In the Armenian village of Tegh, stationary vehicles clog the mountain road leading to a border crossing where a baffling diplomatic standoff has stopped traffic.
This is the only entrance to the road that connects Armenia, the breakaway Armenian-majority region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, to the outside world.
The first checkpoint is manned by an Armenian soldier, and Russian peacekeeping troops have erected barricades behind it. A group of self-described activists from Azerbaijan are wedged in between the barriers, blocking nearly all movement in the corridor with signs decrying “eco-cide.”
The road, also known as the Lachin corridor, is a key component of the ceasefire agreement that brought an end to the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020. It ensures that ethnic Armenians can safely travel there and that goods will always be delivered to the territory, which Armenians refer to as Artsakh.
However, on December 12, a group of Azerbaijanis began a 24-hour sit-in in that location, wedged between Russian troops tasked with separating the two ethnic groups.
The demonstrators, among other things, say that Russia is helping the self-proclaimed government of Nagorno-Karabakh run an illegal mining operation there.
Azerbaijan is accused by Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh authorities of enforcing a blockade through the demonstrators. A number of diplomats from the West, including US diplomats, have urged Azerbaijan to reopen the Lachin corridor. Through spokespersons on Twitter, Azerbaijan has denied the claim that it is imposing a blockade.
According to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the demonstrations, which are just a stone’s throw away from Azerbaijani military positions, have trapped approximately 120,000 people in Nagorno-Karabakh. Analysts believe that this situation poses a risk of reviving the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and has thrown the territory into a humanitarian crisis with critical shortages of food, medicine, and energy.
However, Russian peacekeeping forces appear unable to halt it at this time.
According to Derenik Danielyan, a 21-year-old Armenian, he attempted to enter the slightly more than 3-mile-long Lachin corridor on December 26 in order to transport toys to Nagorno-Karabakh to assist children in celebrating the new year.
He stated to CNN that a Russian peacekeeping commander told him that he had no right to use force against the protesters or clear the road.
“The commander stated that only Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, can grant us the right to clear the road.”
CNN got videos of an attempt to break through the blockade from inside Nagorno-Karabakh, and Russian peacekeepers turned down requests to clear the road.
CNN has inquired of the Russian Foreign Ministry regarding the situation in the Lachin corridor but has received no response.
Over Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at odds for decades. Despite having a significant Armenian population, the landlocked region in the southern Caucasus is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan. Since brokering the trilateral ceasefire agreement in 2020, Moscow, an Armenian security ally, has kept a peacekeeping force in the area.
Dreaming of bananas
Even as basic necessities vanish, the mood inside Nagorno-Karabakh is one of defiance. Fresh vegetables and fruits, according to officials and locals, were the first to go. Last week, social media posts and videos showed rows of empty supermarket shelves. Locals claim that there is no place to buy baby formula.
Diapers also appear to be severely lacking in the territory. One woman told CNN that because she didn’t have any diapers, her sister, a young mother with an infant, was setting an alarm several times a night so she could take her baby to the bathroom.
Since the blockade started, hospitals have had to make do with less medicine, so the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) brought 10 tons of medicine, baby formula, and food to health facilities.
A video shared on social media showed the Azerbaijani people clearing the way for ICRC vehicles and Russian peacekeeping troops, who reportedly brought in humanitarian supplies as well. A spokesperson for Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry called the claims of a blockade “fake news” and shared a video on Twitter of ICRC trucks and an ambulance moving through the corridor.
This week, the authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh implemented a rationing system for the following five foods: sugar, pasta, buckwheat, rice, and cooking oil.
Oranges or bananas are like a dream. Nonna Poghosyan, a mother of twins and the program coordinator for the American University of Armenia in Stepanakert, the largest city of the breakaway state, stated, “Potatoes are a luxury.”
“Each morning, I go grocery shopping with my 8-year-old children. They also inquire about the absence of all the vegetables and fruits.
Armenians of ethnicity observed their Orthodox Christmas on Friday. This was a solemn affair in Nagorno-Karabakh. They gathered in Poghosyan’s two-story house around a modest meal of defrosted fish and potatoes from jars, which are now uncommon in the territory.
A journalist in Nagorno-Karabakh named Siranush Sargsyan reported that the traditional Christmas candles had also vanished. Photos shared on social media showed the nave of Stepanakert’s main cathedral packed with weary worshippers.
According to Sargsyan, “in church, you could see in people’s eyes, they are so sad but also so determined.” People are putting in a lot of effort to bring a little bit of Christmas cheer. We collaborate. Coffee was exchanged for food for me.
People share what they have in their homes with one another. These days, there is a glimmer of hope in this.
Amnesty International, a non-governmental organization that advocates for human rights, issued a request to Azerbaijan on Wednesday to “end the blockade” of the Lachin corridor, stating that the move “has left residents of Nagorno Karabakh without access to essential goods and services.” It is necessary to guarantee affected individuals’ economic and social rights and freedom of movement.
Azerbaijan is said to have used siege tactics.
Conflict is not uncommon in the region. At the end of the Soviet era, fighting broke out for the first time, and in the early 1990s, Armenian forces took control of a large portion of the region. During a war that lasted six weeks in 2020 and resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, Azerbaijan, supported by Turkey, took control of large portions of those territories.
The main city of Stepanakert and a few towns in the area remained in the separatist territory, and the population was still grieving the losses of a bloody conflict in 2020. The territory, which is a source of national pride for Armenians due to its centuries-old Armenian heritage, has long been claimed by Azerbaijan as its own.
The Armenians are suffering because the Azerbaijanis currently hold the upper hand. According to Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe who focuses on Eastern Europe and the Caucuses, “it has been the other way around in the past.”
This conflict is not a binary one. The aggressor has been on both sides. Azerbaijan is without a doubt the aggressor right now.
CNN has inquired about Azerbaijani officials but has not received a response.
Officials in Nagorno-Karabakh say they are convinced that Azerbaijan intends to besiege, starve, and pound the population into submission as the blockade continues unabated.
According to Nagorno-Karabakh State Minister Ruben Vardanyan, “the message that Azerbaijan is sending with these eco-activists is either you leave or you accept our rule of law,” or “you will starve and die because nobody cares about you all.”
Azerbaijan’s claim that an Armenian minority will be protected in a nation ruled by autocratic President Ilham Aliyev is rejected by Armenian officials. Vardanyan scoffed, “It’s really strange to hear people say we’ll enjoy cultural autonomy in Azerbaijan.” This is a prank.