EXPLAINER: Tensions high over isolated Azerbaijan region

Jan 21, 2023, 9:39 AM | Updated: 11:51 pm
A boy looks at a candle trying to warm himself at home in Stepanakert, the capital of the separatis...

A boy looks at a candle trying to warm himself at home in Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. In the region have been periodic shutoffs of gas and electricity to the region during the dispute. Protesters claiming to be ecological activists have blocked the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh for more than a month, leading to increasing food shortages. (Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP)

(Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP)

              Nagorno-Karabakh schoolchildren warm themselves around a stove in the classroom in Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. In the region have been periodic shutoffs of gas and electricity during the dispute. Protesters claiming to be ecological activists have blocked the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh for more than a month, leading to increasing food shortages. (Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP)
            
              Local residents walk down a street in Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. Protesters claiming to be ecological activists have blocked the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh for more than a month, leading to increasing food shortages. Local authorities have called for a humanitarian airlift for critical supplies, but Azerbaijan has not authorized the region's airport to operate. (Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP)
            
              Local residents are gather at a food store in Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023. Protesters claiming to be ecological activists have blocked the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh for more than a month, leading to increasing food shortages. Local authorities have called for a humanitarian airlift for critical supplies, but Azerbaijan has not authorized the region's airport to operate. (Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP)
            
              Food coupons passport are placed on a local family's table at their home in Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. Protesters claiming to be ecological activists have blocked the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh for more than a month, leading to increasing food shortages. Local authorities have called for a humanitarian airlift for critical supplies, but Azerbaijan has not authorized the region's airport to operate. (Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP)
            
              Two boys fire up the a stove to warm themselves sitting at home in Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. Protesters claiming to be ecological activists have blocked the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh for more than a month, leading to increasing food shortages. Local authorities have called for a humanitarian airlift for critical supplies, but Azerbaijan has not authorized the region's airport to operate. (Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP)
            
              Two young women walk down in a street in Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. Protesters claiming to be ecological activists have blocked the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh for more than a month, leading to increasing food shortages. Local authorities have called for a humanitarian airlift for critical supplies, but Azerbaijan has not authorized the region's airport to operate. (Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP)
            
              A woman and her son have a dinner at their home in Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. In the region have been periodic shutoffs of gas and electricity to the region during the dispute. Local authorities have called for a humanitarian airlift for critical supplies, but Azerbaijan has not authorized the region's airport to operate. (Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP)
            
              A couple walk in the fog along the street in a poorly lit Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. In the region have been periodic shutoffs of gas and electricity to the region during the dispute. Protesters claiming to be ecological activists have blocked the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh for more than a month, leading to increasing food shortages. (Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP)
            
              Cars queuing to fill up with natural gas in Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022. In the region have been periodic shutoffs of gas and electricity to the region during the dispute. Protesters claiming to be ecological activists have blocked the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh for more than a month, leading to increasing food shortages. (Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP)
            
              Two elderly women warm themselves at a hitter in a room in Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. In the region have been periodic shutoffs of gas and electricity to the region during the dispute. Local authorities have called for a humanitarian airlift for critical supplies, but Azerbaijan has not authorized the region's airport to operate. (Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP)
            
              A man refills gas cylinders for local residents at a street market in Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. In the region have been periodic shutoffs of gas and electricity to the region during the dispute. Local authorities have called for a humanitarian airlift for critical supplies, but Azerbaijan has not authorized the region's airport to operate. (Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP)
            
              Firewood put up for sale are seen in a car trunk in Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. Protesters claiming to be ecological activists have blocked the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh for more than a month, leading to increasing food shortages. In the region have been periodic shutoffs of gas and electricity to the region during the dispute. (Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP)
            
              Customers visit an almost empty food store in Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. Protesters claiming to be ecological activists have blocked the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh for more than a month, leading to increasing food shortages. Local authorities have called for a humanitarian airlift for critical supplies, but Azerbaijan has not authorized the region's airport to operate. (Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP)
            
              Nagorno-Karabakh schoolchildren warm themselves around a stove in the classroom in Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. Protesters claiming to be ecological activists have blocked the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh for more than a month, leading to increasing food shortages. Local authorities have called for a humanitarian airlift for critical supplies, but Azerbaijan has not authorized the region's airport to operate. (Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP)
            
              A boy looks at a candle trying to warm himself at home in Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. In the region have been periodic shutoffs of gas and electricity to the region during the dispute. Protesters claiming to be ecological activists have blocked the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh for more than a month, leading to increasing food shortages. (Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP)
            Ruben Vardanyan, the State Minister of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh leads a cabinet meeting in Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. Protesters claiming to be ecological activists have blocked the only road leading from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh for more than a month, leading to increasing food shortages. Vardanyan thanked all the deputies of the European Parliament, referring to their discussions on the rights of the people and the resolution adopted as a result. (Edgar Harutyunyan/PAN Photo via AP) FILE - Russian military vehicles roll along a road towards the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Friday, Nov. 13, 2020. The war ended with a Russia-brokered armistice under which Azerbaijan regained control of parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and all the surrounding territory previously occupied by Armenians. Russia sent a peacekeeping force of 2,000 troops to maintain order, including ensuring that the Lachin Corridor remained open. (AP Photo/Sergei Grit, File) FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan talk on the sidelines of a regular session of the Collective Security Council of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Yerevan, Armenia, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. Pashinyan this month refused to allow Armenia to host military exercises of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization alliance, saying that "Russia's military presence in Armenia not only fails to guarantee its security, but it raises security threats for Armenia." (Vladimir Smirnov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

MOSCOW (AP) — Two years after Azerbaijan and Armenia ended a war that killed about 6,800 soldiers and displaced around 90,000 civilians, tensions between the countries are again high in a dispute over a six-kilometer (nearly four-mile) road known as the Lachin Corridor.

The winding road, which is the only land connection between Armenia and the ethnic Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan, has been blocked by protesters claiming to be environmental activists since mid-December, threatening food supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh’s 120,000 people.

The dispute raises fears that new fighting could break out. It also could destabilize Armenia’s chronically excitable politics. As well, it casts doubts on the competence and intentions of Russia, whose peacekeeping troops are charged with keeping the road secure.

ROOTS OF THE DISPUTE

Mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh, smaller than the U.S. state of Delaware, has significant cultural importance to both Armenians and Azeris. It had a substantial degree of autonomy within Azerbaijan when it was part of the Soviet Union. As the USSR deteriorated, Armenian separatist unrest broke out, later turning into a full-scale war after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Most of the Azeri population was driven out by the end of the fighting in 1994. Ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia took control not only of Nagorno-Karabakh itself but of sizable surrounding Azerbaijani areas.

For the next quarter-century, Nagorno-Karabakh was a “frozen conflict,” with Armenian and Azerbaijani forces facing off across a no man’s land and occasional clashes. In September 2020, Azerbaijan launched a full-scale assault to take the region. The fierce fighting lasted six weeks.

The war ended with a Russia-brokered armistice under which Azerbaijan regained control of parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and all the surrounding territory previously occupied by Armenians. Russia sent a peacekeeping force of 2,000 troops to maintain order, including ensuring that the Lachin Corridor remained open.

CURRENT TROUBLE

In mid-December, Azeris claiming to be environmental activists began blocking the road, saying they were protesting illegitimate mining by Armenians. Armenia contends the protests are orchestrated by Azerbaijan. In turn, Azerbaijan alleges that Armenians have used the corridor to transport land mines into Nagorno-Karabakh in violation of the armistice terms.

After more than a month of blockages, food shortages in Nagorno-Karabakh have become severe as reserves run low. The local government on Friday implemented a coupon system allowing only limited purchases of rice, pasta, buckwheat, sugar and sunflower oil. Local authorities have called for a humanitarian airlift for critical supplies, but Azerbaijan hasn’t given authorization for the region’s airport to operate.

Azerbaijan also has sporadically cut gas supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh — most recently on Saturday evening — and electricity supplies are reduced.

Although Russia is tasked with ensuring the Lachin Corridor’s operation, it has taken no overt action to end the blockade.

The European Parliament has called for Russian peacekeepers to be replaced by a mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — even though it criticized the OSCE for failing to resolve Nagorno-Karabakh’s status during the decades that preceded the 2020 war.

CONSEQUENCES

With its attention focused on the fighting in Ukraine, Russia has taken a wait-and-see approach to the Lachin Corridor blockade, angering Armenia. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan this month refused to allow Armenia to host military exercises of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization alliance, saying that “Russia’s military presence in Armenia not only fails to guarantee its security, but it raises security threats for Armenia.” Armenia hosts a Russian military base.

Russia’s involvement in ending the 2020 war was seen as a significant accomplishment that boosted its influence in the region. The esteem it gained could be lost if it doesn’t take stronger measures to open up the road.

Pashinyan’s assenting to the Russia-brokered agreement to end the fighting was widely unpopular in Armenia, with opponents accusing him of being a traitor and large protests demanding his resignation. Failure to resolve the current dispute, leaving Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians suffering and isolated, could provoke new unrest — and Pashinyan is aware of the potential power of such protests, having become prime minister himself on the heels of large demonstrations in 2018.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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EXPLAINER: Tensions high over isolated Azerbaijan region