Azerbaijan’s Pressure on Nagorno-Karabakh: What to Know

In Brief

Azerbaijan’s Pressure on Nagorno-Karabakh: What to Know

Azerbaijan appears to have eased a blockade that had cut off food and medical supplies to the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, but there are still heightened concerns about conditions facing more than one hundred thousand civilians there.

Reports say Azerbaijan has moved to end its months-old blockade of the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. What’s the situation?

On September 9, Armenia and Azerbaijan announced a compromise to simultaneously reopen the sole road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, known as the Lachin Corridor, as well as a road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. On September 12, officials from the breakaway region said humanitarian aid from the Russian Red Cross had reached the enclave through Azerbaijan, but it is unclear if access to the Lachin Corridor has been restored. Azerbaijan began to restrict access to the corridor in December 2022, claiming Armenia was using the route to smuggle weapons to fighters in the enclave.

A map of Nagorno-Karabakh showing the location of the Agdam road and the Lachin Corridor

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Recent border clashes and accusations that Azerbaijan is conducting a military buildup have further exacerbated tensions, and the risk of escalation remains.

The blockade has severely inhibited the flow of food, medical supplies, and other essentials to Nagorno-Karabakh’s one hundred and twenty thousand residents. Bread has been limited to one loaf per family per day, fuel shortages have halted public transport, drinking water has gone untreated, and the region has run out of critical medicines. Meanwhile, the number of recorded miscarriages has quadrupled as access to medical care has diminished, and the enclave reported its first death from malnutrition on August 15, according to the ombudsman for human rights appointed by the enclave’s authorities.

Has any crisis diplomacy taken place between the two sides?

Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s leaders have met for peace talks in Moscow, Brussels, and Washington in 2023. The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is the longest-running conflict in post-Soviet Eurasia. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over Nagorno-Karabakh, leaving the enclave within Azerbaijan nominally independent but with close links to Armenia. At the end of that war, victorious Armenian forces seized Nagorno-Karabakh and seven nearby Azerbaijani districts, causing an exodus of more than six hundred thousand Azerbaijanis. In 2020, Azerbaijan invaded and recaptured most of its former territory lost in the earlier conflict.

Although Armenia and Azerbaijan reached a tentative agreement to end the Lachin Corridor blockade, the governments remain divided on critical principles of a lasting agreement. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan offered to relinquish his country’s claim to Karabakh if the rights of ethnic Armenians were protected through international mechanisms. However, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev refused to agree to this, asserting that demands for international protections were an infringement on Azerbaijan’s internal affairs, and that ethnic Armenians were already covered by the Azerbaijani constitution’s protections for its other ethnic minorities.

Russia has historically served as the power broker in the region and supports Armenia’s claim to the enclave. Russia is the guarantor of the 2020 cease-fire agreement that is supposed to ensure freedom of movement along the Lachin Corridor, but Russian peacekeepers’ failure to keep the road open has prompted Armenia to distance itself from its traditional backer. On September 11, 2023, Armenia conducted military exercises with the United States, increasing tensions with Russia.

More on:

Territorial Disputes

Humanitarian Crises

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Armenia

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Why has a lasting resolution been so difficult to reach?

Nagorno-Karabakh has the ingredients of an intractable conflict—a contested piece of territory where sovereignty is hard to determine satisfactorily, deep ethnicity-based animosities compounded by the trauma and grievances of two wars, and surrounding geopolitical rivalries that make international mediation and compromise exceedingly difficult. Moreover, international constituencies have formed that have political and financial interests in perpetuating the conflict. For example, Turkey’s outright military backing of Azerbaijan emboldened Baku in its 2020 war to retake territory, and Russia’s status as a guarantor and the presence of its peacekeeping force has allowed it to maintain influence in the Caucasus.

What are human rights watchdogs saying about the blockade?

A woman at a protest holds a sign decrying humanitarian conditions facing children in Nagorno-Karabakh
Demonstrators in Yerevan, Armenia, rally to demand the reopening of a blockaded road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and to decry crisis conditions in the enclave. Karen Minasyan/AFP/Getty Images

In a report [PDF] published in early August, former International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo warned there is a “reasonable basis” to believe Azerbaijan is committing a genocide against ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh through its blockade of the Lachin Corridor. Ocampo called starvation the “invisible genocide weapon” and referenced the UN convention on genocide’s inclusion of “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction” in its definition of that crime. Ocampo called on the UN Security Council to refer the matter to the ICC, as Azerbaijan is not a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the court. Armenia, too, requested the Security Council’s intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh, which its UN ambassador described as “on the verge of a full-fledged humanitarian catastrophe.”

Azerbaijani officials have rejected Ocampo’s findings, claiming that his report contained “serious factual, legal, and substantive errors,” without providing evidence. Azerbaijan has argued that the humanitarian crisis was self-inflicted because Karabakh officials originally refused to accept aid from Azerbaijan and insisted on using the Lachin Corridor.

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