In southern Armenia, warily sizing up the new neighbors

In Armenia’s southern Syunik region, Azerbaijanis have quickly staked their claim on the territory they retook in last year’s war. Now Armenians wonder what will be next.

Joshua Kucera

One day in March, 13 of Gavrush Hakobyan’s cows disappeared.

His suspicion quickly turned just to the east of his modest farmstead in the village of Shurnukh, where he raises cattle and pigs and distills his own mulberry spirits. A few meters from his cowshed stands a small blue pole that, he says, Azerbaijani border guards planted there earlier this year to mark their territory.

Before last year, Hakobyan and his cows had had free run of the village; no one paid attention to the border.

Until 1991, the line was merely a formality between the Armenian and Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republics. Then, when the Soviet Union collapsed and war broke out between the two new countries, the Armenians won and took control of the neighboring Azerbaijani region of Qubadli. The land on the other side of Hakobyan’s farm became de facto Armenian territory.

Last year’s war, though, reversed many of Azerbaijan’s territorial losses, and Armenians were forced to cede control of Qubadli and most of the other land they had won in the 1990s.

Azerbaijan has wasted little time cementing its authority over its newly retaken territory.

One village under three flags

Less than two months after the end of fighting, in the beginning of January, Azerbaijani border guards showed up in Shurnukh, a flyspeck village that lies along Armenia’s main north-south highway leading to Iran. Here, the Soviets had marked the border precisely along the road. When the Azerbaijanis came, they gave residents of the houses on the eastern side of the road three days to leave.

“Everyone said ‘that side of the road is Azerbaijan,’” Hakobyan said. “I don’t know where the border is officially, but that is what people always said, even when people lived there” across the road.

In Soviet times, Shurnukh was an ethnically Azerbaijani village, but during the war in the early 1990s all of Shurnukh’s residents fled (as did virtually all other Azerbaijanis in Armenia, and vice versa), and Armenians moved in. Hakobyan said he relocated from a nearby village because he was able to find better land here and the village is more convenient – his old home was seven kilometers off the highway on a poor road.

“Of course people knew they’d have to leave, but we didn’t expect it would be this bad, where they give people just three days,” he said.

Today, sleepy Shurnukh is a site of unique geopolitical complexity. Azerbaijan has set up three border posts in their side of the village, and one Azerbaijani flag flies just meters from the road. Directly across the street is a Russian border post, newly deployed along this border to support Armenia’s own border guards. The Russian post is hung with camouflage netting, the tricolor fluttering above and an armored personnel carrier parked in front. Next to that is an Armenian military post, and on a hill just above that towers a newly planted Armenian flag (a modified version of the official one, with a cross added) on a 30-meter pole.

Locals have to navigate this complicated web of sovereignty to deal with any cross-border – that is, cross-street – issues. So when Hakobyan’s cows – a quarter of his herd – went missing, he went to the Russians, and they in turn contacted the Azerbaijanis.

At first it looked like they had a deal. “They [Russian border guards] said ‘come with us tomorrow, and they’ll give you the cows back,’” he said. “And then they [the Azerbaijanis] refused: ‘We didn’t see anything. When we find the cows, we’ll tell you.’” He still hasn’t gotten them back.

“At first it was frightening, but then we got used to it. They don’t bother us,” he said of the new Azerbaijani presence in the village. “But I don’t think it can stay like this for long. They’re going to start bothering us soon.”

“It’s an informal state of war”

Along much of their eastern border, in the Syunik and neighboring Gegharkunik regions, Armenians are facing the same uncertain future as Hakobyan. Azerbaijan has demonstratively established its sovereignty on its side, setting up border guard outposts and erecting flags. There are signs in the Azerbaijani language welcoming drivers to Azerbaijan or a particular Azerbaijani village.

Many of the new Azerbaijani posts are inaccessible from inside Azerbaijan, meaning that the Azerbaijani troops must resupply their positions using Armenian roads, which they do under Russian military escort. Russian border guard posts like the one in Shurnukh have been set up across the region and there are discussions of expanding that mission further, into the Gegharkunik province, Russian and Armenian officials have said.

For the Armenians who live in the border regions, the effects have been manifold. They have lost access to farmland or pastures they used to use; many have sold, slaughtered, or relocated livestock as a result. Some human residents have moved away, as well, fearing for the future here.

The airport in the regional capital of Kapan was ready to open and start passenger flights to Yerevan (otherwise accessible only by a five-hour drive), but the runway so closely abuts the border that the launch of flights has been suspended.

Asked what has changed since the war, the mayor of Kapan, Gevorg Parsyan, pointed to a military radio next to his desk and a large television screen with closed-circuit feeds from several of the new border posts near the city. “I didn’t use to have these,” he said with a smile. “It’s an informal state of war,” he said. “The biggest problem now is security.”

Residents, intimidated by the new Azerbaijani presence, are limiting their trips on the main road through Syunik, which crosses the border 28 times. (International traffic seems less put off; the proprietor of a roadside restaurant catering to Iranian truck drivers said there has been no noticeable drop in business.)

Above Kapan, on the side of the road in the village of Qazanci, stands a huge new sign reading “Welcome to Azerbaijan” in Azerbaijani and English. “It’s like they do it specifically to annoy us,” said Anahit Hovanissyan, a resident of a village further down the road, Nerkin Hand. While the Azerbaijani soldiers always stay hidden in their posts, the experience of passing through the newly marked territory is “unpleasant” and so villagers now limit their visits to the city, she said.

The 60-something Hovanissyan recalls good relations with her former neighbors in the nearby village of Razdara, in Azerbaijan’s Zangilan province. Azerbaijanis would walk over from Razdara to work on a collective farm in Nerkin Hand, and Armenians would go to the regional capital of Zangilan, just 10 kilometers away, to catch the train to Yerevan. “We worked together, shopped together, invited each other to our weddings,” she said.

During the first war, residents of Razdara became some of the more than 600,000 Azerbaijanis who were displaced from their homes, and the results of the more recent war have raised hopes that they will be able to return.

But Hovanissyan doesn’t look forward to the prospect of Azerbaijanis moving back to the region. “Even if the old neighbors came back, now it’s a new generation,” she said. “Now, in school, they teach their children to hate Armenians.”

Nerkin Hand lies in a lush, cool valley just about 200 meters from the Azerbaijani border, though the nearest border post is a bit farther up a hill. Residents of the village have no contact with the Azerbaijani border guards and describe no significant problems. Here, too, most issues have related to livestock wandering across, and the Russians have managed to get the animals back.

But the uncertainty is the most difficult thing. “We sleep badly. Whenever there is a noise we wake up and think that it is shooting,” said another resident, Armen Mirzoyan.

Nerkin Hand feels empty now, its cultural center shuttered and the school repurposed as a base for the small military unit posted there. “If you had come a year ago it would have been totally different,” Mirzoyan said. Many residents have moved out and most have sold or slaughtered the livestock. The village also used to get a smattering of foreign tourists drawn to its Plane Tree Park, a national reserve devoted to protecting the giant trees. But they also have disappeared this year.

“Everything here is hanging not on a thread, but on a hair,” Mirzoyan said. “Any day they [the Azerbaijani leadership] could give an order, and who knows what kind of war crimes would result? So people are afraid.”

No border

In some spots, Azerbaijan appears not to have stayed on its side of the line, advancing inside Armenian territory. Most notably, in May several hundred Azerbaijani soldiers advanced into the area around Sev Lich in the northern part of Syunik. Another group entered a sliver of territory near the city of Vardenis in Gegharkunik province. Azerbaijanis have denied that they crossed the border, saying that according to their maps the territory belongs to them. Azerbaijani government officials declined to make border officers available for comment for this story.

Technically speaking there is no border until Armenia and Azerbaijan come to a bilateral agreement on a formal delineation. Both sides have said that Soviet maps should form the basis for the future delineation, and most of the posts and flags and signs that Azerbaijan has erected so far coincide nearly perfectly with the Soviet maps that are publicly available. And those, in turn, appear to form the base for Google Maps, making the phone app a reliable indicator of the new de facto boundary. (By contrast, other mapping apps, including Yandex, Apple, and Open Street Map, each show significantly different borders, usually putting the road firmly on the side of Armenia.)

The correspondence of the Google boundaries with the new Azerbaijani presence has caused some popular dissatisfaction with the tech giant. “The Azerbaijanis bought Google! That’s what we think,” said Lusine Movsisyan, a resident of another border village, Davit Bek.

Davit Bek sits on a hillside overlooking a wide plain where residents used to nurture subsistence plots of tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, and potatoes. But some of those gardens are now inaccessible, cut off by Azerbaijani border guards, and residents must buy food that they used to grow. The village also relies on water that comes from the Azerbaijani side, and residents are worried that Baku could on a whim cut the water supply. “They’re not doing anything now, but we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” Movsisyan said.

Another resident, who only gave her name as Mari, had just moved to Davit Bek from Yerevan where she had been working as a teacher of Armenian language and literature. She had family roots in the village, though, and she said she came for patriotic reasons. “For the sake of our land, for our homeland,” she said. Along with several other young mothers, she was watching her children play on a small terrace next to a church where residents gather in the evenings. The terrace has a commanding view across the border, and Mari pointed out the two new Azerbaijani positions that have appeared. “Historically that was our land, but Stalin gave it to them,” she said, echoing a popular historical understanding of the Soviet decision of where to draw the borders around Nagorno-Karabakh, but one less often applied to regions like Qubadli.

Movsisyan went further. “They say that land was occupied, but it was ours,” she said. “All the way to the Kura, it was ours,” she added, referring to a river deep inside Azerbaijani territory.

Most here, though, are willing to accept the Soviet borders, chafing mainly at what they see as Azerbaijani violations of those boundaries. In Aravus, a village on a plateau just across from Azerbaijan’s Lachin province, there used to be 1,270 cattle, said mayor Argam Hovsepyan. Now there are 170. Roughly 30 percent have been “stolen” by the Azerbaijanis, he said, the rest sold. Hovsepyan walked a visitor to the edge of the village, which faces a ridge in Lachin dotted with Azerbaijani posts – 13, by the mayor’s count.

He indicated the valley below where villagers used to pasture their livestock, and said that Azerbaijanis have seized cattle there despite the fact that during the Soviet Union the land had been allocated to Aravus. We looked at the phone, though, and noted that Google Maps marked it as being in Azerbaijan. “It’s ours, though!” he said. “They took it based on Google.”


Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.