At least 5,000 people have become unemployed due to the ongoing blockade of Artsakh by Azerbaijan.
The government of Artsakh announced this week that it would implement social and financial programs to aid the thousands of people who have lost their incomes and keep remaining businesses open. The government said it would provide financial support to individuals who have lost their jobs since December, including payments for each of their children. It would also offer financial assistance to entrepreneurs to pay their workers’ employees and sustain their businesses.
“We are doing our best to provide support so that jobs will be preserved,” Artsakh State Minister Ruben Vardanyan said on February 1 during a daily meeting of the operational headquarters launched in response to the blockade. “Unfortunately, many people have lost their jobs. Through these programs, we will do our best to support both businesses and citizens who are in difficult social conditions.”
Artsakh has been under blockade since December 12. For over 50 days, Azerbaijani protesters sponsored by the government have closed the Lachin Corridor, the sole route connecting Artsakh and Armenia. The region has not received imports of food or medical supplies. Gas, electricity and internet connectivity have also been periodically disrupted, leaving residents without heating or fuel for their vehicles. The government of Azerbaijan has denied that the Lachin Corridor is closed to travel.
The natural gas supply to Artsakh has been cut off at least four times since the start of the blockade. Artsakh receives its gas through a pipeline that runs through Azerbaijani-controlled territory. Artsakh authorities accuse Azerbaijan of deliberately disrupting the gas supply.
Schools in Artsakh were closed on January 19 due to a lack of proper heating amid freezing winter temperatures. After the gas supply was partially restored on January 30, authorities said that schools would reopen “assuming the gas supply remains uninterrupted.” If the gas supply is cut off again, only high school level classes will resume. Over 20,000 school-age children were unable to attend school while the region’s 118 schools were closed.
“It’s cold in the classroom, the lessons are short (35min) but we are bored staying at home” — schoolboys. pic.twitter.com/ovkc9VqIKG
— Marut Vanyan (@marutvanian) January 31, 2023
The high voltage power line that provides Artsakh’s electricity supply from Armenia has also been damaged since January 9. Artsakh authorities say that Azerbaijan has prohibited repair crews from accessing the power line, which runs through Azerbaijani-controlled territory.
Due to the simultaneous closure of the gas pipeline and power line, many Artsakh residents have been relying on firewood to heat their homes. The Artsakh government announced last week that it has started providing residents with wood-burning stoves. As of January 27, 26 stoves and 346 cubic meters of firewood have been distributed among 135 residents, according to official data.
Meanwhile, hundreds of families have been separated by the blockade, as people traveling to Armenia were stranded along the Lachin Corridor when it was closed. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) escorted 15 children on January 28 and 19 more people on January 30 to Artsakh from Armenia to be reunited with their families. Only the ICRC and Russian peacekeepers have been occasionally permitted to travel along the corridor.
Vardanyan, who assumed power as Artsakh State Minister in November 2022, has been resolute that Artsakh will never accept a status within the borders of Azerbaijan.
“If we want Azerbaijan to fail in its plans to depopulate Artsakh of Armenians, we have only one option, which is to clench our teeth and move forward. And we can only do that by coming together,” Vardanyan said while speaking with residents of the Artsakh capital Stepanakert on January 31.
During a weekly cabinet meeting on January 26, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan urged the leadership of Artsakh to exercise “restraint” in order to preserve ongoing negotiations on a peace deal with Azerbaijan.
The Armenian PM said that Baku aims to exert “economic and psychological pressure” on Artsakh through the blockade. Pashinyan said Azerbaijan plans to open the Lachin Corridor for a few days “with the expectation that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will leave their homes en masse” and close the corridor again.
“This is, of course, a blatant policy of ethnic cleansing,” Pashinyan said.
Pashinyan added that Azerbaijan also hopes to “disrupt the peace agenda” and “incite a new war in the region.” He appealed to the Armenian authorities of Artsakh to tone down their rhetoric in order to protect the peace process.
“It is clear, of course, that we take emotionally the closing of the Lachin Corridor and the humanitarian crisis created in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Pashinyan said. “But I must once again emphasize the need for restraint in this situation and the exclusion of lexicon and actions that are contrary to the peace agenda, especially by the representatives of the state authorities.”
Last year, Russia and the European Union mediated a series of talks between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders. Both sides publicly announced that they would reach a peace agreement by the end of 2022. That deadline, however, was not reached, and direct talks have stalled in the new year amid Azerbaijan’s ongoing blockade of Artsakh.
During the course of those negotiations, the Armenian government indicated that it is ready to abandon its pursuit of an independent status for Artsakh. Instead, it would request special rights and security guarantees for the Armenian population of Artsakh. Azerbaijan has resisted that demand regarding what it sees as a domestic issue.
In its latest report, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group warned that Armenia and Azerbaijan are “uncomfortably close to starting a third” war over Artsakh.
During its military incursions into Armenia in September 2022, Azerbaijan took control of critical positions atop mountains in the Syunik and Gegharkunik provinces, according to the report. Crisis Group says that, from its high ground in Armenia, the Azerbaijani military could “cut off southern Armenia from the rest of the country and force Yerevan into more concessions.”
“With Azerbaijan enjoying a greater military edge, and Russia distracted by the war in Ukraine, there is little to keep Baku from pressing its advantage along this new front should it grow impatient with talks,” the report reads.
“The threat of another war on a continent already struggling to cope with Russia’s war in Ukraine is all too real,” the report continues. “Spring will soon reach the South Caucasus, with melting snows clearing the way for new operations.”