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With Tightening Of Blockade, Azerbaijan Presents Karabakh Armenians With A Choice: Surrender Or Starve

Armenian trucks carrying humanitarian aid for Nagorno-Karabakh are seen stranded not far away from an Azerbaijani checkpoint set up at the entry of the Lachin Corridor on July 30.
Armenian trucks carrying humanitarian aid for Nagorno-Karabakh are seen stranded not far away from an Azerbaijani checkpoint set up at the entry of the Lachin Corridor on July 30.

After seven months of an ever-tightening blockade, Azerbaijan has in effect narrowed the options for the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to two stark choices: submit to rule from Baku, or the deprivation and suffering will continue.

Azerbaijan has now cut off all shipments of food, fuel, and other critical supplies to the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia.

Reports from inside the territory paint a dire picture: Grocery store shelves are completely empty, even basic food items like bread are rationed, and there is so little fuel that the entire public transportation system has been shut down. Miscarriages have spiked threefold, the result of "both the stressful situation and the lack of a balanced diet," the head doctor at a maternity clinic told local media.

"The civilian population is now facing a lack of lifesaving medication and essentials like hygiene products and baby formula," the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a July 25 statement. "Fruits, vegetables, and bread are increasingly scarce and costly, while some other food items such as dairy products, sunflower oil, cereal, fish, and chicken are not available."

In the face of this mounting crisis, the Azerbaijani government is offering a solution: It can provide food, fuel, and whatever else Karabakh needs. But for the Karabakh Armenians, it is a proposition that comes with too many strings attached. They have rejected it.

"How can we accept humanitarian aid from the country that has led us to this disaster? It is using one hand to strangle us and the other hand to feed us," said the territory's de facto president, Arayik Harutyunian, in a July 24 live-streamed press conference.

Another ethnic Armenian official in Nagorno-Karabakh put it more bluntly.

"What would you do if a terrorist blocks your access to a water wellspring in a desert, tortures you for a while, then offers you his urine to drink?" wrote Artak Beglaryan, an adviser to the territory's state minister, on Twitter.

The crisis is deepening as Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders continue to negotiate over the future of the territory. Azerbaijan is seeking to regain full control of Nagorno-Karabakh, which ethnic Armenian forces have controlled for three decades. Breaking the territory's economic links to Armenia, while reestablishing those with Azerbaijan, could create facts on the ground that would influence the diplomatic process in Baku's favor.

And so the Karabakh Armenians are resisting, even in the face of mounting hardship.

A group of Karabakh residents even erected their own blockade, in the town of Askeran (known in Azerbaijani as Asgaran), on the road that Baku has proposed to open up as a channel for supplies from the nearby Azerbaijani city of Aghdam. On July 18, a small group of protesters marched to the site, and with the aid of cranes, laid several concrete barriers across the road.

The protesters argued that the offer from Azerbaijan is a sort of Trojan horse: By accepting it, they would be opening the door to Azerbaijani rule, which they believe would result in Azerbaijan eventually driving them out of their homes. Participants carried signs reading, "The road to Aghdam is the road to ethnic cleansing."

"We will not allow ourselves to be integrated into Azerbaijan by humanitarian hardships," one protester told the news website Kavkazskiy Uzel. "The next step will be trade, and the final result will be the complete absorption of Artsakh by Azerbaijan." (Artsakh is an alternative Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh.)

The protest was organized by a group led by Ruben Vardanian, a Russian-Armenian billionaire who had a brief career as a senior official in the de facto Karabakh government before reinventing himself as an activist leader trying to keep Karabakh Armenian.

The Askeran blockade is supported by Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto government. In his press conference, Harutyunian said it was the "national will." In meetings between government officials and residents, it was determined that "it is a common position among the people not to accept such aid," Beglarian told RFE/RL.

Baku and Yerevan have been locked in a dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh for years. Armenian-backed separatists seized the mainly Armenian-populated region from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s that killed some 30,000 people. Diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict brought little progress, and the two sides fought another war in 2020 that lasted six weeks before a Russian-brokered cease-fire, resulting in Armenia losing control over parts of the region and seven adjacent districts.

Under Armenian control, Nagorno-Karabakh's only outlet to the outside world was the Lachin Corridor, which connected the territory to Armenia. As a result of the 2020 war, Azerbaijan retook the land surrounding the road, and the cease-fire agreement stipulated that Russian peacekeepers would control and protect the route.

In 2022, Baku and Yerevan embarked on negotiations aimed at finally resolving the conflict. And as that process advances, Nagorno-Karabakh's reabsorption into Azerbaijan proper appears to many to be increasingly inevitable. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, who is in negotiations with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev over a comprehensive agreement to resolve the conflict, has said he is ready to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory. That position has also been tacitly endorsed by the various mediators of the peace talks, including the United States, the European Union, and Russia.

But with the hard-line siege tactics, Baku could be overplaying its hand.

"They are basically trying to starve out the Karabakh Armenians and get them to give in," one diplomat familiar with the negotiations told RFE/RL on the condition of anonymity so as to speak more openly. Foreign diplomats have been trying to apply pressure on Azerbaijan, but thus far "unfortunately we haven't been able to achieve results," the diplomat said.

So far, that pressure has consisted mainly of tough private conversations and increasingly strongly worded statements, to which Azerbaijan has responded defiantly.

"There is a trade-off" between being publicly tough on Azerbaijan and being treated as an honest broker with the ability to help the two sides come to an acceptable resolution, the diplomat said.

But at some point, Baku could push too far. "I think that moment is not too far off," the diplomat said.

The fact that Karabakh Armenians are refusing the shipments from Aghdam shows that the issue amounts to a political dispute, not a humanitarian crisis, Azerbaijani officials and media have argued.

The refusal to accept aid from Aghdam "demonstrates both their insidious intentions, and confirms that the claims on the humanitarian situation is political blackmail," said Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov in a July 25 statement.

The day the blockade was erected in Askeran, President Aliyev said it put the lie to Armenian claims that Azerbaijan was blockading Karabakh. "Today they put up concrete blocks on the Aghdam-Asgaran road," he said in a speech in nearby Susa (known in Armenian as Shushi). "Why should goods be delivered from another country? This is illogical. But instead of accepting this gesture, concrete blocks were placed there. So who is blocking whom? This is the whole point."

The tightening of the Azerbaijani blockade has proceeded systematically over the past several months. In December 2022, a group of Azerbaijani government-backed protesters blocked the road, effectively restricting traffic only to limited convoys accompanied either by the Russian peacekeepers or by the ICRC.

At the end of April, Azerbaijan established a border checkpoint on the corridor, and some Karabakh Armenians began using the crossing. But following an incident in which Armenian forces fired on the checkpoint (the two sides dispute the circumstances), Azerbaijan completely closed the border on June 15.

"The former 'Lachin Corridor' was abused as a door for separatism and occupation," wrote Vasif Huseynov, an analyst at the Azerbaijani state-run think tank Center for Analysis of International Relations, on Twitter. "No one should expect Azerbaijan to give Armenia this card again. Those who want to deliver humanitarian cargo to the region, [the] Agdam-Xankendi Road is open."

Since mid-June, the only crossings at Lachin have been of patients being evacuated from Karabakh to Armenia, where there is better medical care, accompanied by the ICRC. That channel, too, was shut down temporarily when Azerbaijan accused Red Cross drivers of smuggling commercial products in aid vehicles. The Red Cross acknowledged that "without our knowledge four hired drivers tried to transport some commercial goods in their own vehicles, which were temporarily displaying the ICRC emblem."

On July 29, Azerbaijani border guards arrested one patient, Vagif Khachatrian, saying he was wanted on war crimes charges from the first war more than 30 years ago. De facto Karabakh Armenian officials call the charges false. In any case, the episode is likely to further tighten even that narrow lifeline.

Pushing the Aghdam road option could be a negotiating tactic aimed at reducing, not totally eliminating, Karabakh's dependence on the Lachin Corridor and the concomitant economic ties to Armenia, said Shujaat Ahmadzada, a researcher at the Baku-based Topchubashov Center, which focuses on international relations and security.

WATCH: Residents of Stepanakert told RFE/RL of severe shortages of food and medicines after Azerbaijan blocked the main road to the mostly ethnic Armenian-inhabited parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars over the breakaway region, with the most recent major conflict in 2020.

'Every Day Is A Test': Nagorno-Karabakh Struggles Amid Azerbaijan Blockade
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And for now, Baku is confident that the international community is not going to take more serious action, he said. Azerbaijan will push "until the diplomatic pressure from foreign actors (the U.S., the EU, and Russia) reaches the level that Azerbaijan will have little to no room for maneuver," Ahmadzada said. "So far, it seems the reaction is not on that level…. There's no state/actor/organization willing to damage its relations with Azerbaijan for the sake of Karabakh Armenians."

However it works out at the negotiating table, the tactic could poison the Azerbaijani state's relations with the ethnic Armenian population that Baku says are its own citizens.

The threat of starvation is a "tried-and-true tactic, used over millennia," the diplomat familiar with the negotiations said. But it could be counterproductive even to Azerbaijan's goals and will make reintegrating the Karabakh Armenians into Azerbaijan more difficult. "It just creates bad blood both in the region and internationally. So why do it?"

The hardball approach "vindicates the worst fears of the Karabakh Armenian population vis-a-vis the Azerbaijani state," wrote Laurence Broers, an associate fellow at Chatham House and author of the book, Armenia And Azerbaijan: Anatomy Of A Rivalry.

Under these circumstances, "any negotiated outcomes risk being discredited as the results of coerced agreement under duress. A peace that is extorted today will unravel tomorrow," he wrote on Twitter.

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