The 21-kilometer section is part of contested border areas along Armenia’s Syunik province which were controversially handed over to Azerbaijan following last year’s war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijani forces set up a checkpoint there on September 12 to tax Iranian commercial trucks transporting cargo to and from Armenia. The move caused serious disruptions in Armenian-Iranian trade operations and raised tensions in Baku’s relations with Tehran.
Pashinian assured lawmakers on September 15 that the passport and customs checks will not apply to Armenian nationals in line with Armenian-Azerbaijani understandings reached last December.
Opening a weekly session of his cabinet on Thursday, Pashinian announced that Baku “unofficially” notified Yerevan on Wednesday that starting from midnight it will extend the border controls to Armenian vehicles. He said the Armenian government therefore decided to “redirect” Armenian travellers to an alternative road connecting Syunik’s administrative center Kapan to another provincial town, Goris, and bypassing the border area.
The 70-kilometer bypass road has been mostly rebuilt in recent months. Pashinian acknowledged that it is still not convenient enough for heavy trucks and needs further upgrades.
Meanwhile, Armenian border guards deployed in Syunik banned trucks and cars with Armenian license plates from entering the Azerbaijani-controlled section of the old Goris-Kapan highway. An RFE/RL crew was also not allowed to drive along it and film the mountainous area.
The shutdown created serious logistical problems for several Armenian villages situated along the highway. They can now communicate with the rest of Syunik only through dirt roads that are impassable for ordinary cars. Pashinian said in this regard that “no village will be cut off” from other Armenian-controlled territory.
The prime minister suggested that Baku imposed the border checks because of Yerevan’s refusal to agree to a special transport corridor that would connect Azerbaijan to its Nakhichevan exclave via the portion of Syunik bordering Iran.
As he spoke hundreds of protesters led by several opposition parliamentarians clashed with riot police outside the main government building in Yerevan. The police detained dozens of protesters after refusing to let the lawmakers enter the building to demand further explanations from Pashinian.
One of them, Anna Grigorian, accused the government of ceding the Kapan-Goris road section to Azerbaijan “without any legal basis.” Gegham Manukian, another lawmaker representing the main opposition Hayastan alliance, suggested that the Azerbaijani border checks were the result of a secret deal with Pashinian.
In a statement, the alliance headed by former President Robert Kocharian charged that Pashinian’s administration allowed Baku to set up the checkpoints in “Armenia’s sovereign territory.” It reaffirmed its pledges to topple the government with a “nationwide resistance” campaign launched earlier this week.
“As long as this regime remains in power such disgraceful concessions can be expected every day,” said Hayastan. “The individual holding the post of prime minister does not decide anything anymore. It is Azerbaijan that makes decisions in his place.”
Pashinian insisted during the cabinet meeting that “the Azerbaijani checkpoint is not located on Armenian territory.”
Syunik borders the Zangelan and Kubatli districts southwest of Karabakh which were mostly recaptured by Azerbaijan during the six-week war stopped by a Russian-brokered ceasefire last November. Pashinian ordered Armenian army units and local militias in December to withdraw from the rest of those districts as well as territory located along the Soviet-era Armenian-Azerbaijani border, which has never been demarcated due to the Karabakh conflict.
The troop withdrawal sparked angry protests from local government officials and ordinary residents of Syunik. Opposition leaders in Yerevan likewise accused Pashinian of hastily and illegally ceding those lands to Baku.
Pashinian said late last month that the withdrawal prevented an Azerbaijani attack on Syunik. Hayastan responded by demanding that prosecutors launch criminal proceedings against the prime minister.