Who really are Azerbaijan’s ‘environmental activists’ blockading Karabakh?

Ani Grigoryan, CivilNetCheck

The only road connecting Karabakh to the outside world has been closed for three days now. Several hundred Azerbaijani citizens posing as “environment activists” began blocking the Lachin corridor Monday morning, claiming they were carrying out an environmental protest, raising the alarm about “eco-terrorism” in Karabakh.

On December 3, again under the false pretext of environmental concerns, a group of Azerbaijanis temporarily blocked the Lachin corridor, but after three hours of negotiations, they reopened it.

In that incident, about two dozen “activists,” all men, blocked the Goris-Stepanakert highway. But this week, the number of Azerbaijanis has grown by several times, and women are also now taking part in the blockade.

How did the ‘activists’ get to Shushi?

The appearance of a large group of Azerbaijanis in the Lachin corridor raises a number of questions. After the 2020 war, which saw Shushi and other cities and towns come under Azerbaijani control, Baku began to organize visits to those areas. Azerbaijani citizens have the opportunity to visit those areas, but only after receiving a special permit from the government. They can visit Shushi, Akna (Aghdam), and other locales only via state-provided buses, accompanied by police officers. They can usually stay in Karabakh only for several hours, after which they have to leave.

In the past two years, a number of cases have been opened against Azerbaijani citizens who were arrested after entering the regions of Karabakh that came under Azerbaijani control without advance permission. Even Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has appealed to Azerbaijanis not to enter those areas without advance permission.

Therefore, we can say, the Azerbaijani “environmental activists” have appeared in the Lachin corridor with Baku’s permission. Otherwise, they would not have been able to reach the area, as they would have been arrested at various checkpoints on the way, as has happened before.

What do the ‘activists’ have to do with environmental protection?

CivilNetCheck, CivilNet’s fact-checking and investigative team, looked for information on environmental protests that have taken place in Azerbaijan in recent years. Using open sources, it was possible to find a protest last summer against the clearing of forests in Azerbaijan and long-term leases of forested lands to private owners. The protest was organized by Ecofront, a Baku-based NGO led by Cavid Qara, one of the country’s most active environmental activists.

Commenting on the “activists” currently blocking the Lachin corridor, Qara wrote on Facebook on December 12: “It is obvious that the protest of ‘eco-activists’ in Karabakh has a false agenda.”

“People who do not raise environmental issues in this country have no moral right to protest the enemy’s environmental crimes. Yes, even those people have no shame and complain. But those people are not unscrupulous opportunists. They are just show performers on demand,” Qara wrote, adding that those people were not there when Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Nature Protection was putting forests and nature reserves up for sale or when bulldozers were destroying forests.

In several other posts, Qara expressed his belief that the protest in the Lachin corridor was organized by the Azerbaijani government. He especially criticized that children and women were sent to face off with the Russian peacekeepers.

Who exactly are the people blocking the Lachin corridor?

The “activists” blocking the Lachin corridor have been quite active on social networks, regularly making live broadcasts, sharing videos, and posting photos. That gives reporters an opportunity to find out who they really are and what they really do. It is notable that photos of Aliyev, his wife Mehriban Aliyeva, and his father Heydar Aliyev, dominate some of the profiles of the “activists.”

For instance, the Facebook profile of Taleh Mansurov, who joined the protest on December 12, has many pictures of the Aliyevs. Mansurov noted that he works in the Youth Support Public Union. Examining his notes, it becomes clear that Mansurov is a member of the ruling New Azerbaijan party and has worked for the party in the past.

It is notable that other members of the Youth Support Public Union, as seen from the group’s Facebook page, are currently in the Lachin corridor. The union, among hundreds of other organizations, sent an open letter to Aliyev on November 9, 2020, thanking him for winning the war. As we learn from their posts, both Mansurov and the organization implement projects with funding from Azerbaijan’s Council of State Support to Non-Governmental Organizations.

Among the “activists” is also Habil Niftali, chairman of the Optimist Support for Solution of Social Problems Public Union. It is clear from Niftali’s posts that his organization has implemented some environmental awareness programs with funding from the Council of State Support to NGOs. His organization was also among those congratulating Aliyev on Azerbaijan’s victory.

Fariz Akbarov is also one of the “activists” blocking the Lachin corridor. In recent months, he has been working on women’s and family rights in Azerbaijan. He is a member of the Public Council connected with the State Committee on Family, Women’s and Children’s Issues and has been a lawyer for the Children of Azerbaijan non-profit. Akbarov’s Facebook page also has photos of Aliyev and posts praising him. And as in the case of the other “activists” mentioned above, Akbarov has also implemented projects with funding from the Council of State Support to NGOs.

It is notable that Akbarov’s December 13 Facebook post and photo show that Azerbaijan’s Deputy Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Firdovsi Aliyev, is also with the “activists” blocking the road in Lachin corridor.

Examining dozens of Facebook pages of people who blocked the Lachin corridor, it becomes clear that almost all of them are connected in some way, being financed or having implemented projects with funding from the Council of State Support to NGO, which was established in 2021 by Aliyev’s decree and finances the country’s NGOs.

Moreover, Ilqar Orucov, a member of the monitoring board of the Council of State Support to NGOs, is among the “activists” who have published pictures on buses going to Shushi.

The Council of State Support to NGOs made a Facebook post on November 29, informing NGO leaders that the next visit to Shushi was already planned and telling them to provide contacts to apply. It is possible that this “planned visit” refers to the closure of the Lachin corridor under the guise of “environmental protection.”

Among the Azerbaijanis blocking the Lachin corridor, one stood out: an “activist” who is fluent in the Armenian language and made appeals in Armenian, named Telman Qasimov. He is a well-known military and political expert in Azerbaijan and a former member of the military.

On December 11, Kasimov published a photo from inside a bus with the caption, “We’ve started our trip to Shusha,” using the Azerbaijani name of the city.

The photo appears to show Telman Qasimov (L, front row) and Taleh Mansurov (R, back row) on a bus to Shushi.

Qasimov has quite a few photos from combat positions in Karabakh wearing combat clothing. In some of the photos, he is wearing the logo of the Gray Wolves. The Gray Wolves is a Turkish ultra-nationalist, far-right group with a history of committing acts violence against ethnic minority groups in Turkey, including Armenians.

It is notable that the “activists” protesting in the Lachin corridor regularly make the “wolf hand” salute, a gesture popular among supporters of the Gray Wolves. That also raises many questions.

The “activists” who have been keeping Karabakh under blockade for three consecutive days now have “interesting” identities, but not for any environmental protection activities. In fact, they represent organizations that have very clear connections with the Azerbaijani government and are financed, at least in part, by the state. Considering that it would have been impossible for these “activists” to enter Karabakh without the Azerbaijani authorities’ knowledge, we can say there is no doubt that the blockade was carried out on Aliyev’s instructions.

A CivilNet investigation has also revealed that the Azerbaijani government recently sold a license to exploit Karabakh’s Kashen mine to a British company called Anglo Asian Mining. The “environmental activists” in the Lachin corridor say they oppose the mine’s further exploitation by Armenians.