From Kommersant, Dec. 15, 2022, p. 1. Complete text:
The unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic (NKR) has run into a serious crisis. Residents of Azerbaijan blocked the road between [the NKR capital] Stepanakert and [the Armenian city of] Goris, cutting the local population off from Armenia. Then the NKR government reported that the gas supply [to the republic] had been shut off, and blamed Azerbaijan for this. Baku denies the accusations and believes that blocking the road was an entirely justified action by community activists. This is the first serious test for businessman Ruben Vardanyan, who took office as head of the NKR government just over a month ago. Then again, the test is not just for him: These events are transpiring in the zone of responsibility of Russian peacekeepers, who have not yet managed to resolve the crisis.
An environmental roadblock.
The road between Stepanakert and Goris, which links the NKR and Armenia, has been blocked since Dec. 12 where it forks in the direction of the city of Shusha (known as Shushi in Armenian). Russian peacekeepers and Azerbaijani soldiers stand literally 10 meters apart there. At first, Azerbaijani environmental activists and other community activists appeared in the area. They blocked traffic on the only highway linking the NKR with Armenia. Then the tents showed up. Judging by videos shared on social media, dozens of activists are taking part in the protest, letting through only vehicles with the markings of the Russian peacekeeping contingent.
The protesters immediately stated why they had come: This was a protest against the unsupervised exploitation of Karabakh’s natural resources. In addition, they are calling for the mechanism for monitoring natural resource extraction to be put into effect. According to protest participant Aitan Huseinaliyeva, quoted by the Azerbaijani publication Trend, the main goal of the protest is “to stop the illegal exploitation of Azerbaijan’s natural resources and create necessary conditions for the environmental monitoring group.”
Previously, Azerbaijani media had reported that during talks with the leadership of Russia’s peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh on Dec. 3 and Dec. 7, an understanding was allegedly reached that on Dec. 10 Azerbaijani experts from the Ministry of Economy and other agencies would begin monitoring natural resource extraction within the NKR, which has remained outside of Baku’s control since the 2020 war [see Vol. 72, No. 46, pp. 9‑13]. Specifically, the reports stated, inspections would be conducted at gold and copper-molybdenum deposits. However, the monitoring never started, which is what sparked the protests.
Kommersant was unable to find information on talks between the Russian military and the Azerbaijani side under the Nagorno-Karabakh peacekeeping mission tab on the Russian Defense Ministry’s Web site. At least, the news roundups on the activities of Russian peacekeepers do not mention it. There is, however, a report on the road being blocked and negotiations on unblocking it. The news roundup for Dec. 13 said that “no violations have been recorded in the Russian peacekeeping contingent’s zone of responsibility,” then immediately went on to say: “On Dec. 12, the Azerbaijani side blocked the road between Stepanakert and Goris. The leadership of the Russian peacekeeping contingent is negotiating with Azerbaijani representatives to resume unhindered movement of civilian vehicle traffic between Stepanakert and Goris.”
Meanwhile, the activists’ actions have essentially received the support of the Azerbaijani and Turkish governments. Khikmet Gadzhiyev, assistant to the president of Azerbaijan, said during a Dec. 12 briefing that Baku demands an end to the unlawful exploitation of deposits in Karabakh.
“We have observed the unlawful exploitation of mineral deposits ramping up. Unlawful activities must stop,” the official said. Commenting on the situation on the Stepanakert-Goris road, Mr. Gadzhiyev said: “Civic activists, members of nongovernmental organizations, and other activists and groups have gathered on the Shusha-Khankendi-Lachin road (Khankendi is the Azerbaijani name for Stepanakert – Ed.) to express their protest.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu gave his take on the Karabakh situation after the trilateral summit in Turkmenistan. “On this issue, Azerbaijan is in the right, both legally and in terms of reasonably counteracting unlawful activities. That is why we support Azerbaijan in this just struggle,” the Azerbaijani Press Agency quoted Cavusoglu as saying.
The Turkish minister added that the Russian side should cooperate with Azerbaijan in mineral resource extraction and that the Armenian population residing in the area where the Russian peacekeepers are temporarily deployed should not hinder monitoring by the Azerbaijani side.
‘Under a total siege.’
Meanwhile, a new problem has emerged. On Dec. 13, the gas supply to the NKR was cut off. And the authorities of the unrecognized republic, who had blamed Baku for the traffic blockade, are now also accusing Azerbaijan of trying to starve them of energy.
The Azerbaijani side denied these accusations. Azerigas issued a press release that said: “Armenia handles gas delivery to the area where Russian peacekeepers are temporarily deployed, and said areas are not integrated into our country’s gas supply system.” In addition, the company noted that “due to cold weather conditions, interruptions in gas pipeline operations are also occurring in Azerbaijan’s other mountain and foothill regions.” To ensure stable gas supply, Azerigas intends to conduct pipeline diagnostics.
Stepanakert, however, insists that it is Baku that is responsible for shutting off the gas. “They can say whatever they want. The pipe goes through territory they control. I don’t believe in coincidences where these accidents keep happening. It’s the second time this year (the previous time gas was shut off in March – Ed.),” Ruben Vardanyan, head of the NKR government, told Kommersant. He moved from Moscow to Stepanakert in the fall and took office as prime minister in early November.
Here’s how he describes the general situation in the republic: “To put it in terms readers in Russia will understand, the situation we have is like the Siege of Leningrad, when the Road of Life was blocked. Another example is West Berlin, where coal was brought in on planes (meaning the USSR’s actions [the Berlin Blockade] in 1948-1949. – Ed.).”
Mr. Vardanyan expressed hope that the NKR government “would also be able to set up an air corridor and accept cargo at the Stepanakert airport.” “We still have electricity and phone service, but the moment when we could lose that as well is not far off. Right now, 120,000 people – 30,000 of them children – are cut off from literally everything. But at the same time, everything here is working, functioning, and there is an unbreakable will to overcome everything,” the head of the NKR government said.
Ruben Vardanyan reported that an operational headquarters has been set up and restrictions introduced on food and medicines to overcome the crisis. “We are building a system to supply the population with all the essentials, under a total siege. We need the airport to start operating. For that, we need pressure from international organizations and all countries for there to be a humanitarian corridor and for planes with humanitarian cargo to be able to land at the Stepanakert airport. This is our only chance to not be dependent on Azerbaijan. We need an international treaty that would allow humanitarian aircraft to fly into Artsakh (the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh. – Ed.). This is an important condition for preserving us here as a community so that situations like this don’t happen again. The airport is fully functional,” the official noted.
Commenting on the possibility of working with Baku to overcome this crisis and others, Mr. Vardanyan repeated a position he has expressed numerous times: “Azerbaijan must understand that Artsakh has to be recognized as a party to negotiations. And then everything can be discussed. This is not just a crowd of people living here – this is a country, a state. There are institutions, a parliament, a government, a president; there are civic organizations. We have to sit down and negotiate. There is no other way.”
It is unlikely that Baku will accept negotiations with the unrecognized republic. Azerbaijani President Ilkham Aliyev has repeatedly asserted that the Karabakh issue has been resolved, including during talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since the 2020 war, the Azerbaijani government has been talking about the republic as its own sovereign territory, with a localized Armenian population.
A Kommersant source within the Russian government familiar with the Karabakh situation calls the current situation the latest stage in a trend. He believes that the cause is Azerbaijan’s building dissatisfaction with the implementation of agreements with Armenia, achieved with Russia’s involvement, that have to do with unblocking communication links important for Baku. “Baku is not satisfied with how talks with Yerevan are dragging on. They have concluded that pressure, including with the use of force, brings results,” the informed official notes.
In addition, he says, it is quite possible that the last straw for Baku was Ruben Vardanyan showing up in the NKR in a leadership position. “A person has appeared who is gaining in standing, making resounding statements. This has put Baku on edge,” Kommersant’s source surmised.
The current crisis is, indeed, a serious test for Mr. Vardanyan, who renounced his Russian citizenship and moved to Karabakh in order to, in his own words, preserve Artsakh. “Leaving one’s land signifies the end of history. This is a very difficult moment for us, which is why we must do everything to preserve this foundation,” he said in a Kommersant interview in November.