Will a shakeup in the leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh affect Baku’s blockade of the territory, which is now in its 74th day?
The de facto president, Arayik Harutyunyan, sacked Ruben Vardanyan as state minister on February 23. Vardanyan is a Russian-Armenian billionaire and philanthropist who renounced his Russian citizenship and moved to Karabakh last September.
At the time, many locals hoped he could leverage his wealth and international connections to the benefit of the embattled region, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
But life only got worse.
The blockade began on December 12, when a group of Azerbaijanis calling themselves “independent environmental activists” but supported by the government set up camp on the road near Shusha (Shushi). It has effectively closed the Lachin corridor, Karabakh’s lifeline to Armenia and the outside world, causing severe shortages and difficulties in obtaining basic necessities. Now only limited supplies get through, with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Russian peacekeepers.
Locals also endure frequent gas and electricity cuts and struggle to keep warm in the winter.
The UN’s International Court of Justice on February 22 ordered Azerbaijan to “ensure unimpeded movement” through the corridor. But the ruling will likely have no effect as there is no enforcement mechanism and Azerbaijan denies altogether that it is blocking the road.
It’s widely suspected that Vardanyan’s dismissal was a concession to Baku, which had long demanded the removal of “Moscow’s man” from the scene, alleging he was disrupting the peace talks that have followed Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 Second Karabakh War.
The president tapped Gurgen Nersisyan, Karabakh’s de facto prosecutor-general, to fill the post, which had originally been tailored to give Vardanyan significant authority, including in negotiations.
Schoolgirls studying by candlelight. Due to the rolling blackouts aimed at conserving electricity, residents spend at least six hours in the dark every day.
Empty shelves in a supermarket. The blockade has caused severe shortages of goods. Only Russian peacekeepers and ICRC vehicles can pass through the Lachin Corridor to provide Karabakh residents with meager amounts of food and medicine.
Amid the shortage of foodstuffs, some have set up improvised greenhouses in their homes to cultivate greens and other vegetables.
Fuel deficits have brought traffic on the streets of Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert, to a near standstill. Locals are largely dependent on public transportation, which operates on a limited schedule.
The shortages lead to long queues for basic foodstuffs outside shops. Some items, such as eggs and meat, are produced locally.
Students playing volleyball with their teacher at a schoolyard in Kolkhozashen village.
Residents procure fruits, vegetables, rice, buckwheat, pasta, sugar, and sunflower oil with special rationing coupons introduced in January. Authorities issue each person with one coupon for 1 kilo of each product per month.
Residents of Kolkhozashen farming. Rural residents accustomed to growing their own food are better placed to adjust to the shortages.
Snowdrops for sale at a women’s accessories shop. Flower shops, dependent on imports from Armenia, are empty or closed. Snowdrops are among the only flowers available now as they can be collected in the mountains.
Lilit Shahverdyan is a journalist based in Stepanakert.