Armenian activists protest over Karabakh road link standoff

December 28, 2022 GMT

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Hundreds of opposition supporters rallied in the Armenian capital on Wednesday, urging the government to act to unblock a vital road to the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, after weeks of rising tension over Azerbaijani protests which choked off basic supplies to the territory.

Protesters urged the administration in Yerevan to “take appropriate measures” to secure the re-opening of the so-called Lachin corridor, the only supply route to ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been blocked by crowds from neighboring Azerbaijan since Dec. 12. Azeri authorities said on Tuesday that the protests would be suspended if monitors were given access to what Azerbaijan calls illegal mining sites in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Yerevan since a separatist war there ended in 1994. That conflict left not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself but large chunks of surrounding lands in Armenian hands.

In 44 days of heavy fighting that began in September 2020, the Azerbaijani military routed Armenian forces and moved deep into Nagorno-Karabakh, forcing Armenia to accept a Russia-brokered peace deal that took effect in November that year. The agreement saw the return to Azerbaijan of a significant part of Nagorno-Karabakh and also required Armenia to hand over swaths of land it held outside the separatist region.

The Lachin province, which lies between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, was the last of the three areas on the rim of Nagorno-Karabakh to be surrendered by Armenian forces in December 2020. Russia deployed nearly 2,000 peacekeepers for at least five years to ensure safe transit across the region, monitor the peace deal and help the return of refugees.

The Armenian demonstrators called on Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s government to “not shift all responsibility” for resolving the situation on to the Russian force, which has been engaged in a standoff with the Azerbaijani crowds for over two weeks, coming under heavy criticism in Yerevan for its allegedly inadequate response.

“It is clear that the Lachin corridor is a zone of responsibility of the Russian peacekeepers, and they must fulfill their functions. But this does not mean that Armenian authorities should sit idly by,” Ishkhan Saghatelyan, an Armenian MP from the socialist-nationalist Dashnaktsutyun party, told Russia’s Interfax agency.

Pashinyan reaffirmed Yerevan’s official position in a statement on Tuesday, saying that according to recent agreements between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, the supply route should remain under the control of Russian peacekeepers, with Baku guaranteeing unimpeded transport along it. Prior to that, Nikol Pashinyan repeatedly accused Moscow’s peacekeeping force of failing to uphold its responsibilities, something the Kremlin has denied.

Vale Gasparyan, one of the leaders of Armenia’s pro-Western National Democratic Pole cross-party bloc, said in a live video broadcast on social media Wednesday that a blockade should be imposed on a Russian military base in northern Armenia unless the Lachin corridor is reopened.

Ethnic Armenian leaders in the separatist territory allege that the blockade has been orchestrated by the Azerbaijani government. Baku denies this, saying the protests in the Lachin region are “genuine” and “justified.”