It has been more than a month since a group of Azerbaijani citizens began blocking the Lachin Corridor, the sole land route connecting Armenia to the Karabakh region. The protestors are demanding Armenia immediately stop mining gold and copper-molybdenum deposits in Karabakh, which official Baku claims Armenians are exporting illegally. The blockade, which started on December 12, has left Karabakh Armenians cut off from goods supplies, services, and most recently, internet access and gas supplies.
The government of Azerbaijani denies any involvement in the blockade. Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of orchestrating the blockade, while authorities in Karabakh accuse Azerbaijan of forcing remaining Karabakh Armenians into submission. Signs of a breakthrough amid the ongoing mutual accusations remain grim. International media coverage and recommendations by foreign diplomats urging the sides to resolve the tensions have hit a wall.
Lachin Corridor is supposedly under the protection of Russian peacekeepers who have been deployed in the territory since November 2020 following the Russia-brokered agreement signed between Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. They are also in charge of providing security for entry and exit points of the corridor. In a broader context, however, the role of some 2,000 Russian peacekeepers remains vague. The lack of clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and activities in the 2020 agreement is now becoming an issue. The blockade is a testament to that.
The ongoing paralysis of the main route connecting Karabakh to Armenia shows that emboldened by the Kremlin's weakness, official Baku won't shy away from criticizing the role of the Russian peacekeepers. Baku referred to them as “occupiers” and criticized them for harboring pro-Armenian sentiments.
The peacekeepers have also been criticized by Armenia, most recently during the cabinet meeting on December 22, when Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said Moscow was not fulfilling its obligations as part of the November 2020 agreement. He also accused the Russian peacekeepers of “becoming a silent witness to the depopulation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.”
Moscow has been largely silent on the blockade. Spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, issued a statement on December 30, saying Moscow considered the criticism against its peacekeeping contingent as provocations as well as “unacceptable and deliberate actions that cause tangible harm to the process of Armenian-Azerbaijani normalization.” It was not until January 17 that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged his Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Mammadov in a phone conversation to end the blockade, stressing the need “for the earliest possible unblocking of traffic along the Lachin corridor in accordance with the parameters stipulated in the November 9, 2020, trilateral top-level statement.”
The statement referred to by Lavrov is the agreement that was signed between Armenian, Azerbaijan, and Russia, ending active fighting. The points concerning the Lachin corridor are as follows:
- Lachin corridor will remain under the control of the peacekeeping contingent of the Russian Federation;
- The Republic of Azerbaijan shall guarantee the security of persons, vehicles, and cargo moving along the Lachin Corridor in both directions;
The blockade supposedly being carried out by “eco-activists” gives Azerbaijan “plausible deniability,” Tom de Waal, a Senior Fellow at Carnegie Europe and expert on geopolitics within the South Caucasus, Russia, and Ukraine, told CNN International in an interview.
The phone conversation between Lavrov and Mammadov comes after the latest spat between Armenia and Russia, in which Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan said Armenia was pulling out of its commitment to host the next annual peacekeeping training by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), comprised of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
Last year, Armenia also refused to participate in CSTO exercises in protest after the organization refused to provide military assistance to Armenia following September 2022 escalations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Not only did CSTO not respond to Armenia’s appeals for military assistance, but it chose to remain silent about the escalations, despite the stipulations within the organization’s founding treaty, which states an attack on one is effectively an attack on them all. Instead, wrote political analyst Tigran Grigoryan, CSTO “responded by holding an emergency meeting to discuss the escalation. This response meant that the CSTO once again chose performative gestures over real action. Neither before the arrival of the mission to Armenia, nor after its departure, did the CSTO call Baku out for its unprecedented attack.”
The clock is ticking
Despite openly saying that Azerbaijan does not want another war, President Ilham Aliyev has not shied away from warning Armenia that time was ticking. In a recent interview with local media, Aliyev told reporters that Armenia must take responsibility and sign the peace agreement, noting that this year was Armenia's final chance at signing the agreement.
In the same interview, Aliyev also praised the environmentalists. “[They are] our pride. The are there day and night in frosty and snowy weather, they demand their rights and once again show the whole world how high the qualities of the young people of Azerbaijan are,” the president told reporters. The latter statement, however, is far from true. From the start of the blockade, state television channel AzTV reporters have been speaking with the so-called environmentalists, but none actually work for any environmental organizations. Based on these interviews, an Azerbaijani online media platform Mikroskop Media has analyzed over 50 video interviews, concluding that none of the protestors have any remote connection to the cause:
The NGOs participating in the actions organized by the 🇦🇿 government in Lachin corridor are presented as NGOs specializing in ecology. We watched more than 50 videos and researched the NGOs there, and they have nothing to do with ecology and environment. pic.twitter.com/rPrVYv3qc3
— Mikroskop Media in English (@MikroskopEng) January 17, 2023
Meanwhile, international pressure is ramping up. In a statement issued by the UK Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on January 17, Ambassador Bush urged “the Government of Azerbaijan to take all measures to allow for the unhindered movement of humanitarian goods and civilians. Echoing the statement by the UK ambassador, the US ambassador to the OSCE tweeted:
The United States remains concerned the Lachin Corridor has now been blocked for over three weeks, creating a grave humanitarian situation. We thank @ICRC for providing critical aid during this time, but call on Azerbaijan and Russia to restore access immediately.
— Michael Carpenter, U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE (@USAmbOSCE) January 6, 2023