Armenia And Azerbaijan Move Closer To Normalizing Ties As The First Border Marker Goes Up

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Armenia and Azerbaijan on Tuesday came a step closer toward normalizing relations after a bitter conflict over territory, as experts in both countries worked to demarcate their boundaries and the first border marker was placed.

The two nations are working toward a peace treaty after Azerbaijan regained full control of the Karabakh province that had been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces since the 1990s. A six-week war in 2020 resulted in Azerbaijan retaking large parts of the breakaway region, and in September 2023, Azerbaijani forces launched a lighting blitz that forced Karabakh's Armenian authorities to capitulate in negotiations mediated by Russian forces.

Several days ago, Armenia and Azerbaijan reached an agreement over a stretch of border that would cut though four Armenian villages in the Tavush province, meaning that Armenia would cede some territory to Azerbaijan.

Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities on Tuesday announced that the first border marker was installed. It wasn’t immediately clear where exactly it was placed.

In Armenia, protests erupted, and demonstrators blocked roads in the northeastern region that the proposed border would run through. They also set up roadblocks along two key routes elsewhere in the country, including one leading to neighboring Georgia. Photos carried by Armenian and Russian media showed cars and trucks lining country lanes as protesters stood in groups around them.

And yet, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said Baku and Yerevan were edging closer to a common understanding of what a peace agreement might look like.

“We are close and maybe closer than ever before (to signing a peace agreement),” Aliyev said.

Last month, Armenia’s prime minister said the Caucasus nation needs to quickly define the border with Azerbaijan to avoid a new round of hostilities. Many residents of Armenia’s border regions have resisted the demarcation effort, seeing it as Azerbaijan’s encroachment on areas they consider their own.

Earlier this month, Russia began withdrawing its forces from Karabakh, where they have been stationed as peacekeepers under a truce brokered by Moscow that ended the 2020 war.

The peacekeepers’ duties included ensuring free passage on the sole road connecting Karabakh with Armenia. But Azerbaijan began blocking the road in late 2022, alleging Armenians were using it for weapons shipments and to smuggle minerals, and the Russian forces did not intervene.

After months of increasingly dire food and medicine shortages in Karabakh due to the blockade, Azerbaijan launched its offensive last year.

After Azerbaijan regained full control of Karabakh, the vast majority of its nearly 120,000 population fled to Armenia, although Azerbaijan said they were welcome to stay and promised their human rights would be ensured.