For the first time ever, a foreign citizen who visited breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, the Caucasus’ main flashpoint, is now on trial in Azerbaijan for allegedly violating the country’s borders. Its outcome could have serious implications for how far governments can go – or should go – in attempting to reassert control over separatist territories.
In the defendant’s seat is Alexander Lapshin, a globe-trotting travel blogger in his early 40s with Russian, Ukrainian and Israeli citizenship. Azerbaijan bars international visits to Karabakh without its prior approval and blacklists selected offenders. But never before has a foreign visitor been detained in a third country (Belarus) for such an alleged offense and then extradited to Baku for trial.
Lapshin, charged with illegal border-crossing and violating Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, may face up to eight years in prison if convicted.
Witnesses at his trial on Monday scolded and shamed the blogger for his trips to Karabakh and for allegedly publicly supporting the region’s claims to independence from Azerbaijan. “This is Azerbaijani land, while Lapshin portrayed my homeland as an independent Armenian state,” said witness Eyub Abdulazimov, an Internally Displaced Person from Karabakh, APA reported. “I ask that Lapshin be punished, as he deserves it,” local media quoted Abdulazimov as demanding.
One Azerbaijani attorney told the Kavkazsky Uzel news site that Azerbaijani law allows citizens who were forcibly evicted from Karabakh to demand redress from Lapshin for the “moral suffering” supposedly inflicted upon them by his writing.
Lapshin pled not guilty on the first day of the trial, June 30, saying that he respects the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. “I was only sharing my travel impressions. These were not political articles,” Lapshin testifed, Interfax reported. “I was in Karabakh twice, but have never had any contact with officials there.”
Prosecutors claim that Lapshin wrote that Azerbaijan’s attempts to reclaim Karabakh were futile and allegedly used the Armenian-favored nomenclature -- “Artsakh” and “the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” -- to describe the region. Lapshin’s original posts on Karabakh have been deleted from his Livejournal blog, Puerrtto.
He purportedly used his different passports to visit Karabakh and Azerbaijan proper; a common tactic for travellers to the South Caucasus’ breakaway regions. Although he had been black-listed by Baku for an earlier trip to Karabakh, Lapshin was able to enter Azerbaijan in 2016 by using his Ukrainian passport.
The blogger, who enjoyed some popularity among Russian-language travel-writing circles for his sarcastic musings, may not have imagined that his Karabakh posts would one day get him into such trouble.
The Azerbaijani authorities have been criticized for overreacting to the whole affair. Baklava-wearing, automatic-rifle-toting guards escorted a handcuffed Lapshin from the Baku airport to jail this February.
The country’s dismal reputation for freedom of speech has added another layer of controversy to the case. Following Lapshin’s February extradition from Belarus, Amnesty International said that the blogger was at risk of “torture, ill-treatment and unfair trial” in Azerbaijan and called for his immediate release.
Azerbaijani officials reacted angrily, saying that both Israeli and Russian diplomats have had access to Lapshin and have been ensured of his safety. As Baku often does in such cases, the foreign ministry accused Amnesty International of picking on Azerbaijan, while being lenient toward Armenia, its foe in the Karabakh dispute.
Calls for Lapshin’s release also have been made both in Israel and Russia, yet, despite the two countries’ close ties with Azerbaijan, the demands have had no apparent effect on Baku.
More criticism from the international community for Azerbaijan’s treatment of writers could be coming, though.
Parallel to Lapshin’s case, Azerbaijan is also on the hot seat for purportedly having had independent journalist Afgan Mukhtarli, a critic of the government, kidnapped from neighboring Georgia and delivered to Baku. Mukhtarli is now in pre-trial detention on charges of illegal-border-crossing, resisting arrest and carrying undeclared foreign currency.
Unlike Mukhtarli, Lapshin is hardly known as a defender of a free press and a critic of the dynastic rule of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s family. But his trial helps Azerbaijan telegraph one point to the international community: Stay clear of Karabakh.