Tens of thousands of people gathered in Stepanakert on Sunday to demand that the road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to the outside world be reopened. The Lachin Corridor has been blocked by Azerbaijani ‘eco-activists’ since 12 December.
The protest came amidst news of mounting food and medical shortages, and promises from Russian peacekeepers that the situation would be resolved on 26 December. At the time of publication, the road remains closed.
In his speech at the rally, the State Minister of Nagorno-Karabakh, Ruben Vardanyan, said there were three ways out of the current blockade.
‘Firstly, we submit [to Azerbaijan], sooner or later, and slowly become integrated into Azerbaijan. Secondly, we leave [Nagorno-Karabakh]. Thirdly, we fight. I made my decision on 2 September: I am here, and I am fighting’, said Vardanyan, a Russian-Armenian billionaire who revoked his Russian citizenship and moved to Stepanakert in September.
[Read more on OC Media: Billionaire Ruben Vardanyan to serve as Nagorno-Karabakh’s State Minister]
Sunday’s rally was called by the authorities in Stepanakert to protest the blockade of the region, which has now been cut off from the outside world for over two weeks.
The road, known by local residents as ‘the road of life’, was closed by Azerbaijanis claiming to be eco-activists on 12 December. They claimed to be protesting alleged environmental issues and exploitation of natural resources in Nagorno-Karabakh, though their demands have since expanded to include the integration of the region into Azerbaijan.
[Read more on OC Media: Nagorno-Karabakh under siege]
A small group of protesters also held a rally on Sunday in the Armenian capital in support of Nagorno-Karabakh’s demands to open the Lachin corridor. A number of similar rallies have been held in Yerevan since the beginning of the blockade.
Promises from peacekeepers
On 23 and 24 December, groups of protesters marched from Stepanakert to the Russian peacekeepers' checkpoint near the blockade, the second time in an attempt to negotiate with the Azerbaijani protesters blocking the road.
On reaching the checkpoint outside Shusha (Shushi) on 24 December, the group of over a thousand protesters was blocked by Russian peacekeepers with armoured vehicles and soldiers.
‘[A representative of the peacekeepers] says that they can't get rid of the Azerbaijanis, they don't allow us to use force and we have to put up with them. “We didn't close your road”,’ Tigran Petrosyan, the organiser of the marches, told the crowd.
‘I said 99% of the people of Karabakh believed and trusted you [the Russian peacekeeping mission] when you first came but there is a lot of disappointment now. Soon the trust in you will be completely lost. We have the impression that we are being used as coins.’
‘The officer said that there will be a meeting on 26 December and this issue will finally be resolved. He categorically ruled out that an Azerbaijani checkpoint would be put there. I told them that if the road is not opened on the 26th, we will close the road to your military base located in Ivanyan-Khojalu airfield.’
According to the November 2020 ceasefire agreement that brought an end to the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, the Russian peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh is responsible for securing the Lachin Corridor.
One of the marchers, Ruzanna Hayrapetyan, told OC Media that she was taking part because ‘the road of life’ had been closed for more than ten days.
‘I'm going to fight for justice. I am not a politician, I am not a decision-maker, I just want the road to be opened, this problem must be solved somehow.’
‘My children are stuck in Yerevan, they can't come back home,’ Nazeli Isunts, who also took part in the march, told OC Media. ‘Whatever is up to me, I try to do it. We want to understand why the Russians are not fulfilling their responsibilities.’
Patients in critical condition
Since the entrance to the Lachin Corridor was first blocked on 12 December, growing shortages of food and medicine have led to fears of a humanitarian crisis. Shops have long run out of vegetables, and other products are in increasingly short supply.
[Read more on OC Media: Nagorno-Karabakh under siege]
The local health authorities reported that a patient died on 19 December because they could not be taken to Yerevan for treatment; more than a dozen patients remain in critical condition in Stepanakert. After the involvement of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) last week, six patients needing urgent medical assistance have been transferred to Armenia.
The ICRC also reported that they had delivered 10 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Nagorno-Karabakh on Sunday. According to officials in Stepanakert, imports from Armenia prior to the road’s closure stood at 400 tonnes daily.
Although videos purportedly showing Russian military trucks passing through the blocked area of the corridor have been shared online since the corridor’s closure, the Office of the Human Rights Defender of Nagorno-Karabakh told OC Media that they have not received any information suggesting that any Russian aid had reached the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh.
‘The medicine is running out, the food is running out, and I have a child. Where do I apply for food aid? Should I ask Ruben Vardanyan for it? Whom can I ask?’ said Hersik Saghyan, who took part in the 24 December march.
‘I don't know who blocked the road. I know that according to the agreement the peacekeepers have no right to allow anyone to do this, neither ecologists nor others’, added Saghyan. ‘Ask the Russians why they are violating the agreement,’.
The road’s closure also left over a thousand Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians stranded away from home.
The Azerbaijani government has maintained the position that the blockade was not caused by Azerbaijani protesters, blaming Russian peacekeepers for the corridor’s closure.
Since the road was first blocked, a number of Western countries and the European Union have called on Azerbaijan to reopen the corridor and ‘restore free movement’.
Armenia last week requested a United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the blockade and has requested interim measures against Azerbaijan from the European Court of Human rights, which demanded that Azerbaijan open the corridor for the transfer of those needing medical assistance and housing.
For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.