By Mark Dovich
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan confirmed at a press conference Monday that “in case of a change” in the route of the Lachin corridor, some Armenian communities there “will pass to Azerbaijan’s control,” refocusing attention on the still-unclear future for the region’s residents.
However, he refused to go into any detail about what the handover will mean in practice, only saying that the “problems…will be solved with the help of the Artsakh (Karabakh) government.”
The Lachin corridor is a strategically important strip of land surrounding a road patrolled by Russian peacekeepers that, at present, connects Armenia with the part of Karabakh remaining under Armenian control.
The corridor begins at the Armenian border village of Tegh and then, after crossing into Karabakh, winds through the village of Aghavno and the town of Lachin, also known as Berdzor. After that, the road heads north through the village of Lisagor on to Shushi, the largest city captured by Azerbaijani forces in the 2020 Karabakh war, before finally reaching Stepanakert, the region’s capital.
As a result of territorial gains made by Azerbaijan in the war, the Lachin corridor has become the only overland connection between Armenia and Karabakh. The villages and towns along the other roads between Armenia and Karabakh were handed over to Azerbaijan after the war.
The ceasefire declaration that ended the war stipulates that a new road should be built that also connects Armenia and Karabakh, but that bypasses the Armenian communities that remain within the Lachin corridor. Those include the villages of Aghavno, Nerkin Sus, and Sus, as well as the town of Lachin.
Once that alternative route is completed, Azerbaijan is meant to take control of those communities, and Russian peacekeepers are supposed to relocate to the new route.
The new road is set to start in the Armenian border village of Kornidzor and then will head through the Karabakh villages of Hin Shen and Mets Shen. After that, the new route will link up with the portion of the old road running through Lisagor to Shushi and, beyond that, to Stepanakert.
The ceasefire calls for “a plan for the construction” of the new road to “be determined within the next three years,” without specifying which side should take on the responsibility and cost of building it.
But as officials in Yerevan and Stepanakert have largely kept up their silence on the issue, Baku has taken the lead on the project, with Azerbaijani construction crews making significant progress building the section of the route that lies in Karabakh.
In fact, the head of Azerbaijan’s roads agency said earlier this year he expects the new route to be ready by the end of next month, well ahead of the three-year timeline set in the ceasefire.
In contrast, work on the part of the new road that will lie in Armenia has yet to begin.
All that has put the remaining Armenian residents of the Lachin corridor on a collision course with the geopolitical reality that Azerbaijan may soon take control of their communities.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 war, CivilNet reporters visited Aghavno, one of the villages that may soon be handed over to Azerbaijan. Residents there largely struck a defiant note, pledging to stay.
“We are not betraying (our lands). We are not abandoning our homes. We have nowhere else to go,” said resident Narine Rasoyan, giving what was then a more or less typical point of view.
A journalist with Eurasianet who traveled to the village earlier this month found more mixed emotions about the prospect of a handover, but many residents still said they would refuse to leave.
CivilNet’s team, meanwhile, paid a visit a few weeks ago to Hin Shen, where Azerbaijani construction crews have already begun building a section of the new road. Residents there spoke of their anxiety living in such close proximity to Azerbaijani workers.
“No matter how much we try to dispel people’s fears, all this (construction) has a negative impact on them,” said Karen Barseghyan, the head of the village school.
Tigran Grigoryan, a well-known Karabakh analyst, called for a more sober view on the Lachin corridor issue in an interview with CivilNet shortly after Pashinyan’s press conference, saying that “at this stage, we should understand we cannot prevent that (handover) agreement.”
“Since the war, Yerevan and Stepanakert have not had the opportunity to prevent the handover of those communities to Azerbaijan,” he noted. “The reasons are evident: the army was crushed after the war, (and) the Russians had the perception that those settlements should be handed over.”