The winding road, the only land connection between Armenia and Azerbaijan’s ethnic Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh, has been blocked since mid-December by protesters claiming to be environmentalists, endangering the food supply of Nagorno-Karabakh’s 120,000 residents.
The dispute raises fears that new fighting could break out. It could also destabilize Armenia’s chronically exciting politics.
It also casts doubt on the competence and intentions of Russia, whose peacekeepers are tasked with securing the road.
ROOTS OF THE DISPUTE
The mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh, smaller than the US state of Delaware, is of great cultural importance to both Armenians and Azeris. It had a significant degree of autonomy within Azerbaijan when it was part of the Soviet Union.
As the USSR deteriorated, Armenian separatist unrest erupted, which later turned into full-scale war after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Most of the Azerbaijani population was expelled by the end of the fighting in 1994. Ethnic Armenian forces, supported by Armenia, took control not only of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, but also of a sizeable surrounding area. Azerbaijani areas.
For the next quarter century, Nagorno-Karabakh was a “frozen conflict,” with Armenian and Azerbaijani forces facing each other in no-man’s-land and occasional clashes.
In September 2020, Azerbaijan launched a full-scale attack to take the region. The fierce fighting lasted six weeks.
The war ended with a Russian-brokered truce with Azerbaijan regaining control over parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and all surrounding territory previously held by Armenians.
Russia sent a peacekeeping force of 2,000 troops to maintain order, including ensuring that the Lachin Corridor remained open.
In mid-December, Azeris, claiming to be environmentalists, began blocking the road, saying they were protesting illegal mining by Armenians.
Armenia claims the protests are being orchestrated by Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, for its part, claims that Armenians used the corridor to transport landmines to Nagorno-Karabakh in violation of the ceasefire terms.
After more than a month of blockades, food shortages in Nagorno-Karabakh have become severe as reserves are depleted.
The local government introduced a coupon system on Friday that allows limited purchases of rice, pasta, buckwheat, sugar and sunflower oil.
Local authorities have called for a humanitarian airlift for critical supplies, but Azerbaijan has not authorized the operation of the regional airport.
Azerbaijan has also cut off gas supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh sporadically – most recently on Saturday night – and electricity supplies have been cut.
Although Russia is tasked with ensuring the operation of the Lachin Corridor, it has taken no overt action to end the blockade.
The European Parliament has called for Russia’s peacekeepers to be replaced by an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission – even as it criticized the OSCE for failing to resolve the status of Nagorno-Karabakh in the decades leading up to the 2020 war .
With its focus on the fighting in Ukraine, Russia has taken a wait and see approach to the Lachin Corridor blockade, which has angered Armenia.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan this month refused to allow Armenia to host military exercises of the Russian-led alliance of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, saying that “Russia’s military presence in Armenia not only cannot guarantee its security, but also poses security threats to Armenia entails.”
Armenia hosts a Russian military base.
Russia’s involvement in ending the 2020 war was seen as a major achievement that strengthened its influence in the region.
The appreciation it has received could be lost if stronger measures are not taken to clear the way.
Pashinyan’s agreement to the Russian-brokered agreement to end the fighting was deeply unpopular in Armenia, with opponents accusing him of being a traitor and large protests demanding his resignation.
If the current dispute is not resolved, leaving the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh suffering and isolated, it could spark fresh unrest – and Pashinyan is aware of the potential power of such protests, having himself become prime minister following major demonstrations in 2018 .