The stores in Stepanakert are still open, but the shelves are empty. Food, medicine, toiletries, fuel — everything is in short supply in the de facto capital of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is internationally recognized as the territory of Azerbaijan.
The disputed region is inhabited mainly by Armenians. Goods are supplied via one access road, the Lachin Corridor, which connects to Armenia but has been blocked by Azerbaijan since December 2022, cutting the region off from the outside world.
The International Red Cross and Russian troops, who were monitoring a ceasefire agreement negotiated between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, had until recently been able to deliver aid. But, in June, after a skirmish between Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers on the common border, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev tightened the blockade, leaving the enclave’s inhabitants on their own.
According to Armenian sources, about 120,000 people have been forced to endure the situation, though Azerbaijani officials say the number is significantly lower. In any case, the supply shortage in Nagorno-Karabakh has become so dire that Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the world-famous Armenian footballer and UNICEF ambassador, tweeted an urgent appeal in early August, calling for the blockade to be lifted immediately on humanitarian grounds.
Talks drag on
Armenia and Azerbaijan have actually been negotiating an end to the conflict for months. A breakthrough in the negotiations would be a huge step forward in a dispute that has been going on for 30 years. The first war between the two states broke out in the early 1990s, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and there have since been repeated incidents along the still undefined border.
As the Nagorno-Karabakh region lies entirely within Azerbaijan’s borders, the latter invokes the principle of territorial integrity in its claim to the area. However, it is inhabited by an Armenian majority, which is why Armenia insists on self-determination for its population. Parts of Nagorno-Karabakh already declared themselves independent in 1991, though no state in the world recognizes this. Not even Armenia — presumably to avoid making peace negotiations with Azerbaijan impossible from the outset.
In 2020, a second war broke out between the two states over the region, and a subsequent ceasefire brokered by Moscow helped Azerbaijan regain control of parts of the disputed territory. Despite Russian troops monitoring the ceasefire, deadly clashes continue to occur. Some 35,000 people are estimated to have died since the conflict began, with hundreds of thousands forced to flee.
A ‘poisoned’ offer
Representatives from Baku and Yerevan have already met several times over the past two years in Brussels, Washington, and Moscow, with the aim of transforming the fragile ceasefire agreement into a lasting peace treaty.
There have been six negotiations under European Union mediation alone. In May, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan surprised the country with the domestically controversial announcement that he would recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan as long as the Armenians there received comprehensive rights and security guarantees as a protected minority.
However, the self-proclaimed government of Nagorno-Karabakh, made up of ethnic Armenians and calling the region the “Republic of Arzakh” since 2017, has so far refused integration into Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijani President Aliyev doesn’t seem interested in this solution, either. He has repeatedly called for the government and parliament of the “Republic of Arzakh” to be dissolved and for Armenians there to be integrated into Azerbaijan as “normal, loyal citizens.” This was a condition upon which Aliyev recently offered to supply the trapped Armenians with aid — something they promptly rejected as a “poisoned” offer.
The negotiations are further complicated by the interests of neighboring countries, particularly Turkey and Russia. Ankara more or less openly supports Azerbaijan. Given the ethnic and cultural similarities between the Turkic-speaking countries, each subscribes to a notion of “one nation, two states.” Turkey is also an important customer of Azerbaijani natural gas.
Russia, on the other hand, has a slightly more complicated position because it maintains ties with both former Soviet republics, though more intensively with Armenia, as it too has a predominantly Christian Orthodox population. Moscow’s preference is evidenced by the fact that while it supplies both parties to the conflict with Russian weapons, only Yerevan gets a preferential price. In addition, Russia maintains a military base in Armenia’s second largest city, Gyumri.
Still, in the ceasefire agreement most recently negotiated by Moscow, Azerbaijan regained control over large areas of Nagorno-Karabakh. Moreover, the Russian army, which is supposed to be a “peacekeeping force,” has been very restrained in the skirmishes that have repeatedly flared up along the border.
Moscow apparently wants to keep both countries dependent, but it has also had to significantly reduce its troop presence in the Caucasus due to its war against Ukraine.
While international diplomats say that a viable agreement could be reached by fall, there are still significant obstacles to overcome.
This article was originally written in German.