By Felix Light
TBILISI (Reuters) -Residents of Nagorno-Karabakh say it is getting harder to access food, medicines and other essential supplies as an Azerbaijani blockade of the breakaway region drags into its ninth month.
The U.N. Security Council discussed the blockade on Wednesday, after a former International Criminal Court prosecutor this month said the blockade may amount to a “genocide” of the local Armenian population – an assertion that Azerbaijan’s lawyers said was unsubstantiated and inaccurate.
Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but its population of 120,000 is overwhelmingly ethnic Armenian and the enclave’s one remaining land link to Armenia, the Lachin corridor policed by Russian peacekeepers, was first disrupted in December.
Three residents of Karabakh said basic foodstuffs, fuel and medicine were almost exhausted.
“It’s been a very long time since I’ve eaten any dairy produce, or eggs,” Nina Shahverdyan, a 23-year-old English teacher, said in a video call with Reuters from the region’s capital, which local Armenians call Stepanakert.
“It’s been disastrous because we don’t have gas. We have electricity blackouts.”
Senior U.N. aid official Edem Wosornu told the Security Council on Wednesday that the delivery of humanitarian relief by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) must be allowed to resume through any available routes.
“The ICRC is doing everything it can, but as a single organization it can only cover the most urgent needs,” she said. “Other impartial humanitarian relief must also be allowed to reach civilians who need it and a sustainable solution for safe and regular transit of people and goods must be found.”
Armenia’s foreign minister, Ararat Mirzoyan, discussed the situation in Karabakh on Wednesday with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and stressed the need to avert a “humanitarian disaster,” Russia’s TASS state news agency reported.
Karabakh’s population say they are only able to eat what can be produced locally, and even that is delivered only sporadically to Stepanakert, as farmers lack fuel to bring their products to market.
Ani Balayan, a recent high school graduate and photographer, said she had last eaten meat around two weeks ago. She said her family was surviving on bread, alongside the tomatoes, cucumbers and watermelon still available in Stepanakert’s markets.
For some weeks, footage has shown Stepanakert’s supermarket shelves bare, with little or nothing on sale.
“I went to bed hungry for several days because I could not find bread to bring home,” Balayan said.
The crisis has highlighted how Russia, preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, is struggling to project its influence in neighbouring post-Soviet states.
Karabakh was claimed by both Azerbaijan and Armenia after the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917, and broke away from Azerbaijan in a war in the early 1990s.
In 2020, Azerbaijan retook territory in and around the enclave after a second war that ended in a Russia-brokered ceasefire. The agreement required Russia to ensure that road transport between Armenia and Karabakh remained open.
Since the ceasefire, road links between Armenia and Karabakh hinged on the Lachin corridor, which was blockaded in December by Azerbaijani civilians identifying themselves as ecological activists, while Russian peacekeepers did not intervene.
In April, Azerbaijani border guards installed a checkpoint on the route, tightening the blockade.
Russia is “actively in contact with all parties involved to rapidly resume the stable provision of food, medicines and other essential goods to Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as electricity and gas,” Russia’s deputy U.N. Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy told the Security Council.
This month, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Luis Moreno Ocampo described the blockade as potentially constituting a “genocide” of Karabakh Armenians and intending “to starve” them.
Rodney Dixon, a lawyer appointed by Azerbaijan to give an assessment on Ocampo’s opinion, called the view “strikingly” unsubstantiated, inflammatory and inaccurate.
Farhad Mammadov, the head of Baku’s Centre for Studies of the South Caucasus think tank, said that controls on the road were necessary to prevent the transit of “arms and Armenian soldiers” to and from Karabakh.
Azerbaijan has said it is ready to open supplies to Karabakh via territory under its control, but that the separatist authorities must dissolve and integrate the region into Azerbaijan. The Armenian side has said that the blockade is aimed at forcing Karabakh into unconditional surrender to Baku.
English teacher Shahverdyan said: “They are doing so that the people become … so desperate that they just simply leave”.
However, like other Karabakh Armenians who spoke to Reuters, Shahverdyan said it had only bolstered their determination to stay in their ancestral homeland.
“How can you live under a government or people who starve you for eight months?”
(Reporting by Felix Light; additional reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Nick Macfie and Rosalba O’Brien)