Residents of Armenian enclave believe Azerbaijan’s plan is clear: to starve them into submission
For every meal, Hovig Asmaryan eats potatoes. “We fry them. And then we boil them,” he said. “It’s a healthy lifestyle for me and my family. We consume vegetables, walk on foot and get around by bike. But it’s by force.”
In his home city of Stepanakert a barter system has sprung up. “We have a fruit tree in the garden. I give fruit to my neighbours. They pass us carrots,” he said.
Asmaryan lives in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave in the territory of Azerbaijan, in the South Caucasus. It is home to about 120,000 ethnic Armenians. Supplies of basic foodstuffs, medicines and fuel used to arrive by truck, dispatched from the Armenian capital, Yerevan, a bumpy five-hour journey along the mountainous and scenic Lachin corridor. Visiting relatives took the same route.
Last December, Azerbaijan blockaded the road, in effect putting the local Armenian population under siege. Red Cross vehicles were let through, and sick patients allowed out. But in April, Baku erected a new checkpoint, and on 14 June its guards blocked the road entirely after skirmishing with their Armenian counterparts on the Hakari Bridge, which spans the international border.
As a result Nagorno-Karabakh is now experiencing acute shortages. There is little food. Also lacking are essential medicines, hygiene products and baby formula, according to the International Committee for the Red Cross. Supermarkets are empty. Public bus services have stopped because of a lack of fuel. The city’s rush hour no longer exists. Many districts are without water and electricity.
Residents say Baku’s plan is clear: to starve them into submission so that, if and when the road reopens, they leave. It is, they say, a slow-motion genocide, with hunger used as a classic weapon. Azerbaijan denies there is any blockade and says it was forced to act after environmental violations. Its lawyers dismiss Armenia’s claims as unsubstantiated and inaccurate.
The crisis, however, is real. And it is getting worse. Asmaryan said he closed down his restaurant in February after he ran out of flour and other products. He has an orchard in a village with 3,000 trees. But with no petrol available he is unable to collect the fruit, with the harvest left to rot. “This has gone on for 245 days. They are trying to make the situation worse and worse. We are not giving up,” he said.
Asmaryan took the Guardian on an afternoon video tour of Stepanakert, the capital of what Armenians call the republic of Artsakh. The Z-supermarket was locked up, its shelves empty. The market and Nostalgia shop were shut too. One store was open. But its cabinets were out of stock, with nothing to buy apart from a toy car. “They will not be satisfied until we die in the streets,” he said.
“My mother and sister have lost weight,” said Lilit Shahverdyan, an Armenian journalist based in Yerevan, whose family live in Stepanakert. “They are eating cucumber with bread for breakfast. My father stored some food before the road was closed. It isn’t going to last for ever. There is a big question as to how people will survive after summer. The mood is depressed. They are expecting something bad, hoping for the best.”
Azerbaijan – a one-party state headed by the president, Ilham Aliyev – has offered to supply the breakaway region via a crossing at the nearby Azerbaijani city of Aghdam. Shahverdyan described this as a PR move and ploy to “integrate” Nagorno-Karabakh. “The local people built barricades across the road. They don’t want to take food from Azerbaijan. They fear it will be poisoned,” she said.
The distrust on both sides is deep-rooted. After the collapse of the Russian empire in 1917, Armenia and Azerbaijan both claimed Karabakh. It broke away from Azerbaijan in a war in the early 1990s. In 2020, Azerbaijan retook territory in and around the enclave after a second war that ended in a Russia-brokered ceasefire. Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, renounced claims on the Armenians of Karabakh seceding from Azerbaijan but says their rights must be protected.
After his emphatic military victory Aliyev is in no mood to compromise and “believes he is on a roll”, Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe thinktank, argued this week. De Waal said: “Aliyev has used both diplomacy and coercion to try to complete his agenda vis-a-vis the Armenians. Already self-confident, as a non-aligned power that deals with both Russia and the west, he feels boosted by Russia’s war in Ukraine.”
Under the 2020 ceasefire agreement, Russia is supposed to ensure road transport between Armenia and Karabakh remains open, with its peacekeepers stationed at the border. Moscow’s failure to do so is “a sign of weakness”, Alissa de Carbonnel, deputy director at the International Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia programme, said. She added: “Russia is distracted. This may be one of the reasons why the [second] war happened in the first place.”
The UK, US and other western countries say they are deeply concerned by the worsening situation in Karabakh. They have urged Azerbaijan to reopen the Lachin corridor and to allow through humanitarian aid. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is trying to mediate between Baku and Yerevan. So is the European Council president, Charles Michel, who last month held the latest round of peace talks in Brussels between Aliyev and Pashinyan.
Russia has its own separate mediation track. “It’s been disastrous because we don’t have gas. We have electricity blackouts,” Armenia’s foreign minister, Ararat Mirzoyan, said on Wednesday after discussions with his Russian opposite number, Sergei Lavrov. Mirzoyan stressed the need to avert a “humanitarian disaster” there, Russia’s Tass state news agency reported.
While some diplomatic progress has been made, Azerbaijan has so far not heeded international pleas. It regards the conflict over Karabakh as an internal matter. In a speech in May, Aliyev suggested the Armenian population should “bend their necks” and accept absorption into Azerbaijan. In practical terms, that means dissolving the Artsakh government. Baku refuses to talk to the local Karabakhis and regards them as “separatists”.
This month, the former international criminal court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo described the blockade as potentially constituting a “genocide” of Karabakh Armenians and intending “to starve” them. Rodney Dixon, a lawyer appointed by Azerbaijan to give an assessment on Ocampo’s opinion, called the view “strikingly” unsubstantiated, inflammatory and inaccurate.
Farhad Mammadov, the head of Baku’s Centre for Studies of the South Caucasus thinktank, told Reuters controls on the road were necessary to prevent the transit of “arms and Armenian soldiers” to and from Karabakh. About 5,000 Armenian soldiers are stationed there. They are not a part of current negotiations. If another Azerbaijani military operation begins many will fight, in what experts say would be a virtually suicidal battle.
Asmaryan said outsiders did not really care about Karabakh’s plight, since the beleaguered region had few natural resources.
“We don’t have gold. Or oil. Or gas. We have nothing that interests the west, or the east,” he said. “The world likes to talk about human rights. But it’s all the same shit. Excuse me for saying that so bluntly.” He added: “At the end of the day we are humans too.”
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