As blockade drags on, Karabakh Armenians fear they’ll be squeezed out
Dependent on outside aid and braced for renewed clashes with Azerbaijan, there are fears Karabakh Armenians might soon be forced out of the breakaway region for good.
For more than seven weeks now in the Armenian border city of Goris, hotels have become homes for people with nowhere else to go.
"All our rooms have been given up for refugees," the concierge at one Soviet-built guesthouse in the mountain resort says, looking out over a pile of suitcases and laundry bags in the lobby. "But they haven't really run away from anywhere. They just can't get back."
This used to be a waypoint on the winding road that links Armenia and the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, inside Azerbaijan's internationally recognized territory but controlled since a bloody war that followed the fall of the Soviet Union by its ethnic Armenian majority. Since December 12, though, the only route in or out – known as the Lachin Corridor – has been closed after self-described Azerbaijani environmental activists pushed past the Russian peacekeepers tasked with guarding the highway and set up camp on the tarmac, blocking vehicles. Now, Goris is the end of the line.
With the vital link closed to civilian traffic, around 100,000 residents are dependent on humanitarian aid delivered by the Red Cross and Moscow's troops. Store shelves are bare, while heating and electricity cuts out regularly. Rationing of basic goods has been rolled out to help conserve supplies until spring, which will bring warmer weather and the prospect of fresh fruit and vegetables grown in Nagorno-Karabakh's fertile soil. But, for those stranded away from home, it's harder to hold out hope things will improve any time soon.
"I traveled to Yerevan to have an operation," says Oksana, a 38-year-old mother of three from the region's de facto capital, Stepanakert (which Azerbaijan calls Khankandi). "This is the second one on my thyroid – I had a malignant tumor." But, while she was recovering from the surgery in hospital, the news broke that the only way back had been blocked.
"I have my son with me, but I have another son and my daughter at home in Stepanakert with their dad. We didn't think the blockade would last, and the children were waiting for us with presents for the New Year holidays," she explains over coffee in the hotel canteen. "Instead, I spent it here. They made dinner for us. I cried."
At the heart of the row over the road are claims that the Karabakh Armenians are using it to bring in landmines under the noses of the Russian peacekeepers, and exporting gold mined illegally and at the expense of the environment.
While the protesters blocking the road appear to have Baku’s organizational support and backing, Azerbaijani officials like Foreign Ministry spokesman Aykhan Hajizada deny a connection. "We have repeatedly made clear, however, that we do support their call to end illegal mining activities on Azerbaijani territory and the misuse of [the] Lachin road for illegal activities," he adds.
According to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the crisis is a pretext for "ethnic cleansing" of the Karabakh Armenians, and the Russian peacekeepers deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh after a war over the region in 2020 are "becoming silent witnesses" to those events.
Despite that, Farid Shafiyev, a former Azerbaijani ambassador and director of Baku's influential Center of Analysis of International Relations, tells Eurasianet that there is still hope for a diplomatic solution. "We have given the Armenians a series of proposals, including [Azerbaijan] taking control of mining areas and taking control of traffic to ensure no military hardware is being brought in."
However, he adds, it is unlikely the Lachin Corridor will ever be entirely open again as it was in the past. "They want unimpeded, uncontrolled access to Karabakh to enable them to militarily occupy the region. It's not about food or medicine, it's about their ability to maintain their separatist illegal entity. They should understand – this game is over." At the same time, he goes on, both sides should work to strike a deal before 2025 when the Russian peacekeepers' mandate ends, as Baku pushes to take control of the entire region.
In a January 30 report, the International Crisis Group warned that "two years after their second war over Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan are uncomfortably close to starting a third." After Baku's forces took a series of strategic heights inside Armenia during an offensive in September, the Belgium-based NGO says, and "with Azerbaijan enjoying a greater military edge, and Russia distracted by the war in Ukraine, there is little to keep Baku from pressing its advantage along this new front should it grow impatient with talks."
The trilateral agreement between the two countries, underwritten by Russia, ended the 2020 war but required Armenia to withdraw its troops from Nagorno-Karabakh. Yerevan insists it is complying with that demand, but Azerbaijan considers any and all armed units in the region to be "illegal separatist formations" covered by the deal. That includes the local ethnic Armenian Karabakh Defense Army which, along with a handful of increasingly ineffective Russian troops, is all that holds the line between Baku's forces and their own homes.
For many in Nagorno-Karabakh, the prospect of local Armenian forces laying down their weapons or allowing the construction of an Azerbaijani checkpoint on the Lachin Corridor spells the end of their unrecognized republic and, with it, their hopes of continuing to live in the region.
"Armenians in Karabakh […] must understand that their future depends on their integration into Azerbaijani society," Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said in early January, while ruling out any special status for Karabakh Armenians and saying some could be prosecuted for criminal activity. Those who want to maintain their independence, Aliyev added, should "leave by their own will – we don't care where they go."
"Lots of people are already considering leaving if the road reopens," says Armine Aghajanyan, another Karabakh Armenian mother stuck with her children in a hotel in Goris. "Not for themselves, but to protect their children."
Many of the stranded Karabakh Armenians believe the Russian peacekeepers will carry them across the blockade in exchange for cash, and several people who were on one side of the corridor have inexplicably turned up on the other side in recent weeks. (The Russian Ministry of Defense did not respond to a request for comment on allegations of corruption among its forces in the region.) Aghajanyan is trying to get home but knows the situation there is becoming more and more precarious with every passing day.
According to Tigran Grigoryan, a political analyst from Nagorno-Karabakh and the head of Yerevan-based Regional Center for Democracy and Security think tank, "Azerbaijan's tactic is to make life so difficult that people want to leave. They could open the road in one direction and expect some kind of 'voluntary' ethnic cleansing to follow. But many people simply have nowhere else to go."
Fears that scenario could lead to an exodus of Karabakh Armenians are growing in Yerevan. "According to the information we have, Azerbaijan is inclined to push the situation to its extreme, then temporarily open the corridor for a few days with the expectation that, after experiencing social, economic, and psychological hardship, many Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will leave their homes and native land," Vahan Hunanyan, the spokesman for Armenia's Foreign Ministry, tells Eurasianet. "Azerbaijan will then close the corridor again, repeating this cycle until the last Armenian leaves Nagorno-Karabakh."
For the time being, though, people like Oksana and Armine are still intent on getting back however they can. At the Tegh checkpoint, just outside Goris, a 42-year-old man named Nairi has driven down from Yerevan to try his luck crossing. "My family are there and I wanted to see for myself why I can't get to them," he explains. "Why don't the Russians open the road? What will happen to our people there? I don't know," he says. "Nobody knows."
Gabriel Gavin is a British journalist covering the former Soviet Union and Turkey.