Lachin checkpoint: the ultimate step towards peace?
On 23 April, the State Border Service of the Republic of Azerbaijan issued a press release about the installation of a border checkpoint at the bridge over the Hakari river, situated on the Lachin road connecting Armenia with Karabakh. This news, so much anticipated and speculated about (with a great deal of hope in Azerbaijan and fear- in Armenia), still caught everyone by surprise. After four months of the environmental protests held by the Azerbaijani activists along the road that pursued the goal of establishing control over the vehicles entering and leaving the Armenian-controlled part of Karabakh, as well as systematic accusations voiced from Baku against the Russian peacekeepers for allegedly failing to prevent the entry of weapons and armed people from Armenia, as well as the mining of the territory. In its statement, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs rationalised this move “by the ongoing systematic and large-scale use of the Lachin-Khankendi road by Armenia for illegal purposes.”
In Azerbaijan, the news was received with joy and enthusiasm, and some commentators, in line with the general opinion, called it the most important victory since the liberation of Shusha and the 9 November agreement that put an end to the 44-day war. The establishment of unambiguous control over the border, in this view, is tantamount to the full restoration of the Azerbaijani sovereignty over the entirety of its officially recognised territory. It also occurred in a rather shaky regional environment: the recent months have been characterised by the dangerous rise in tensions between Baku and Tehran, a number of murky (to say the least) incidents between Azerbaijan and Armenia, including the burning of an Azerbaijani flag at the opening ceremony of the European Weightlifting Championship in Yerevan and the сapture of two Azerbaijani militaries, subsequently accused of grave crimes, on the Armenian territory, as well as the aborted attempts on Baku’s side to launch a proper dialogue with the Karabakh Armenian community.
Different parties’ reaction to this bold move by Azerbaijan has been quite interesting. US, EU and France have already expressed their “deep concern”, while one of the parliamentary faction leaders of the French Senate, Bruno Retailleau, even accused Baku of an encroachment on Armenian sovereignty and called for sanctions against Azerbaijan. Russian side issued two statements (separately made by the MFA and Defense Ministry), the first one being more outspoken: while also expressing deep concern with the situation, it emphasized Moscow’s dissatisfaction with the stalemate in the peace process, explicitly mentioning the trilateral negotiation track (Baku-Yerevan-Moscow) as the key dimension. The statements called Azerbaijani actions “unilateral and unсoordinated” and urged Baku “to return to the previous agreements”, implying that the presence of the checkpoint violates them.
On the Armenian side, there are very interesting signs: while the country’s MFA, as well as a number of officials, including the Ambassador-at-Large Edmon Marukyan and the country’s representative in PACE Ruben Rubinyan, issued fiery statements claiming Azerbaijan is planning to conduct an ethnic cleansing and linking the latest events with the anniversary of the “Armenian genocide” commemorated on April 24, there has been no official reaction this far from Nikol Pashinyan’s office. Opposition parties and many experts have already brought up this fact in the context of the Prime Minister’s recent statement of recognition of the Azerbaijani territorial integrity, which, as he claimed, can be the only condition for an ultimate peace agreement; so, they argue, the current government has achieved a backdoor deal with Baku involving “the treason of Artsakh”. If we take into account that the night before the Azerbaijani checkpoint another one was installed by the Armenians on their side of the road, then indeed there are grounds to believe these developments had been coordinated between the two governments.
If Pashinyan’s recent statements have been more than mere speculation, we could suggest the Armenian PM agreed to the “least evil” scenario whereby all the communications will remain under full control of the respective parties, in contrast to another plan which envisaged free movement both for Armenian party through the Lachin corridor and for Azerbaijani party through the would-be Zangezur road. In this case, it can be the case that Yerevan sent a signal of its unwillingness to fight another war with Armenia over Karabakh, despite the rise of revanchism and unstable geopolitical environment.
However, what kind of reaction can be expected from the external actors in this case? Moscow’s response, particularly in the light of MFA Lavrov’s statements about the inadmissibility of a checkpoint on the Lachin road made just over a month ago, shows that this scenario is completely incongruent with Russian interests in the region. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what benefits Moscow may get from the South Caucasus countries that could offset the loss of leverage which likely entails from this strategic change of the border regime. The influence of Russian peacekeepers, particularly during the last year, has been based on their role of exclusive mediators between the two rivals and attempts to capitalize on it as much as possible. In case Yerevan ultimately withdraws its ambitions for fighting over a status of Nagorno-Karabakh and a clear and transparent regime is established in the currently gray zone, Moscow’s ability to manipulate the parties and prolong the status quo will be severely curtailed; moreover, then there is a high probability that both parties agree to refuse prolonging the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers in 2025. So, what kind of risks should Azerbaijan be prepared for? Of course, one of them is the activisation of intransigent nationalists and radicals in Armenia and their active attempts to topple the government they believe to be too weak and anti-national. Though similar predictions made after the 2020 war didn’t materialize, this time there are risks that external powers- for example Russia- may back such forces to prevent the unwanted scenario in the South Caucasus. At the same time, Iranian factor must not be disregarded: Tehran has been clearly frustrated over the outcomes of the 44-day war and subsequent developments, while its policies in the recent months attest to its active willingness “to catch fish in muddy waters” and attempts to capitalize on the Armenian revanchism. Though recently there have been signs of a slight detente between Iran and Azerbaijan, some new issues may arise again if Tehran believes the Armenian-Azerbaijani peace excludes their interests. Still, some time should pass before the ultimate verdict on the latest events may be given.