Pashinian suggested that the move is aimed at pressuring Yerevan to open a transport corridor that would connect Azerbaijan to its Nakhichevan exclave through Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province. But he stopped short of calling it illegal or demanding an end to what many regard as a serious blow to Armenia’s trade and transport links with Iran.
Azerbaijan gained control of a 21-kilometer section of the main Armenian highway leading to the Iranian border in December after Pashinian ordered Armenian army units and local militias to pull out of the surrounding area. He said it is located on the Azerbaijani side of Armenia’s Soviet-era border with Azerbaijan.
The order came weeks after a Russian-brokered ceasefire stopped the Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Pashinian and other government officials assured critics at the time that travellers and cargos will continue to pass through the road section without any problems.
Azerbaijani forces set up a checkpoint there on Sunday to start stopping Iranian trucks and buses, checking their drivers’ documents and cargos, and demanding cash payments from them. The authorities in Baku said they are enforcing an Azerbaijani law that requires foreign vehicles entering the country to pay road and transit fees.
An RFE/RL correspondent witnessed on Wednesday the checkpoint manned by armed and masked Azerbaijani servicemen. A roadblock set up by them caused a traffic jam along the two-lane highway. Dozens of Iranian trucks were parked on the roadside.
“They demanded $260 from me but I didn’t have it,” one Iranian driver bound for Yerevan told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “They told me to pay up on my way back. I told my employer to send me the money so that I can return to Iran.”
Two other Iranian truckers were reportedly detained at the checkpoint later in the day. The Azerbaijani Interior Ministry accused them of “illegal entry into Azerbaijani territory,” an apparent reference to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Earlier this year, Baku demanded that Iranian trucks stop transporting cargos to and from Karabakh without its permission.
In what was the Armenian government’s first public reaction to the road checks, Pashinian said that Baku seems to be retaliating against Yerevan’s refusal to open the transport corridor sought by it.
“While acknowledging that regional transport links must be opened, Armenia makes clear that foreign cargos crossing into Armenian territory, including from Azerbaijan’s western regions on their way to the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, must pass through passport, customs and other checkpoints,” he said.
Speaking in the Armenian parliament, Pashinian also defended the Armenian troop withdrawal from the road section running along Syunik’s border areas. He said he made the decision, condemned by the Armenian opposition as illegal and dangerous, to prevent a “fresh military escalation” in the Karabakh conflict zone.
Opposition lawmakers continued to accuse Pashinian’s government of jeopardizing national security.
“Until when will the Azerbaijanis stay in that area and what steps are you taking?” one of them, Hripsime Stambulian, asked during the government’s question-and-answer session in the National Assembly.
“The Foreign Ministry is in constant touch with our Iranian partners,” replied Deputy Prime Minister Suren Papikian. “We are trying to stabilize the situation with joint efforts.”
Papikian stressed the importance of the ongoing reconstruction of an alternative Syunik road bypassing the Armenian-Azerbaijani border zone. He said its completion will “more or less” solve the problem.