Johnny MELIKYAN: Armenian “Crossroads of Peace” initiative is a frank and peaceful approach to our neighbors and not only

05.03.2024 (Caucasian Journal)  Our today's guest is Johnny MELIKYAN, Senior Fellow at the ORBELI Research Analytical Center (Yerevan).

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of Caucasian Journal: Dear Johnny, welcome to Caucasian Journal! As our name implies, we are especially interested in projects which are important for the whole South Caucasian region, and are about closer integration of our countries. That’s why we were looking forward to talking about the “Crossroads of Peace”, presented by the Prime Minister of Armenia in Tbilisi, when Mr. Pashinyan attended the Silk Road Forum last October. For a start, how can you summarize this project for our readers? And also, may I ask if your Center was involved in the development of this project?

Johnny MELIKYAN: First of all, I want to thank you for the opportunity to talk about Armenia and our approach to this wonderful, but at the same time, so complicated and divided region. Answering on the last part of your question, I would say “Yes” - Orbeli Center is working with our government on information support for this project. And this interview is yet another opportunity to speak with a large audience about the Armenian peaceful agenda in the South Caucasus.

Speaking about the situation in the region, I want to say that the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in the autumn of 2020 changed the status-quo, which was formed in the mid-90s, just after the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. It took the lives of thousands of people in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The wounds and pains of that war on families, towns and villages will take a long time to heal. Its outcome determined some issues, left others unresolved, and created some new ones. Later, in 2021-2022, on the Armenian-Azerbaijani state border and in September 2023 in Nagorno-Karabakh, we saw more blood and sufferings. As a result of September 19-20 Azerbaijani large-scale aggression against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, which took hundreds of lives, including among the civilian population, women and children. As a result of this ethnic cleansing, more than 100 thousand people became forcibly displaced.

On the other side, the new situation and developments since the end of hostilities on 9-10 November 2020, also present Armenia and Azerbaijan with new opportunities to de-escalate and stabilize the situation on the ground. Particularly in the area of connectivity (in a broader term). Then, on 9-10 November 2020, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, together with Russia, signed the trilateral statement that formally ended the 44-day Nagorno-Karabakh War. As a continuation, second document was signed by the three countries on 11 January 2021, the main purpose of which was to elaborate on the implementation of Article 9 of the trilateral statement which provides for “unblocking all economic and transport connections in the region”, and established a working group on the issue of restoration of infrastructures.

As a practical step to implement this idea, later sides decided to set up expert subgroups with the participation of representatives of the relevant agencies of the three sides to work on the railway, automobile and intermodal transportation, including security, border, sanitary and veterinary, regulatory controls. But, as different incidents and provocations from Azerbaijani side occurred, the work of the working group and the sub groups has been sluggish. Trying to reset the process, leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, during their meeting in Sochi on 26 November 2021 adopted another statement reaffirming commitment to implementation and unconditional observance of all the provisions of the 9-10 November 2020 and 11 January 2021 statements and agreed to intensify joint efforts aimed at the immediate resolution of the remaining issues.

Why I am going so deep is because I want to show that despite the above-mentioned challenges that the Republic of Armenia faces since 2020, official Yerevan has repeatedly confirmed its commitment to sign a “peace treaty” with Azerbaijan based on the principles of international law, on mutual recognition of territorial integrity and sovereignty. Also, Armenia reaffirms its commitment to take part of responsibility and contribute to achieving long-term peace in our region.

However, our adversarial neighbor Azerbaijan employed not only military force to avoid the implementation of this agreement, but started to use the term “Zangezur corridor” as a component of their information warfare strategy, demanding from Armenia to provide an exterritorial corridor to its exclave - Nakhchivan. In parallel, from August 2022, official Baku started to use other narratives, such as "Western Azerbaijan", laying claim to certain territories of the Republic of Armenia, and referring to the internationally recognized Armenia-Azerbaijan state border as a "conditional border". This policy became increasingly apparent following the large-scale military aggression and occupation of over 200 square kilometers of Armenian territories in September 2022.

In response to Azerbaijani aggressive information warfare and as a follow-up to agreements reached during the trilateral meeting in Brussels in December 2021 (under the auspices of President of the European Council Charles Michel), Yerevan proposed the "Armenian Crossroads" initiative, which later evolved into the "Crossroads of Peace" project. This initiative, serving as a practical implementation of the Armenian peace agenda, was initially introduced by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan during his address at the Tbilisi Silk Road Forum in October 2023.I also was there and witnessed the attentive interest with which delegates, including those from Azerbaijan, listened to Prime Minister Pashinyan's remarks.

"Crossroads of Peace" map - click to enlarge
Coming back to your question, the "Crossroads of Peace" project is a half-billion-dollar mega-project with two levels of activities: domestic and regional. It also requires the further development of communications between all countries of the region by means of renovating, building, and operating roads, railways, pipelines, cables, and electricity lines. Here it also should be mentioned, that it must be based on the main four principals: sovereignty and jurisdiction of the countries, as well as reciprocity and equality.

So, I strongly believe that this project is beneficial to all the people that live in our region and can become one of the pillars of regional stability and further inclusive development.

AK: There are plenty of aspects – political, economic, historic and cultural – that might influence the implementation of this ambitious project. I hope we will touch some of them, though maybe more interviews might be needed in future, for a clearer picture. Let’s start with the good things - the most obvious and easy to see elements of the Armenian proposal. Together with new transport routes, it offers the opening of 12 checkpoints on the border with Azerbaijan, Türkiye, Iran from the Armenian side. How dramatic is this change from the status quo, and how attractive it might be in the eyes of neighbors?

JM: So, as I already mentioned, the “Crossroads of Peace” project has two levels of implementation. On a domestic level it is designed to modernize the Republic's infrastructure capabilities and on the regional level - to use them and extend cooperative proposals with all neighboring nations. This project, in a large context, is designed to establish connections between the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea through a consolidated regional railway network. Additionally, it aims to connect these regions via the North-South and East-West roads, creating vital transportation links across vast geographical expanses.

 “Open borders, unlocked infrastructures, active economic, political and cultural ties. These are the conditions necessary to establish long-term peace in our region”, - is the main idea of the proposed “Crossroads of Peace” project.

I believe that possible implementation of the “Crossroads of Peace” project (on the regional dimension) can lead to deep interconnections and interdependence between the countries of the region with strong infrastructural ties with the neighboring countries and regions. Thus, it will allow turning the South Caucasus into the crossroad between the East and the West, the North and the South, as it used to be for centuries.

I do see the positive signals from our neighboring partners: Georgia and Iran. From the other side, Azerbaijan and Türkiye, operating as strategic allies, are actively working to maintain Armenia in a state of blockade, thereby contributing to a broader regional atmosphere characterized by tension rather than peace and stability. So, it’s evident that Azerbaijan has no willingness to achieve peace in a short-term perspective.

But, regarding domestic implementation of the “Crossroads of Peace” project, there are already some preliminary calculations, that the modernization of all infrastructure capabilities inside Armenia will cost half a billion USD. Armenia is already implementing some infrastructure projects in the Syunik region (in the south of the Republic), and others yet to come.

AK: New transport communications are always good, as long as they are used for peaceful trade, not for the troops deployment. But to attract business, and make the transport companies change their logistics in favor of them, the key is not only economic benefit, but also long-term stability and safety. From your standpoint, what is the role of political guarantees for successful implementation of “Crossroads of Peace”, and how do you see them in practice? Is it about the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace agreement, or something else?

JM: Indeed, the primary focus should be on reaching a peace agreement with robust political guarantees from Azerbaijan, further reinforced by assurances from external actors like the United States. Only this option will be beneficial not only for our states and the region, but also to the international community. By securing such guarantees, we can lay the foundation for stability, prosperity, and cooperation, fostering an environment conducive to peace and mutual development. Therefore, prioritizing diplomatic efforts towards achieving this goal is paramount for ensuring a positive outcome for all stakeholders involved.

However, the persistent obstacle remains the security situation on the ground, with Azerbaijan's revisionist and aggressive stance posing a significant challenge to progress. Consequently, it seems unlikely, at this stage, that we'll see international transport companies swiftly altering their logistics to utilize our region, given the prevailing security concerns. Despite these challenges, it remains imperative for Armenia to continue working on the peace agenda and actively engage more international partners in this process. By doing so, we can garner broader support and collaboration to address the underlying issues and pave the way for sustainable peace and prosperity in the region.

Speaking of the peace process, I remain hopeful that the Brussels platform will continue its operation in the near future and yield positive outcomes. However, the primary obstacle to achieving a genuine peace treaty lies in the apparent lack of willingness in Baku to pursue peace.

AK: Do you expect that Azerbaijan, even if coming to a peace agreement with Armenia, would “automatically” approve direct transport communication between Armenia and Türkiye? Baku had already signaled that the Zangezur Corridor (the route from Azerbaijan mainland to Nakhchivan through Armenia) "lost its attractiveness", as Azerbaijan is building an alternative route through the Iranian territory.

JM: If we can achieve peace, then numerous possibilities become feasible. However, the critical question lies in understanding the preconditions set by Baku, as they have already made claims to the territorial integrity of Armenia, introducing terms like "West Azerbaijan," which Ankara has supported.

Yet, if we envision a scenario where Türkiye lifts the blockade over Armenia, it could prove beneficial for both countries, particularly in terms of the development of bordering regions. Additionally, the recent consideration of constructing a railway from Kars to Nakhichevan highlights the potential for increased connectivity in the region.

However, for this vision to materialize, unblocking communications and restoring railway connections between Armenia and Türkiye along the Kars-Gyumri route, as well as between Armenia and Azerbaijan along the Yeraskh-Julfa route are necessary. This infrastructure development would facilitate the establishment of a link between Kars (Türkiye) and Nakhichevan (Azerbaijan) via Armenia, which will be a more cost-effective solution while simultaneously fostering greater regional integration and cooperation.

Remarkably, the cost for Armenia to undertake this project is estimated to be relatively modest, approximately $10 million. This budget would cover expenses such as $8-9 million for the route from Gyumri to the Turkish border (1 km) and $1-2 million for the route from Yeraskh to the Azerbaijani border (6 km).

After completing these initial steps, we can move forward with another crucial aspect of communication infrastructure development. Specifically, I'm referring to the restoration and construction of a Nrnadzor-Agarak railway (43 km) in the Armenian Syunik region. This railway would establish a direct link between Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan, traversing Armenian sovereign territory. It's essential to clarify that in Armenian terminology, the notion of a "Zangezur corridor" does not exist. Instead, both we and our international partners emphasize the restoration of communications. The cost for Armenia to undertake this project is estimated to be approximately $60 million.

It's worth noting that the Armenian route holds significant importance for Azerbaijan and the main reason is that it offers a route that is not subject to the control of Iran. For more than three decades, Azerbaijan has relied on Iranian territory to maintain ground connections with Nakhichevan. That is why I think that the Iranian route is not and will not be an alternative route for Azerbaijan and the statements from Baku may indeed be part of a broader negotiation strategy.

Armenia stands ready to offer its territory for international and regional transit purposes, as demonstrated by its commitment to initiatives like the "Crossroads of Peace" project. However, it's crucial that any such agreements are based on the principles of sovereignty, jurisdiction, reciprocity, and equality among the involved countries. These principles are essential for ensuring fairness and sustainability in any cooperative endeavors aimed at enhancing regional connectivity and cooperation.

AK: Let’s imagine all political obstacles are resolved… The Armenian side estimates the “Project” to ensure 4,7 million tons of cargo and 300,000 passenger transportation through regional countries during the first year of operation; by 2050 the volume of goods transported through regional countries by Armenian railway infrastructures will reach 10 million tons”. I believe this would require a substantial investment – what is in the funding plan? Or is it all financed by the Armenian state?

JM: As previously mentioned, the initial implementation of the "Crossroads of Peace" project within Armenia will be financed by the Government of Armenia. While investments from international financial organizations may come later, for now, we will rely on our own resources to initiate the project.

In November 2023, Minister of Finance Vahe Hovhannisyan stated that the estimated cost of the "Crossroads of Peace" project would range between $400-500 million. As the project continues to develop, it's likely that updated figures will emerge, especially considering Armenia's intention to incorporate the "Dry Port" project near Gyumri into the initiative.

The government plans to invest up to $40 million in the "Dry Port," which is envisioned as a multifunctional and multimodal hub facilitating customs processes for regional and international companies. Positioned adjacent to Shirak International Airport, the railway station, and the North-South transportation corridor, the "Dry Port" is poised to transform the Shirak region, bordering Türkiye and Georgia, into an industrial zone. It will encompass a free economic zone, distribution centers, small and medium enterprises, light industry facilities, production bases, and an international food market.

AK: And in connection with Georgia in particular, are there any estimations, for example, about the transport costs from Armenia to Russia through Georgian territory as compared to the possible transit through Azerbaijan? Should Georgia be worried about less Armenian transit through its territory?

JM: I don’t have specific estimations regarding transportation costs from Armenia to Russia through Georgian territory compared to the potential transit through Azerbaijan. However, I firmly believe that if we can achieve peace in the region, it will open up numerous possibilities. Concerning Georgia, while they may encounter some complexities and challenges due to their historical benefit from closed borders in the region, the newfound stability will attract more investments.

Official Tbilisi has expressed keen interest in the "Crossroads of Peace" project, recognizing the potential benefits it could bring to the region. The implementation of regional infrastructure projects, including the "Crossroads of Peace," will not only help compensate for any potential expenses but also position Georgia as a major beneficiary of peace and stability in the region. Overall, the prospects of peace offer significant opportunities for economic growth and cooperation, fostering mutual benefits for all countries involved.

AK: Going back to Georgia, how do you generally assess the Georgian-Armenian perspectives after Armenia’s recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory (moreover, just recently the prime ministers of both countries officially consolidated a new “strategic” level of bilateral relations)?

JM: Armenian-Georgian relations boast a rich history of cultural and political ties. Throughout periods of independence, both nations have consistently maintained strong neighborly bonds and partnerships. Their relationship has been characterized by active political dialogue and robust economic cooperation, reflecting the mutual respect and collaboration between the two countries. During the rule of the Georgian Dream and after the change of power in Armenia in 2018, relations between the elites of the two countries have become even warmer. The basis for deepening relations are the trends in both countries. These are the strengthening of democracy, human rights, freedom of speech.

Recently, on January 26, the Prime Ministers of both governments, Nikol Pashinyan and Irakli Gharibashvili, signed the Declaration establishing a strategic partnership between Armenia and Georgia. This significant agreement underscores the commitment of both nations to strengthen their cooperation across various fields and deepen their longstanding ties even further.

With our relations now officially designated as "strategic," I anticipate that Yerevan and Tbilisi will embark on a process aimed at realizing that strategic partnership. There is indeed much to be done: updating and expanding the interstate cooperation agenda, aligning legal documents with the level of strategic cooperation, and initiating various joint projects to enhance and deepen our collaboration. These efforts will lay the groundwork for a strengthened and mutually beneficial partnership between Armenia and Georgia.

AK: If there is anything that you would like to add for our readers, the floor is yours.

JM: I think we had quite an interesting and inclusive interview that covered regional developments and security issues, as far as cooperation between Armenia and Georgia. Hence, I would like once again to thank you for this opportunity and reconfirm my readiness to continue our cooperation in future.

AK: Thank you very much!

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