of refugees in this region. Moreover, this is interpreted as another ploy by Yerevan to avoid the opening of the transportation route through Armenian territory, which was officially promised by Pashinyan after the end of the Second Karabakh War in November 2020. In this regard, the Azerbaijani president even suggested that his country might have no choice but to «forcibly», i.e. by military force, open the Zangezur corridor and connect the Nakhchivan autonomy with the main territory of the republic.

It should be noted that this remark by the Azerbaijani leader is not an empty threat, not just words, as it is sometimes the case with his Armenian colleague. Let us recall that back in 2021 Azerbaijani troops invaded Armenia’s Syunik Province and seized, according to Yerevan, 5% of its territory. However, local residents insist that the territory that went under Baku’s control is significantly larger. Although, as Azerbaijani observers note, the number of Armenian troops in the region’s border areas has been noticeably increased, and the probability of their defeat in the event of a military clash with Aliyev’s troops is extremely high.

And it is not only about the number of Azerbaijani contingent that Baku can attract for this operation and the quality of its weapons. During the last two wars in Karabakh, the Armenian military stayed in barracks (Karabakh militia and volunteers fought), while the Azerbaijani military has real combat experience.

Nevertheless, there is a real way out of this potentially dangerous situation, which threatens a new armed conflict between Yerevan and Baku — the Aras Corridor, whose name is related to the Aras River that separates Iran and Azerbaijan.

This alternative to the Zangezur corridor would bypass Armenia via Iran. The infrastructure project is reportedly planned to include the construction of an expressway, a railroad, and associated communication lines. The key object of this project will be a road bridge over the Aras, preparatory work for the construction of which de facto already began on October 6 last year, without waiting for the conclusion of official Iranian-Azerbaijani agreements.

As for the railroad (and there is no railroad connection between Nakhchivan autonomy and Azerbaijan), in fact, part of this track was opened back in December 2016 and connected Nakhchivan with the Iranian city of Mashhad. However, the operation of this track was suspended due to the pandemic and war in Karabakh.

And, it would seem, here it is — a compromise solution that should meet the interests of all neighboring countries and contribute to the establishment of peace and stability in the region. Especially since this project will potentially normalize relations between Tehran and Baku, which reached a historic low after the 2020 Karabakh war.

However, it’s not that simple.

The fact is that Baku considers the future corridor not only as an opportunity to connect the Nakhichevan autonomy with the rest of the republic, but also as a diversification of the so-called Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) for the delivery of goods and cargoes from the Central Asian republics to Europe and back, bypassing Russia. So far, attempts to transport goods from Azerbaijan to Turkey and further to Europe are carried out through Georgia.

As for Tehran, it considers the Aras Corridor as an opportunity to create another direction of the «International North-South Transport Corridor» to deliver cargo from the Persian Gulf to Russia and Europe via Armenia and Georgia, in addition to the three routes: by rail via Azerbaijan, by water via the Caspian Sea, and via the Central Asian republics (Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan) also by rail. To realize this project, Tehran intends to connect to the Armenian railway network.

And given the existence of a railroad linking Yerevan and Georgia, as well as a section between Georgia and Russia that has not been exploited yet (Abkhazia is still putting sticks in the wheels), there is a possibility of creating a route that would duplicate the Azerbaijani direction in the future. However, this prospect, of course, does not arouse much enthusiasm in Baku.

Nevertheless, we would like to suggest that these disagreements between Iran and Azerbaijan may have a negative impact on the parties’ decisions regarding the financing of the Aras Corridor construction. However, even taking into account the mere fact that Azerbaijan may get free road and rail communication with the Nakhchivan autonomy, which it does not have at present, and through it with Turkey, one way or another, but this project will be realized.

As for the Zangezur corridor, it is still on the agenda. In the short term, Baku will need this project as a lever of pressure on Yerevan when resolving the issue of borders in its favor. This means Azerbaijani enclaves in the border zone, territories occupied by Azerbaijani troops, etc. It seems that Baku assumes that Pashinyan would rather agree to small territorial losses than dare to engage in a military conflict and lose Syunik Province. In this regard, the statements of Azerbaijani politicians regarding the fact that «historically» Syunik is Azerbaijani territory are indicative.