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13 September 2023

New Route Opens to Supply Aid to Karabakh Amid Lachin Impasse

Humanitarian aid has finally arrived in Karabakh marking a crucial step in addressing the region's humanitarian needs amid ongoing challenges.

New Route Opens to Supply Aid to Karabakh Amid Lachin Impasse

Image: aztv.az

On 12 September, after nearly months of not receiving any, humanitarian assistance finally arrived in Karabakh, albeit not without controversy. Having crossed the border between Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation three days earlier, it was meant to travel from Samur to Askeran via Baku, Barda, and Aghdam. However, it remained delayed for days as some wondered whether it would ever arrive at all.

But arrive it did, carrying humanitarian assistance comprising food items, medicines, hygienic goods, and blankets in a single truck sent by the Russian Red Cross Society. Ethnic Armenians in Askeran on the Line of Contact (LoC) between that part of Karabakh under the control of Russian peacekeepers and Azerbaijan proper had initially vowed not to let it pass but eventually acquiesced. 

However, two trucks of the Azerbaijan Red Crescent remain stuck in limbo. On the Armenian side of the border with Azerbaijan, at least 21 trucks sent by Yerevan and two from France also remain parked. However, Baku’s approval for receiving them was not requested as is normal for humanitarian assistance. 

Nonetheless, the agreement on delivering humanitarian assistance sent from Russia came the same day as Samvel Shahramanyan was s/elected as de facto president of the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) following Arayik Harutyunyan’s resignation on 1 September. The day after the eventual arrival of the Red Cross Society truck, the European Union effectively welcomed the move even despite being at loggerheads with Russia over Ukraine. 

“[…] we note the passage today of a Russian humanitarian delivery via the Ağdam-Askeran route,” a spokesperson for European Council President Charles Michel said. “We understand all the sensitivities associated with this development; it is our expectation that it will create a momentum for the resumption of regular humanitarian deliveries to the local population.”

After 10 months of partially and sometimes fully blocking passage on the Lachin highway between Armenia and what remains of the former NKAO, a secondary route into the mountainous region was finally and effectively, if possibly temporarily, opened. Naturally, most Armenians did not applaud the move, but such a development was arguably inevitable.

However, Moscow’s Mission to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) termed it only as a ‘pilot delivery.’ Nonetheless, Azerbaijan hopes to come to an agreement with the Karabakh Armenians to open the Aghdam route fully for humanitarian assistance in return for removing many restrictions on Lachin, though possibly with customs controls for commercial goods. 

Despite this likely change, some Armenian commentators instead believe that were Lachin to effectively re-open, then it would mean that the situation had simply reverted to that of before 15 June when gunfire from the Armenian side on Azerbaijani border guards accompanied by the Russian peacekeeping contingent pushed Baku to close it, though admittedly at first only for as long as an investigation into the incident. 

That is hardly true. Contrary to such hopes, not only did Harutyunyan resign precisely because of his perceived failure to resolve the impasse over Lachin, but as was the case with the establishment of an Azerbaijani border checkpoint in late April, it can arguably be viewed as another step towards Baku’s main objective— the integration of Karabakh’s ethnic Armenians into Azerbaijan proper. 

Naturally, many Armenians oppose such a move, but this now forms one of the main goals in attempts by the US, EU, and Russia to finally resolve the decades-long conflict. In Baku’s eyes and that of many observers, the reality on the ground supports such an eventuality. Effectively geographically isolated from the outside world, Karabakh is unsustainable unless it forges amicable relations with Baku.

Ironically, however, the situation could arguably have been less urgent had Armenia started the construction of direct transportation links from Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhchivan as stipulated by the November 2020 trilateral ceasefire statement. Yerevan’s reluctance to comply, however, was because the agreement also foresaw oversight by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) border guard service. 

Karabakh’s rejection of introducing electronic scanning devices to detect any possible flow of weapons to the region or the export of precious metals also arguably led to the current partial and sometimes full closure of the Lachin road. As a result,although there is little reliable information coming out of Karabakh, the Karabakh Armenians face a possible humanitarian crisis as winter approaches.

Although social media show that many likely connected restaurants and cafes still function in the Karabakh capital, albeit now under instruction not to post photographs and videos of celebrations, there is no doubt that those less fortunate and unable to afford black market prices are under increasing duress. Queues for bread certainly seem credible. 

The shortage of wheat and flour is largely seen as a result of the need to conserve fuel reserves. This has meant that the transportation of wheat and flour has led to a shortfall for bakeries and difficulties in distributing actual loaves. The de facto Karabakh authorities have also issued at least two official pleas to farmers to sell their stored wheat, which has also become part of the problem. 

In such a situation, the consensus in the international community is that the resolution of the impasse lies with opening both Lachin and other supplementary routes such as Aghdam. Moreover, with increasing clarity since the proverbial ink dried on the November 2020 trilateral ceasefire statement, another pressing issue remains—the need for direct talks between Baku and representatives of the Karabakh Armenians. 

Unfortunately, however, while the Azerbaijani government has mentioned various models for integration, albeit in passing, and some Baku-based think tanks are exploring others, there remains no sign of officials in Armenia and Karabakh, let alone analysts in Yerevan, doing the same. Now is arguably the time for them to engage with their Azerbaijani counterparts in doing so.

As some have long warned, especially former Armenian presidential advisor Gerard Libaridian, rejection of each and every offer from Baku and the international community on key issues has consistently led to lesser offers from Baku time and time again. Time has never been on the side of a resolution to the Karabakh conflict, and that remains the case today.

Some would argue even more so.