By Mia Jin Haagensli, MSc Politics of the Middle East
As of December 12, the Lachin corridor, a mountain road linking Armenia and the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, has been blocked. The corridor is the only road connecting the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, with Armenia. Thus, it is considered ´the lifeline´ of the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh. With a supply of food, medicine, gas and other necessities only lasting a few days from when the blockade first took place, we are now, weeks later, looking at a humanitarian crisis. The vast majority, around 99%, of the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh are Armenian and as long as the Lachin corridor is blocked, the situation will get more challenging by the day for the 120,000 Armenians, 30,000 of them children, 20,000 elderly and 9,000 suffering from disabilities, living in the enclave. According to Mesrob Kassemdjian, doctoral researcher in the Politics and International Studies department at SOAS, “Azerbaijan is trying to coerce Armenia into making a major territorial concession which would see Yerevan relinquish part of Southern Armenia. This would allow Baku to have a sovereign land bridge connecting Azerbaijan to the Nakhchivan exclave while simultaneously cutting Armenia off from Iran. That way, Armenia, already a landlocked country, will be completely surrounded by a hostile Azerbaijan and Turkey, as well as their ally and client Georgia”. Thus, the blockade of the corridor seems to be a way for Azerbaijan to surround Armenia and force them to give up their critical border to Iran. Kassemdjian fears that the blockade will not be lifted until Armenia accepts this devastating deal – a scenario he predicts could spell the beginning of the end for the Republic of Armenia.
“With a supply of food, medicine, gas and other necessities only lasting a few days from when the blockade first took place, we are now, weeks later, looking at a humanitarian crisis”
Nagorno-Karabakh is located within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. However, the contemporary psycho-political borders of the South Caucasus were, in the words of Kassemdjian, “imposed upon the region by the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union” which resulted in Nagorno-Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian indigenous population being excluded from modern day Armenia and placed within Azerbaijan. Baku has, however, never exercised sovereign control of the territory. Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan entered into a conflict over the status of the territory. Over the years, there have been various conflicts, two of the most notable being a war from 1988 till 1994 as well as one in 2020.
From 1988 until 1994, the majority of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, supported by Armenia, were in an ethnic, territorial conflict with Azerbaijan. This conflict, known as The First Nagorno-Karabakh War, took place in parallel to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. At that time, the parliament of Nagorno-Karabakh voted in favour of uniting with Armenia. In relation, a referendum was held, one which the Azerbaijani population of the region boycotted. As Azerbaijan wished to suppress the separatist movement, as a way of not losing control of territory to Armenia, and Armenia was in favour of it, as the region is inhabited almost solely by Armenians, a ´full-scale war´ broke out in 1991. Then followed seven years of ethnic cleansing and territorial dispute resulting in tens of thousands of losses on both accounts and around 1 million displaced, roughly 600,000 of them Azerbaijani and 400,000 Armenian. At one point, Armenian forces gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh and its seven adjacent territories. For this period of time, lasting almost 30 years, the Lachin corridor was the source of free movement between the country and the region.
This changed in 2020 when the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War took place. Powerplay, clashes over movement, dissatisfaction with territorial division and insufficient peace talks all culminated in this armed conflict formally lasting 44 days. Azerbaijan, with the support of Turkey, an overload of advanced weaponry from Israel and a military budget more than three times the size as the one of Armenia, defeated Armenia and gained control over territories previously managed by them – including the Lachin corridor. When Armenia lost, there were big disputes on the amount of land the country was to give up. Armenia insisted on not giving up control of the Lachin corridor in fear of Azerbaijan using it as a means of control. As Celine Hovanisjan, an Armenian-Norwegian International Relations student, stated, “it seems the common consensus was that if they were to gain control over the corridor, they could use it to control and suppress Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh at any time”. Following, Hovanisjan states, “what we feared could happen, is now happening – and it is not the first time”. What is now happening is, in the words of Kassemdjian, an Azerbaijani state-sponsored initiative where soldiers, portraying themselves as eco-activists, are blocking the corridor. According to Kassemdjian, what is said in the media to be a way of protesting the alleged illegal mining of natural resources in the region is, in reality, a way for the Azerbaijani state to show that they can terrorize the local Armenian population at any time. Thus, “they wish to demonstrate that they have no future in the region and induce an ethnic cleansing”.
In the midst of this, there is also the aspect of Russian involvement. With disputes over territory and ownership of land, Russia came in to function as the ´mediator´. Set up through a trilateral agreement which ended the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, Russian peacekeepers were given the job to control the corridor and ´prevent an illegal blockade´. As such a blockade is now in full bloom, it seems safe to conclude that, as Hovanisjan put it, “the peacekeepers are not doing an adequate job”.
As Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, stated in late December, ´the Lachin Corridor must be re-opened immediately. The closure has the potential to cause a significant humanitarian crisis´. With the corridor having been blocked for well over a month, it seems the damage is done. As explained by Hovanisjan, ´the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh have not had the most advanced systems of producing food, medicine, and other necessities as they have been able to rely on their close ties with, and proximity to, Armenia – even more so after losing an extensive amount of land as a result of the 2020-war´. Before the blockade, around 400 tons of food and medicine were delivered to the region daily. With all roads blocked, most markets of Nagorno-Karabakh are closed and pharmacies and shops are nearly empty. In addition to this, the blockade hinders around 1,100 people from returning to their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh, separating almost 300 children from their parents.
With the blockade having lasted for several weeks and with the crisis becoming more critical by the day, it is a concerning truth that many major news outlets have yet to comment on what is happening. When asked why this may be, both Hovanisjan and Kassemdjian pointed towards oil and gas investments. Since the start of 2022, Azerbaijan has exported well over 7 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Europe and as of July the same year, an agreement doubling the exports by 2027, was signed. Not only does the EU position itself as Azerbaijan´s biggest exporter, it also labels itself its second-biggest importer. As for Britain alone, British Petroleum produced over 20 million tonnes of oil in the country in 2022. As Kassemdjian put it, “is it very unlikely we will see anything negative about Azerbaijan in British press, even Western for that matter. When it comes to business, human rights fall short”.
The humanitarian crisis currently happening in Nagorno-Karabakh will have devastating consequences. Much damage is already done, but not to the point of no return. According to Kassemdjian, “solidarity, support and, most importantly, acknowledgement, could result in Azerbaijan backing down”. “Remember, we are all human beings. We are better than this.”
Photo Caption: Map of the Area (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).