Stalemate in Nagorno-Karabakh

The UN Security Council has called for an end to an Azeri blockade of the only road linking Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.

The sole road connecting the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia has been blocked since December 12, disrupting access to essential goods and services for tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians living there.

Eurasianet reported on Monday that while there is some fresh produce available in the markets of region’s capital, Stepanakert, “shelves with eggs and other things usually brought in from Armenia are now bare.”

The blocked road also prevents Nagorno-Karabakh residents from leaving the region; over a thousand people reported to be stranded on one side or the other are unable to reach their homes.

Among them are dozens of children who had traveled to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, on a school trip, and are now blocked from returning to their parents and homes.

The United Nations Security Council, which met to discuss the issue on December 20, called for an end to the blockade. “Obstacles to the use of the Lachin corridor are setting back the peace process,” said Robert Wood, the US representative to the council.

Rights groups have also condemned the blockade.

“Prolonged blocking of the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to the outside world could lead to dire humanitarian consequences,” says Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Regardless of who is blocking the road, Azerbaijan’s authorities and the Russian peacekeeping force deployed there should ensure that access remains open, to enable freedom of movement and ensure people have access to essential goods and services. The longer the disruption to essential goods and services, the greater the risk to civilians.”

‘Environmental activists’

Since the morning of December 12, several dozen Azerbaijanis – claiming to be environmental activists – have been demonstrating on the Lachin road – which links Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian-populated breakaway enclave in Azerbaijan, to Armenia – demanding access to mining sites in areas under the control of the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh.

They claim that the de facto authorities are illegally exploiting gold and copper molybdenum deposits and using the Lachin road to transport those minerals to Armenia.

The protesters have erected tents along the road and continued their actions around the clock. Throughout the past week, they have expressed other grievances, including calls for the setting up of official Azerbaijan customs checkpoints along the Lachin corridor.  

Russian peacekeeping forces, who have been guarding the road since a 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh ended, have also barricaded the road to prevent further escalation of the situation if the people gathered were to advance to the mines in the Nagorno-Karabakh-held areas.

Azerbaijan denies that it is responsible for closing the road.  

According to Gegham Stepanyan, the de facto ombudsman of the region, the region imports approximately 400 tonnes of essential goods daily from Armenia, such as food, hygiene products, medications, household items, and other items that are vital for civilians’ humanitarian needs. The road is also used to import fuel, diesel, and petrol.

While the road remains closed for the general public and transportation of goods, according to some media reports, several Russian peacekeeping trucks that allegedly contained humanitarian goods were allowed to pass, although it is unclear for whom the goods are intended.

Stepanyan told Human Rights Watch that the goods were not for the public in Nagorno-Karabakh. At least one critically ill patient was transferred to Yerevan with the mediation of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Rights of access

Human Rights Watch says that those in control of the road and the area around it – that is the Azerbaijan authorities and the Russian peacekeeping force – should ensure that vehicles with humanitarian goods can pass and that freedom of movement is not stopped. 

Whether the protesters have genuine environmental concerns or other grievances, Azerbaijan should facilitate the right to peaceful protest by interacting with the protesters in a way that ensures the road remains open and the protest does not deny Nagorno-Karabakh residents their rights of access to essential services and goods, and to freedom of movement.

The humanitarian situation was further aggravated by a disruption in the natural gas that is supplied to Nagorno-Karabakh via a pipeline that runs from Armenia via Azerbaijani-held areas.

The disruption, which began December 13, prompted the de facto authorities to announce school closures due to winter weather conditions. The Azerbaijani state gas company has stated that Azerbaijan bears no responsibility for the disruption. The gas supply was restored on December 16.

An unsatisfactory peace

The six-week war for Nagorno-Karabakh fought in the autumn of 2020 ended in a decisive victory for Azerbaijan, which retook control of a large part of the region.

For Baku, it settled a few old scores: victory was seen as redemption for its defeat in the early 1990s, when Azeri troops and civilians were expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh.

For Yerevan, the defeat caused near paralysis, and preempted a months-long political crisis that forced Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to call (and win) an early parliamentary election, amid widespread street protests and calls for his resignation.

Since the end of the war the boundaries of Nagorno-Karabakh are roughly the same as during the latter part of the Soviet era.

Seven districts which Armenian separatists had seized during fighting in the 1990s (and which until then had been populated primarily by ethnic Azeris) are now back in Azerbaijani hands. The Lachin road is purportedly under the control of Russian peacekeepers.

Quite what they were doing when the Azeri ‘environmental activists’ showed up on December 12 is anyone’s guess.

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