Tens of thousands of people have been blocked from accessing the sole road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia for nearly two weeks, sparking fresh tensions between Baku and Yerevan, concerns of a humanitarian crisis, and worries of renewed conflict between the longtime rivals.
Dozens of Azerbaijanis have been blocking the road in the Lachin Corridor since December 12. Describing themselves as "eco-activists," the group says they are protesting what they claim is the illegal exploitation of mineral resources -- including gold -- and the environmental impact on the surrounding area.
Armenians and others have accused Baku of staging the Lachin protest to put pressure on Yerevan and Karabakh Armenians, noting that spontaneous protests are routinely dispersed quickly by police in Azerbaijan.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been sparring over Nagorno-Karabakh for decades. The mainly ethnic Armenian enclave is part of Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994.
During a six-week war in 2020, Azerbaijan regained control of much of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent territories held by Armenian forces. More than 6,500 people died in the fighting, which was ended by a Russian-brokered peace agreement.
'Dire Humanitarian Consequences'
The blocking of the Lachin Corridor has led to sometimes tense standoffs between the protesting Azerbaijanis and Russian troops who are stationed there as part of the 2020 peace deal.
The current tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia were discussed and debated at the UN Security Council on December 20, with the United States, France, Britain, Russia, and other countries urging Azerbaijan to reopen the Lachin Corridor road.
Speaking to the world body, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Miroslav Jenca said a renewed conflict would likely impact the wider South Caucasus region and beyond. He called for intensified diplomatic efforts to achieve a lasting peaceful settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan "before it is too late."
The continued blocking of the road had led to a worsening humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said on December 22.
That message was echoed earlier by Human Rights Watch, which said on December 21 that the blocking of the Lachin Corridor had disrupted access to essential goods and services for tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians living there. "Prolonged blocking of the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to the outside world could lead to dire humanitarian consequences," said 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," Williamson said. "The longer the disruption to essential goods and services, the greater the risk to civilians."
Coinciding with the blockade was a disruption of natural gas shipments to Nagorno-Karabakh. Gas supplies through a pipeline from Armenia that runs through Azerbaijani-held areas stopped on December 13. That prompted the de facto authorities to close schools due to the cold weather. The Azerbaijani state gas company said Baku had nothing to do with the disruption. Gas deliveries were restored on December 16.
As a result of the Azerbaijani action, civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh are suffering, Mher Margarian, the Armenian ambassador to the UN, told the UN Security Council on December 20. Margarian said Armenia had called the emergency meeting because of what he said was Azerbaijan's "massive campaign of state-sponsored protests along the Lachin Corridor," creating "an evolving humanitarian crisis" by blocking the only route in and out of Nagorno-Karabakh.
At least 1,100 civilians have been stranded along the blocked highway for the past week, and transferring patients for urgent treatment in Armenian hospitals "has become impossible, which has already resulted in the fatality of a critically ill patient," Margarian said, according to the AP news agency.
"By orchestrating an unlawful blockade of the Lachin Corridor under the made-up pretext of environmental concerns," Margarian was quoted as saying, "Azerbaijan has effectively targeted a population of 120,000 people by isolating them in precarious humanitarian conditions during the winter season."
Yashar Aliyev, Azerbaijan's UN ambassador, said that under the November 2020 Russian-brokered deal the Lachin district was returned to Azerbaijan, which committed to guaranteeing the security of people, vehicles, and cargo moving along the road. "Neither the government of Azerbaijan nor the protesting activists have blocked the Lachin road," Aliyev told the UN Security Council meeting on December 20.
"Video clips shared on social media show unimpeded passage of the various types of vehicles, including ambulances and humanitarian convoys," Aliyev said. "The claims regarding alleged humanitarian consequences of the situation are equally false. This is nothing other than another manifestation of reckless manipulation by Armenia of the situation for obvious malign political purposes."
Questions have been asked about the true motives of those at the roadblock. An investigation by RFE/RL's Armenian Service indicated that among the self-described environmental protesters were figures known for their support of the Azerbaijani government rather than their eco-activism.
Others say the protesters' concerns are legitimate, noting that Russian troops in Karabakh did not allow officials from Azerbaijan's Environment Ministry to inspect the mines, amounting to what Baku considers a violation of its sovereignty. The mining company has also spoken of its rights being violated.
U.S. Deputy UN Ambassador Robert Wood told the Security Council that Washington "is deeply concerned by the ongoing impediments to [the] use of the Lachin Corridor and the growing humanitarian implications of this situation."
"We call on the government of Azerbaijan and others responsible for the corridor's security to restore free movement, including for humanitarian and commercial use, as soon as possible," Wood said.
Russian Deputy UN Ambassador Anna Evstigneyeva said that recently Russia "has been taking every effort to ensure prompt settlement of the situation." As a result, she said, natural gas supplies had been delivered to Nagorno-Karabakh and traffic on the road was partly unblocked.
Russian Influence Waning?
As per the 2020 Kremlin-negotiated deal, Russia has deployed some 2,000 troops in Nagorno-Karabakh. Their presence, however, has not stopped Azerbaijani forces from making gains. As the International Crisis Group noted, "When cease-fires broke down in March and August, Azerbaijani troops were able to take control of strategic sites inside the Nagorno-Karabakh area patrolled by Russian peacekeepers."
In August, the Lachin Corridor witnessed more tensions after Baku announced it had finished its section of a new road through the area, paving the way for Azerbaijani troops to take control of villages in the region, and prompting questions over the fate of ethnic Armenians there.
A month later in September, Nagorno-Karabakh witnessed the most intense fighting since the 44-day war in 2020. Figures released by both sides showed that more than 200 soldiers were killed in the border clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Russian troops' inability to maintain control has highlighted what some commentators see as the eroding influence in the volatile region of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose military finds itself bogged down in a costly, bloody invasion of Ukraine.
In late October, Moscow attempted to regain the initiative when Putin hosted the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Sochi, but the summit yielded little.
As Moscow's influence appears to wane, Washington and Brussels have increased their diplomatic efforts in the region.
Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, visited Yerevan in a high-profile trip on September 17-18, during which she blamed Azerbaijan for failing to adhere to the cease-fire. She was the highest-ranking U.S. official to travel to Armenia since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
On October 6, at the European Political Community summit in Prague, Pashinian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met in person and agreed to send a mission of EU observers to their mutual border.
That two-month monitoring mission ended earlier this week, as the EU said in a statement late on December 19.
The European Union is committed to helping Armenia overcome serious security challenges, but it cannot "save" the South Caucasus country, according to the Czech Republic's incoming ambassador in Yerevan. "One of my tasks as the Czech ambassador will be to prove and to show my counterparts and friends that we, as Europe and the Czech Republic, haven't abandoned Armenia," Petr Piruncik told RFE/RL's Armenian Service in a recent interview.
Piruncik also said Russia, with its military force in Karabakh, was primarily responsible for the safe functioning of the Lachin Corridor under the terms of the Russian-brokered agreement that ended the 2020 war.
"The main side to ask what is going on and what is going to happen, what are you going to do, is Russia because they have agreed that they will make sure that the corridor is open and the peace is kept," he said.