When two days before he invaded Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a declaration of military and diplomatic cooperation with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, it spawned a monstrous crisis that would rage alongside Russia’s war but receive much less international attention.
The declaration reinforced the two countries’ connection. It precluded Azerbaijan’s siding with the West against Russia’s campaign while effectively giving Azerbaijan carte blanche to wreak violence against the region’s Armenians — both within the sovereign Republic of Armenia and in Karabakh (or Artsakh, its Armenian name), an Armenian region that Azerbaijan controls.
And so Azerbaijan has wrought violence. In September, it attacked Armenia proper. Then in December, it decided to hold 120,000 Armenians in Karabakh hostage by blockading their only transport connection to the outside world. Prisoners of war have been shot. There are reports of prisoners and civilians being tortured and turned into social media fodder. Human life is devalued as dictators seek to eke out political resolutions to their liking.
The blockade comes after 30 years in which the area known as the Lachin corridor has been open and functioning, despite bitter tensions. The first time I went to Karabakh was in March 1993. The roads were unsafe. Armenians were under attack from an Azerbaijani military not interested in honoring the region’s Armenians’ claim to self-determination — their right to decide for themselves who would govern them and how.
The Soviet Union had collapsed, Yugoslavia was exploding and everywhere people were clamoring for more rights. It was all-out war. When I returned to Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, a few days later, it was full of stretchers, IV drips and acutely wounded soldiers being transported to Armenia’s hospitals.
The fighting ended with a ceasefire formally codified by the three political entities: Armenians of the Autonomous Republic of Karabakh, and the leadership of the republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Karabakh connection to Armenia was assured through a corridor of land that Armenians controlled, to offer a lifeline — a link to the outside world — while negotiators worked to reach agreement on Karabakh’s future political status. When I returned to Karabakh a year later, I traveled along that corridor, in an old Soviet truck carrying children’s school supplies that came from France.
Since then, the corridor has been open. During the vicious 44-day war in 2020, it was open. Yes, during the fierce Azerbaijani onslaught intended to take complete control of Karabakh and its surrounding regions, which resulted in an estimated 7,000 deaths, the corridor was open. The new ceasefire document stipulated that the future of the corridor requires a negotiated resolution, and until that happens, Russian peacekeepers would ensure access and travelers’ safety.
To close it now, as Azerbaijan has done since early December, means strangling the Armenian population to force a desired political outcome. Food, supplies and medical help can’t get in. Energy shortages persist. People cannot travel out. Families remain divided.
Armenians are blockaded, and Russians are not keeping the peace.
Instead, Russia has made clear to Armenians that their “Western ways” — democracy and an open, free society — are not only undesirable but punishable. Azerbaijan is pursuing control of the territory without its people, who want a continuation of the democracy they have experienced for nearly 30 years. Speaking of Armenians in Karabakh and Azerbaijan’s insistence that they live under its flag, President Aliyev cynically claimed that “just like all the other citizens of Azerbaijan, their rights and security will be provided.” It would be laughable if it weren’t so chilling. Azerbaijan’s dictator is unaccountable to his people, and his country has a track record of repressing its own citizens.
It is only the pressure or sanctions of the international community that has a chance of changing Azerbaijan’s actions. The United States and the European Union, along with members of the U.N. Security Council, have called on Baku to restore traffic on the corridor and open the route to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. They need to do more. The letter from Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass and L.A. City Council President Paul Krekorian is a welcome move urging President Biden to take further steps to open air and land links immediately.
Armenians are now standing as a bastion of freedom in a volatile neighborhood. They are paying for it with a winter blockade, completely isolated and defenseless.
It is clear that the Russian war on Ukraine has upended all international rules. There seems to be no global order left. Sovereignty — which is always fragile — has lost its meaning.
Will the new world order be designed by autocrats for whom ethnic cleansing in broad daylight is a political tool? What is allowed to happen to the Armenians of Karabakh will be an indication of what kind of world awaits us all.
Salpi Ghazarian is director of special projects at the USC Dornsife Institute of Armenian Studies.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.