Vital supplies dwindle as 'eco-activists' blockade a breakaway region guarded by Russia
In the village of Tegh, Armenia, stationary vehicles clog the mountainous route to a border crossing where a mysterious diplomatic logjam has brought traffic to a halt.
This is the entrance to the only road that links the Armenian-majority breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in Azerbaijan, to the outside world via Armenia.
An Armenian soldier mans the first checkpoint, followed by barricades erected by Russian peacekeeping troops. Sandwiched between the barriers is a group of Azerbaijani self-styled activists carrying signs decrying "eco-cide," and preventing nearly all movement in the corridor.
The road -- known as the Lachin corridor -- is a lynchpin of a ceasefire agreement that ended a 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, guaranteeing safe passage for ethnic Armenians as well as the steady supply of goods to the territory, known to Armenians as Artsakh.
But on December 12, a group of Azerbaijanis began a round-the-clock sit-in there, wedged between Russian troops tasked with keeping the two ethnic rivals apart.
Among other things, the demonstrators allege that Nagorno-Karabakh's self-proclaimed government is carrying out an illegal mining operation in Nagorno-Karabakh with Russia's help.
Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh authorities accuse Azerbaijan of imposing a blockade through the demonstrators. A number of Western diplomats -- including US diplomats -- have called on Azerbaijan to lift the closure of the Lachin corridor. Azerbaijan has denied the allegation that it is imposing a blockade through spokespeople on Twitter.
Around 120,000 people are trapped in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, because of the demonstrations, which are a stone's throw away from Azerbaijani military positions. It's a situation which, analysts say, threatens to reignite conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and has plunged the territory into a humanitarian crisis where food, medicine and energy shortages are becoming critical.
Yet Russian peacekeeping troops thus far appear powerless to stop it.
Derenik Danielyan, 21, said he tried to enter the just over 3-mile-long Lachin corridor from Armenia on December 26 to transport toys to Nagorno-Karabakh to help children celebrate the new year.
"A Russian peacekeeping commander said that he has no right to use force against the protesters, and that he has no right to clear the road," he told CNN.
"The commander said only the Russian President (Vladimir Putin) can give us the right to clear the road."
Videos obtained by CNN of an attempt to cut through the blockade from inside Nagorno-Karabakh also showed Russian peacekeepers declining requests to clear the road.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has not responded to CNN's request for comment on the situation in the Lachin corridor.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been battling for decades over Nagorno-Karabakh. The landlocked territory in the southern Caucasus is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan while being home to a large Armenian population. Moscow, historically a security ally of Armenia, has maintained a peacekeeping force in the area since brokering the trilateral 2020 ceasefire agreement.
'Bananas are a dream'
Inside Nagorno-Karabakh, the mood is defiant, even as basic necessities disappear. Locals and officials say fresh fruit and vegetables were the first to go. Photos and video posted on social media last week show rows of empty supermarket shelves. Baby formula is nowhere to be found, locals say.
The territory also appears to be facing a severe shortage of diapers. One woman told CNN that her sister, a young mother with an infant, was setting an alarm several times a night so she could take her baby to the bathroom because of the lack of diapers.
Hospitals have had to make do with dwindling supplies of medicine, prompting the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to shuttle in 10 tons of medicines, baby formula and food for health facilities since the blockade began.
Social media video showed the Azerbaijani crowds making way for ICRC vehicles as well as Russian peacekeeping troops, who also have reportedly brought in some humanitarian supplies. On Twitter, a spokesperson for Azerbaijan's foreign ministry posted a video of ICRC trucks and an ambulance heading through the corridor, decrying the claims of a blockade as "fake news."
This week, Nagorno-Karabakh authorities rolled out a rationing system consisting of five foods: buckwheat, rice, sugar, pasta and cooking oil.
"Bananas or oranges are a dream. Potatoes are a luxury," said Nonna Poghosyan, the American University of Armenia's program coordinator in the breakaway state's largest city, Stepanakert, and a mother of twins.
"Every morning I go out with my 8-year-olds to hunt for food in the supermarkets. And they ask where all the fruits and vegetables have gone."
Last Friday, ethnic Armenians marked their Orthodox Christmas. In Nagorno-Karabakh, this was a sober affair. In Poghosyan's two-story house, they gathered around a modest meal concocted from jarred foods, a defrosted fish and potatoes, now a rarity in the territory.
Siranush Sargsyan, a journalist in Nagorno-Karabakh, said the candles usually lit to mark Christmas were also nowhere to be found. At the main cathedral in Stepanakert, social media photos showed the nave filled with rows of weary worshippers.
"In church, you could see in people's eyes, they are so sad but also so determined," said Sargsyan. "People are trying their best to create at least a little Christmas mood. We are sharing. I was given coffee in exchange for food."
"What people have in their houses they are sharing with each other. This is a light in the darkness these days."
On Wednesday, human rights group Amnesty International called on Azerbaijan to "end the blockade" of the Lachin corridor, "which has left residents of Nagorno Karabakh without access to essential goods and services. Freedom of movement and protection of economic and social rights for those affected must be ensured."
Azerbaijan accused of siege tactics
The region is no stranger to conflict. Fighting first erupted toward the end of Soviet rule, and Armenian forces took control of large swathes of territory in and around it in the early 1990s. Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, in turn seized control over large parts of those territories during a six-week war in 2020 that claimed thousands of lives.
The separatist territory was left with the main city of Stepanakert and a few surrounding towns, as well a population still reeling from the losses of a bloody 2020 conflict. Azerbaijan has long claimed it will take the territory, which is a point of national pride for Armenians because of its centuries-old Armenian heritage.
"At the moment the Azerbaijanis are in the dominant position and it's the Armenians who are suffering. It has been the other way around in the past," said Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucuses.
"This is not a black and white conflict. Both sides have been the aggressor. Currently, it's Azerbaijan for sure who is the aggressor."
Azerbaijani officials have not responded to CNN's request for comment.
As the blockade carries on with no end in sight, Nagorno-Karabakh officials say they are convinced that Azerbaijan intends to besiege, starve and grind the population into submission.
"The message that Azerbaijan is sending with these eco-activists is either you leave or you accept our rule of law, or you will starve and die because nobody cares about you all," Nagorno-Karabakh State Minister Ruben Vardanyan told CNN.
Armenian officials dismiss the Azerbaijani assertion that an Armenian minority will be protected in a country which is ruled by the autocratic President Ilham Aliyev. "It's really strange to hear people say we'll enjoy cultural autonomy (in Azerbaijan)," scoffed Vardanyan. "This is a joke."
Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation continues to worsen, locals and officials say. Last week, Stepanakert was blanketed in snow as temperatures fell below freezing. Interruptions to natural gas supplies after an accident on the main pipeline have forced the territory to ration electricity. Nagorno-Karabakh officials say they cannot conduct repairs due to the blockade.
"We need to use (electricity) sparingly," said Poghosyan, of the American University of Armenia, on Wednesday. "With the freezing temperature outside -- negative 8 (degrees centigrade) today -- the absence of electricity makes the situation even more dramatic."
A weakened Russia exacerbates the crisis
The blockade, analysts say, is directly linked to the crisis in Ukraine, where Russia's invading force has been dealt massive losses. Negotiations over a permanent settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh have dragged on over the last year, with talks bifurcating into two different tracks: one sponsored by Western countries and the other by Russia.
"Obviously Russia is weaker and more distracted because of Ukraine ... Russia doesn't want to pick a fight with Azerbaijan," said de Waal. "It's quite surprising given that this is in contravention of the November 2020 ceasefire agreement of which Russia is one of three signatories."
The eco-activists give Baku "plausible deniability," said de Waal. "Since 2020, Azerbaijan has been in the dominant position in this dispute and it has certain things it wants to achieve. It uses both negotiations and force. When negotiations don't go so well from its point of view, it uses force."
The US has also condemned the blockade, calling on Azerbaijan, as well as Russia, to take action.
"The United States remains concerned the Lachin Corridor has now been blocked for over three weeks, creating a grave humanitarian situation," said US Ambassador to the OSCE Michael Carpenter. "We thank @ICRC for providing critical aid during this time, but call on Azerbaijan and Russia to restore access immediately."
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a December 30 statement that Russia was seeking to resolve the standoff.
"We express concern about the lack of progress in restoring the full functioning of the Lachin corridor for the movement of citizens, vehicles and goods in both directions in accordance with the Statement of the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia dated November 9, 2020," Zakharova said. "The Russian side, in particular the leadership of the Russian Peacekeeping Contingent (RPC), continues to take consistent steps to resolve this situation."
Back on the Armenian side of the border, Danielyan said he was surprised by the Russian response. Armenians have grown accustomed to receiving support from Moscow, but the blockade seemed to underscore how their centuries-old relationship has weakened.
"I was very surprised that the Russians weren't moving the Azerbaijani people away," said Danielyan. "If they were real eco-activists and there weren't military people with them, the Russians wouldn't even have to use weapons."
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