oDR: Feature

Azerbaijani roadblock cuts tens of thousands off from food, fuel and medicine

A battle over the road connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh has seen protesters blockading vital supplies

Bashir Kitachayev
16 December 2022, 3.51pm

Lachin corridor, January 2021

|

Chris Huby / Le Pictorium / Alamy

The only road that links Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia has been blocked since 12 December – by workers from Azerbaijani state organisations.

The protesters have said they are objecting to Russian peacekeepers stationed in the disputed territory, who they claim are covering up illegal mining on land that formally belongs to Azerbaijan.

They have set up tents and refused to leave the road – known as the Lachin corridor – for the past four days. They included civil servants, workers from nearby construction sites and representatives of pro-government NGOs, but also former soldiers – one of whom was photographed making a well-known gesture of the Gray Wolves, a notorious Turkish far-right group.

By blocking the road, they have threatened the tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians who live in Nagorno-Karabakh with a humanitarian catastrophe, Armenian representatives say.

Get the free oDR newsletter

A weekly summary of our latest stories about the post-Soviet world.

In the aftermath of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, in which Azerbaijan successfully regained control of part of Karabakh and adjacent districts previously held by Armenia, blocking the only road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia seems to be an attempt to seal off its population from the outside world – and pave the way for taking full control of the region. (The First Nagorno-Karabakh War was in the 1990s.)

Numerous attacks since 2020 against Armenian-inhabited areas of Karabakh (a landlocked region within the Karabakh mountainous range, which is often called Nagorno-Karabakh, or simply Karabakh. In this piece I have used the two terms interchangeably), as well as against Armenia itself, have signalled Azerbaijan’s intent to force a settlement on the territory. They have also shown that there are few forms of international pressure available against the resource-rich country, which is backed by Turkey.

Russian peacekeepers – who are meant to guarantee access to the now-blocked road – have been stationed in the region since 2020, and Russia is the guarantor of a ceasefire deal that has been broken numerous times.

The European Union, meanwhile, has signed billions of dollars’ worth of gas and investment deals with Azerbaijan since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

Blockade

The blockade is already affecting Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh. They have lost regular supplies of food, fuel and medicine.

Gas is supplied to the region through a pipeline from Armenia. On the evening of 13 December, it was reported that it, too, had been cut off – possibly as a result of a valve allegedly installed by Azerbaijan during repairs earlier in the year – but, after three days, reports emerged that it had been reconnected.

The Russian Defence Ministry claims it is negotiating with protesters to unblock the road, but to date the commander of the Russian peacekeepers has refused to meet with the Azerbaijani “eco-activists”. The Kremlin has not commented on the situation, though the Russian and Azerbaijani presidents have been in touch.

Both the US State Department and the European Union have expressed concern about the “humanitarian crisis” and called on Azerbaijan to unblock the road.

Azerbaijan wants peace on its own terms

The Second Karabakh War ended overnight on 10 November 2020 with the signing of a trilateral (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia) agreement – but it has largely been followed with more chaos and violence.

That agreement recognised Baku’s control over territories it had taken by force inside Nagorno-Karabakh, but returned control over territories that bordered Nagorno-Karabakh.

In line with that document, Russian peacekeepers were brought into Karabakh itself to control the line separating the Armenians of Karabakh from Azerbaijani troops, as well as the Lachin corridor itself.

The trilateral agreement obliges Azerbaijan and Armenia to ‘unblock communications’ – roads, transport and infrastructure connections – and ensure each other free movement of goods across the countries.

But Armenia and Azerbaijan do not agree on what ‘unblocking’ means.

Baku believes that the ‘unblocking of communications’ should mean it takes control of a road running through the Armenian region of Syunik to the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic – an exclave separated from the main territory of Azerbaijan.

And Aliyev has accompanied his demands for this ‘Zangezur corridor’ – Zangezur being the Azerbaijani name for Syunik – with threats.

“We are implementing the Zangezur corridor, whether Armenia wants it or not,” Aliyev said in 2021. “If [Armenia] wants to, then it will be easier. If [Armenia] does not want to, we will decide by force.”

This plan, however, would sever a southern strip of Armenia – and with it, its access to Iran. Baku’s desire to control the ‘Zangezur corridor’ is most often cited as the cause of border conflicts.

Aliyev has also put pressure on Armenia during negotiations to sign a peace treaty. For one thing, this would require the parties to recognise each other’s territorial integrity. It means Armenia finally abandoning Karabakh, which would become part of Azerbaijan without the right to a special status.

Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, following fighting on the border in September 2022, expressed his readiness to meet Baku’s demands. The unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic, Pashinyan said, could negotiate with the Azerbaijani authorities on its status directly. Aliyev, however, categorically refuses to talk with representatives of the de facto authorities of Karabakh, holding up the deal.

What’s more, in Nagorno-Karabakh itself, Armenians do not want to be part of Azerbaijan. The local authorities and people are afraid of revenge by the Azerbaijanis for war crimes that the parties committed against each other during the two past wars for Karabakh.

Vardenis

An inhabitant of the Armenian town of Vardenis, which sustained shelling from the Azerbaijani armed forces in September 2022

|

Gilles Bader / Le Pictorium / Alamy

Lack of international support

Unlike the Russian-Ukrainian war, the international community is not rushing to directly support one side or another in the conflict. The exception here is Turkey, which supplies Azerbaijan with weapons, training its army and striking lucrative contracts with Aliyev. On 10 December, a Turkish general even became an adviser to Azerbaijan’s defence minister.

During the Second Karabakh War, Ankara is reported to have sent mercenaries to Azerbaijan recruited from Turkish-controlled Islamist groups in Syria, though Turkey and Azerbaijan deny this. In the background, Armenia and Turkey have been actively working to restore diplomatic relations severed during the First Karabakh War.

Meanwhile, the European Union is currently attempting to act as a platform for negotiations – though it has also struck a significant gas deal with Azerbaijan. The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, called Aliyev ‘a reliable partner of Europe’ during a visit to Baku to sign the contract earlier this year.

The leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia have been meeting in Brussels, mediated by the head of the European Council, Charles Michel. These encounters have led to work on a peace treaty between the two opposing countries. The only result was the recognition by the two countries of each other’s territorial integrity, but it is still far from any significant result as both parties have imposed further conditions on each other. The EU also sent a civilian group of observers to the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, though its stay will soon end – and Armenia fears that this will lead to new aggression from Baku.

Before and during the 2020 war, the West avoided taking sides due to the role of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group – the United States, France and Russia – which was meant to steer the negotiation process over the future of Nagorno-Karabakh. But many years of attempts at a diplomatic settlement did not bear fruit, and after the war, Baku stated that the OSCE Minsk Group could no longer deal with the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

The Kremlin is painfully aware that the EU is removing Moscow’s monopoly on international negotiations and mediation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict – a role played by Russia previously.

Russia’s weakened position was further exposed by Azerbaijan’s September offensive against Armenia directly, when the latter asked for assistance from Russia via the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), of which Armenia is a member. According to one of the clauses of the agreement, the bloc is obliged to provide military assistance if one of its member countries is attacked. Yet the CSTO refused to provide military assistance, or to call Azerbaijan an aggressor.

What we’re looking at is a perfect storm: with few forms of pressure on Azerbaijan, it will continue to press its advantage over Nagorno-Karabakh – and people living in the territory are going to suffer tremendous hardship in the process. Their future inside Azerbaijan will be bleak.

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

We've got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you're interested in, there's a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData