Azerbaijani military advances have created facts on the ground, as the two countries work on an agreement demarcating their shared border.
The word “borderization” is a relatively new one, but in its short life it has acquired multiple meanings. At root, it refers to the establishment of physical infrastructure to demarcate a borderline and prevent the free movement of people. The erection of border fencing, the deployment of barbed wire, or simply the posting of a border sign are examples of borderization.
But the term has another meaning, deriving from the context of its initial coinage by the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia: the de facto boundary between Georgia and the Russian-backed breakaway territory of South Ossetia. Borderization, in this second meaning, is a geopolitical gambit aimed at turning an unrecognized boundary line into a hard border designed to control the movement of people and goods.
The South Caucasus now provides a third meaning: the process of turning a neglected but recognized line on a map into an actual demarcated border between two states. The context for this new meaning is the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, particularly along the southernmost Armenian province of Syunik.
After the defeat of Armenian forces in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan, this province suddenly became a real borderland between the two states. Previously, Syunik enjoyed proximity to the Armenian-controlled territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, known locally as Artsakh. Nominally it was an international border. In actuality it was a mere line on a map, which if it was acknowledged at all was thought to represent only different parts of what locals saw as Armenian land.
Following the 2020 war, Azerbaijan retook control of the territory on the eastern side of this line. Since then, the process of borderization in Syunik has not been smooth. Borderland clashes this fall killed more than 200 people in the worst flare-up of fighting between the two neighbors since November 2021.
The exact location of the borderline is unclear, and it has never acted as an international border. In the Soviet Union it was merely an internal administrative line, and after Armenia and Azerbaijan gained independence there was no formal demarcation. As a result, there are various disputes as to where the border actually runs on the landscape and which state controls various strategic locations.
The ceasefire agreement that ended the 2020 war did not address the demarcation of the border. It did, however, indirectly address Syunik in a different way: the stipulation of a transport route that would link the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan to the rest of Azerbaijan through southern Armenia, referred to as the “Zangezur Corridor” by the leadership in Baku. (“Zangezur” is used in Azerbaijani to denote Syunik, and it also is an alternative name for the province in Armenian.)
Such a route would create a continuous land connection between the Azerbaijani mainland and Turkey, a longstanding aspiration of strategists from both countries. Rhetoric from Baku has implied that it expects the route to amount to an extraterritorial transport corridor through Syunik. Yerevan, however, insists that the route on its territory would remain subject to Armenian laws and customs controls.
Syunik’s place in Armenia
All this has placed Syunik in the spotlight. Often referred to as “the backbone of Armenia,” it is a vital transportation node not only to Nagorno-Karabakh, but to the southern border with Iran. That is one of only two open international borders Armenia has now; the other being Georgia to the north. The borders to the west (Turkey) and east (Azerbaijan) have been closed since the First Karabakh War of the early 1990s.
Not only is Syunik a lifeline for the country’s communications routes, it also contains substantial mineral wealth. Syunik has, in addition, a storied past – the home of Armenian national heroes such as Davit Bek and Garegin Njdeh, who led campaigns of liberation against foreign rule. Njdeh is in particular credited in the local imagination with keeping Syunik within what became Soviet Armenia, making him a hero to Armenians and a villain to Azerbaijanis. The region had a mixed Armenian and Azerbaijani population before Sovietization, like Karabakh and Nakhchivan, and all three territories were bitterly contested in the early Soviet period.
The legacies of these historical figures are finding renewed resonance today and the territory’s strategic and symbolic significance has risen in the geopolitical cultures of both countries. In Armenia’s evolving and anxious geopolitical culture, it is especially sensitive: Should the “backbone of the country” break, the country itself will not be able to stand.
The outcome of the 2020 war left the residents of Syunik in a state of shock. As a result of Azerbaijan’s military victory, its armed forces were soon visible on hilltops and locations abutting Armenian towns and villages. Before long, Azerbaijan had begun to reinforce these positions with bases and garrisons.
Armenian and Azerbaijani military forces remain in close proximity. In the village of Khnatsakh in Syunik, for example, the two flags are easily visible on the ridge above a picturesque bowl-shaped valley, fluttering across from one another. Most residents of Khnatsakh can see the Azerbaijani position from their homes.
Fieldwork in the area in 2021 revealed a variety of local emotions about the sudden changes along the border. The overriding feeling was one of precariousness and uncertainty. All along Armenia’s newly militarized eastern border, fearful villagers have stopped using some land that they had previously employed for cultivation or pasture. Incidents of shooting and cattle rustling have become common over the past two years, some resolved through Russian mediation, some not. The capacity of the Armenian government and military are largely seen as ineffective and discouraging.
At the same time, many older residents of Syunik from the generation socialized in Soviet times have active and even pleasant memories of Azerbaijani friends and colleagues. Yet, with all the violence and hardened attitudes of the past three decades, the prospects for renewed neighborliness seem remote.
A journalist in Kapan, the provincial capital, expressed a deep fear for the safety of her family. “My child goes to school every day under the viewfinder of the Turk,” she said. (The word “Turk” is commonly used in Armenian discourse to refer to both Azerbaijanis and Turks.)
One constant fear is that Azerbaijan is maneuvering to continually shift the borderline to its advantage. Armenia’s military counts five areas where Azerbaijani forces have carried out incursions into Armenian territory since May 2021. A further six areas were targeted in the September 2022 attacks. Estimates of Armenian territory now under Azerbaijani control vary: some open source estimates put it at a total of 145 square kilometers (56 square miles) whereas others indicate 127 square kilometers (49 square miles).
A borderization agreement
Via European mediation, Armenia and Azerbaijan have affirmed their recognition of one another’s Soviet-era borders in principle and pledged to work towards finalizing them. The delimitation and demarcation of their mutual border is one of the key elements of a peace agreement under discussion. In subsequent face-to-face diplomacy in the United States and Russia, Yerevan and Baku have gone back and forth on which maps from what era should serve as a point of departure. The Russian government argues it has the only “authentic” Soviet-era sources.
Lines on the map are one thing. Facts on the ground are something else, locations where armies stand and where infrastructure is built along disputed lines. Positions taken up by Azerbaijani soldiers have produced a borderland where none existed before, and enabled a process of borderization across areas that were previously uncontested.
Ultimately, borders are constructs of power. But to acquire local and international legitimacy they require agreement between neighboring states. Any enduring peace requires Armenia and Azerbaijan to agree on a detailed demarcation line on the ground, and on precise protocols for regional transportation routes, whether or not they are frictionless corridors. In Syunik, the process of borderization, and possible de-borderization by new connectivities, has only begun.
Gerard Toal is a political geographer at Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs. Nareg Seferian is a PhD candidate at Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs.