A dispute over gold exports risks spilling into a wider conflict
Earlier this month, a group of self-described Azerbaijani environmental activists pushed their way past the wire fencing around the Lachin Corridor, the only road that runs in or out of Nagorno-Karabakh. As the Russian peacekeepers charged with protecting the highway watched on, they set up tents, built fires in old oil barrels to help stave off the cold and made it clear they were settling in for the long haul.
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Eleven days on, virtually no vehicles have been able to drive down the sole route linking the breakaway Armenian-majority region — inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognised borders but cut off from the rest of the country by fortified defensive lines — with neighbouring Armenia. Supplies of essential goods are already running low and fresh fruit and vegetables have all but disappeared from the markets.
“We are also running out of medicines to treat some very serious conditions, including anti-seizure drugs for children with epilepsy,” Dr. Biyana Sukhudyan, a paediatric neurologist who travelled from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, tells me.
Just two years ago the two former Soviet Republics fought a bloody war over the region, with Azerbaijan taking back swathes of territory from separatists and Moscow’s forces being called in to prevent more bloodshed. Now, though, there are fears a new conflict could erupt with Russia distracted by its war in Ukraine and unable to maintain the status quo.
The protests on the Lachin Corridor started ostensibly over claims Armenians are using the road to export gold illegally mined in Nagorno-Karabakh, polluting the environment. However, outside observers say few Azerbaijanis on the picket lines have any experience of eco-activism against their country’s own colossal oil and gas industry, implying they are part of a government-backed ploy. Indeed, the action would go down in history as the most disruptive environmental protest ever, effectively isolating tens of thousands of people.
However, it’s not the first time that green issues have merged with ethnic tensions in the region, and unprecedented rallies were held in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, in 1988 after word spread that Karabakh Armenians were cutting down thousands of trees on what both sides consider their soil.
While denying responsibility for the blockade and accusing the Russians of closing the road, Azerbaijan is demanding the right to inspect goods going in and out of the breakaway territory, citing claims military hardware is being brought in. The country is also pushing for Armenia to hand over a 35-kilometre stretch along its south border. Azerbaijan would use this as its own ‘sovereign corridor,’ connecting the mainland to the exclave of Nakhichevan.
Ultimately, Baku wants Yerevan to accept its sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, and for the Armenians living there to lay down their weapons. Many fear that if they do they’ll be forced out of their homes — or worse. Azerbaijan maintains it doesn’t want to cause a humanitarian crisis and the protesters have parted to allow several Red Cross vehicles across, although that is far short of what is needed to feed and care for the whole population.
At the crossroads between Europe and Asia, the growing row risks dragging in half a dozen major powers. Turkey backs its close ally Azerbaijan and has helped arm its troops, ensuring they far outgun their foes. Israel has also emerged as one of Baku’s most significant partners, trading oil and gas for military technology.
Already paranoid about ‘Zionists,’ neighbouring Iran is similarly worried about the prospect of Ankara’s forces on its border if Baku’s corridor demands are pushed through. Preoccupied with serious domestic protests, the last thing the regime needs is separatism among its own ethnic Azerbaijani population, estimated to number as many as 20 million people. Tehran staged major drills in recent days in which its soldiers practiced bridging the river and invading Azerbaijan in what was widely interpreted as a warning.
Meanwhile, the US has condemned Baku for the road closure, with the State Department warning of the human impact of the blockade. When towns and villages across Armenia proper came under fire from Azerbaijan during fatal border clashes that killed hundreds in August, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was dispatched to Yerevan to offer a full-throated defence of “democracy versus autocracy.”
The EU, which has previously positioned itself as a mediator, stopped short of such dramatic rhetoric but reiterated the call to avoid “distress to the local population”. Just months before the summer offensive, Brussels struck a deal with Azerbaijan to import more energy and help replace Russian fossil fuels. Awkward questions are getting harder and harder to avoid.
But while geopolitics and decades-old enmity swirls around Nagorno-Karabakh, those living there are paying the price.
Twelve-year-old Maral Apelian travelled from the region to Yerevan for eye surgery a few days prior to the protests starting, and is now cut off from her family, ethnic Armenians from Syria who moved to a village near Stepanakert to escape the civil war in 2019. “I’ve been worrying because I don’t want friends my age to see the kind of things I saw back in Syria,” the young schoolgirl says. “But I’m not scared. If I look into an Azerbaijani’s eyes, it’s him who should be scared, not me.”