KORNIDZOR, Armenia — Maria Musayelyan gave birth to twin girls on Sunday — now she’s worried about being able to keep them alive.
With Azerbaijan accused of blocking all supplies to the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, fears are growing over the fate of the 100,000 people living there.
“There were days during my pregnancy when I know I didn’t get enough food. And now it’s not just about food,” the 25-year-old lawyer said in a telephone interview from the region’s capital, Stepanakert. “There’s no toilet paper, no toothpaste, no baby formula, no clothes for the children.”
Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians fought a war against Azerbaijan in the early 1990s; hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis were killed or forced to flee their homes as the Armenians took control and declared the independence of their unrecognized breakaway state — inside Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognized borders but cut off from the rest of the country by trenches and fortifications.
Azerbaijan turned the tables in 2020 with a lightning offensive that reconquered key parts of the enclave. The war was halted by a Russian-brokered ceasefire, but in recent months Azerbaijan has tightened the noose on the Lachin Corridor, a mountainous road that is the only link between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.
In Kornidzor, an Armenian village on the border with Azerbaijan, a line of white aid trucks — laden with hundreds of tons of flour, cooking oil and other supplies from the Armenian government — has been stuck at an army checkpoint for the last month. Azerbaijan is refusing to let it pass. Nearby, half a dozen boys chase a football up and down a dusty field, every now and then letting out a cheer as it bounces off the burned-out armored vehicle rusting behind the goal.
Aid organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, are also warning that they are unable to get food and fuel into the breakaway region and that a humanitarian crisis looms.
“The situation is close to catastrophe,” said Sergey Ghazaryan, the foreign minister of Nagorno-Karabakh’s unrecognized government. “There’s no sphere of life that isn’t suffering.”
Azerbaijan insists there is a solution — it’s just not one that’s palatable for Karabakh Armenians hoping to preserve some semblance of independence.
Hikmet Hajiyev, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s foreign policy adviser, insisted to POLITICO that “the Lachin road is open” — while refusing to explain why the Red Cross and other international organizations are unable to use it.
He said his government wants aid to be delivered, just not via the Lachin Corridor from Armenia but from the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam, because it “historically links Karabakh to mainland Azerbaijan” and is “less costly and more convenient.” Russia tentatively backs the idea, while the EU and the U.S. say it’s not an alternative to Lachin.
Baku’s motive for the shift is clear. While the Lachin Corridor offers Nagorno-Karabakh a contiguous lifeline to Armenia, deliveries through Aghdam — which lies to the east of the enclave — would require long, looping transit through Azerbaijan.
“Why are the Armenians refusing to use the Aghdam road?” Hajiyev asked. “Because they don’t seek reintegration — they simply seek separatism and they seek irredentism and would like to preserve their illegal puppet regime on the territory of Azerbaijan.”
Ghazaryan warned that Azerbaijan’s offer to bring in aid via Aghdam is an effort to force the Karabakh Armenians to give up their independence and accept being part of Azerbaijan. ““If we accept the opening of the Aghdam road and supply from the Azerbaijani side, we legitimize the crime they are committing,” he said.
“In case of the reopening of the Lachin Corridor we will reestablish our self-sufficiency and there will be no need to receive cargo from Aghdam,” he added.
For now, the Armenians are hanging on, but the humanitarian cost is rising.
In July, one Karabakh Armenian doctor said miscarriages had tripled as a result of malnutrition and a lack of medical care, while local media reported a woman lost her baby after she was unable to get to hospital due to a shortage of fuel for the ambulance.
Agricultural work has all but ground to a halt without fuel to power farm machinery or get food from the countryside to the Karabakh Armenian capital, local officials said. They also claim Azerbaijani forces have fired on farmers in their fields, making it almost impossible to sow crops and harvest hay for their animals.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s leadership is calling on the EU, U.S. and others to impose sanctions on Azerbaijan and to push for a return to the status quo ante to prevent a catastrophe.
At a meeting of the U.N. Security Council last week, nations including the U.S., U.K., France and Russia acknowledged the ongoing blockade and called for aid to be allowed in.
But the debate underlined how far apart the two sides are.
Yashar Aliyev, the country’s permanent representative to the U.N., responded to Armenian allegations by holding up printouts of Instagram posts purportedly showing Karabakh Armenians eating food and living life as normal. “People are happy,” he said. “They are dancing at their wedding party. This is a celebration. Very tasty cookies!”
Looking for help
Pressure is growing on Azerbaijan to relent.
Luis Moreno Ocampo, the former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, published a report earlier this month calling the situation “an ongoing genocide.”
Russia’s failure to guarantee safe passage in and out of the region, which it vowed to do under the terms of the 2020 ceasefire, means the Karabakh Armenians are looking West for security assurances.
“We’ve been seeing two major trends since the start of the war in Ukraine,” said Tigran Grigoryan, head of the Regional Center for Democracy and Security think tank in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. “Russia’s interest in the region is decreasing and its priorities are shifting. Militarily, diplomatically, politically, they don’t have the leverage they used to have.”
Azerbaijan is seeking to reassure the international community that warnings of an ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign are overblown. It has hired London lawyer Rodney Dixon to write a rejection of the Moreno Ocampo report.
“If you’re going to make an allegation as serious as genocide, you have to look at all the factors,” Dixon said. “There might be many other issues between the parties, but there’s no evidence that’s been identified a genocide is underway.”
He said Azerbaijan’s offer to redirect aid via Aghdam shows it is not intent on driving out Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population.
But there are doubts as to the Azerbaijani government’s long-term intentions.
“No plan, white paper or document setting out a positive vision for the future of Karabakh Armenians has ever been made public by the Azerbaijani authorities,” said Laurence Broers, an expert on the conflict and associate fellow at Chatham House.
According to him, assurances that locals will receive equal treatment under the constitution of Azerbaijan fail to acknowledge that they “are not just any population but one that has been in protracted conflict with the Azerbaijani state for decades.”
“The Aghdam offer would be more credible if it was linked to deescalation — rhetorically and militarily — and to a vision for an ongoing transformation of the troubled relationship between Azerbaijani state and Karabakh Armenian population,” Broers said.
Meanwhile, in Stepanakert, Musayelyan and her neighbors struggle to survive.
“We are eating whatever can be grown here, mostly vegetables — there’s some potatoes, some pears, some plums,” she said.