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‘Bracing for conflict’: Armenians fear Azerbaijani land claims

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VOSKEPAR: Peering through the window at a bustling crowd outside the Voskepar village council in northeastern Armenia, mayor Ishkhan Aghbalyan said locals are on edge over arch-foe Azerbaijan’s claims to their lands.

The small village’s residents are gathering daily to share their fears since Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan signalled in March his readiness to make territorial concessions to Baku to put some momentum into stalled peace talks.

Voskepar could end up isolated from the rest of the country and some houses could fall into territory controlled by mortal enemy Azerbaijan, as many Armenians view their Caucasus neighbour.

“Folks here are worried that we might lose our territory to Azerbaijan and our security concerns will not get sorted if that happens,” said Aghbalyan.

One of the men in the crowd, 38-year-old Edgar Grigoryan said: “Voskepar men are getting together to talk about the land that might end up going to Azerbaijan. Our security is on the line here.”

“If the Azerbaijanis roll in, our little village will be stranded, cut off from Yerevan, stuck in some kind of blockade,” he added.

“CEDE WHAT IS NOT OURS”

Last autumn, Azerbaijani troops recaptured the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region from Armenian separatists in a lightning offensive that effectively ended a bloody three-decade standoff between the Caucasus neighbours over control of the mountainous region.

While both Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev say a wider peace agreement is within their reach, lingering territorial disputes pose a constant threat of renewed war.

Baku has claims over eight villages held by Armenia – four along their border and four more in exclaves deeper in Armenian territory.

It is also demanding the creation of a land corridor through Armenia’s southern Syunik region, along the border with Iran, to connect the mainland to the Nakhichevan exclave and onwards to close ally Türkiye.

Yerevan, in turn, points to its own exclave in Azerbaijan and pockets of land Baku has seized over the last three years, outside of Karabakh.

Pashinyan has signalled a willingness to agree to Baku’s demand for the unilateral return of four frontier villages – with the remaining territorial disputes to be addressed at border delimitation talks.

“To get what legitimately belongs to Armenia, we must be ready to cede what is not legitimately ours,” he said during his visit to Voskepar in mid-March. “Our policy is to prevent a war.”

“READY TO FIGHT”

Fridik Barsegyan, 73, who lives in the outskirts of the village said the new border will cut right through his yard.

“Imagine waking up one day and finding out your house is suddenly in another country!”

“I’ve been working my butt off since I was 16 … to build this house. It’s been tough as nails, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let it all go now. We’re staying put, right here, until the bitter end.”

His neighbour Artem Manucharyan, 61, said he could not agree more.

“If Azerbaijanis want to take over, they’ll have to drag me out. I’m not leaving willingly. I’ll stand my ground right here on my land.”

Mayor Aghbalyan said many locals “are ready to fight tooth and nail to defend their land.”

“We are peaceful people, but everyone here is prepared to pick up arms if we have to.”

Some Voskepar residents have even begun military training with the help of a Yerevan-based veterans group called “Combat Brotherhood.”

The training “includes tactical exercises and firearm proficiency,” said one of the group’s leaders, Hrant Ter-Abrahamyan.

“Villagers can’t fight with a regular army of course, but if they are armed and trained, it’s an additional deterrent and an important factor for self-defence.”

“SPRING WILL BRING A WAR”

Among the disputed territory are four abandoned Azerbaijani settlements – Lower Askipara, Baghanis Ayrum, Kheirimly, and Gizilhajili – that were taken over by Armenian forces in the 1990s, forcing their ethnic Azerbaijani residents to flee.

They are of strategic importance for landlocked Armenia as they overlook the highway to Georgia – vital for the country’s foreign trade – as well as a Russian gas pipeline, and are advantageous military positions.

“The big issue we are facing is what’s going to happen with the Yerevan-Georgia highway,” said mayor Aghbalyan. “If the Azerbaijanis get control, they’ll cut off our route to Georgia, our lifeline, Armenia’s link to the outside world.”

“There is little hope that talks with Azerbaijan might sort these things out, every time we hear Aliyev talk, it’s clear he’s not after peace. That’s why I fear that we are bracing for a new conflict.”

Scowling at a greening cornelian cherry tree in his yard, Barsegyan said: “Spring is around the corner and it’s going to bring more than just flowers this year.”

“It’s going to bring a war.”

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