In this Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, file photo, an ethnic Armenian soldier stands guard next to Nagorno-Karabakh's flag atop of the hill near Charektar in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, at a new border with Kalbajar district turned over to Azerb

Tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan lead to humanitarian crisis

Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh are seeing shortages in basic necessities and are calling on the US and EU to step in.

The World

Over the last month, Armenians living in the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh say they are suffering from a shortage of basic necessities. 

The Lachin Corridor is the only road connecting them to Armenia, and that’s where Azerbaijan has set up a military checkpoint, essentially cutting them off and isolating them. 

“The life for the past month it is disastrous, the situation is close to starvation,” said Nina Shahverdyan, a schoolteacher in her 20s who lives in Stepanakert, the largest city in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

“We don’t have any medicine, we don’t have any fuel, we barely have electricity, when we don’t have electricity we don’t have internet as well. We don’t have any food supplies coming in. People right now are struggling with what to put on the table,” she said.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought for decades over the disputed territory of  Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenians who live there are now calling on the US and EU to step in to assist with a growing humanitarian crisis. 

Last week, thousands of people in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, came out to protest Azerbaijan’s blockade.  

They chanted, “Artsakh,” the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh.

The next day, Armenia tried sending humanitarian aid to the region, but a convoy of dozens of trucks filled with food and other goods were stopped by Azerbaijan at the Lachin Corridor checkpoint. They’ve been held up there for a week, still waiting to enter.

Shahverdyan said that a big portion of her day is spent trying to get some food.

“There are huge lines in the city, like, to buy just one or two loaves of bread, and my brother yesterday, he stood for 1 1/2 hours and it’s only just to get the bare minimum bread,” she said. 

Shahverdyan said that people who have gardens have begun growing fruits and vegetables themselves to supplement their diets. During the last six weeks, she said she has lost nearly seven pounds, and her brother has lost nearly nine pounds. 

“If measures are not taken in the coming weeks or months, an actual famine could start,” said Tigran Grigoryan, head of the Regional Center for Democracy and Security based in Yerevan.

He said that Russia and Azerbaijan share responsibly here.

In 2020, Russia brokered a ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where Russian peacekeepers were supposed to manage the Lachin Corridor.

In the years since, Azerbaijan has taken control.

“This is a direct consequence of the war in Ukraine, because of which, the influence of Russia has significantly decreased in the region, and also the interest of Russia has been shifting. That’s why Azerbaijan has been testing Russia’s red lines on the ground,” he explained. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, attends talks with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, second left, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, left, at the Kremlin in Moscow, on Jan. 11, 2021. 
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, attends talks with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, second left, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, left, at the Kremlin in Moscow, on Jan. 11, 2021. Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/AP/Photo

Azerbaijan considers Nagorno-Karabakh to be part of its sovereign territory, and Azerbaijan has tried to justify its Lachin Corridor checkpoint as a security measure.

Meanwhile, as this crisis continues to unfold, Armenia and Azerbaijan are still holding peace talks.

“In my understanding you cannot just ignore the elephant in the room, the blockade and humanitarian crisis in the Nagorno-Karabakh and move forward with these so-called peace talks,” Grigoryan said. 

Zaur Shiriyev, a Baku, Azerbaijan-based analyst with the Crisis Group, said that until now, the United States has played a key role in keeping the peace talks alive.

“The expectation now is that the agreement should be signed by the end of the year, the key date in the process. And many worry that if it doesn’t happen by the end, the US will enter its preelection period, potentially decreasing its focus and intervention,” Shiriyev said. 

He added that many issues remain unresolved like the status of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, future security arrangements, and the freedom of movement through the Lachin Corridor.

But despite that, Shiriyev believes that ongoing dialogue between the two sides can be productive, even if a deal doesn’t resolve all these questions.

“Even if [both] sides succeed in signing an agreement, what will happen the day after peace agreement is reached?” 

Back in Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh, Shahverdyan, the schoolteacher, said she doesn’t trust that Azerbaijan would uphold a future peace agreement with Armenia.

“This is not just our local issue here, this is an international issue, this is a humanitarian crisis. And I’m thinking that the way the West pressures Russia to stop the war in Ukraine, the same tactics can be applied to Azerbaijan to stop this. The bare fact that the blockade continues, is proof that they don’t do enough,” she said. 

Over the weekend, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev.

Blinken expressed “deep concern for the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh,” and urged all sides to continue dialogue.

Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh though are looking for more than just words, and are hoping that the blockade is lifted as soon as possible. 

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