Citing increased drug trafficking and other illegal cross-border activities, Russian border guards controlling Armenia’s frontier with Iran have set up checkpoints along several roads in the country’s southern Syunik Province.
Images of the checkpoints along the road linking Meghri to other towns appeared on the Internet earlier this week, raising speculation about possible preparations for the opening of transit routes for Azerbaijan via the strategic mountainous region.
Syunik is the Armenian province through which Azerbaijan expects to get a highway and railroad connection with its western exclave of Nakhichevan under the terms of the Russia-brokered 2020 cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh. Under the terms of that arrangement, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) is to ensure the security of traffic along transport routes in Armenia for Azerbaijan.
Yerevan insists that it should maintain sovereignty over the roads, while Baku is seeking an extraterritorial status for them amounting to a corridor similar to the Russian-controlled Lachin corridor that connects Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh.
At a government session on August 4, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian again implicitly rejected the corridor logic for the unblocking of regional transport routes, saying that Azerbaijan even today can use all parts of Armenia, not only Syunik, for transit purposes in accordance with Armenian legislation.
“We have been saying all the while that we are ready to provide this connection between the western districts of Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan. We are ready to ensure this connection even today, but it is Azerbaijan that does not use these opportunities offered by us,” Pashinian said.
Pashinian spoke after the latest escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh in which at least two Armenian soldiers and one Azerbaijani soldier were killed in fresh fighting near the Lachin corridor where Russian peacekeepers are deployed under the terms of the 2020 cease-fire.
Amid the escalation, ethnic Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh announced that several Armenian villages along the current corridor would be evacuated until September when Armenians are to start using an alternative road connecting Armenia and the Armenian-populated region.
Bagrat Zakarian, the mayor of Meghri, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service on August 9 that the Russian checkpoints recently spotted in Syunik were actually set up several months ago. In total, he said, five such checkpoints were placed at roads leading from Meghri to several towns and villages in Syunik.
After media reports about the installation of new Russian checkpoints near Meghri, the FSB Border Guards Department in Armenia explained that it was done in coordination with Armenian authorities to prevent smuggling, illegal migration, and other offenses.
According to the FSB, a tense situation has been observed recently at the Meghri section of the Armenian-Iranian state border due to increased attempts to smuggle drugs from Iran to Armenia. Violations of the border by representatives of extremist and terrorist groups were also recorded.
Armenian government officials have not yet commented on the presence of Russian checkpoints along the roads in Syunik.
Meghri’s mayor acknowledged that the checkpoints create certain problems for local tourism.
“Tourists have to go through passport control procedures before they can visit several rural areas here,” Zakarian said.