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19 April 2024

Historic Accord: Armenia and Azerbaijan Agree on Border Demarcation, Return of Gazakh Villages

Though the return by Armenia of four villages in the Gazakh region of Azerbaijan was expected, the surprise news that it was agreed upon today by both Yerevan and Baku has been publicly greeted positively by both.

Abandoned village next to azerbaijan armenia border

Image: Tomasz Wozniak/Shutterstock

Recent developments surrounding the return of four non-enclave villages situated de jure in the Gazakh region of Azerbaijan but de facto under Armenian control took a surprise turn today with news that an agreement had finally been reached between the sides. The news came from the eighth meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani border commissions held earlier. 

"Armenia has agreed to return the four Azerbaijani villages that have been occupied since the beginning of the 1990s," announced Aykhan Hajizadeh, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesperson. The decision was made as part of the work of two border commissions that had hitherto largely been of an administrative nature in preparation for the actual work ahead.

Having met first on the Armenia-Nakhchivan border in May 2022 before two more held in Moscow and Brussels, respectively, and then subsequently on the Gazakh-Tavush border in question, there had been little doubt that any actual border demarcation would take place. Indeed, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had openly remarked that border demarcation could first start in Tavush. 

That now appears to be official. A press release from the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that the villages will be returned and the border demarcated between them and the adjacent settlements of Baghanis, Voskepar, Kirants, and Berkaber in Armenia in accordance with the border that existed at the time the former Soviet Union collapsed. 

A protocol was drawn up that will direct the two governments to consider the border specific to coordinates measured and to deploy border guards in parallel to the already agreed parts of the shared border that can now be considered demarcated while work on the remainder continues. For several weeks, the withdrawal of the Armenian military from the area had been speculated.

Ever since the November 2020 trilateral ceasefire statement was signed, the issue of the villages—Baghanis Ayrim, Ashaghi Askipara, Kheyrimli, and Ghizilhajili—has been on the agenda to varying degrees. First mentioned in an earlier draft of the agreement before being removed, Baku had also raised them subsequently. In January, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev again called for their return. 

Almost immediately after the last meeting of the border commissions on 7 March, its head, Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev, declared four days later that its work would not continue unless the villages were returned. His counterpart, Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigoryan, immediately responded, as did Prime Minister Pashinyan on 12 March in an unexpected live television interview. 

"There have never been villages with such names on the territory of Armenia,” he stated, referring to the Azerbaijani non-enclaves. At times, holding aloft a cutout map of Armenia while sitting beside three sand timers, each in a shade of the country’s tricolour flag, as if to indicate time was of the essence. “We must proceed from the de jure reality. What is Armenia is Armenia, what is not Armenia is not,” he said.

Pashinyan has since frequently visited nearby Armenian border villages as a way to assure local residents that they would not be cut off from the rest of the country and continues to do so. The opposition and clergy have also visited, especially Voskepar, in an attempt to encourage anti-government actions and even militant resistance, none of which appears to have emerged.

Though sometimes accused of delaying the resolution of issues in the context of Armenia-Azerbaijan normalization, a consensus has been that Pashinyan is serious in the case of border demarcation, arguing that Yerevan should have no claims on Baku in order to limit or prevent the likelihood of war. Unlike other sections, this part of the border had always been an effective frontline, even prior to 2020.

"There should not be trenches in front of houses [here]; there should be gardens,” he told residents on a visit to Berkaber earlier this week, where he also hinted at the possibility of cross-border trade in a calmer and distant future.” This should not be a frontline but a border with a checkpoint. If you want to communicate [with Azerbaijan] you'll do so. If you don't, it's up to you.”

Despite the breakthrough, work ahead on the remainder of the 1,000 kilometre long border could still prove long and arduous. With the exception of the non-enclaves as well as actual enclaves, Armenian and Azerbaijani communities have lived directly adjacent to each other throughout—quite unlike that part of the border next to the formerly occupied regions of Kelbajar, Lachin, Qubadli, and Zangilan.

Therefore, the Gazakh-Tavush section of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border could be seen as the easiest to resolve first. That, nonetheless, does not diminish the potential magnitude of the decision. “For the first time, there will be a demarcated state border between our countries in the section of the four villages,” the Information and Public Relations Department of the Armenian Prime Minister's Office responded when asked to comment on its significance by Armenpress.