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Aliyev, Erdogan look set to insist on land bridge across Armenia linking Azerbaijan and Turkey

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Azerbaijan and “brother ally” Turkey turned up the heat on embattled Armenia on September 25, hinting that they may be set to push hard for Yerevan to agree to a land bridge across Armenian territory that would link their two countries.

As Armenia struggled to deal with the mass exodus of ethnic-Armenians fleeing the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in the wake of last week’s decisive one-day military offensive conducted by Azerbaijan, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pointedly met Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev for the opening of a newly modernised military installation in Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave—the territory holds great importance in that Baku wants to carve a land corridor across Armenia from the main part of Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan, which borders Turkey.

Azerbaijan and Turkey—which often refer to their two countries as “two states, one nation”—insist Armenia promised to accept such a corridor in the Russian-brokered ceasefire talks that ended the 44-day Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in late 2020, something that Yerevan denies.

At a joint news conference following their meeting, at which neither strongman took any questions, Aliyev lamented how Soviet-era authorities had decided that, part of what he said should have been territory belonging to the Azerbaijani Soviet republic, was land belonging to the Armenian Soviet republic.

“The land link between the main part of Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan was thus cut off,” complained Aliyev, as reported by Reuters.

The corridor, if built, would stretch across Armenia’s southern Syunik province. Both Azerbaijan and Nato member Turkey refer to it as the Zangezur Corridor.

Addressing the UN General Assembly in New York on September 19, the very day Azerbaijan invaded ethnic-Armenian-controlled Karabakh, Erdogan referred to the desired land link, saying: “We expect a comprehensive peace agreement between the two countries [Azerbaijan and Armenia] as soon as possible and for promises to be quickly fulfilled, especially on the opening of the Zangezur corridor.”

Aliyev has since the last Karabakh war occasionally become rather bellicose about his demand for the corridor. In 2021, he threatened to create it “whether Armenia likes it or not”.

However, a big difficulty for Aliyev is that Nakhchivan and Syunik both border Iran and any land bridge would necessarily run parallel to the Armenian-Iranian border. Tehran has made it clear that it is staunchly opposed to any developments near its border that could interfere with its trade routes via Syunik and is clearly also greatly concerned that such a corridor would extend Turkey’s geopolitical heft across both the South Caucasus and Central Asia, which borders Azerbaijan. There were fresh reports this week in the Iranian media of Tehran beefing up its military deployments near Iran’s borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Russia’s current stance on whether the corridor should be permitted by Armenia is not clear, but Moscow is engaged in an increasingly bitter spat with Armenia over Yerevan’s accusation that Russia has not lived up to its security commitments as Armenia’s strategic partner and the Armenian government’s newly expressed willingness to strengthen ties with the West.

Speaking after his meeting with Erdogan in Nakhchivan, where the pair also attended a gas pipeline groundbreaking ceremony, Aliyev—as reported by Turkish state-run news service Anadolu Agency—said: “[Azerbaijan and Turkey] want peace and stability in the region, not war”.

The meeting, however, has clearly sown plenty of anxiety.

Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at think tank Carnegie Europe who specialises in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, wrote on his X platform microblog that Azerbaijan and Turkey could present an ultimatum to Armenia over the corridor, saying: “Days after Azerbaijan’s military takeover of Karabakh, Presidents Aliyev and Erdogan meet in Nakhchivan today and will very likely make ultimatums to the Armenian government to ‘open the Zangezur Corridor or else…’ 

“Can we be really going the world of 1918-21 when big powers try to use force to draw and redraw the map of the Caucasus? Let it not be so.”