By Mark Dovich
A major highway running through Armenia’s southernmost region, Syunik, has been reopened to traffic after successful negotiations ended a two-day blockade by Azerbaijani troops, Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) has confirmed to CivilNet. It was the first time since last year’s war in and around Karabakh that Azerbaijani border guards near Syunik have acted so forcefully. Russian border guards stationed in the region reportedly mediated the negotiations.
Azerbaijan’s State Border Service stated Wednesday that two Armenian soldiers had stabbed an Azerbaijani border guard near the Armenian border village of Davit Bek and cited the stabbing to justify its closure of the highway.
Armenia’s Defense Ministry has denied that the stabbing took place and called it an “absolute falsification.” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan reiterated Friday that news of the stabbing was “false” and called on Baku to provide Yerevan with any evidence of the incident it may have.
The highway is of crucial importance for Armenia’s security and economy because it provides an overland connection to Iran, a key strategic partner. Connecting Syunik with the rest of Armenia, the road is also a lifeline for residents of some of Armenia’s most remote communities. A 21-kilometer section of the road, built in Soviet times, runs along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border and crosses it several times due to the region’s difficult mountainous geography.
Armenia’s NSS first reported on the blockade Thursday, saying that Azerbaijani forces cut off traffic on the Karmrakar-Shurnukh section of the Goris-Kapan highway late Wednesday evening.
CivilNet’s Gevorg Tosunyan is on the scene in Syunik and has been speaking with Iranian truck drivers, several dozen of whom have been left stranded along the road due to the blockade. The truckers said that an alternative route that runs through the Armenian village of Tatev is dangerously narrow and complained that they have run out of food and money, Tosunyan reported.
Armenia and Iran share millennia-old historical and cultural ties, and Tehran is a major trading partner for Yerevan. According to World Bank data, Armenia exported nearly $84 million worth of goods to Iran and imported over $300 million in goods from the Islamic Republic in 2019.
Arman Tatoyan, Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, wrote on his official Facebook page Thursday that “50 or more” members of Azerbaijan’s armed forces were blocking the road near the Armenian village of Davit Bek and called it “a crime” and “a pre-planned and openly hostile act.” Tatoyan later that day added that the Goris-Vorotan section of the highway had been blockaded as well.
Before the blockade, Armenian guards patrolled one side of the road, with Azerbaijani forces stationed on the other side. Russian border guards oversee the highway’s daily operations.
Under a Russia-brokered ceasefire signed last year after 44 days of fierce fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in and around Karabakh, the road will remain under the supervision of Russian peacekeepers while Armenia works on building an alternative route called the North-South Corridor.
The blockade comes amid seething tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, more than eight months after the ceasefire came into effect. The border in particular remains tense, with periodic shoot-outs and skirmishes between the two sides.