The tightening of the siege on Nagorno-Karabakh increases tension in the Caucasus | International

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The siege on the Nagorno Karabakh continues to close. In the last week, Azerbaijani troops have crossed the separation line agreed two years ago to stop the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and have taken a strategic peak. The objective is to dominate a track through which, according to Baku, weapons were supplied to this Armenian enclave located in territory internationally recognized as Azerbaijan. Instead, according to the local authorities, this mountain road had become the last way to circumvent the blockade that Baku has subjected to Nagorno Karabakh since last December 12, when alleged environmental protesters, with the support of security forces, they cut off the Lachin corridor, a road that connects with the Republic of Armenia and is vital for the survival of the enclave. Experts fear that these moves, and the skirmishes over the past few weeks — three Karabakh policemen and two Azerbaijani soldiers were killed on March 5 — are the prelude to larger clashes.

Among the population of the enclave, these military actions awaken the worst ghosts of the past. In 1991, a few months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijani troops began to advance within the framework of Operation Ring to stop the Karabakh movement that sought to annex Armenia (which led to a war of three years and more). of 20,000 killed, which the Armenians won). More recently, in 2020, the new war for Karabakh ended in victory for Azerbaijan after six weeks of combat and more than 7,000 deaths.

This last conflict ended with the signing of a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan mediated by Moscow, according to which a Russian contingent would be in charge of guaranteeing compliance with the agreement and free transit through the Lachin corridor. However, although Moscow criticized the recent military advance, the Russian military has become mere silent witnesses to Azerbaijani actions.

Zaur Shiriyev, an analyst for the International Crisis Group in Azerbaijan, explains: “Russian peacekeeping forces have no technical mandate. Moscow has pressured Baku to establish rules on the use of force, but has refused. So the Russian military cannot act against Azerbaijan, they are only allowed to defend themselves if they are attacked."

“Shops are still empty”

In Stepanakert, the capital of the Armenian enclave, they have become accustomed, by force, to eating rice, pasta and canned food. Day yes and day too. The arrival of spring has given a little more variety to their diet, since some wild herbs can be collected. Because many fruits, vegetables and greens are impossible. "For a kilo of potatoes you have to pay 4,500 dram [10,70 euros], when last year they cost 1,000 or 1,500. Tomatoes also cost 4,500 dram. For meat, there is only pork and chicken, locally produced, but very expensive. The question is not the price, it is its absence; the shops are still empty, and when something appears, it sells out quickly,” explains Nona Poghosyan, a resident of Stepanakert.

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In an enclave where 90% of food was imported from the neighboring Republic of Armenia, the siege has been an unprecedented disaster. Before the blockade, some 400 tons of products were transported daily to Nagorno Karabagh through the Lachin corridor. But now only a tenth arrives: what the trucks of the Russian peacekeepers and the Red Cross are allowed to transport. And the problem of prices has been aggravated because, according to testimonies collected by Novaya Gazeta, Russian soldiers try to take advantage of the situation by charging "several thousand dollars" for each truckload they pass. A government source de facto from Nagorno Karabakh confirms to this newspaper that "certain problems" of this type have occurred, but that they are trying to solve them "with the Russian commanders."

To the scarcity of raw materials and food, energy is added. The Nagorno-Karabakh authorities denounce that the Azerbaijanis cut the high-voltage line that provided them with electricity and, since January 9, they have depended on the meager local production, which implies six-hour-a-day supply cuts. The gas pipeline that communicates with Armenia also suffers periodic interruptions. As a consequence, the Armenians of Karabakh have had to get used to lighting themselves with candles and heating themselves with stoves that they feed with the firewood they cut down from their forests. Thus, close to a fifth of the companies that were operating have had to close their doors, and thousands of workers have become unemployed.

Artak Beglarián, advisor to the Karabakh government, complains: "They are aggravating the blockade and its humanitarian consequences to force us to give up." Beglarián assures that the authorities of the enclave are willing to discuss "rational solutions" to the conflict, but also warns that, with each resignation of the Armenians, new demands from Azerbaijan follow "because it feels impunity" due to the lack of international pressure. For example, a month ago the resignation of the Minister of State, Rubén Vardanián, was forced, one of the demands of the Baku government, which considered him a man from Moscow. The situation did not change. “Since we are falsely accused of importing weapons, we have proposed installing devices to scan all entering vehicles. They have not accepted either. What they are looking for is ethnic cleansing,” denounces Beglarián.

Deaf ears to the International Court of Justice

At the end of February, the International Court of Justice, a UN body, demanded that Azerbaijan immediately open the Lachin corridor until this court issues a final ruling on the case. However, the government of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (in power since 2003) has ignored the ruling. "Until Baku manages to establish some control over the Lachin road and the demilitarization of the local Armenian forces is ensured, it seems that the crisis will continue," argues Zaur Shiriyev. According to this analyst, as a result of the war in Ukraine, Azerbaijan has seen Russia's weakness and is trying to take advantage of it to regain full control over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on March 18, 2023 in the town of Talysh in Azerbaijan.Anadolu Agency (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Araz Imanov, adviser to the Azerbaijani government for the Karabakh region, wrote last week: “Everything that is within our internationally recognized borders can and should be controlled by us. [Establecer un] checkpoint [en el corredor de Lachin] it is only a matter of time, and the sooner it is established, the better”. However, for the Armenians, an Azerbaijani-controlled post is unacceptable. Beglarian, an adviser to the Karabakh government, replies: “Given your racist policy against the Armenians, it would be very dangerous for us. In addition, nothing similar is contemplated in the ceasefire agreement of 2020 ″.

Contacts between the two parties have not gone well, so the Russian and US governments have put their diplomats to work and there have been telephone conversations between various capitals. However, the solution to the dispute seems far away, which, according to the analyst Shiriyev, causes "high risk of a military escalation in the coming days or weeks."

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