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Washington Post: After Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan eyes a strategic strip of Armenia

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Outside the old Meghri train station in southern Armenia, a rusting locomotive, emblazoned with a fading emblem of the Soviet Union, sits on the tracks, as if still waiting for the passengers who stopped coming long ago, The Washingon Post reports.

The station’s overgrown courtyard and dilapidated waiting rooms were once filled with Armenians, Azerbaijanis and visitors from across the Soviet Union, traveling between Baku and Yerevan, or Moscow and Tehran. A modest cafeteria sold tea and snacks, and in summer, fruit sellers on the platform hawked persimmons and pomegranates, grown locally in the orchards that hug the valley.

Meghri sits at a strategic crossroads that regional powers, including Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey and Russia, are competing to access — prompting fears it could soon be at the center of a new war.

Located just north of the Aras River and the Iranian border, Meghri is hemmed in by Azerbaijani territory. To the east lies Azerbaijan proper, whose border with Armenia has been shut since 1991. Roughly six miles to the west lies Nakhchivan, a landlocked Azerbaijani exclave that Baku has long dreamed of connecting to its mainland. A sliver of Nakhchivan borders Turkey.

Azerbaijan calls Meghri, and the rest of Armenia’s Syunik province, the Zangezur corridor. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and other officials have described opening this corridor as a top objective — one that is now in direct focus following Baku’s recapture of the long-disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Zangezur corridor is a broken link in a longer, potentially highly lucrative east-west route called the “Middle Corridor” that would connect China and Central Asian countries to Turkey via Azerbaijan.

Yerevan pledged to open transport routes to Baku as part of a 2020 cease-fire after a brief war in Nagorno-Karabakh. But since then, Armenian officials have balked, saying that any such arrangement would effectively be the occupation of Armenian territory.

Betrayed by Moscow, which failed to prevent Azerbaijan’s military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia now wants full control of the route. And it no longer wants Moscow’s security forces, who have guarded Meghri’s borders since the 1970s, involved.

Azerbaijan, meanwhile, is pressuring Yerevan for unfettered access to the corridor, aiming to reopen the old Soviet railroad from Baku to Nakhchivan, as well as a highway for cars. It has already begun constructing infrastructure in preparation for the route.

Aliyev has signaled that Baku would use force to seize the corridor if the 2020 deal is not upheld. “We will implement the Zangezur corridor, whether Armenia wants it or not,” he said in 2021.

“I think the threat of a flare-up is very real,” said Stefan Meister, a South Caucasus expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “The Azerbaijanis have a maximalist approach. … If they can take it, they will do it.”

Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe who specializes in the region, said there are “two competing visions for the same east-west route,” with Armenia backed by the West, and Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkey aligned together.

“It is more likely that Baku and Moscow will jointly use all their pressure points on the Armenian government to coerce them to accept their plan,” de Waal said. “So this is shaping up into a real contest.”

Turkey and Russia, which would benefit from expanding transport links crossing Armenian territory, have backed Aliyev’s plans. Russia, especially, wants this southern route to circumvent Western sanctions. Moscow has been using Azerbaijan to continue selling oil despite import bans and a price cap regime coordinated by the Group of Seven nations.

But Iran, a powerful ally of Armenia and its only friendly neighbor, has strongly opposed the project, averse to any alterations to its border with Armenia. The proposed plan would hinder, if not disconnect, free trade and traffic between the two countries. It could also reduce profits from Iran’s gas contracts with Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan’s lightning offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh last month, which prompted more than 100,000 of the region’s ethnic Armenian residents to flee, has raised concerns that Baku — which has stepped up its hawkish rhetoric — may use force to get its way in the transit corridor dispute.

A crumpled old railway map lies on the floor of the main building of the abandoned Meghri train station. When active, the railway connected Meghri to Yerevan, traveling through Nakhchivan. (Anush Babajanyan/VII)

It was war between Azerbaijan and Armenia that originally shuttered the Meghri station.

At its peak during the Soviet era, the station had 70 employees. Armenian and Azerbaijani residents lived side by side. One year, even one deputy mayor of Meghri was Azerbaijani.

But in 1992, with Armenia and Azerbaijan at war over Nagorno-Karabakh, revenge attacks escalated. A group of Azerbaijanis hijacked the train running from Yerevan to Kapan as it passed through Nakhchivan and took 12 wagons full of mostly Armenian passengers hostage for a week.

As official negotiations stalled, a group of men from Meghri took matters into their own hands. Climbing the high mountain paths to a radar station, they bribed a Russian border guard to let them cross into Nakhchivan. Then, disguised as Russians, they kidnapped a local man — a relative of an Azerbaijani official — who was exchanged for the 14 remaining passenger-hostages. Baku and Yerevan later signed an accord to safeguard passenger transport.

The next year, however, a rumor spread that Azerbaijanis had abducted a busload of Armenian passengers farther north. A lynch mob of angry Armenian residents gathered at the Meghri station. Thinking that Baku had violated the accord, Arman Davtyan, the deputy station director, halted the train.

“I gave the order to the duty officer to stop the incoming train,” Davtyan said in a recent interview, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth, “and by doing this, I very nearly risked an international crisis.”

After two days of talks to ensure locals would not ambush the passengers, the train departed from the station — one of the last to ever leave Meghri. The station closed a few months later, in 1993, along with the whole line from Baku to Nakhchivan.

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