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An Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan is on the point of starvation

AFTER MORE than eight months of an ever-tightening blockade, the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh has turned catastrophic. Bread, a staple for many people, is rationed to one loaf per family per day. Critical medicines have run out; there is so little fuel that many patients cannot get to a doctor anyway. Desperate residents have taken to social media to barter, say, home-laid eggs for a kilo of sugar. One young mother posted a photo of baby formula, saying: “I will buy this at any price.”

The siege represents the toughest tactic yet employed by the Azerbaijani government, as it seeks to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave of around 4,400 sq km (1,700 sq miles) at the heart of its decades-old conflict with Armenia. Karabakh has been internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory since the break-up of the Soviet Union, but ethnic Armenian forces won control of it in a war that ran from 1988 to 1994 (Armenians made up most of the population). In a second war, in 2020, Azerbaijan reversed many of those losses. The Azerbaijani government is now pushing for a deal that would complete its victory.

image: The Economist

Now surrounding the territory completely, Azerbaijan holds virtually all the cards. Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, has said he is willing to accept Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh and its tens of thousands of ethnic Armenian residents. The Armenians still hope to secure some kind of guarantee of the rights and security of the Karabakh Armenians. But an impatient Azerbaijan is trying to accelerate the diplomatic process—at the expense of the Armenian population it claims to want to welcome back into the fold.

In December government-backed Azerbaijani protesters launched a blockade of the “Lachin corridor”, the only road that leads in and out of Karabakh to Armenia. Civilian traffic was restricted and shipments into Karabakh of food, fuel and other necessities were curtailed, although enough got through to ward off severe hardship. But in April Azerbaijan dismissed the protesters and set up an official border checkpoint on the corridor; in mid-June it halted traffic altogether. No goods have got through since then.

In the face of the mounting privation inside Karabakh, Azerbaijan has offered a lifeline: to open its own road on which supplies could be sent from elsewhere in Azerbaijan. But the Karabakh Armenians see this as a Trojan horse that would lead to Azerbaijan regaining effective control of the territory. They have gone so far as to erect their own blockade, with cement blocks, on the new road. For now, their political concerns outweigh the humanitarian consequences.

International mediators, led by the European Union, are trying to help the two sides find a way out. A compromise would see both roads opened, but the governments are at loggerheads over the sequencing. The Azerbaijanis have offered to open the Lachin corridor if their road is opened first, but the Armenians say that is a trick and demand that the two roads be opened simultaneously.

Independent information from inside sealed-off Karabakh is hard to come by. But there are signs of a fierce power struggle among ethnic Armenian leaders there. At the end of August Arayik Harutyunyan, the de facto president, stepped down after coming under fire for his supposed willingness to compromise with Azerbaijanis. More intransigent figures have been ascending.

Meanwhile, frequent clashes break out at the border: on September 1st three Armenian soldiers were reported killed after cross-border firing. It is hard to see a solution to the impasse. But regardless of the outcome, any hope that the Karabakh Armenians might live peacefully in Azerbaijan is dwindling fast.

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