By Mark Dovich
Karabakh President Arayik Harutyunyan issued a decree Thursday dismissing State Minister Ruben Vardanyan and replacing him with Prosecutor General Gurgen Nersisyan, putting an end to weeks of swirling speculation that Harutyunyan was seeking to oust the billionaire businessman and philanthropist.
Referring to Azerbaijan’s ongoing blockade of Karabakh, Harutyunyan cited the fact that “the situation then (when Vardanyan was appointed) and now differ greatly, both externally and internally” as justification for his decision.
Harutyunyan added that “there are certain positive developments that show that this crisis can be significantly eased in the coming days,” tacitly raising the possibility that Azerbaijan may lift the blockade now that Vardanyan has been dismissed.
Since his appointment last November, Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly demanded that Vardanyan resign or be ousted. Over the weekend, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said he would be willing to hold direct talks with Karabakh’s Armenians only if Vardanyan left office.
In mid December, just weeks after Vardanyan took office, Azerbaijan began blocking the only road connecting Karabakh with Armenia, causing a major humanitarian crisis. The blockade is now in its third month, with Karabakh residents facing widespread shortages of food, medicine, and energy.
Yesterday a United Nations court ordered Azerbaijan to end the blockade, but the court has no enforcement powers to compel Azerbaijan to do so.
Karabakh has also been in a state of deepening political crisis, with rumors swirling for weeks about an alleged struggle for influence between Harutyunyan and Vardanyan in the government.
“Over time, (Vardanyan’s) political influence has been growing, lots of people who had been loyal to Harutyunyan have moved toward Vardanyan. I’m talking about influential business people, people with political clout,” regional analyst Tigran Grigoryan told CivilNet earlier this month.