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Kurdish Man Executed In Iran After Serving Almost 14 Years In Jail, Rights Group Says

ACHANAN, Armenia — On a wet afternoon on this highland village, a gaggle of native dignitaries, Armenian authorities representatives who’d made the lengthy drive down from Yerevan, and European donors gathered at a cow barn. They have been right here to chop the ribbon on the renovated facility, which had been redesigned to soundly home its new residents: 19 cows imported from Austria.

The cows noticed the October 24 ceremony with curiosity, poking their heads by means of the railings of their confinement to get a better have a look at the officers and accompanying TV crews. One of many enterprise’s staff, Razmik Grigorian, marveled that the rigorously bred Austrian cows might produce round 30 liters of milk a day. Armenian cows, he stated, produce solely about 10 liters.

The livestock buy was funded by the Austrian Improvement Company as a part of a European Union initiative launched earlier this 12 months, Resilient Syunik. This system will present greater than 100 million euros ($106 million) to fund small-scale improvement tasks like this one in Armenia’s southernmost area.

Whereas the person tasks are modest, the general intention is bold: to bolster the safety of Syunik, which has change into newly weak following Azerbaijan’s victory within the 2020 Second Karabakh Conflict. The outcomes of that battle disrupted the area’s economic system, and lots of worry that Baku might have designs on Syunik, particularly after Azerbaijan’s lightning army offensive in September of this 12 months that resulted within the Karabakh’s management’s full give up and the exodus of greater than 100,000 ethnic Armenians.

Whether or not they’re well-founded or not, these fears have raised issues of a gradual depopulation of the area, rendering it nonetheless extra weak.

”For those who stay close to the border, there’s strain in your coronary heart,” stated Vahe Hovannisian, a mission supervisor on the NGO that carried out the cow-import program and himself a Syunik native.

The Achanan ceremony was organized ”for others to see that even in these tough occasions, there’s some mission, somebody who’s investing and implementing some initiatives, that there’s hope right here, to point out people who remaining right here has potential,” he stated.

Resilient Syunik ”could be very a lot a political sign,” stated one Western diplomat in Yerevan, requesting anonymity in an effort to converse extra brazenly. ”It’s a political demonstration that Europe cares.”

A New Sizzling Spot

The European cows are only one factor in what has change into an advanced geopolitical knot in Syunik. The adjustments are seen all over the place: A big Iranian flag flies above the regional capital, Kapan, at a consulate that was opened final 12 months. The EU, along with its new improvement program, has stationed border screens in Syunik. Russia has additionally expanded its border-guard presence within the area.

The varied events now coexist uneasily within the territory, and for some residents, all the consideration has solely made them really feel much less safe.

”Don’t play this recreation with Armenia. Is it Russia’s or the West’s?” stated one Kapan native, Armen Ghazarian, who now heads an environmental NGO right here. ”Please do not play that recreation. That recreation is OK for you, however it’s a menace for us.”

A truck of the Russian peacekeepers drives through the border from the Azerbaijani side past Armenian police forces near Kornidzor on September 22.

A truck of the Russian peacekeepers drives by means of the border from the Azerbaijani aspect previous Armenian police forces close to Kornidzor on September 22.

Syunik is Armenia’s most distant province, making up the nation’s slim southern tip. Its slim southern edge borders Iran; throughout its jap border is Azerbaijan’s mainland; and to its west is Azerbaijan’s exclave of Naxcivan. The area’s strategic location, mixed with its outstanding place in Armenian historical past, makes it, in Armenian discourse, the ”spine” of the nation.

Regional and worldwide consideration started to show to Syunik instantly following the 2020 Second Karabakh Conflict, when Azerbaijan retook many of the territory it had misplaced to Armenian forces within the first battle between the 2 sides within the Nineties. That territory included the Azerbaijani provinces of Zangilan, Qubadli, and Lachin, all of which border Syunik.

When these territories have been occupied by ethnic Armenians, Syunik’s jap border was successfully nonexistent. Many Syunik residents grew crops on the opposite aspect of the border or grazed their livestock there. The Soviet-built highway that served as Syunik’s most important north-south artery dipped out and in of occupied Azerbaijani territory.

However after Azerbaijan’s victory in 2020, Baku rapidly moved to reassert its sovereignty over its retaken territory. Azerbaijan moved troops proper as much as the sting of the border of Syunik, erecting border guard posts, massive flags, and indicators studying ”Welcome to Azerbaijan” in English and Azeri — however not Armenian. Azerbaijani authorities took management of their sections of the freeway, making journey on it not possible and forcing visitors on to smaller, rougher roads away from the border.

On the identical time, Azerbaijani officers started to advance ambiguous claims on Syunik. As a part of the cease-fire that ended the 2020 battle, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to cooperate on new transportation routes that may join Azerbaijan’s mainland with its exclave of Naxcivan. Whereas Syunik wasn’t explicitly named within the settlement, it’s the shortest route between the 2 components of Azerbaijan and Soviet-era transport infrastructure stays by means of the area that may very well be restored.

Quickly after, although, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev started publicly making calls for that went past the textual content of the settlement: He known as the route the Zangezur Hall (utilizing an alternate title for Syunik) and stated Armenians would don’t have any jurisdiction over it. Aliyev adopted up with thinly veiled threats to grab the land for the hall by pressure if Armenia did not comply.

Parallel to the Zangezur Hall calls for, Aliyev additionally started selling a discourse that recognized components of Armenia — specifically Syunik — as ”Western Azerbaijan,” from which ethnic Azerbaijanis had been unjustly compelled out and to which they need to return.

A large Iranian flag flies above the regional capital, Kapan, at a consulate that was opened last year.

A big Iranian flag flies above the regional capital, Kapan, at a consulate that was opened final 12 months.

Azerbaijan has insisted that such pronouncements don’t quantity to territorial claims on Armenia. For the reason that September offensive, Aliyev has stated that if Armenia does not wish to host a hall to Naxcivan, it would construct a highway by means of Iran as a substitute. And he stated that Azerbaijanis would return to Western Azerbaijan ”not in tanks, however of their vehicles.”

’Each Day, There Is An Expectation Of Conflict’

Nonetheless, in an unpredictable surroundings, all bets are off.

”We have no data to indicate that [an Azerbaijani attack against Armenia in Syunik] is imminent in any manner. Azerbaijan stated clearly they don’t have any intentions of threatening Armenian sovereign territory, and so they’ve been very clear on that,” one senior U.S. official instructed RFE/RL, preferring to talk on the situation of anonymity.

”They have been fairly clear [they did not plan to use force] in Nagorno-Karabakh. So, now we have no clear indications that something is going on. However due to what’s occurred, you may’t assist however be involved. In order that’s why we’re watching,” the official stated.

This uncertainty is placing many residents of Syunik on edge.

”Each morning I get up and assume, good, immediately there is no such thing as a battle, as a result of day-after-day there’s an expectation of battle,” stated Tigranuhi Badalian, a journalist at Zangezur TV, a channel masking information in Syunik.

”I do not very like watching the president of Azerbaijan, however day-after-day, earlier than I fall asleep, I watch movies of what he stated, and analyze whether or not there can be battle tomorrow or not. And each time I wish to purchase one thing for my dwelling, do some repairs, or purchase some furnishings, I feel: What if a battle begins tomorrow? I’ll lose every little thing.”

A villager points at a position of Azerbaijani troops in the Syunik region in January 2021.

A villager factors at a place of Azerbaijani troops within the Syunik area in January 2021.

That worry has led to worries that folks might transfer out of Syunik, a really delicate matter within the area. There isn’t any knowledge on how many individuals may need left already, and residents surveyed had extensively various takes.

”There isn’t any protected place on the planet proper now. Even when it is not completely protected right here, nobody goes to go away Syunik. We are going to stand and battle till the top towards our enemies,” stated Vahan Sargsian, a veterinarian in Kapan.

However his good friend, Shushanik Kostandian, a contract tour information who was translating for him, pushed again: ”A number of persons are doing every little thing they’ll do to go away Syunik and stay a standard life,” she stated.

Rising Western Involvement

Resilient Syunik was launched in January. In Might, EU officers introduced that the cash devoted to it will greater than double, to 116 million euros ($123 million), of which 40 million euros are grants and 76 million euros are loans.

The cash is funding dozens of small improvement tasks, from instructional packages and job abilities coaching to help for small enterprises to get began or broaden to bettering native authorities capability. Whereas EU donors had been concerned in Syunik earlier than, Resilient Syunik ”is about coordinating the scattered presence and scattered actions of various gamers to point out there’s a widespread shared imaginative and prescient,” the Western diplomat stated.

This system was launched after the Armenian authorities requested the European Union to reorient its improvement efforts from the northern a part of the nation — its poorest — to Syunik, in accordance with one other Western diplomat in Yerevan.

Syunik is ”important” and ”strategic” for Armenia, the nation’s deputy prime minister, Mher Grigorian, stated on the launch ceremony for Resilient Syunik in January. ”So any mission geared toward sustainable improvement of the area is within the middle of particular consideration of the federal government.”

The launch of the help program got here because the EU, with assist from the US, had been taking an unprecedentedly massive position within the decision of Armenia’s long-running battle with Azerbaijan.

Baku and Yerevan have been locked in a battle over the area of Nagorno-Karabakh for many years. Armenian-backed separatists seized the primarily ethnic Armenian-populated area from Azerbaijan throughout a battle within the early Nineties that killed some 30,000 individuals. Diplomatic efforts to settle the battle introduced little progress, and the 2 sides fought one other battle in 2020 that lasted six weeks earlier than a Russian-brokered cease-fire, leading to Armenia dropping management over components of the area and 7 adjoining districts.

In 2022, the 2 sides once more started negotiations to achieve a peace settlement to finish the battle. Earlier than 2020, the Armenia-Azerbaijan talks had been collectively led by the US, France, and Russia, a uncommon discussion board for Western-Russian cooperation. However the talks that started in 2022 proceeded on two rival tracks: the EU and United States on one aspect and Russia on the opposite, every making an attempt to dealer a deal.

On these two tracks, there was a transparent divergence within the approaches towards probably the most delicate concern: the destiny of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Russian strategy was to delay a decision of that concern till after different points had been addressed. The Western monitor sought a compromise on Karabakh that may acknowledge Azerbaijani sovereignty over the territory whereas making certain the rights and safety of the ethnic Armenian inhabitants there. The Russian variant would, because it occurs, present a justification for extending the mandate of the two,000-strong Russian peacekeeping contingent that was deployed to Karabakh after 2020. The Western model might, in contrast, obviate the necessity for a continued Russian presence.

Each Armenia and Azerbaijan confirmed a transparent choice for the Western monitor, and because the negotiations progressed, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian himself made the unprecedented concession of acknowledging Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh. However the course of didn’t transfer rapidly sufficient for Baku and, in September, it efficiently launched its army offensive, which resulted within the Karabakh management’s capitulation and the exodus of almost the complete inhabitants of the territory.

To cynics, the EU help program seems like a comfort prize, after Armenia’s lack of Nagorno-Karabakh.

”It is like somebody amputates certainly one of your arms and offers you a shovel for the opposite,” stated Badalian, the journalist. ”It looks as if Europe is giving us one thing to say, ’Sure, I allowed them to take Artsakh (an alternate Armenian title for the territory). I closed my eyes, so I’m supplying you with one thing so you do not undergo too badly.'”

Enter Iran

Europeans should not the one ones boosting their presence in Syunik. For many years, Iran, the southern neighbor of each Armenia and Azerbaijan, had taken a largely hands-off, balanced strategy to the battle between the 2 nations. However following the 2020 battle, Tehran has change into far more concerned and supportive of Armenia — and Syunik, specifically. Iranian officers have come out strongly towards Aliyev’s expansive imaginative and prescient of the Zangezur Hall and have repeatedly referred to the prospect of an Azerbaijani invasion as a ”pink line” for Tehran. Iran’s army backed these phrases up with large-scale army workout routines on Azerbaijan’s border.

In October 2022, Iran opened a consulate in Kapan, its first overseas consulate within the area.

”Iran regards the safety of Armenia and the area as its personal safety,” Iranian Overseas Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian stated on the inauguration ceremony. ”Our coverage is to respect territorial integrity and internationally acknowledged borders.”

The consulate, near the middle of Kapan, has a conspicuously massive flag however has stated little or no publicly about its actions. An Armenian worker who answered the door on the consulate — sporting a cross necklace and a head scarf — stated she would go on a request for an interview to the higher-ups, however nobody adopted up.

Native journalist Badalian stated she was additionally unconvinced about Iran’s backing.

”When you’re drowning, you need one thing to carry on to,” she stated. ”The concept that Iran goes to go to battle for us, it is a fantasy.”

Whereas Iran and the West are on reverse sides of many international conflicts — from Ukraine to Palestine and past — their pursuits in southern Armenia coincide. Syunik ”is presumably the one place proper now on Earth the place the U.S. and Iran have some mutual curiosity,” stated Areg Kochinian, head of the Yerevan-based Analysis Middle on Safety Coverage assume tank.

Iran had been making an attempt to determine a consulate in Kapan for a number of years, however Armenia’s Overseas Ministry had refused permission. One former Armenian authorities supply instructed RFE/RL on the situation of anonymity that Washington opposed the institution of an Iranian consulate however modified its place after Azerbaijan’s victory in 2020.

The U.S. Embassy in Yerevan stated that account was ”incorrect.”

”Armenia is a sovereign nation,” the embassy instructed RFE/RL in an e-mailed remark. ”We perceive and respect that a part of being a sovereign nation is the power to develop relationships with its neighbors and all through the area and the world. We acknowledge Armenia’s geographic location and have constantly inspired it to evaluate Iran’s intentions within the area comprehensively, and to proceed with warning in all dealings involving the Iranian regime.”

A new road constructed south of Kapan to replace one that had previously woven in and out of Azerbaijani territory

A brand new highway constructed south of Kapan to exchange one which had beforehand woven out and in of Azerbaijani territory

Regardless of some convergence of pursuits, limits do stay. Even earlier than the 2020 battle, worldwide monetary establishments — together with the EU’s European Funding Financial institution — have been funding the development of a brand new north-south freeway in Armenia. The necessity for a brand new highway grew to become extra acute because of the battle, because the highway that had beforehand been used between Goris and Kapan — the 2 largest cities in Syunik — was shut down by Azerbaijan. That highway hardly met worldwide freeway requirements, however the substitute is much worse: Winding by means of a gorge, the monitor can barely deal with the various Iranian vans that now ply the route.

Whereas a brand new freeway is of vital significance for Armenia, it has additionally change into newly vital for Russia. Provided that lots of its conventional east-west commerce hyperlinks have been severed because of the Ukraine battle, Moscow has been searching for new north-south routes, with Iran and its Persian Gulf ports as a key node for Russia’s international commerce.

That places the EU in a bind.

”From the European perspective, the query is: Ought to we finance the highway that may make the connection between Iran and Russia simpler?” one of many Western diplomats requested.

Russia, too, has visibly — if quietly — expanded its presence in Syunik. For the reason that Nineties, Russian border guards have patrolled Armenia’s frontiers with Turkey and Iran. However following the 2020 battle, they started to broaden their space of operation northward alongside the border with Azerbaijan, as properly. The small print of the brand new presence haven’t been formally introduced, however new posts have popped up at varied factors alongside the border, principally in Syunik but in addition so far as Armenia’s northeastern province of Tavush.

Moscow has additionally had army forces stationed in Syunik since 2020, together with a battalion group in Goris. It’s increasing its diplomatic footprint as properly, planning to open its personal consulate quickly in Kapan. A big base for Russian border guards has been constructed southeast of Kapan. And slightly farther down the highway, within the village of Nerkin Hand, is a small put up the place each the Armenian and Russian flags are flying.

The empty streets of Nerkin Hand, a village in the southeastern Kapan municipality

The empty streets of Nerkin Hand, a village within the southeastern Kapan municipality

The village lies in a wooded valley instantly on the border with Azerbaijan; within the hills above, Armenian troops have dug a community of latest roads by means of the bushes to achieve extra advantageous defensive positions. On the day of RFE/RL’s go to, a small group of Russian troops have been outdoors the village put up doing upkeep work.

Within the village itself, the grime streets have been quiet.

”We’re afraid; the Azerbaijanis are very shut now,” stated one resident, Aida Aghanisian. She was accompanied by two younger grandchildren, however she stated most youngsters have been despatched to stay in Kapan or elsewhere, the place it is believed to be safer.

Aghanisian stated she had seen no EU improvement work within the village and even the border screens do not go to.

”The Russians do not allow them to are available in; we do not know why,” she stated.

Western diplomats confirmed that there have been some points with Russians stopping EU screens’ entry to Nerkin Hand, in addition to different experiences that Russian troops have restricted visitors to villages nearer to the Iranian border.

Requested about Russian restrictions on the motion of EU border screens, a spokesperson for the EU mission e-mailed RFE/RL a press release. The mission ”doesn’t have contacts with the Russian army personnel primarily based in Armenia,” the assertion stated. It famous that the mission’s base in Kapan opened solely not too long ago and ”we at the moment are engaged on the patrolling plan to cowl as vast an space of the Armenian border with Azerbaijan in Syunik as doable. Relating to the areas which can be tough to entry resulting from varied causes, we coordinate on the problems with Armenian army or border guards.”

Russia’s intentions within the area are much less clear and the topic of a lot hypothesis amongst Armenian analysts and policymakers. One principle is that Russia fears a full decision of Armenia’s conflicts with Azerbaijan and Turkey, as that may take away a lot of the necessity for its safety presence in Armenia. Following Armenia’s lack of Karabakh, Russia now desires to ”create a brand new grey zone” in Syunik and can encourage Azerbaijani threats towards the territory whereas positioning itself because the area’s safety guarantor, analyst Kochinian predicted.

”So, we might have a scenario when the Karabakh concern itself is resolved, however the Russian presence remains to be gigantic within the area,” Kochinian stated.

Russia additionally clearly fears being geopolitically outmaneuvered within the Caucasus, analysts say. Officers in Moscow have accused the US and the EU of an influence play in Armenia and have sharply criticized Pashinian and his authorities for his or her overtures to the West.

Many Armenian analysts agree that the intention, particularly for the US, does look like to scale back Russia’s position within the area.

”To begin with…[Syunik’s depopulation] is one more reason for [the] Russian presence,” stated Kochinian. ”The extra sturdy and the extra resilient Armenia is, and the extra normalization between Azerbaijan and Turkey on one aspect and Armenia on the opposite aspect, the much less of Russia you should have on this area.”

”The logic could be very clear: Let’s normalize Armenia-Azerbaijan, and after that hopefully Armenia-Turkey relations,” stated Benyamin Poghosian, founding director of the Yerevan-based Middle for Political and Financial Strategic Research. ”Then Armenia will worry Turkey and Azerbaijan much less after which will want Russia much less.”

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