As part of the trilateral declaration signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia on 10 November 2020, it was agreed in Article 6, that “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.” It further says that “……The Republic of Azerbaijan shall guarantee the security of persons, vehicles and cargo moving along the Lachin Corridor in both directions.”
In effect, by this provision, Azerbaijan granted a special entry and exit regime to the Armenian citizens, vehicles, and cargo through an 80km road inside Azerbaijan (the “Lachin Corridor”) to its Karabakh region, populated by the majority of ethnic Armenians. As the road temporarily remains under the “control” of a Russian peacekeeping force, Azerbaijan’s army, police, customs, and other agencies do not check the persons and cargo yet. The Russian peacekeeping force supposedly exercises this function on behalf of Azerbaijan.
Since early 2021, tensions have been building up. Azerbaijan has been blaming Armenia for the military use of the corridor, for instance, by transporting weapons and soldiers in disguise, and illegal mining activities in Karabakh in contradiction to the corridor’s “civilian and humanitarian” purposes. Armenia’s laying off mines in Lachin, and Iranian agents visiting Karabakh under different designations were other vital concerns of Azerbaijan. Armenia denied the allegations, but the facts on the ground speak for themselves.
Since 12 December 2022, Azerbaijani eco-activists have started protests against illegal mining operations in Karabakh close to the Russia-controlled checkpoint on the road to Stepanakert/Khankendi. Armenia also closed its border with Azerbaijan, and Russian peacekeeping forces stopped the corridor’s use except by Russian vehicles for supplies and other humanitarian purposes. The International Red Cross also operates on the road, most likely with Azerbaijan’s consent.
Abusing the logic of the corridor
Armenia’s abuse of the corridor for military purposes has created this situation in the first place. It would be unreasonable to expect Azerbaijan, or indeed any country in the world, to tolerate the use of its territory by a foreign state for illicit mineral exploitations and weapons transfer.
The current debate also stems from a misinterpretation of the purposes of the “Lachin Corridor.” The corridor is a temporary visa- and custom-free entry to Azerbaijan for “Armenian citizens, vehicles, and cargo” to its Karabakh region. It is not an extraterritorial corridor because neither Armenia nor Russia has sovereign rights over the road. Importantly, this temporary visa-free regime does not grant Armenia the right to ship weapons, soldiers, and military supplies in disguise to its remaining army units in Karabakh, which remains an overlooked factor in media coverage.
Article 4 of the 10 November 2020 trilateral declaration stipulates the “withdrawal of Armenian troops,” which seems unimplemented on the ground and morphed into a different shape as the “Artsakh Defense Army.” The International Crisis Group estimated that there are 12,000 Armenian soldiers in Karabakh (ICG, 22 April 2022). It can be reasonably estimated that there are about 15,000-20,000 Armenian soldiers in Karabakh, a significant military force that Armenia failed to withdraw.
In addition to the illegal exploitation of Azerbaijan’s mineral resources in Karabakh by Russia, Armenian and foreign companies, this situation causes a critical security risk for Azerbaijan. Contrary to the intent and purpose of the “Lachin Corridor,” Armenia has been rebuilding and sustaining these large armed units in Karabakh by transfer of personnel, weapons, and supplies in the past two years. Such abuse of the corridor remains one of the critical reasons for the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Solution: Smart and Seamless Custom Posts
The facts on the ground in the corridor indicate that while the road is open for civilian and humanitarian use, it is closed for military use by Armenia. Ironically, many foreign governments and international organizations issuing statements about the “Lachin Corridor” tend to omit this distinction. However, civilian and military use distinction is crucial to bring the parties’ positions closer. Armenia and its subordinate organizations in Karabakh cannot use the civilian corridor for military and other illegal purposes, e.g., unlawful transfer of mineral and other natural resources which belong to Azerbaijan under international law.
The impact of this unfortunate situation on the civilians in Karabakh is also notable. To make progress from the current impasse, a balance must be struck between security and humanitarian considerations. In this context, for instance, the parties can learn from the negotiations regarding the so-called Brexit withdrawal agreements, which ensured the non-intrusive entry and exit customs regime in Northern Ireland.
Currently, there are numerous posts or checkpoints alongside the “Lachin Corridor” controlled by the Russian peacekeeping force. However, they don’t function as expected, considering that weapons and other illicit transportation have been moving across the corridor in the time that it has been under their control. Azerbaijan apparently does not trust the reliability and effectiveness of the existing posts. To ease tensions, smart and seamless custom posts with infrastructure like cameras and scanners under Azerbaijan’s control at the Azerbaijan-Armenia border should be established. The smart and impersonal system will ensure these two key goals: first, it will underpin the exclusively civilian use of the corridor and the legitimate needs of ethnic Armenians in Karabakh; second, it will guarantee that no illicit materials will be transported through the corridor ranging from weapons to other illegal goods, and the security concerns of Azerbaijan will partially be met.
Nurlan Mustafayev is an advisor on international legal affairs, and adjunct lecturer at ADA University in Baku.