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Seven months of crippling blockade in Nagorno-Karabakh

The blockade began on 12 December 2022. When six months passed and neither Western powers nor Russia spoke out against Azerbaijani actions, the blockade intensified.



A serviceman of Karabakh's Defence Army fires an artillery piece towards Azeri positions during fighting over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region on September 28, 2020, AFP.

Not many people are aware that Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh have been under blockade for seven months.


As time passes, Azerbaijan has increasingly tightened its blockade of approximately 120,000 people. There has been little international reaction to what can be considered a "crime against humanity".


The International Court of Justice issued a statement on 23 February 2023, ordering Azerbaijan to “take all measures at its disposal to ensure unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles and cargo along the Lachin Corridor in both directions.”


Even the media-shy International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has made an urgent appeal, demanding urgent unblocking of access to Karabakh.


“Tens of thousands of people rely on humanitarian aid reaching them through these routes. The civilian population is now facing a lack of life-saving medication and essentials like hygiene products and baby formula," it warned.


"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. The last time the ICRC was allowed to bring medical items and essential food items into the area was several weeks ago.”


Still, a convoy of trucks transporting 360 tons of urgent food aid, sent from Armenia to the besieged Nagorno Karabakh, was stopped by Azerbaijani forces blocking the Lachin Corridor. This material is only enough to meet the population's needs for two days.


Azerbaijani leadership is employing medieval siege tactics to subdue the independentist ethnic Armenian population of Karabakh.


Despite this, the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh and its population has been deemed by global media as not “newsworthy”. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh are living under blockade and being punished because of who they are.


The fate of Nagorno-Karabakh and its population has been deemed by global media as not "newsworthy". The people of Nagorno- Karabakh are living under blockade and being punished because of who they are.

Evolution of the blockade

The blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh — or Artsakh in Armenian — began on 12 December 2022. Azerbaijan sent its special forces and government officials disguised as "environmental activists" to block the only road linking Karabakh to Armenia and hence to the outside world, pretending to be protesting for the preservation of the environment.


Later, on 25 March Azeri "environmentalists" withdrew, and instead Azerbaijani military openly took over strategic positions on Lachin Corridor, further hindering any limited transport between Karabakh and Armenia.


For six months neither Western powers nor Russia spoke out against Azerbaijani actions. As a result, the blockade was intensified. On 23 April, they completely closed the bridge over Lachin Corridor by erecting a checkpoint and closing the road with concrete blocks.



A view of an Azerbaijani checkpoint recently set up at the entry of the Lachin corridor, the Armenian-populated breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region's only land link with Armenia, by a bridge across the Hakari river on May 2, 2023, AFP.

And finally, on 15 June, Azerbaijan stopped even limited deliveries by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which transported medications and sick people to Armenia for treatment.


Yet, even ICRC ambulances transporting severely sick people are stopped by the Azerbaijani military, and passengers are forced to disembark, an act seen by the Armenian population as intentional humiliation.


Little by little, Azerbaijan imposed a total siege of Karabakh, shutting down transport, and also electricity and gas deliveries from Armenia. The population is on the brink of starvation, with no access to medical supplies/treatment, energy and transportation.


The blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh — or Artsakh in Armenian — began on 12 December 2022. When six months passed and neither Western powers nor Russia spoke out against Azerbaijani actions, the blockade intensified.

Deteriorating conditions

Even before the blockade began, Azerbaijani soldiers were regularly opening fire on Armenian agricultural workers tending their fields. This has intensified as of late. There seems to be an undeclared aim to stop imports of food but also hamper the ability of locals to produce their own food.


Grocery shops are empty and abandoned for lack of food to sell. Public transportation stopped their services due to the lack of fuel, schools are closed and agricultural work has come to a standstill because of the lack of diesel.



Demonstrators rally to demand the reopening of a blockaded road linking the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Armenia and to decry crisis conditions in the region, in Stepanakert on July 25, 2023, AFP

To generate electricity, the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities overused the water resources of Sarsank Reservoir in the winter months: now the reservoir is empty of water, which means that agricultural fields downstream will not receive any water during the hot summer months.


The population has resorted to home gardening to produce food to eat — something that is possible in villages but not for a city of 60,000 inhabitants like the regional capital Stepanakert.


There have been several cases of deaths because of a lack of urgent transportation and miscarriages have become commonplace.


Three-decades of conflict

This man-made disaster is the continuation of a three-decade-long conflict for control over a mountainous land and its population. It is a clash between two ethnic groups but also of two principles.


Armenians insist on their right to self-determination, while Azerbaijan insists on territorial integrity. The Karabakh conflict is the first ethno-territorial conflict in the former Soviet Union.


Nagorno-Karabakh (Mountainous Karabakh) Autonomous Region, as it was known in Soviet times, was an ethnic-Armenian inhabited mountainous region, but the Soviets placed it inside Soviet Azerbaijan, instead of neighbouring Soviet Armenia.


Grocery shops are empty and abandoned for lack of food to sell. Public transportation stopped their services due to the lack of fuel, schools are closed and agricultural work has come to a standstill because of the lack of diesel.

On 20 February 1988, when the local Soviet (legislative body) passed a motion demanding Moscow to detach its region from being ruled by Soviet Azerbaijan so that it can unify with its ethnic kin in neighbouring Soviet Armenia.


The reason for such a demand — which had vast popular support in Karabakh — was the systematic discrimination they faced by the Azeri authorities, and the promises of Mikhail Gorbachev of perestroika and glasnost, reforming the Soviet system and revising former injustices.


Yet, a week after Karabakh demanded the change in status, anti-Armenian pogroms erupted 300 km away, in the industrial town of Sumgait. The pogroms lasted three days, during which groups of young men attacked Armenian houses, killing, raping, and burning.


The Sumgait pogroms transformed a political conflict over the administrative status of a rural region, into an inter-communal conflict, with population exchanges between Armenia and Azerbaijan, both still part of the Soviet Union. The Sumgait pogrom also marked the end of hope of reforming the Soviet Union, and the start of its rapid disintegration.


With the unexpected collapse of the USSR, Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent states and were already at war against each other for the control of Karabakh. The war lasted the years, leaving behind an estimated 30,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees from both sides.


In the First Karabakh War, Armenian forces emerged as victors, taking control of not only Nagorno-Karabakh, but parts of Azerbaijan proper surrounding it. When a ceasefire was signed in May 1994, both sides were exhausted.


For 26 years, diplomatic negotiations mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) failed to yield results. Yet, the sides were very close to an agreement, based on Azerbaijan recognising Karabakh self-determination and, in return, the Armenian side would return Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh occupied during the war.


Heydar Aliyev was close to signing such an agreement, motivated by the fact that he was preparing his son Ilham to succeed him, and wanted to solve this major conflict before he took over. But strong opposition from within his close circle stopped the deal.


With the unexpected collapse of the USSR, Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent states and were already at war against each other for the control of Karabakh. The war lasted the years killing 30,000 and turning hundreds of thousands into refugees.

Turning point

In 2003 Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father as the president of Azerbaijan. This coincided with the construction of a major pipeline in 2005 linking Baku and its Caspian Sea offshore oil reserves, with the Turkish sea terminal Ceyhan.


It not only poured billions of US dollars into Azerbaijani coffers but also solidified Azerbaijan's alliance with Turkey. The desire for reaching a negotiated solution faded away, as Azerbaijan spent billions of dollars on modern weaponry from Russia, Israel, and Turkey.


The Second Karabakh War erupted on 27 September 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when Azerbaijan launched a massive attack on the defensive positions of Karabakh forces. Forty-four days later, as Azerbaijani forces advanced deep into Nagorno-Karabakh and penetrated the strategic city of Shushi, a Russian-mediated ceasefire agreement was reached.


The deal saw the Armenian side return the remaining Azerbaijani provinces, and nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers were deployed in the remaining areas of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast still under Armenian control.


War pauses but it is far from over

Before the 2020 war, the Azerbaijani leader promised the "highest level of autonomy" to Karabakh Armenians, to end the conflict. Yet, after the war in 2020 and his military victory Ilham Aliyev changed his tune.



Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and President of the European Council Charles Michel pose for a picture during a meeting in Brussels, Belgium July 15, 2023, Reuters

He said he considered the conflict to be "resolved" and that there was no need to talk about the future political status of Karabakh.


Yet, Ilham Aliyev did not abandon violence in favour of diplomacy. Azerbaijani military attacks continued against areas of Karabakh that remain under Armenian control, as well as against Armenia proper. The most violent of such attacks took place in September 2022, when Azerbaijani forces attacked the Armenian border in six different directions, and 48 hours of fighting left over 300 dead soldiers from both sides.


Waning Russian support

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russian abilities to restrain Ilham Aliyev have weakened. With the war and Western sanctions on the Russian economy, Putin needs Aliyev to export his oil and gas, including to European markets via Azerbaijan.


With the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russian abilities to restrain Ilham Aliyev have weakened. With the war and Western sanctions on the Russian economy, Putin needs Aliyev to export his oil and gas.

Moreover, Putin has a closer relationship with Ilham Aliyev, the son of a KGB officer, rather than the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power because of a popular revolution – a concept Putin hates.



Delegations, led by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov and Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan, attend a meeting in Moscow, Russia, July 25, 2023, AFP

Armenians fear that the current close relations between Putin and Aliyev, the unconditional support of Turkey to Azerbaijan, and the global attention on the war in Ukraine, have created favourable conditions for Aliyev to peruse his objective and impose a "final solution" on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.


This would entail mass deportation of its population, either in a massive military operation or by slowly squeezing the civilians and forcing them eventually to abandon their ancestorial lands.


Nagorno-Karabakh is surrounded only by Azerbaijan and has no direct border with co-nationals in Armenia, and has no access to open seas.


There are external "peacekeeping" troops from Russia stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh since November 2020, who were supposed to ensure the freedom of movement between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia proper through the Lachin Corridor.


Yet, as the Azerbaijani military took over the corridor step-by-step, Russian "peacekeepers" did not take concrete action apart from verbal protest.


The question remains whether the EU and the US will sit back and watch Ilham Aliyev ethnically cleanse Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenian population.


While the West largely tolerated Azerbaijan's aggressive behaviour toward Karabakh and Armenia, calls for sanctioning Ilham Aliyev and his fortunes in Western banks have been increasing of late.


History has shown that Azerbaijan has offered little other than violence to solve a conflict which could have otherwise been solved by diplomacy. By imposing a blockade for seven months now, the self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh is no longer an option, it is a necessity.



 

(c) 2023, Al Majalla

https://en.majalla.com/node/296531/politics/seven-months-crippling-blockade-nagorno-karabakh





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