On August 25, 2022, the Armenian villages of Aghavno, Berdzor and Sus on the Lachin Corridor were handed over to Azerbaijan. While Berdzor and Sus were mostly depopulated of their Armenian residents following the end of the 2020 Artsakh War, approximately 150 people had remained in the village of Aghavno. These residents have now been forced to relocate to Armenia and Artsakh.
The Lachin Corridor was subject to alterations according to the Russian-brokered November 9, 2020, trilateral statement that ended the 2020 Artsakh War. According to point 6 of that document, Armenia had to return the Kelbajar/Karvajar region to Azerbaijan by November 15, 2020 (this was later extended to November 25), while the Lachin region (which includes the three villages in question) by December 1, 2020, with the exception of the 5-km wide Lachin Corridor that would be patrolled by Russian peacekeepers, allowing Armenians to travel between Armenia and Artsakh. The parties—Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia—had to agree on a plan for building a new road linking Armenia to Artsakh (replacing the existing Lachin Corridor) within three years with subsequent redeployment of Russian peacekeepers to protect the new route.
Azerbaijan began constructing its side of the road in 2021 without properly consulting with Yerevan. Azerbaijan was operating under the logic that construction responsibilities specific to its side remained within its purview, and in this context, it did not interpret its unilateral actions as violations of point 6 of the ceasefire document. Russia’s acquiescence to such developments suggests that Russia also did not consider this process as contradictory to the letter of the agreement. Thus, in July 2022, Baku announced the completion of the construction of its side of the road earlier than the deadline foreseen in the ceasefire statement.
Back in May 2022, Artsakh’s Human Rights Defender Gegham Stepanyan said that the new road bypassing the Lachin Corridor is under construction and noted that “according to my information, it will bypass Berdzor and Aghavno” and that there was no clarity regarding the fate of the population of those settlements.
A month later, on June 30, head of Armenia’s Security Council Armen Grigoryan said that there was still time “to find solutions both for the road and the residents,” and that the Armenian side had “approximately 1.5 years” to “work with the Artsakh government and find solutions.”
Azerbaijan’s tactical approach to this situation entailed three specific objectives. First, to curtail the Armenian side from renegotiating or finding alternative solutions, Azerbaijan changed the “facts on the ground” by completing the road on its end and demanding the implementation of point 6 prior to the three year deadline. Second, to reify this objective, it manufactured a crisis in the Lachin Corridor by initiating a localized incursion that resulted in the death of two Armenian soldiers. And third, it negotiated with the Russians, and indirectly with Stepanakert, and thus excluded Yerevan from this process of speeding up the implementation of point 6 of the ceasefire document. By initiating a militarized operation, Azerbaijan destabilized the corridor, while at the same time arguing that the only way to re-stabilize the corridor was to implement point 6 of the ceasefire agreement before the three year deadline.
In a telephone conversation with President Charles Michel of the European Council on August 5, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said that the new route to replace the old corridor had been determined according to an agreement reached with Russia’s Defense Ministry and that Azerbaijan had all but finished constructing the new road. Contextually, this confirms the underlying assumption that Yerevan was left out of the process and that Azerbaijan had been fulfilling point 6 of the ceasefire agreement primarily through negotiations with the Russians. Namely, the ceasefire document states that “a plan for the construction of a new route along the Lachin Corridor shall be determined within the next three years,” and Aliyev confirmed that the process of “determination” was undertaken with the Russian Defense Ministry. Yerevan’s exclusion from the process, or more specifically, Russia’s unilateral assumption of authority in negotiating developments without Yerevan, remains the most important explanatory factor as to why the Armenian side was seemingly caught off guard by the August 25 deadline.
This was further reaffirmed by official Stepanakert, for the Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh authorities undertook the responsibility of informing the villagers and organizing the evacuation of the villages prior to the handover deadline. Stepanakert’s active involvement was confirmed on August 5, when Artsakh’s Minister of Territorial Administration Hayk Khanumyan visited the village of Aghavno and told residents they had 20 days to leave their village and warned them not to set their houses ablaze when they left as they could be left without compensation (the Government of Artsakh announced it would offer a voucher of $25,000 to each family forced out of their villages). His justification was that in the future it might be possible for people to return to Aghavno as it is very close to the new corridor. He added that several villages of the Aghanus community, which had fallen under Azerbaijani control after the war, will be included in the new corridor and Artsakh residents may be able to move back to the villages of Aghanus.
A few days later, Khanumyan in an interview on August 9, presented the position of the Artsakh government and provided information on developments. Specifically, he noted that the Russian peacekeeping mission had informed Stepanakert about Azerbaijan’s intention to start the construction of the alternative road and that the sides had agreed that the new road would be south of the existing corridor through the villages of Mets Shen and Hin Shen. According to Khanumyan, the alternative road was built based on what Artsakh suggested with only a few alterations. More importantly, Khanumyan confirmed that a separate process of negotiations was taking place between Stepanakert and Azerbaijan, with Russia as the intermediary. Just as importantly, he hinted that official Yerevan was sidelined from the negotiation process regarding the construction of the new corridor, and that the agreement was reached primarily between Azerbaijan, the Russians and Stepanakert. In this context, on behalf of Azerbaijan, the Russians “presented” to Stepanakert two sets of options for the construction of the new corridor, and the option that Stepanakert “chose”, according to Khanumyan, became the one that is being implemented.
The seeming exclusion of official Yerevan from this process appears to have been confirmed by Prime Minister Pashinyan’s debriefing of developments during the August 4 Government cabinet meeting: “I have to record that at the moment there is no plan approved by the Russian Federation, Armenia and Azerbaijan in a trilateral format, and we have proposed several times and are still proposing to do that. Note that the statement is not just about the construction of a new road, but about the construction plan and the redeployment of peacekeeping troops, which is a very complex and trilateral process. As of now, we have not agreed to any plan, because no draft of such a plan has been proposed to us.” Thus, as of August 4, according to official Yerevan, there was neither an agreement on the construction routes for a new corridor, nor was the Republic of Armenia privy to the developments revealed by Khanumyan. Whereas official Stepanakert confirmed the ongoing negotiations between itself, Russia and Azerbaijan over the construction of the new corridor, Yerevan, one day before Stepanakert’s declaration on handing over the three villages, allegedly remained in the dark. Whereas official Yerevan was saying one thing on August 4, official Stepanakert was doing another on August 5. This discrepancy, in no uncertain terms, reaffirms Khanumyan’s explanation: the three-way negotiations were between Russia, Azerbaijan, and Artsakh. Yerevan’s exclusion from the process, it appears, is Moscow taking agency away from Yerevan and endowing it upon Stepanakert. To paraphrase Khanumanyan: the options were presented to Stepanakert and Stepanakert made the decision. That such options were neither presented nor addressed to Yerevan, as confirmed in the August 4 Government meeting, reaffirms the exclusion of Yerevan from the process.
The broader integration of Artsakh’s political leadership into the process, and thus the further enhancement of Artsakh’s political agency, was also confirmed when leaders of the five political groups represented in the Artsakh parliament met with the commanders of the Russian peacekeeping contingent to discuss the new corridor. According to a statement released by the parliament’s press service, they received assurances that “the new route will have” the “legal status” of a “corridor” and it will be administered in the same comparable fashion as the Lachin Corridor. The Russian commanders further assured the heads of the political parties that Russian peacekeepers will control and provide security to the new corridor. The fact that the Russian peacekeeping commanders gave the Artsakh parliamentary parties an audience, and the fact that the Russian peacekeeping commanders formally engaged with a state institution of Artsakh, is highly indicative of a developing reconfiguration.