Nagorno-Karabakh: Christmas Under Blockade

Photo from the rally in Stepanakert on Nagorno-Karabakh December 25 by Edgar Kamalyan.

A group of Azeri environmental activists keep the only road that connects the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh with the rest of the world blocked. The humanitarian situation worsens day by day for more than 120 thousand people deprived of the most basic.

Anush Ghavalyan/Yerevan, Armenia

"Vegetables and fruits, dairy products, sugar, salt... We lack almost everything!" For Narine Grigoryan, a laboratory technician in Stepanakert, the consequences of weeks under the blockade are evident in the empty shelves of supermarkets. "It is almost impossible to find anything and local production cannot meet the needs of the population," the Armenian explained by phone.

The situation in the enclave deteriorates with each passing day since December 12. It was then that a group of Azeri environmental activists blocked the Lachin Corridor, the only road between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh (also called "Artsakh'' by the Armenians). The Lachin Corridor is the veritable "umbilical cord" for a majority-Armenian enclave totally surrounded by Azerbaijan. The latter gave its explicit consent that the corridor is under the control of Russian peacekeepers by the 20202 Ceasefire.

Under normal conditions, 400 tons of food and other basic products enter Nagorno-Karabakh daily. After tough negotiations, the International Red Cross was able to send ten tons of humanitarian cargo from Armenia on December 25: medicines, hospital food, baby food. According to the NK Ministry of Health, this covered the demand for ten days.

While Baku insists that the blockade responds to an initiative of its civil society, investigations such as that of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty reveal a link between the so-called Azeri "eco-activists" and the Government of Azerbaijan.

But there is more. International organizations such as Human Rights Watch have denounced that the region has once again been deprived of gas for days. The supply depends exclusively on the will of Azerbaijan, since part of the infrastructure passes through the territories that came under the control of Baku after the war in 2020.

"Once again, the current situation shows the importance of guaranteeing free and unhindered access for humanitarian assistance and international human rights missions to all areas and people, including those residing in Nagorno-Karabakh," stressed the commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe in its declaration of December 20. However, the region still lacks the presence of both international organizations and UN agencies.

The situation in the Lachin Corridor and the restoration of free movement were also on the agenda of the emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on December 20, where the immediate and unconditional reopening of the corridor was explicitly called for.

"As long as the blockade continues, all these calls and statements by human rights organizations and countries must be followed by real action on the ground," Gegham Stepanyan, Ombudsman of Nagorno-Karabakh, told GARA from Yerevan. He is one of 1,100 people still unable to return home due to road closures.

Stepanyan speaks of "staged environmental actions that are part of Azerbaijan's state policy and that seeks ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh." The officer recalls the cases of peaceful civilian killings, infrastructure disruptions, gas cuts, harassment of agricultural activity, and psychological pressure from Azerbaijan since the 2020 ceasefire.

“We have not seen any constructive dialogue so far. On the contrary, we only suffer from hatred towards Armenians at the state level," laments Stepanyan, who rules out any possibility that the enclave will one day pass under Azerbaijani jurisdiction.

Arayik Harutyunyan, the President of Nagorno-Karabakh, is also wary of Azerbaijan's ecological claims. "On December 3, after blocking the only highway connecting Artsakh with Armenia for the first time, the Azerbaijani side, through the Russian peacekeepers, transmitted written proposals to the Artsakh authorities that had little to do with environmental issues and were completely unacceptable," the Nagorno-Karabakh leader said.

One of them could be the future of Ruben Vardanyan, the current State Minister of Nagorno- Karabakh. On December 23, at a press conference of Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on December 23, the Azerbaijani asked Vardanyan to leave the region "as soon as possible".

Russian-Armenian businessman and philanthropist, Ruben Vardanyan renounced his Russian citizenship and moved to Nagorno-Karabakh in early September. A month later, Vardanyan was appointed State Minister of the self-governed republic.

"I will not go anywhere, I will not give in to Azerbaijan's demands," Vardanyan announced during the nationwide demonstration in Stepanakert on December 25. Tens of thousands of people then gathered to raise their voices about the blockade and human rights violations.

Whether due to environmental or political demands, the humanitarian situation on the ground is deteriorating day by day.

On December 24, a group of Armenian civil activists marched to the closed section of the road where the Russian peacekeeping checkpoint is located. In a live video posted online, Tigran Petrosyan, the leader of an opposition political party, called on the Russian side to honor its commitments under the November 9 Trilateral Declaration and ensure the safety of the Lachin Corridor.

The Russians then replied that the road would open on December 26. It was not like that, and on the 27th the protest resumed. Hundreds of people marched towards the region's airport, where the contingent is permanently deployed, demanding a meeting with the commander of the peacekeeping forces.

“The situation on the ground is serious. We need to resist and not make concessions, as Baku will continue with new demands," Petrosyan said from the airport. The plan is to stay there until there is a response from Moscow.

Anush Ghavalyan is a freelance journalist based in Stepanakert.

Photo from the rally in Stepanakert on December 25. By Edgar Kamalyan.

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Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor