Nagorno-Karabakh authorities stage sit-in demanding end to blockade
The de facto president and other officials are camped out in tents in Stepanakert's central square demanding that Armenia and Russia take action to end Azerbaijan's blockade.
On July 17, the de facto president of Nagorno-Karabakh, Arayik Harutyunyan, announced he was joining a sit-in protest in Stepanakert's central square demanding the end of the region's 7-month blockade.
"If within one week with international mediation the situation in Artsakh does not return to a more or less stable course, after that we will resort to tougher actions, both in Artsakh and outside," he said, using an alternative Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh.
After delivering the address from his office, Harutyunyan left the government building and headed toward the nearby camps set up in recent days. De facto Parliament Speaker Artur Tovmasyan also joined the sit-in after calling an emergency meeting with the leading parliament factions.
"Sit-ins are one of the extreme ways of struggle, but not the most extreme one," he said.
The sit-in started as thousands rallied in Stepanakert on July 14 to protest against the blockade, which has been in place to varying degrees since December 12 and has been total or near-total since June 15.
The region has endured severe shortages of food and fuel, especially in the last month. On July 18, public transportation services were cut to a bare minimum - only 2.4 percent of the pre-blockade volume, the authorities reported.
The Stepanakert protest was a response to Azerbaijan's move last week to ban Red Cross vehicles transporting critically ill patients and medication from using Lachin road connecting Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Only Red Cross vehicles had been given access to the road since the June 15 intensification of the blockade. Before that date, Russian peacekeepers had been supplying the enclave with limited amounts of food, fuel, and medicine.
The chief addressees of the protest were the Republic of Armenia, who many Karabakhi Armenians feel is poised to abandon them for the sake of peace with Azerbaijan, and Russia, whose peacekeepers Karabakhis believe are failing to protect them in line with their mission.
The protesters set up tents both in central Stepanakert and at the local airport, where the Russian peacekeepers' headquarters is located. Col-Gen Alexander Lentsov, the commander of the Russian peacekeeping mission in Karabakh, later received the local authorities and told them that he would regularly convey information on the situation in the region to Moscow.
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on July 15 in an apparent reply to the protest in Stepanakert. It called on Baku to unblock the Lachin road and lift the blockade. But it also asserted that Russia's peacekeepers could no longer be held responsible for the fate of the Karabakh Armenians.
The statement said that "by recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijani territory," Yerevan had "cardinally changed the fundamental conditions" under which the Russian-brokered cease-fire that ended the 2020 Second Karabakh War was signed.
(The statement misrepresents the actual situation in two ways: Armenia has not "recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijani territory," it has stated its willingness to do so. Plus, Armenia never recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as independent or claimed it as its own territory, and thus never officially claimed it was not part of Azerbaijan. Therefore there has been no "cardinal change" in its position.)
Shortly after the protest, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was granted permission to transfer 11 patients from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and eight people back to Karabakh who had received treatment in Armenia. It is unclear what this means in terms of ICRC's future ability to use the road.
The Stepanakert rally was held a day before the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Brussels for the latest round of talks toward a comprehensive peace treaty.
By far the biggest sticking point in those negotiations is the fate of the Armenian population of Karabakh. Armenia has said it is willing to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over the region in exchange for internationally-backed guarantees for the Armenian population's rights and security. Baku, however, says the fate of the Karabakh Armenians is its own internal matter.
On July 15, a meeting between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was convened by EU Council Charles Michel, who characterized it as "frank, honest, and substantive."
The Armenian statement on the meeting said that topics discussed included the blockade of the Lachin corridor, Armenia-Azerbaijan border delimitation, unblocking regional infrastructure and transport links, and the rights and securities of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians.
"An agreement was reached to intensify the work towards the solution of the issues discussed," the report said.
According to the Azerbaijani presidential website, the meeting agenda also included the "withdrawal of Armenian army units from Azerbaijani territory." This refers to Baku's demand for the disarmament and disbanding of the Artsakh Self-Defence Army, which before the Second Karabakh War of 2020 was well integrated with the armed forces of the Republic of Armenia.
Charles Michel called the round of talks "one of the most comprehensive and vigorous," though no breakthrough was made. One of his remarks raised particular ire in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, however.
"I emphasized the need to open the Lachin road. I also noted Azerbaijan's willingness to provide humanitarian supplies via Aghdam. I see both options as important and encourage humanitarian deliveries from both sides to ensure the needs of the population are met," he said during his closing speech.
For many Armenians, receiving humanitarian goods via the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam would amount to a legitimization of the blockade rather than a measure toward lifting it.
Tigran Grigoryan, a political analyst originally from Stepanakert, in a CivilNet column lamented that "Azerbaijan continues to dictate the agenda in the negotiations, imposing both its own vocabulary and its own ideas on all key issues."
"By putting the issue of delivering 'humanitarian' supplies from Aghdam to Nagorno-Karabakh on the same level as the issue of opening the Lachin corridor, Michel has actually legitimized Azerbaijan's blackmail and created a new opportunity for Baku not to make concessions," he said.
Some residents of Askeran, an Armenian town close to Aghdam, have reportedly vowed to install barriers on the Askeran-Aghdam road "in order to counter the so-called humanitarian aid predetermined by the Azerbaijani authorities."
Lilit Shahverdyan is a journalist based in Stepanakert.