The issue of tiny but strategically placed Soviet-era enclaves in Armenia and Azerbaijan has come to the forefront of peace talks in recent months. The two countries have a total of four enclaves between them, including one Armenian exclave inside Azerbaijan and three Azerbaijani exclaves, controlled and surrounded on all sides by Armenia.
The issue of enclaves was largely dormant for decades. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has claimed that it was discussed during the 1999 talks regarding Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh). It made a comeback with Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 Artsakh War.
On the night of November 9, 2020, a draft version of the trilateral statement that ended the war was leaked by the Russian state-run Sputnik Armenia and widely reproduced by other publications. Point 2 read: “The Agdam district and territories held by the Armenian side in the Gazakh district of the Republic of Azerbaijan will be returned to the Azerbaijani side by November 20, 2020.” Gazakh is where two of the three Azerbaijani enclaves are located. After the official text was posted online, it was quickly removed by Sputnik. This was the most significant portion of the draft text omitted from the final version. Pashinyan later confirmed that the issue was discussed at the time, but Armenia insisted on its removal.
With the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh following the Azerbaijani blitz on September 19–20, 2023 and the forced displacement of its entire Armenian population of more than 100,000, the demarcation of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, with its Soviet-era oddities, is now one of the thorniest issue of the peace talks.
Armenian Enclave: Artsvashen
By the late Soviet period, Armenia had one exclave inside Azerbaijan called Artsvashen, which is located east of Chambarak in Gegharkunik region. Azerbaijani forces captured it in August 1992 and the entire population of 2,730 was forcibly displaced, while 12 Armenian soldiers were killed. The people of Artsvashen now mostly live in the town of Chambarak. Azerbaijan has renamed it Bashkend (Başkənd) and administers it as part of its Gadabay (Gədəbəy) district. Satellite imagery shows the village largely emptied with most houses ruined or leveled.
Soviet Azerbaijan had three exclaves (containing four villages) inside Armenia: Kyarki, Yukhari/Upper Askipara, and Barkhudarli, and Sofulu. The latter two formed a single enclave.
Kyarki is located just north of Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan (Nakhchivan) region, on Armenia’s north-south artery, making it central to Armenia’s security. It connects Yerevan with the country’s south (the regions of Vayots Dzor and Syunik) and, thereafter, with Iran. It was captured by Armenian militiamen in mid-January 1990, resulting in the exodus of its Azerbaijani residents. Kyarki was briefly controlled by the Soviet paramilitary OMON forces, who subsequently left and the village was repopulated by Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan. It is now administered as part of Armenia’s Ararat region (marz) and is called Tigranashen after the sole Armenian fighter who was killed during its capture. It now has a population of 149.
There is an existing alternative road to Kyarki that runs through Vedi and Lanjar by turning away from the Nakhichevan border. Both routes are roughly equal in length, but the Vedi-Lanjar route is narrower and runs through a mountainous terrain, thus as is, cannot entirely replace the Kyarki route. It is also unclear how the North-South highway project would deal with Kyarki. The final design has not been completed for this section, but it was announced earlier that the highway between Artashat and Sisian that encompasses Kyarki would not deviate significantly from the existing route. According to the general outline, the highway appears to bypass Kyarki/Tigranashen through a series of tunnels running to its north. Pashinyan insisted in 2021 that the highway project does bypass the enclave and that by designing it that way his predecessor Serzh Sargsyan’s administration essentially confirmed its disputed status.
The other two enclaves, located in Armenia’s northeastern region of Tavush, were captured by Armenian forces in the summer of 1992. Like Kyarki, they are also strategically placed, but unlike the former, they have not been populated after their Azerbaijan residents fled. The 2011 Armenian census listed one “Askipara”, which is presumably Yukhari/Upper Askipara, with a population of 0 as part of the Voskepar municipality.
Barkhudarli and Sofulu, forming a single enclave, are located on the main highway connecting Ijevan, the regional center, with the town of Berd and a number of nearby villages. As with the two previous cases, there is an alternative, but significantly more mountainous road connecting Ijevan and Berd.
The three Azerbaijani enclaves inside Armenia have a total area of around 44 km2 according to Armenian fact-checkers and an Azerbaijani researcher, with Yukhari Askipara at 25.4–25.5 km2, Barkudarlu & Sofulu at 10.1 km2, and Kyarki at 8.3–8.4 km2. This compares to 38 or 40 km2 for Artsvashen.
The Four “Non-enclave” Azerbaijani Villages
If the talks were held in good faith, one common sense solution would have been to simply keep the status quo regarding the enclaves, but Azerbaijan has naturally rejected this option. Even if they were swapped, it would still leave the question of four other Armenian-controlled Azerbaijani villages in the Gazakh (Qazax) region, located immediately across the border in Tavush: Baghanis Ayrim, Ashaghi/Lower Askipara, Kheyrimli, and Gizilhajili.
Captured by Armenian forces in mid-1992, the first three of the four are either on or in the immediate vicinity of Armenia’s main north-south highway, connecting Yerevan with the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. The villages were captured by Armenian forces in order to secure the strategic road, which became a lifeline due to the blockade of Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey. According to the most detailed Soviet maps of the mid-1970s available online, the highway crosses into Azerbaijani territory (Ashaghi Askipara) between the villages of Kirants and Voskepar. The area Armenia controls here is only around 8.3 km2, but it complicates the prospective demarcation and delimitation of the area regardless of how the issue of enclaves is handled.
There is an alternative route, running through Armenia’s Lori region, going through Vanadzor and Alaverdi instead of Sevan-Dilijan-Ijevan. These two highways, running from Yerevan to the Georgian border (Bagratashen), are roughly similar in length, with the Vanadzor-Alaverdi route at 204 km and the Dilijan-Ijevan route at 212 km. But this would not address the potential isolation of Voskepar, a village of 721 people, from the rest of Armenia, and the rupture of Noyemberyan and its surrounding villages from the regional center of Ijevan.
In August 2021, following media reports, Armenia’s Defense Ministry announced that Russian border guards had been deployed to the Voskepar area. This gave rise to speculations that demarcation of the area could start soon.
During a campaign rally in June 2021, Pashinyan proposed swapping the enclaves so that Azerbaijan retains Artsvashen and Armenia retains the three Azerbaijani exclaves. This possibility was reiterated by senior parliamentarians from his party in November 2021, but just days later, Pashinyan suggested that the enclaves may not have a “legal basis”, saying “we strongly doubt” that they do.
The issue then largely faded to the background and reemerged in mid-2023. Speaking in parliament in May, he said Armenia and Azerbaijan recognize, on a political level, the existence of enclaves, but there are additional legal questions. He again reiterated the proposal to swap them and added that there are ongoing discussions on the issue and there is much flexibility. Pashinyan reiterated the existence of enclaves, particularly Kyarki, on the “political level”, in June 2023. Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan added that the issue should be dealt with by the delimitation commission. Pashinyan has also stated that building roads that would bypass the enclaves is not an “unsolvable issue” for Armenia.
In November, Gevorg Papoyan, a senior parliamentarian from Pashinyan’s party, said that Armenia has never pledged to unilaterally cede the enclaves to Azerbaijan and that Armenia can discuss mutual troop withdrawals or territorial swaps.
On other occasions, Pashinyan has pointed to Azerbaijani control of Armenian territory in the border areas, especially in Tavush, where two of the enclaves and four villages are located. In October 2023, he noted that Azerbaijan occupies parts of territories of four villages: Berkaber, Aygehovit, Vazashen and Paravakar. In his most recent remarks, Pashinyan referred to 32 Armenian villages, which have parts of their administrative territories (farmlands, pastures, etc.) occupied by Azerbaijan. Furthermore, in several waves of incursions since 2021, Azerbaijan has captured around 215 km2 of Armenian territory in border areas, including around 150 km2 in September 2022 alone.
In a June 5, 2023 statement, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry complained that “Armenia […] is still occupying eight villages of Azerbaijan” and is delaying the “return of eight villages to Azerbaijan under various pretexts.” In a phone call with European Council President Charles Michel in October, Aliyev referred to “eight villages of Azerbaijan” that are “still under Armenian occupation, and stressed the importance of liberating these villages from occupation.” The Azerbaijani MFA, in a statement commemorating victory in the 2020 war, said that Armenia refuses to “hand over eight Azerbaijani villages, which are still under occupation.”
Aliyev made his most detailed remarks about the enclaves during his January 10 interview. He said the “issue of the eight villages under occupation is always on the agenda today” and that Azerbaijan’s proposal is to distinguish the enclave and non-enclave villages. He said the latter “should be returned to Azerbaijan without any preconditions.” As for the enclaves, Aliyev said it should be discussed by a “separate expert group”. He explained Azerbaijan’s position: “We believe that all enclaves should be returned. The roads leading to these enclaves should have the necessary conditions and the people living there should be accommodated in these enclaves.”
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