Under blockade, Armenians of Karabakh reopen issue of air travel
Azerbaijan has long opposed reestablishing air transit to and from Karabakh, though, and argues that it is Armenians who are refusing its offers to allow traffic on the road to resume.
With Nagorno-Karabakh under a virtual blockade, the fate of the territory’s airport has again entered the agenda of its ethnic Armenian residents.
The Lachin Corridor, the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and the rest of the world, has been nearly fully closed since December 12 when Azerbaijani government-sponsored protesters shut it down. With the protesters exercising effective control over the road, some Armenians and their backers are looking to the sky as a means of skirting the blockade.
Karabakh’s de facto parliament issued a statement on January 5 calling on the presidents of the United States, France, and Russia to “take concrete actions towards opening the corridor or the operation of an air bridge to the Stepanakert airport” to prevent an “urgent humanitarian crisis.”
A group of high-ranking French political figures wrote an open letter to President Emmanuel Macron on December 27 asking him to work with France’s European and American partners to “reopen the Stepanakert airport and ensure the security of air communications” with Nagorno-Karabakh.
It is Karabakh’s newly empowered state minister Ruben Vardanyan, though, who has been the most prominent and fervent supporter of the idea of launching civilian flights to the territory. He has made the call in repeated interviews with local and international press since the earliest days of the blockade.
“The Stepanakert airport is ready to receive medium-sized aircraft,” he said in a January 5 interview with Armenian site news.am. “Pressure from international organizations, European countries and the United States would have great significance. The only solution which will allow us to live normally in this situation in the winter months is the possibility of opening an air bridge.”
There have been no civilian flights to the Stepanakert airport (actually in the nearby village of Khojaly) since the first Karabakh war of the early 1990s. That war resulted in Armenian forces gaining control of Nagorno-Karabakh and much Azerbaijani territory surrounding it, and while officials in Yerevan and Stepanakert sporadically brought up the idea of restoring flights, Baku consistently opposed it.
The international body regulating passenger air travel, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), effectively recognizes Azerbaijan’s authority over the airport, which has an Azerbaijan-assigned international code, UBBS. That allows Azerbaijan to veto any plans to start civilian flights. When Armenian officials proposed doing so anyway, Baku went so far as to threaten to shoot down flights that tried.
Armenians’ hopes for the airport were again raised following the Second Karabakh War, in 2020. One of the key provisions of the ceasefire agreement that ended that war was the reopening of regional transportation connections, engendering expectations that perhaps that might again open the door to air travel to Stepanakert. One official in the de facto Karabakh government told RIA Novosti in December 2020 that passenger flights between Moscow and Stepanakert could start even that month.
That never came to pass, though, and the airport has served a different role: as the main base for the Russian peacekeeping contingent that was deployed after the 2020 war.
Chances for the airport reopening to civilian flights now are even less likely. Azerbaijan is only becoming less inclined to accept anything other than full control over its territory, and anyway it argues that there is no real blockade: If Armenian people or goods want to pass they can do so after undergoing a quasi-customs check operated by the protesters, they say. Armenians argue that they can’t trust such promises and that doing so would result in an effective Azerbaijani customs regime over the territory, which the Armenian de facto authorities reject.
Pro-government media in Azerbaijan have presented the airport proposals as an underhanded scheme by Armenians to deliver weapons into Karabakh: One of the complaints from Baku and the protesters is that the Lachin Corridor has been used to supply military materiel, in particular landmines.
“The separatists have rich experience in transporting weapons by air under the guise of ‘construction materials,’ ‘humanitarian aid,’ and so on,” went a January 5 commentary on the site Minval.az. “They were transporting weapons in between boxes of baby food in helicopters in various stages of the conflict when the Stepanakert airport was still operating.”
The commentary also noted that Vardanyan was recently put on the Ukrainian government’s list of sanctioned people precisely for his role as a board member of the Russian air cargo company Volga Dnepr, which plays a major role in Russian military air transport.
Azerbaijan, meanwhile, has been on an airport building spree in the territories over which it regained control in 2020: It has so far built two airports, in Zangilan and Fuzuli, with plans to open a third (in Lachin) in 2024.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.