Nagorno-Karabakh in the shadow of ‘integration’: How a blockade has become a site of everyday resistance7 min read

 In Analysis, Caucasus, Politics

The only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh and its predominantly Armenian population with Armenia passes through a strip of land called the Lachin corridor, where Azerbaijan has blocked civilian traffic since December 2022. The blockade was initially maintained by state-supported eco-activists, until they were replaced by encroaching state control over the corridor. Azerbaijan’s uncompromising stance and the establishment of a border checkpoint on the corridor in April has changed the calculus of Karabakh Armenians, many of whom are increasingly willing to tolerate the blockade as an act of resistance.

Throughout 2021–2023, the balance of power in the South Caucasus has tilted ever more asymmetrically in Azerbaijan’s favour. Ever since mid-December 2022, the blockade of the Lachin corridor has put heavy pressure on Nagorno-Karabakh. Shortages in food and medicine and regular power outages have produced a grave humanitarian crisis in the region.

Blockade, checkpoint, blockade

Azerbaijan was able to increase its military presence in the Lachin corridor in March and April 2023, leading to deadly clashes as the road connecting Tegh in Armenia to Stepanakert in Nagorno Karabakh was rerouted. External parties – most notably Russia – have largely been unable or unwilling to draw any red lines to counterbalance Baku’s coercive diplomacy, despite the fact that the blockade of the road violates the November 2020 ceasefire agreement, which ended the Second Karabakh War and guarantees that Russian peacekeepers control the Lachin corridor.

Undeterred, Azerbaijan moved to install a border checkpoint on the Hakari bridge at the start of the corridor on 23 April 2023, effectively changing the post-war status-quo on the ground. Russian peacekeepers no longer monopolise control over the two-way traffic along the road from Armenia to Stepanakert, which is now also patrolled by Azerbaijani border forces. Tensions further flared on 15 June when Azerbaijan attempted to raise its flag on the Armenian side of the Hakari river.

There is no clarity on how many people have so far used the checkpoint. Whilst local newspapers reported that around 150 people from Nagorno-Karabakh have used the checkpoint, numbers presented by Azerbaijan’s State Border Service suggest that the number is closer to 2,000. Strong social pressure against using the checkpoint persists in Nagorno-Karabakh. Ruben Vardanyan, a Russian-Armenian billionaire who served as Karabakh’s de facto state minister for a brief period in autumn 2022, claimed that using the checkpoint signifies “a red line.”

The situation has worsened since the flag incident of mid-June, with Azerbaijan completely shutting down any traffic of people and commodities along the corridor, including humanitarian convoys. On 11 July, Baku closed the road to Red Cross (ICRC) vehicles as well, accusing the organisation of involvement in smuggling phones and cigarettes.

The installation of the checkpoint sent shockwaves through Nagorno-Karabakh, says Arsen (20), who lives in Askeran with his extended family. It was one of the first tangible and probably permanent changes in the situation on the ground since the war of 2020. “We grew up with the idea that we are all Armenian, and are connected to Armenia,” Arsen explains. “The blockade and especially the checkpoint came to literally signify that our link is not as strong as we thought and is actually quite fragile.”

For locals, the blockade has come to not only show a growing distance from Armenia, but also the looming proximity to Azerbaijan. Natasha (60) teaches Armenian in the local secondary school in Martakert. “Passing through the Azerbaijani checkpoint,” she says, “would show that Nagorno-Karabakh is one step closer to Azerbaijan, a reality which has been far-fetched and unimaginable for Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians since 1994.”

Re-opening the road: positive or negative?

Local responses to the blockade have undergone significant changes. Initially, the blockade was widely condemned and an immediate reopening was demanded by the local Armenians. However, following the installation of the checkpoint, Karabakh Armenians have understood that Baku is adamant on gaining material gains through the blockade. “Until the installation of the checkpoint, we had been anticipating the re-opening of the road every day,” commented Edgar (18), who lives in Stepanakert. “Now, we are no longer sure that re-opening is the best option.”

Locals are also wary of the possible dangers that the checkpoint bears. Most prominently, Karabakh Armenians underscore that it is unknown on which principles the Azerbaijani border guards will check their passports; they are concerned that participants of both Karabakh wars will be stopped and detained. Gohar (42), a resident of Stepanakert, explains: “No scenario of unblocking within the status quo will be good for us. Even if the roads open and we can travel to Yerevan, succumbing to the Azerbaijani checkpoint is already a defeat and a huge danger for us.” Additionally, Karabakh Armenians are  concerned they may not be allowed back into the region after using the checkpoint to enter Armenia. In some sense, locals have come to see their continued everyday life inside the blockade and inside Nagorno-Karabakh, with all its hardships, as a form of resistance to Azerbaijani rule.

Resistance to integration: Will people eventually leave?

Since the start of the blockade, Azerbaijan has been sending more consistent and pronounced signals of coercive integration. For example, on the rare trips that Karabakh Armenians were allowed to make with the supervision of the International Committee of Red Cross, some cars were stopped by self-declared Azerbaijani eco-activists, the primary agents of the blockade during its initial phase. The activists-cum-government agents proposed that the travellers accept Azerbaijani citizenship as a condition for allowing them to pass the roadblock.

Baku has been actively promoting the narrative of integration, which includes the demolition of de facto state institutions in what remains of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. President Ilham Aliyev announced in May 2023 that the de facto parliament and presidency must be dissolved.

Locals in Nagorno-Karabakh are torn between a principled resistance against the idea of integration and an unwillingness to leave their homes once the corridor is unblocked. “Our wish and will is still the same,” says Arsen. “We want to live here, as Armenians. However, it is becoming clearer to us now that the price we should pay for our wishes is much higher than we expected.”

Despite the resolute commitment to staying, several thresholds may lead Karabakh Armenians to opt in favour of leaving the region. Hovhannes (23), who lives in Stepanakert with his family, points to the presence of an Azerbaijani military force in Nagorno-Karabakh as a factor which would make him consider leaving. The fact that the Nagorno-Karabakh Armed Forces (or Artsakh Defence Army), an indigenous self-defence force, remain operational in the territory, maintains a limited sense of security for the local population.

“A solution in the form of mutual concessions,” analyst Shujaat Ahmadzada wrote in a recent article published by the Baku Research Institute, “could be to abolish this paramilitary force and instead, to initiate forming new local police units with a more limited number. In return for this step, Azerbaijan can make a solemn commitment to impose a moratorium on the entry of its armed forces into the territories inhabited by the Karabakh Armenian community […] for the next 5-10 years, as well as announce that the ethnic Armenians who served in the military will not be brought before a court […].” In the current environment, however, the odds are not stacked in favour of such compromises. Azerbaijan has persistently condemned the existence of any self-defence force in Nagorno-Karabakh and rejected the introduction of a new international peacekeeping mission.

Local responses to Azerbaijan’s encroaching absorption of the remaining Armenian-inhabited parts of Nagorno-Karabakh will likely fracture along generational lines. “There is a significant number of people in Karabakh, generally of a more senior age, who will stay no matter what,” Edgar tells Lossi 36 over the phone. “For us, the younger generation, we will consider the details of any new arrangements and deals more carefully. Leaving might eventually be an option for some of us.”

Despite locals’ unwavering commitment to the narrative of the Karabakh movement, there is looming acknowledgement that an ideal solution may be impossible. Baku’s new ultimatums have made the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh reconsider their personal red lines and take the option of leaving more seriously. For now,  the vast majority of Karabakh Armenians continue to push through the hardships of the blockade as an act of resistance. However, as clashes re-occur in Karabakh and threats of new military operations re-emerge in Azerbaijani media, this resistance hangs more thinly than ever before.

Feature Image: Unsplash / Canva
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