Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian ordered Armenian army units and local militias to pull out of those areas one month after a Russian-brokered ceasefire stopped the six-week war over Nagorno-Karabakh last November. Pashinian said that they are located on the Azerbaijani side of Armenia’s Soviet-era border with Azerbaijan, which had never been demarcated due to the Karabakh conflict.
The order, strongly condemned by the Armenian opposition and local government officials, left Azerbaijani forces in control of a 21-kilometer stretch of the main highway connecting Syunik’s capital Kapan to another provincial town, Goris.
The highway, parts of which are now patrolled by Russian soldiers and border guards, remains Armenia’s sole transport link with Iran. Pashinian and other government officials assured critics in December that Armenians as well as foreigners will continue to pass through its Azerbaijani-controlled section without any restrictions.
Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) reported on Sunday that Azerbaijani police units deployed there have started stopping Iranian trucks to check their drivers’ documents and cargos. It said Armenian and Russian border guards are now jointly trying to “resolve the situation.”
Vahe Hakobian, a senior opposition parliamentarian and former Syunik governor, said on Monday that Azerbaijani officers are also collecting payments from Iranian drivers.
One driver, who arrived in Yerevan last week, echoed that claim, citing fellow truckers stuck in Syunik. “They say the Azerbaijanis demand $120 from every truck for using the road,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.
Another Iranian, who also did not want to give his name, said Azerbaijani officers stopped him on the Goris-Kapan road to extort diesel fuel days before setting up their checkpoint. “The most interesting thing is that the Azerbaijanis posed as Armenians,” he said.
The Azerbaijani authorities effectively confirmed later on Monday that they have started taxing Iranian trucks using the mountainous road. The State Customs Committee in Baku said it is enforcing an Azerbaijani law that requires it to levy road and transit fees from all foreign vehicles entering the country.
In what may have been a related development, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said on Sunday that it has sent a letter to the Russian military demanding that it stop vehicles from “other countries” illegally passing through “Azerbaijani territory where Russian peacekeeping forces are temporarily deployed.”
Earlier this year, Baku condemned Iranian trucks for transporting goods to and from Karabakh without its permission.
The Armenian government did not publicly react to the latest development as of Monday evening. Nor did the NSS issue any updates on its purported contacts with the Azerbaijani side.
Meanwhile, Hakobian and other lawmakers representing the main opposition Hayastan alliance demanded an emergency session of the Armenian parliament on Azerbaijan’s actions seen by them as a further grave threat to Armenia’s security.
Hayastan’s Artsvik Minasian said government officials should address parliament deputies and answer their questions “so that we get a clear idea of what’s going on there.”
“I also see an economic problem … which is no less important,” Hakobian said for his part. “As you know, over 40 percent of our cargo turnover [with the outside world] is carried out through Iran.”
The parliament’s pro-government speaker, Alen Simonian, promised to consider organizing such a discussion.
Azerbaijan already blocked the Goris-Kapan road section controlled by it late last month and kept it closed for two days, citing the alleged stabbing of one of its soldiers. Traffic through the road resumed after talks involving Russian military commanders on the ground.
The Iranian Embassy in Yerevan expressed concern over the blockage which disrupted cargo traffic between Armenia and Iran. It expressed hope that the Armenian government will speed up work on “alternative routes” for Iranian-Armenian trade.
The government is financing the ongoing reconstruction of an alternative Syunik road bypassing the border areas.