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‘We will not give away our land, not a chance’: Armenians near Nakhichevan

Meghri, Armenia – One week after Azerbaijan seized Nagorno-Karabakh, Margo, a 74-year-old retired piano instructor, sat in a cafe and wondered if her hometown of Meghri, in southern Armenia, would soon share Karabakh’s fate.

In Armenian, Meghri means the town of honey, but life is rarely sweet, Margo said, not least now.

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She believes that following Baku’s recent victory, Azerbaijan, emboldened, will now seek to seize parts of her native region, a strategic strip of land which separates Azerbaijan from its exclave of Nakhichevan.

“We worry every day. Every hour. We even know where their troops are located at our borders,” said Margo. “We will not give away our land, not a chance. We will fight till the end. But if they seize it, they will force all of us out of here, too.”

Back in the Soviet days, Meghri, a mountainous town of about 4,000 residents near Iran’s border, lay on a train route connecting Azerbaijan with its exclave. But following years of conflict between the neighbours over Nagorno-Karabakh, and mutual acts of violence, the route fell into oblivion.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars over Nagorno-Karabakh, in the nineties and in 2020. But this year, after Azerbaijan’s lightning offensive, Baku took total control of the region, which lies within its borders. Until a few months ago, it was dominated by ethnic Armenians. Now, it resembles a ghost town, as most have fled to Armenia.

After the second Karabakh war, which ended with an agreement facilitated by Russia, Armenia agreed to allow a land connection between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan.

While Azerbaijan and Russia claim that the road was meant to be outside of Armenia’s control, overseen by the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, Armenia rejects this interpretation.

In Yerevan’s view, the agreement was made at the time when Azerbaijan was blocking Armenia’s only land connection to Nagorno-Karabakh and was meant as part of mutual concessions.

But as Azerbaijan began a nine-month blockade of the area in December 2022, effectively cutting ethnic Armenians off the outside world, and eventually recapturing the area, Armenia does not feel obliged to meet its part of the agreement.

And that is despite Azerbaijan’s claim that it can only benefit from the deal.

“Armenia will be able to benefit from the developing trade in the region and all trade projects that are likely to be realised in the future,” Kanan Heydarov, a political analyst from Azerbaijan, told Al Jazeera.

“It will be able to make great economic gains. As it is known, Armenia has not been able to benefit from many big trade projects developed in the region so far.”

In recent years, Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, began to refer to Armenia as “Western Azerbaijan”. He also started calling for the creation of the “Zangezur Corridor”, a highway linking Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan along the former Soviet rail track.

“The Zangezur Corridor is a historical necessity,” Aliyev said last January adding that it will be created whether Armenia wants it or not. Earlier, in 2021, the president threatened to establish it by force.

Following Azerbaijan’s victory over Nagorno-Karabakh, which led to an almost full exodus of its Armenian population, locals like Margo – and some experts – fear that Azerbaijan might bring its plan to life by force.

“I think Aliyev is careful not to burn bridges behind. He likes to appear at Davos, the Munich Security Conference and other global forums, and he wants to continue serving gas to Europe,” David Akopyan, former United Nations diplomat and Armenian analyst, told Al Jazeera.

“But he is going to take as much as he is allowed to take, so we have to be mindful and prepared. It’s important that when it happens, we have measures to respond to the aggression.”

Russia, Armenia’s traditional ally, whose troops were responsible for protecting Nagorno-Karabakh’s population, failed to prevent Azerbaijan’s military offensive.

Analysts said Moscow might not stand against the creation of a corridor that would connect not only Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan but also Central Asia – a region in its backyard – with Turkey and further with Europe.

Many Armenians, who have little faith in Russia now, have also turned against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, blaming him for jeopardising Armenia’s security by antagonising Russia.

Russia has a significant military presence in Armenia, while the FSB controls some of Armenia’s borders. It is also Armenia’s largest trading partner which controls the country’s energy sector.

“Russia’s ultimate goal here is to change the Armenian government since Pashinyan is trying to effect a geopolitical shift in the region,” claimed Karen Harutyunyan, editor in chief of Armenian news site CivilNet.

“But my fear is that in the end, Pashinyan’s actions will only increase Russia’s influence on Armenia, despite the growing anti-Russian sentiment among the public.”

Armenia receives continued support from the United States and France. During a visit to Yerevan earlier this month, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna agreed to deliver military equipment to Armenia.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is a close ally of Turkey, a NATO member, whose influence in the South Caucasus has risen prominently in recent years.

“An Azerbaijani invasion is a realistic scenario,” Harutyunyan said. “If it happens, no one is going to stop it: neither the European Union nor the United States.”

Source: Al Jazeera


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