Armenians start using Azerbaijani border post
Roughly a month after Azerbaijan installed a border post on the Lachin corridor, a small but growing number of Karabakh Armenians are using the route. But there is still strong social pressure against doing so.
When Azerbaijan first installed its border checkpoint in the Lachin corridor on April 23, the de facto authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh urged their citizens to refrain from using it as they "couldn't ensure proper security there," given Azerbaijan's record of violence against Armenians.
Indeed, during the first few weeks, few civilians crossed the checkpoint. Those who did - with Russian peacekeepers escorting them - risked being filmed and shown on Azerbaijani state TV as evidence of Karabakh Armenians' willingness to accept Azerbaijani rule.
A month and a half after the checkpoint's installation, Azerbaijani media is still circulating these videos, which aim to highlight the mild attitude of the Azerbaijani border guards toward Armenians, as they communicate in Russian without any signs of violence or conflict.
The official news center in Karabakh released a statement on June 2 saying that any use of the checkpoint "cannot be interpreted as an act legitimizing the illegal control of Azerbaijan and accepting the non-existent Azerbaijani jurisdiction over these territories" and did not mean that the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh was over.
The thrust of the statement was that Karabakhi Armenians were now allowed to use the border post.
A few days later footage was released that purportedly showed Armenians using the checkpoint without Russian peacekeeping escort for the first time. A bus with Armenian license plates can indeed be seen. But many Karabakhis were skeptical of the clip's veracity as Azerbaijani media have been known selectively edit and blur out Russian trucks in such videos.
Whether or not they are accompanied by Russian peacekeepers, Armenians' entry to the region is strictly controlled by Azerbaijan, depending on their place of registration.
On June 13, Karabakh’s ombudsman Gegham Stepanyan wrote that he knew of three cases of individuals leaving the region for medical reasons and being denied re-entry because they were registered as residing in Armenia, rather than Nagorno-Karabakh. "The Azerbaijani side allowed their exit from Artsakh and then arbitrarily and illegally prohibited their re-entry," Stepanyan wrote.
Karabakhis' initial response to the checkpoint back in April was sharp – they held demonstrations near the entrance to Stepanakert, the capital of the region, with signs reading "The checkpoint is a red line" and "We won't accept it, we won't pass."
But they've had their access to the outside world greatly restricted for six months now, and many of them are overcoming their reluctance to use the border post. (The checkpoint was set up over four months into a blockade organized by Azerbaijani government-backed "eco-activists", who ended their sit-in demonstration after it was installed.)
Along with the videos appearing in Azerbaijani media, a local newspaper in Nagorno-Karabakh reported on June 9 that 150 civilians were transported to Armenia and 160 from Armenia to Karabakh through the Azerbaijani border post in the previous week.
As willingness to use the checkpoint grows, so does the countervailing social pressure.
Russian-Armenian billionaire Ruben Vardanyan, who briefly served as Karabakh's state minister and is now a prominent critic of both the current de facto Karabakh authorities and the Armenian government, came out against use of the checkpoint.
His organization, the Front for the Security and Development of Artsakh, published a statement on June 6 telling the government to review its decision to allow travel through the corridor, which it called "crossing a red line."
The statement also urged the government to refrain from "making decisions of strategic importance without public discussions, without examining the dangers arising from those decisions."
On June 13, Vardanyan posted on his social media that "we are told that we have no choice but to use Azerbaijan's established checkpoint," adding: "Thankfully, only a few in #Artsakh/ #NagornoKarabakh share this perspective."
The border passage issue has become a hot topic of discussion on social media. In a Facebook post, one resident of Stepanakert criticized those crossing the border, saying their actions amount to "integration into Azerbaijan on a state level." A woman from Stepanakert, currently living in Yerevan, responded that "One day, I will ultimately want to visit my parents in Stepanakert, or my parents will simply want to visit me in Yerevan. If the only way is through the checkpoint, then I can't exclude the possibility of using it."
"Integration" is the official discourse promoted by Azerbaijan regarding the fate of Karabakh Armenians. It considers their fate an entirely internal matter.
Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, meanwhile, are seeking international guarantees for dialogue between Baku and the Karabakh Armenians. But Baku responds with ultimatums that the Karabakh de facto authorities should dissolve their governing structures and seek "amnesty."
Karabakh Armenians considering going through the Azerbaijani checkpoint face a tough choice: On the one hand, there are security concerns and the risk of not being let back in, plus the censure they will face from many fellow Armenians.
But on the other hand, there is no other opportunity in sight for reuniting with long-unseen loved ones on the other side of the blockade.
Lilit Shahverdyan is a journalist based in Stepanakert.