Deal reached to open roads to Azerbaijan’s breakaway Karabakh region

By Felix Light and Nailia Bagirova

TBILISI (Reuters) – Ethnic Armenian authorities in Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh agreed on Saturday to let in aid shipments from Baku-held territory for the first time in decades, in return for the restoration of road links to Armenia.

The moves – initially reported by Armenia’s Armenpress state news agency and confirmed by Baku – appear at least partly to grant Azerbaijan’s decades-old demand to restore transport links between Azeri government-held territory and the province, which broke free of Baku’s rule in the 1990s.

Armenpress cited Karabakh authorities as saying that they had “decided to allow access of the Russian goods to our republic through the town of Askeran,” referring to a Karabakh town close to the frontline with Azerbaijan.

“At the same time, an agreement has been reached to restore humanitarian shipments by the Russian peacekeepers and the International Committee of the Red Cross along the Lachin Corridor,” the Armenpress report said, referring to the area through which the road linking Karabakh to Armenia passes.

It said the move was driven by “severe humanitarian problems” in the blockaded region.

Hikmet Hajiyev, a foreign policy advisor to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, confirmed to Reuters that both routes would be opened simultaneously, while an Azerbaijani checkpoint on the road to Armenia would stay in place. He restated Baku’s longtime position that the Karabakh separatist authorities must dissolve and disarm.

Karabakh is recognised globally as part of Azerbaijan, but has been controlled by its population of around 120,000 ethnic Armenians since a war that coincided with the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Azerbaijan recaptured large swathes of territory in a second major war in 2020, and for the past nine months has exerted new pressure on the region by restricting its access to Armenia through the Lachin corridor. The road has been cut off apart for urgent medical cases, leading to shortages of basic supplies, including bread.

Azerbaijan had previously accused Armenia of using the corridor to smuggle weapons, and of rejecting an offer to reopen the road simultaneously with another route into Karabakh.

The apparent deal came on a day Karabakh’s parliament chose a new president of its self-proclaimed independent republic, a move Azerbaijan has denounced as illegal, amid days of escalating tensions between Baku and Yerevan.

Azerbaijan said on Saturday that Armenian forces had fired on its troops overnight, and that Azerbaijan army units took “retaliatory measures”. Armenia denied the incident.

The Armenian government said Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan held phone conversations on Saturday with the leaders of France, Germany, Iran and Georgia, and with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Azerbaijan said its foreign minister discussed the situation with a senior U.S. State Department official, Yuri Kim.

Baku has a close relationship with Turkey, while Yerevan has historically held close ties with Russia, which sent peacekeepers to the area and promised to keep the Lachin corridor open as part of a peace deal that ended the 2020 war. Pashinyan has lately complained that Moscow failed to live up to its assurances, leading him to seek wider international support.

According to Armenia’s government, Pashinyan told the foreign leaders that tensions were rising on the border, and that Azerbaijan was concentrating troops there and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku has denied this, while accusing Armenia of similar steps.

Pashinyan said he was ready to hold an urgent meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to defuse tensions, according to the Armenian government. Hajiyev, Aliyev’s foreign policy adviser, told Reuters Baku had received no such offer.

Earlier on Saturday, Karabakh’s separatist parliament elected Samvel Shahramanyan, a military officer and former head of the territory’s security service, as its new president, replacing an incumbent who resigned a week ago.

In a speech to parliament, Shahramanyan called for direct negotiations with Azerbaijan, and for transport links to Armenia to be restored.

Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry called the ethnic Armenian leadership of Karabakh a “puppet separatist regime” and said the vote was illegal.

“The only way to achieve peace and stability in the region is the unconditional and complete withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces from the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and the disbandment of the puppet regime,” it said in a statement.

Both Ukraine and Baku’s traditional ally Turkey condemned the election, and expressed support for Azerbaijan’s claim to Karabakh. The European Union said it did not recognise the election, but that Karabakh residents should “consolidate around the de facto leadership” in talks with Baku.

In the capitals of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, residents told Reuters they feared a new war between the two countries.

“We will probably have martyrs again,” said Mansura Lahicova, a woman in the Azerbaijani capital Baku. “I have two sons who have reached military age. I hope it will be a victory and that everything calms down.”

In Armenia’s capital Yerevan, a local resident who gave his name as Hayk accused Azerbaijan of wanting to start another war.

“I hope this does not happen, but if it does, all of us, all friends and brothers, are ready to go to war. Last time we buried our friends, now it’s our turn.”

(This story has been corrected to fix Pashinyan’s title to prime minister, not president, in paragraph 12)

(Writing by Mark Trevelyan and Felix Light; Reporting by Felix Light in Tbilisi and Nailia Bagirova; Editing by Ros Russell and Peter Graff)