The Nagorno-Karabakh deadlock: Explaining the problems with the Aghdam road

Photo: Ani Balayan, CivilNet

As the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh worsens day by day, Azerbaijan is sparing no effort to camouflage its brutal blockade of the encircled republic. Azerbaijan’s official narratives regarding the blockade have been in constant flux. In the earlier stages of the siege, Baku insisted that there was free movement of goods and persons through the Lachin corridor, the only link between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. However, at this point, President Ilham Aliyev’s regime has completely shifted toward a different narrative: alternative routes should be used to address humanitarian problems in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Aghdam-Stepanakert road is considered by Azerbaijan as the primary alternative to the Lachin corridor. The reason for Baku’s insistence on opening this road is rather apparent, as it aligns with their strategy of coercive “integration.” The concept is straightforward: to completely “integrate” Nagorno-Karabakh into Azerbaijan, it must be effectively disconnected from Armenia. This disconnection involves both infrastructural and socio-economic aspects. It is clear that a significant objective of the blockade imposed on Nagorno-Karabakh was to advance this agenda of coercive “integration.”

For months, Azerbaijan has been working to promote the “Aghdam alternative.” This narrative gained legitimacy weeks ago when Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, referenced the Aghdam option in his statement following an EU-facilitated meeting between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan. He emphasized that the opening of both roads (Aghdam and Lachin) holds equal importance.

This incident marked yet another setback for Armenian diplomacy. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan admitted a few days later, during a press conference, that the issue had been raised in Brussels. However, he explained that he had declined to participate in the discussion, citing his lack of mandate to negotiate on the matter. Thus, the problematic phrasing that endorsed the Aghdam option found its way into Michel’s statement, seemingly with Armenia’s silent agreement.

Even though the EU attempted to rectify its mistake ten days later by issuing a new statement, this time from the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Joseph Borell, emphasizing that the Aghdam road cannot be considered an alternative to the Lachin corridor, the genie was already out of the bottle. Baku utilized Michel’s remarks to advance its new narrative and ease the pressure from international actors regarding the unblocking of the Lachin corridor.

This new reality became evident during the August 16 United Nations Security Council meeting on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, where all the major actors emphasized the importance of opening both the Lachin corridor and alternative roads. This phrasing does not pose any issues for Baku and provides an opportunity to evade responsibility while extending its blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Many neutral observers and foreign diplomats have been grappling with comprehending the complexity of the situation and understanding the reasons why the opening of the Aghdam road is such a sensitive issue for the population of Nagorno-Karabakh. There are several underlying factors contributing to these sentiments in the besieged republic.

The main concern is the perception that opening the Aghdam road would essentially initiate the process of Nagorno-Karabakh’s absorption by Azerbaijan. Many fear this absorption could lead to a loss of self-governance and trigger a mass exodus of people from the territory. This concern holds legitimacy, as Baku openly acknowledges that the coerced “integration” of Nagorno-Karabakh stands as the primary objective of this process. Given the Azerbaijani authorities’ refusal to engage in discussions concerning specific security guarantees and rights for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, this scenario could indeed result in the ethnic cleansing of the territory.

Furthermore, there are valid concerns that opening the Aghdam road could potentially overshadow efforts to unblock the Lachin corridor. As previously mentioned, another significant aspect of the narrative surrounding the Aghdam road is its ability to divert attention from the Lachin issue. Even if an agreement is reached to open both routes simultaneously (though the complete opening of the Lachin corridor is unlikely), there are no credible guarantees that Baku will not later block the Lachin corridor using misleading justifications, effectively leaving only the Aghdam option. In such a scenario, the potential international backlash would be even more limited.

Apart from all the above-mentioned concerns, there is a deep-rooted feeling among the population of Nagorno-Karabakh that accepting “humanitarian aid” from a state that has been starving and killing them for months is a humiliation. Many people are not willing to endure this feeling of humiliation. Interestingly, the Aliyev regime has openly discussed its starvation tactics through its proxies. For instance,, a propaganda outlet closely affiliated with Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry, published a video two months ago describing the starvation tactics in detail. In this “report,” the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are likened to a wild cat that needs to be domesticated. Toward the end of this propaganda piece, the narrator calmly states that if Karabakh Armenians wish to access food and have medicines in their drug stores, they will have to go to Aghdam.

It is understandable that from an international perspective, the opening of all roads and communications should be welcomed. However, the context is also extremely important. It should not be overlooked that we are talking about one of the most brutal and complicated ethno-political conflicts in the world. An all-out war took place in the region just three years ago. There are many grievances and traumas on both sides of the conflict divide that simply cannot be ignored.

It is hard to imagine options like the opening of the Aghdam-Stepanakert road without the implementation of comprehensive confidence-building measures. This obvious reality is acknowledged by international commentators as well. Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, tweeted weeks ago: “In the medium to longer term, we can anticipate traffic with Aghdam, but that needs an agreement and dialogue with the Karabakh Armenians first, who are still deeply afraid of this option. It will not work if it is just declared overnight with no preparation.” What Baku has been doing for the last eight months is the direct opposite of dialogue and confidence-building.

With this written, it is crucial to emphasize that the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is exceedingly dire. The availability of bread is already extremely limited. Under these circumstances, it is imperative to identify at least short-term solutions while understanding what is doable and what is not doable in this context.

The provision of any form of direct “humanitarian aid” from Azerbaijan to Nagorno-Karabakh is unviable in this situation. Even if the leadership in Stepanakert is inclined at some point to consider this option, it will not be politically feasible. Such a decision would likely lead to a substantial societal backlash, further destabilizing the already tense political atmosphere in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Given the circumstances, a potential short-term solution could align with the proposal of David Akopyan, a former UN official. Akopyan, who led the UN Development Program in Syria from 2017 to 2019, suggests that the Syrian model might offer insight for addressing the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. He proposes that the UN Security Council adopts a binding resolution to facilitate the provision of cross-border humanitarian aid to Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia. As a compromise, some portion of the international aid could be delivered through the Aghdam road but only under the auspices of the UN. Azerbaijan’s involvement in this process should be minimal. Moreover, greater pressure must be exerted on Baku to unblock the Lachin corridor, as Azerbaijan could otherwise exploit this option as well to perpetuate the current status quo. The use of sanctions against Azerbaijan should be seriously considered to achieve these goals.

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