The first fatality was recorded this week along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border since the invasion of Azeri forces two weeks ago, at least 500 of whom remain stationed within the international borders of Armenia.
On May 25, the Armenian Ministry of Defense confirmed that Junior Sergeant Gevorg Khurshudyan (born 1989) died of a gunshot wound during a shootout triggered by Azerbaijani gunfire in the Verin Shorzha village of the Gegharkunik province.
Khurshudyan was the son of Yura Khurshudyan, a veteran member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) “Smbat Tatosyan” chapter of the Ararat district. He leaves behind two children.
“The ARF Supreme Council of Armenia expresses its condolences to Gevorg’s family, loved ones and fellow servicemen and to the Armenian community for this painful loss,” wrote the ARF Supreme Council in a statement.
The Azerbaijani MoD denied the shelling of Armenian positions in the territory of Verin Shorzha village as “false information.” “According to the information we possess, the incident involving the death of an Armenian serviceman occurred as a result of an accident,” the MoD wrote. “This incident has nothing to do with the Azerbaijani side.”
The MoD of Azerbaijan further claimed on Wednesday that Armenian forces fired on Azerbaijani combat positions in Kelbajar, Gadabay and Shushi between May 24 and May 26. The Armenian MoD dismissed these accusations as a “miserable attempt” to hide the fact of Khurshudyan’s murder. The Russian peacekeeping contingent in Artsakh confirmed that no shots have been fired in the direction of Shushi this week.
Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers have clashed in other border areas since Azerbaijani soldiers advanced into the Syunik and Gegharkunik provinces on May 12. On May 20, the Armenian MoD published a statement urging citizens, officials and media to refrain from traveling to the eastern border after 11 Armenian soldiers were injured during a skirmish in the Khoznavar village. Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor confirmed that earlier that day a group of Azerbaijani soldiers had crossed the state border into the same area and threatened to open fire, claiming that the territory belonged to Azerbaijan.
While part of the personnel of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces returned to their starting positions on May 22, the Armenian government reports that between 500 to 600 Azerbaijani soldiers remain in Syunik and Gegharkunik. Acting PM Nikol Pashinyan, who has been negotiating for a peaceful withdrawal, has faced widespread criticism for concealing the details of the negotiation process from the public.
On May 19, Mikayel Minasyan, the son-in-law of Serge Sargsyan and former ambassador to Vatican City, publicized a copy of the first page of a draft statement by Pashinyan and Presidents Ilham Aliyev and Vladimir Putin on his Telegram Channel. The document calls for the creation of a joint commission for the demarcation and delimitation of the Armenia-Azerbaijan international border. While most of the document was redacted, Minasyan claimed on his Facebook page that the demarcation process will be conducted on the basis of Soviet maps, geographic considerations and the situation at the time of negotiations.
Pashinyan confirmed the authenticity of the document during a cabinet meeting on May 20, which he claims is “100 percent in the best interest” of Armenia. He insists that he will sign the agreement provided that Azerbaijan withdraw its troops from Armenian territory and return all Armenian prisoners of war held in captivity over six months after the end of the 2020 Artsakh War.
According to Minasyan, the secret working agreement also stipulates the concession of five villages in the Tavush province and one village in the Ararat province. These territories represent the Azerbaijani enclaves Voskepar, Barkhudarly and Karki/Tigranashen that have been under de facto Armenian control since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Armenian enclave Artsvashen also remains under Azerbaijani jurisdiction.
Versions of the November 9 trilateral ceasefire agreement leaked hours before its release included a reference to the return of “territories held by Armenia in the Gazakh region of Azerbaijan” that was excluded from the official document. The Gazakh region includes the Voskepar and Barkhudarly enclaves in the northeastern border section of Armenia.
During an extraordinary sitting of the National Assembly convened by the Bright Armenia Party on May 20, Pashinyan suggested that the problem of the enclaves might be addressed during the delimitation and demarcation process. Head of the Security Council Armen Grigoryan indicated during a televised interview that the demarcation process might entail a return to Soviet era borders, placing Artsvashen under Armenian control and Voskepar, Barkhudarly and Karki/Tigranashen under Azerbaijani control.
CivilNet editor Karen Harutyunyan criticized the absence of a principled approach at the start of the negotiation process. “While Artsvashen has no strategic significance for Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani enclaves of Voskepar and Karki currently inside Armenia are of strategic economic importance—Armenia’s roads to Georgia and Iran pass through them,” he said. “Nonetheless, Azerbaijan might demand the return of these enclaves to place additional diplomatic and economic pressure on Armenia.”
The Office of the President and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that they had no previous knowledge of the working agreement. Governmental and civil society actors have called on Pashinyan to make public the full contents of the draft document, warning that the secrecy surrounding the negotiation process facilitates the dissemination of disinformation and fake news.
The absence of official communication regarding the situation on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border in the postwar period has already deepened “a lack of confidence in state institutions and the ruling political party,” reads a statement published by 19 NGOs.
“Under these circumstances, Acting PM Nikol Pashinyan does not have the legitimacy to conduct negotiations with foreign entities without political consultations,” the statement continues. “Any government or political party must not bypass the people and accept momentous and irreversible decisions based on narrow personal or group interests.”
“Border demarcation itself is a guarantee of human rights, the wrong implementation of which can lead to new human rights violations and tension,” wrote Armenia’s Ombudsman Arman Tatoyan.
In a resolution demanding the immediate and unconditional release of the estimated 200 Armenian prisoners of war held in Azerbaijan, the European Parliament condemned the “violation of territorial integrity of Armenia and of international law” committed by Azerbaijan’s latest incursion. “This violation of Armenian sovereign territory follows worrying statements by Azerbaijani representatives, including the president, which appeared to raise territorial claims and threaten the use of force and thereby undermine the efforts towards security and stability in the region,” the resolution reads.
The United States, France, Iran and other countries have formally called on Azerbaijan to withdraw all forces from Armenian territory. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Yerevan and Baku this week in order to “help resolve the current situation.” “We have repeatedly warned that there needs to be restraint and respect for the sovereignty of [regional] countries,” he said during his meeting with his Armenian counterpart Ara Ayvazyan. “We have emphasized and continue to emphasize that internationally recognized borders and territorial integrity is our red line.”
While Armenia has asked Russia and the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for military assistance, Russia has not formally demanded the retreat of Azerbaijani soldiers, and the CSTO has not formulated a position regarding the border dispute.
“The speed of the CSTO’s actions does not satisfy us,” Pashinyan said during a parliament session on Wednesday. He nonetheless insisted that Putin has repeatedly assured him that “Armenia’s borders are a red line for Russia.”
“The unfortunate fact is that Azerbaijan has crossed that red line, and I think it is impossible that Russia will not fulfill its contractual obligations,” he said.