Almost three months ago, the Lachin Corridor was blocked by Azerbaijanis claiming to be environmental activists. But their environmental credentials are far from convincing, and more and more evidence has emerged making clear they are sent and supported by Azerbaijan’s government.
On the morning of 12 December 2022, a group of Azerbaijanis calling themselves eco-activists blocked the road linking Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.
The supposed basis for their protest was ‘illegal mining’ taking place in Nagorno-Karabakh, with their demand being that Azerbaijani specialists be allowed to enter the Damirli (Kashen) gold mine.
They alleged the enterprise was mining gold illegally to export to Armenia, with the support of Russian peacekeepers. They maintained, however, that a key concern and reason for the protest was the alleged environmental impact of the mining.
The Azerbaijani authorities have claimed that the protesters are independent actors using their right to civil disobedience and public expression, and unconnected to the government.
But from its very beginning, there were clear signs that this was entirely untrue.
Over the months that Nagorno-Karabakh has been under blockade, and as the humanitarian crisis there has deepened, evidence has mounted which makes clear that this ‘protest’ was fully organised by the Azerbaijani Government.
Firstly, to reach the location of their protest, the protesters had to pass through Azerbaijani-controlled areas of Nagorno-Karabakh; something that can only be done with official permission from the Azerbaijani authorities.
The alleged eco-activists have also been well cared for throughout the blockade.
Those gathered at the corridor’s entrance were provided with tents and food from the day they arrived, and protected by Azerbaijani special forces and police.
The activists are even given the opportunity to return home having done their bit: to this day, protesters are regularly replaced by new groups of people who are brought to the entrance of the corridor in special buses.
Those who are and aren’t allowed to visit the site also make evident that the protest runs exactly as Baku would like it to.
While journalists from pro-government media have been unfailingly present at the protest, independent activists and journalists have been barred from attending.
Two days after the protest began, three journalists from Meydan TV, an independent Azerbaijani outlet, were detained by unidentified persons in civilian clothes and masks while trying to drive to the site of the protest, then forced to return to Baku.
Pro-government media have claimed that foreign journalists were allowed to visit the site of the protest sometime after it began, but this was only done under heavy supervision.
While the Azerbaijani Government continues to deny that the road is blocked at all, the protest driving the blockade is running on its terms, angled at achieving its aims, and, increasingly worryingly, running on its timetable.
‘Participants in a show’
The protest was nationalistic and patriotic in its tone from the day it began, despite its stated ecological principles.
This was evident in the abundance of state flags and the nationalist slogans chanted by protesters, such as: ‘Martyrs do not die, the motherland is indivisible!’, ‘Karabakh is Azerbaijan!’
Their attitudes to the Azerbaijani special forces and police armed with assault rifles near the protest site also made clear the government-aligned nationalism underlying their actions. The ‘eco-activists’ have consistently begun every day by singing the national anthem, and met the changing of the guard with applause and a chant of ‘the best soldier is an Azerbaijani soldier!’
Javid Gara, the head of the independent Azerbaijani environmental protection organisation, Ecofront, has described the protest as ‘fake’, stating that the protesters were nothing but ‘participants in a pre-orchestrated show’.
‘Their demands to stop the illegal and destructive exploitation of mines are absolutely justified, but the action is clearly organised by the authorities. I know several people who participated in the protest. None of them were eco-activists’, Gara told me.
Those identified attending the protests have, however, included officials from the Ministry of Ecology, civil servants from various departments, members of state-funded and state-affiliated civil society organisations, former military personnel, members of local sports associations, and, occasionally, Turkish workers from nearby construction sites.
Those non-governmental organisations whose members attended the ongoing rally are all supported by funding from the state NGO Funding Agency, created by presidential decree in 2021. The organisations have all also frequently posted praise of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and support for the war in Nagorno-Karabakh on social media.
The attendees have included the head and members of the government-aligned Optimist NGO, and members of the Public Union for Youth Support, whose employees at the time included Taleh Mansurov, who previously held various positions in the ruling New Azerbaijan Party.
Many of the alleged eco-protesters were volunteers for the Regional Development public association, which was created with the support of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation. On the association’s website, the primary ‘value’ of their volunteers is listed as ‘always demonstrate loyalty to national moral values and statehood’.
The group’s social media is filled with photos of young members protesting on the Lachin road, alongside its more ‘traditional’ pro-Aliyev posts.
But there were bigger names in attendance too.
Fariz Akbarov, a member of the State Committee for Family, Women, and Children’s Affairs, posted a photograph from the protest with Azerbaijan’s Deputy Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources, Firdousi Aliyev, who appeared also, at least temporarily, to have become an ‘eco-activist’.
But perhaps the most prominent ‘activist’ blocking the Lachin Corridor’s entrance was Telman Gasimov, a captain in the Azerbaijani reserve army who took part in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War.
Facebook photos show Gasimov in military uniform during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. In one he prominently displays a patch of the far-right Turkish paramilitary organisation, the Grey Wolves, an ultra-nationalist group that has been declared a terrorist organisation by some countries.
Amongst the slew of nationalist slogans and anti-Armenian posts on his page, Gasimov has also posted a photo in which he is making a hand gesture characteristic of the Grey Wolves, standing in front of graffiti which reads ‘Our goal is Yerevan’.
Gasimov was not alone in his political leanings — the crowd of the ‘eco-activists’ was filmed making the same gesture on the second day of the protest.
A couple of weeks later, only young members of volunteer organisations and state-funded NGOs remained, many wearing jackets with the emblem of the Aliyev-run Azerbaijan Youth Foundation.
Ecological problems in Azerbaijan
While the protesters travelled to Nagorno-Karabakh to protest the alleged environmental impact of the Demirli gold mines, Azerbaijan has a number of severe domestic ecological challenges that have been far less successful in attracting the attention of the authorities.
Among them are long-running issues of air pollution in Baku, illegal felling of trees, hunting in nature reserves, and pollution of the sea by oil production.
Ecofront works on tackling all of these issues, says Javid Gara, but the authorities are mostly uninterested or hostile. Only when an issue attracts the attention of the general public does the government take any action.
‘Once we entered a border area where trees were being cut down illegally. We were detained by border guards, because we deliberately broke the law and entered territory that was out-of-bounds’, says Gara.
The activists were fined and released, but the illegal logging in Gusar District came to a halt after they reported what was taking place online.
On other occasions, Gara says that Ecofront protesters have been beaten and received death threats from those responsible for ecological damage.
Ecofront were not present at the protests on the Lachin Corridor.
‘We don’t want to be part of the political games’, said Gara. ‘I also personally don’t think it’s right to block the road and put pressure on people who have nothing to do with illegal mining of resources.’
Baku can continue to promote the stories that suit its aims, but the cracks in their narratives are beginning to show.