The small town of Goris in Armenia’s southernmost province of Syunik is four hours’ drive from the capital, Yerevan. When I visited in early January, it was crowded with people from Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave in neighbouring Azerbaijan. On 12 December a group posing as environmental activists had set up camp on the main road through the Lachin corridor, Nagorno-Karabakh’s only link to Armenia. They were supposedly protesting against alleged illegal goldmining activities, but this was a smokescreen to cover a blockade by Azerbaijani troops; since then the enclave has been cut off from the rest of the world.
At the Goris Hotel, families with piles of luggage waited for transfer to another hotel. The news from Nagorno-Karabakh was alarming: with the Azerbaijani central government in Baku restricting supply, local authorities were rationing food, electricity, gas and Internet access (1). Most schools were closed. But a woman from Stepanakert, the enclave’s capital, said she wanted to go home and an elderly couple thought the road would reopen soon. The PA system blared traditional Armenian music.
Baku is stepping up the pressure on Nagorno-Karabakh in a bid to reclaim it. During the Soviet era, it was an autonomous region of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, but when the USSR collapsed in 1991 it declared independence, triggering the first Armenian-Azerbaijani war (1991-94). Armenia captured seven districts bordering the enclave and set itself up as protector of the secessionist territory, gaining de facto control over its government. Azerbaijan condemned this as a violation of international law, which recognised the old Soviet borders as the basis for those of the new independent states.
But in September 2020, with the peace process stalled, Azerbaijan received military support from Turkey and set out to reclaim its lost territory. It recaptured around a third of the enclave but its president Ilham Aliyev, under pressure from Russia, decided against trying to take Stepanakert. A ceasefire agreement signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia on 9 September 2020 authorised the deployment of Russian peacekeepers to the enclave to protect its population of 55,000-120,000 Armenians, and secure the Lachin corridor (2). This was a masterstroke for Russia, both reasserting its position as the Caucasus’ policeman and sidelining the Minsk Group (co-chaired by Russia, the US and France), which was set up to negotiate an end to the conflict.
‘An attempt at ethnic cleansing’
Armenia’s prime minister Nikol Pashinyan refers to the Lachin blockade as ‘an attempt at ethnic cleansing’. The Azerbaijani authorities have said that anyone who doesn’t want to be an Azerbaijani citizen can leave, though for now, only Red Cross vehicles are free to come and go. Many Armenians fear the corridor will only reopen for one-way trips into permanent exile. ‘The Azerbaijanis will continue to apply pressure, and gradually the local population will be forced to leave, starting with the most vulnerable,’ says Valentin Mahou-Hekinian, Médecins du Monde’s South Caucasus regional coordinator.
The Lachin blockade comes in the midst of negotiations for an overall peace agreement. Baku is trying to twist Yerevan’s arm over the proposed Zangezur corridor, which would run from western Azerbaijan across Armenia’s Syunik province (Zangezur to Azerbaijanis) to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, and on to Turkey, Azerbaijan’s closest ally.
Armenia claims political and cultural rights and security guarantees for ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, but Azerbaijan insists it is a domestic issue, not subject to negotiation
In 2021 Aliyev warned, ‘We are implementing the Zangezur corridor whether Armenia wants it or not’ (3). Taline Papazian, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris, suggests that ‘Azerbaijan’s goal is to secure this corridor by artificially creating an equivalence between the Artsakh [the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh] and Nakhchivan enclaves.’ Lifting the Lachin blockade would be conditional on Armenia approving the Zangezur corridor.
Azerbaijan began by demanding that Armenian border guards on the proposed Zangezur route be replaced by Russian troops. Armenia has rejected this as impinging on its sovereignty and fears Azerbaijan will press for further concessions: the issue goes far beyond access to the two enclaves. Tatevik Hayrapetyan, a former member of Armenia’s parliament and a historian, says the Zangezur corridor is ‘linked to Turkey and Azerbaijan’s territorial claims to Syunik. Ankara and Baku even refer to the territory as Western Azerbaijan.’ In February Azerbaijan softened its position by agreeing that Armenia can set up checkpoints, but did not lift its blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh, whose recapture is now a priority.
Azerbaijan seems to have moved beyond the limited objective of regaining sovereignty over the territories lost in 1994. On 13 September last year, Azerbaijani troops launched an attack on the Armenian spa town of Jermuk, around 13km from the border, killing 200 in two days. Baku deployed artillery, mortars and drones along the border over a distance of 200km, establishing positions that threaten Armenia’s southern provinces of Gegharkunik, Vayots Dzor and Syunik (total population 200,000), and is now in a position to cut them off from the rest of the country. It hopes to use this as leverage (on 11 April it attacked the village of Tegh in Syunik) to secure peace on its terms.
Armenia has (unsuccessfully) claimed political and cultural rights for ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as guarantees of their security, which would involve demilitarising the province and deploying international peacekeepers. But Azerbaijan insists Nagorno-Karabakh is a domestic issue, not subject to negotiation with Yerevan and is gradually managing to impose direct dialogue with representatives of the enclave (4).
‘Testing Iran’s reaction’
Last December, Azerbaijan and Turkey held joint military exercises near the Azerbaijani-Iranian border. Hayrapetyan says that ‘they want to test Iran’s reaction to a potential military attack on Armenia, especially Syunik province.’ Iran, which has an Azerbaijani minority of around 17 million, is concerned by warlike calls from some in Azerbaijan for the recapture of ‘southern Azerbaijan’.
Last January Iran’s ambassador in Yerevan warned that his country considered Armenia’s security as its own security and in December Iran, too, held large-scale military exercises. This January, attacks on Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran heightened tensions, with Baku directly accusing the Iranian government of involvement. Iran is also concerned by the steadily increasing military cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan. A recent article in the Israeli daily Haaretz revealed that this has included arms deliveries in recent months (5).
Armenians have realised that Russian security guarantees are worthless: the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which Moscow presents as the equivalent of NATO for the former Soviet bloc, has failed to support Armenia, which was one of its founding members in 1992. In 2020 Russia made it clear that the treaty does not apply to territories recognised by international law as belonging to Azerbaijan. Following the 2021-22 attacks, which Yerevan sees as acts of war, Russia was similarly reluctant to get involved on the pretext that the Armenian-Azerbaijani border was not yet fixed. Meanwhile, it had launched a war in Ukraine.
Many Armenians feel abandoned. Although their country has strong economic links to Russia and is traditionally Russophile, there was a sizeable anti-Russian protest during President Putin’s visit to Yerevan last November. One demonstrator carried a placard reading ‘Ban the CSTO like Margarita Simonyan’, a reference to the ethnic Armenian head of RT (formerly Russia Today) denied entry to Armenia after calling Pashinyan a ‘traitor’ and saying that Armenians who criticise Russia should have their tongues cut out. Some waved Ukrainian flags. Ukraine has not welcomed this show of solidarity with any great enthusiasm, as it supports Azerbaijan in the conflict. Being attached to the borders it inherited at the breakup of the Soviet Union, it compares Armenia’s claims to Nagorno-Karabakh to Russia’s claim to Crimea.
Armenia forced to turn to the West
Pashinyan refused to sign the final declaration of the CSTO summit in Yerevan last November, saying that ‘the lack of a clear political assessment of the situation … may mean not only CSTO’s refusal to implement alliance obligations, but [may] also be interpreted by Azerbaijan as CSTO’s green light for further aggression against Armenia. And this contradicts not only the letter, but also the spirit and nature of the fundamental documents of the CSTO.’
In desperation, Armenia has turned to the West which, with the Ukraine war, is happy to have further ammunition against Moscow. Last October, at Yerevan’s request, the EU deployed an observer mission for two months. A second mission, on the ground since 20 February this year, has 100 staff, 50 of them armed, with German and French gendarmes based in the north, west and south of the country. A few days after this second mission was announced, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement: ‘The EU’s attempts to gain a foothold in Armenia at any cost and to squeeze Russia’s mediation efforts could damage the fundamental interests of Armenians and Azerbaijanis in their aspirations for a return to peaceful development in the region.’ Moscow and Baku both saw last year’s visits to Yerevan by CIA director William Burns, and the then US House speaker Nancy Pelosi, as provocations.
The renewed competition between Russia and the West in the management of the conflict doesn’t worry Azerbaijan. Last February, Aliyev and Putin signed a cooperation treaty – which enabled Russia to promise not to interfere in Azerbaijani affairs in exchange for recognition of its leadership of the former Soviet bloc and a guarantee of Azerbaijan’s neutrality on the Ukraine conflict.
The EU also wants to keep Azerbaijan on side for energy reasons: its natural gas resources could make up for the embargo on Russian gas. Under an agreement signed by Aliyev and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen last July, Azerbaijan increased its gas deliveries to the EU by 30% for 2022 and aims to double them by 2027. This is enough to satisfy the EU’s needs, though it suspects Baku is simply re-exporting Russian gas.
https://mondediplo.com/2023/05/07nagorno-karabakh Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian enclave, by Constant Léon (Le Monde diplomatique