Armenian Separatist Leader Quits in Aid Standoff With Azerbaijan

The leader of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region announced his resignation Thursday as a standoff between Armenia and Azerbaijan over aid deliveries to thousands of people stokes international alarm.

(Bloomberg) — The leader of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region announced his resignation Thursday as a standoff between Armenia and Azerbaijan over aid deliveries to thousands of people stokes international alarm.

Arayik Harutyunyan said he’s stepping down as president of the unrecognized republic to encourage “flexibility” in ending an eight-month blockade by Azerbaijan that’s led to shortages of food and essential goods for the territory’s Armenian population, which local officials put at 120,000 people. 

Azerbaijan faces mounting pressure from the US and Europe to reopen the Lachin corridor, a road link connecting Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia that it blocked in December. Humanitarian aid was last delivered along the route on June 15, Armenian officials say. Azerbaijan denies imposing a blockade, though more than 30 trucks from Armenia loaded with humanitarian aid are held up at the border, some for almost seven weeks.

The situation is “catastrophic. Supermarkets without food. Pregnant women who cannot get access to urgently needed drugs. Power only intermittently available,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told reporters Thursday at a European Union meeting in Toledo, Spain, saying she and French counterpart Catherine Colonna had put the issue on the agenda of the talks. “Our urgent appeal to Azerbaijan and to Russia is that the people in Nagorno-Karabakh must get what they need to survive. The Lachin corridor must be open for humanitarian assistance.”

Russian peacekeeping troops control the corridor under a truce deal brokered by President Vladimir Putin that ended a 2020 war over the territory, but haven’t intervened. Azerbaijan has set up a checkpoint at the entrance to the road from Armenia as the two sides wrestle over demarcation of their border after decades of conflict since the Soviet Union’s collapse.

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Azerbaijan is pressing for aid deliveries to be accepted along an alternative road from its city of Agdam, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of Lachin, insisting that Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population should accept their integration into the country following the war that killed thousands on both sides. 

Two Azerbaijani Red Crescent trucks have waited for several days to bring in 40 tons of flour via this route, but Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh are refusing to accept it even as people queue for hours for bread that’s been rationed to one loaf per family. Officials in Baku said talks were continuing for Russian peacekeepers to deliver the aid.

The Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, accompanied a convoy of 10 aid trucks from Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, to the border with the Lachin corridor on Wednesday. It was blocked “in total violation of human rights,” she wrote on social media.

The Lachin road can be reopened within 24 hours of the acceptance of the Agdam route, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s foreign policy aide Hikmat Hajiyev told reporters. The checkpoint will remain in place to prevent deliveries of weapons to the territory from Armenia, he said.

The US State Department has said it’s “deeply concerned about the continued closure of the Lachin corridor.” At a United Nations Security Council meeting on the issue Aug. 16, the US called on Azerbaijan to restore free movement on the route.

The standoff is taking place against the backdrop of efforts by the US and EU to reach a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The majority-Armenian region declared independence after the Soviet collapse but is recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan.

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Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has effectively accepted Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over the region following the 2020 war, though he’s seeking an international mechanism to ensure the security of its population. Azerbaijan says it opposes any special status for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh as part of its sovereign territory.

Lawmakers in Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert, have seven days to nominate a replacement for Harutyunyan. A new approach to the crisis means the leadership should change “starting with me,” he said in his resignation statement.

Azerbaijan will no longer tolerate a “grey zone” of separatism on its territory, Hajiyev said. The “illegal regime must be dissolved and disarmed.”

–With assistance from Iain Rogers.

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