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Part 4: Armenia’s new reality: When nobody is watching the borders slowly move closer

Following the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenians have been forced to confront a new reality. In the fourth part of Blankspot's article series, Rasmus Canbäck examines the implications of Armenia's new border areas.

The reporting work, including translation and arranging contacts on site, was done in collaboration with Nvard Melkonyan. Without her, the reporting would not have been possible. This is the fourth part in the series on Armenia’s new reality, and the text is solely written by Rasmus Canbäck.

Photos by Rasmus Canbäck

The road meanders down from the plateau and towards the valley. First, there is an Armenian checkpoint, then a Russian one on the other side of the bridge, and above an Azerbaijani one.

This is the Lachin Corridor.

According to the Armenian National Secret Service, no other foreign journalist has gained permission to travel this far on the road since the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh began on December 12. The two young Armenian soldiers from the security division escorting us are noticeably nervous.

‘No pictures. It’s the deal. You get it, right?’ says the one with the most authority.

I nod towards him.

He has just said that he is leaving the army shortly. There are two months left of his appointment, then university studies begin. Two years ago, probably as the last foreign journalist ever, I drove on this road all the way to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Today, I can only watch the scenery. A black Mercedes is driving along the Armenian side to the Russian checkpoint. It stops before it is permitted to pass forward.

It disappears into the clouds that lie thick between the mountain peaks of Nagorno-Karabakh. The name, ‘the Black Mountain Garden,’ or just ‘the Black Garden,’ as Nagorno-Karabakh means, is an amalgamation of three different languages. It speaks to the sight that meets one when approaching the mountains.

A little over an hour away, the road passes the town of Shushi (Shusha in Azerbaijani). In the curve, just below the plateau on which the town is located, you are so close to the Azerbaijani military posts that you can stare straight into the eyes of the armed soldiers.

Only Russian peacekeeping troops stand between the one who is passing and Azerbaijani soldiers.

This was the case until December 12.

Since then, the road has been blocked by Azerbaijani eco-activists. This is at least what they call themselves. After more than 125 days of a blockade, which the International Court of Justice ruled was illegal, there are very few – except for the regime in Azerbaijan – that still claim that the so-called eco-activists represent a true environmentally friendly cause.

Among other things, it is now known that many of the activists are students who were recruited from universities. Stories imply that students are promised to pass their exams, accommodation, and food in exchange for blocking the road for a few days.

President Ilham Aliyev also praised them. Furthermore, multiple movies from the blockade show that it is a common sight for the activists to sing songs of praise for the Azerbaijani army.

At the end of the road, 120,000 Armenians live in what can be considered one of the world’s most isolated places.

Road works are underway on the Armenian side of the Lachin Corridor.
We are there a week before the deadline for the road to be ready. Even if it gets delayed, not many people ride it because of the blockade of the Lachin Corridor.

The warmongering rhetoric from Azerbaijan is twisted-up. On March 19, the day before the holiday Novruz, Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev declared that the only condition Azerbaijan has, is that Armenia should comply with all the Azerbaijani conditions – otherwise Armenia cannot expect to live in peace.

Azerbaijani regime loyal media and news portals in social media send similar messages. Caliber, a regime friendly media portal connected to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence, first claims that an invasion of Armenia will happen before Novruz, then under and lastly after.

Novruz passed and it has not happened. Yet.

At least nothing more than sporadic firefights along the borders. An Armenian soldier in the town of Yeraskh, a 45-minute drive south of Yerevan, is reported shot. Armenian Ministry of Defence reports about it. So does Caliber. The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence is however silent.

The Armenian analyst Sossi Tatikyan calls Azerbaijan’s strategy towards Armenia “creeping annexation,” while the strategy towards Nagorno-Karabakh is referred to as “creeping ethnic cleansing.”

This slow movement of borders is reminiscent of Russia’s conduct in South Ossetia, Georgia, where a similar term, “creeping borders,” is used.

Russian troops move border fences overnight, causing homes to end up on the wrong side of the occupational borders.

Similarly, Azerbaijani military movements in both Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia result in Azerbaijan gaining control of border areas without the possibility of action by Armenians, especially in Nagorno-Karabakh, where a military confrontation could easily be devastating.

This is likely because Azerbaijan, after the 2020 war, holds a knife to Armenia’s throat, a knife that Azerbaijan has shown it is willing to use, as evidenced by the invasion of Armenia on September 12-14 last year, which resulted in hundreds of deaths.

The EU Commission and other significant international actors have condemned the invasion and called for investigations into alleged war crimes by Azerbaijan. Furthermore, according to the Armenian side, Azerbaijan occupies 41,000 square meters of Armenian territory since then.

Markus Ritter in the middle has been the head of the monitoring mission for a couple of months.

In the regional office in Yeghegnadzor, in the middle of the Armenian wine districts, we meet Markus Ritter, the head of the EU Monitoring Mission in Armenia. The interview was conducted on March 23rd.

The Monitoring Mission in Armenia (EUMA) was initially an extension of the Georgian mission, whose purpose is to observe the ceasefire along Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

It was after the invasion of Armenia in September last year that the EU, at the request of Armenia, decided to extend the mission to Armenia as well. Initially, it was a short-term mission, but after a rapid decision in the EU, the civil mission was deployed for two years until 2025.

Today, there are 103 people stationed in Armenia, half of whom are civilian observers and the rest administrative personnel. The mandate is only within the territory of Armenia, not Azerbaijan. Despite this, the monitoring mission must relate to Azerbaijan in their work.

“We patrol along the border area. When we do this, we inform Baku through the EU special representative for the region, Toivo Klaar, one week ahead of our plans. This is to ensure that they know where we are and what we are doing. It is also to prevent misunderstandings and incidents. This is how we communicate with Azerbaijan,” says Markus Ritter.

Regarding the interaction between EUMA and Azerbaijan, Markus Ritter explains that there has only been one example so far. According to Ritter, A few weeks ago, Ilham Aliyev requested, through Toivo Klaar, that EUMA should visit the Azerbaijani exclaves in the North of Armenia.

Although the status of the exclaves and enclaves is a disputed issue, there seem to be little historical and legal basis to call them Azerbaijani. They are subject of an ongoing delimitation and demarcation process, where EUMA plays a role.

However, upon double-checking the story with Toivo Klaar, the information shared with us during the interview with Ritter seems to lack fundamental nuances. According to Klaar, the visit to the exclaves was not upon a request by Aliyev, but rather a part of the monitoring mission’s plans since before.

Klaar explains that the exclaves have been discussed many times with both sides, emphasizing that they may become a potential issue in border negotiations and are therefore important for EUMA to visit to enhance their understanding.

Toivo Klaar also clarifies that the weekly schedule is forwarded to the Azerbaijani side one or two days before the beginning of each week, not a full week ahead as Markus Ritter’s quote can be interpreted.

As we leave the office, a patrol is leaving the town.

Furthermore, Klaar notes that the reports from EUMA are shared internally within the EU.

He adds that the mission plays a valuable role for the EU in the region, writing in an email that “We believe that the mission performs a valuable role, both as a visible demonstration of the EU’s engagement and to provide the EU with better insight into the situation and developments on the ground.”

Markus Ritter emphasizes that the monitoring mission was initially meant to be in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, but Azerbaijan has not accepted the mission.

Caliber, on the same day as the interview, accused the monitoring mission of covering the Armenian army’s back while shooting at Azerbaijan. Markus Ritter is aware of what the media writes and rejects the allegations.

“You might have seen statements (in the media) from the Azerbaijani side that are a bit more hostile towards us. In the beginning, the criticism (from the media on both sides) was about the Russian presence, ‘what are we good for,’ really? Now we have these daily reports and allegations about what we are covering for the buildup of Armenian forces at the border. Today was even worse, that we are providing some kind of shield for the Armenians to make some incidents, to shoot the other side. So it is getting more negative now,” Markus Ritter says.

Markus Ritter adds that the picture is different from the media narratives and reality.

“But that is the media. In reality, we see no confrontations at all (with EUMA in the field). The only thing that has changed (since winter) is the condition for our daily patrols where the weather is better. We can reach more places,” Markus Ritter says.

Have you seen any change since you came to the region?

“Since we came here in October, we have encountered about the same things. There is no significant change among people or what we observe. The signal we get from authorities and the local population, however, is that we contribute to a decrease in incidents. We have heard it enough times to interpret it as a positive response to our presence,” Markus Ritter says.

Finally, Markus Ritter explains that the monitoring mission’s reports are sent to  Brussels (CPCC), which then shares them with a few different institutions within the EU, including the special representative for the Southern Caucasus (Toivo Klaar). After that, it is up to politicians and decision-makers to draw conclusions.

The day before the interview, Markus Ritter tells us that he was in Yeraskh, where the shooting of the Armenian soldier was reported.

When asked whether he noticed anything, he shortly replied, “no.”

Only cars from the International Red Cross Federation (ICRC) and the Russian peacekeeping forces can pass the Lachin Corridor during the blockade.

Next to the blocked Lachin Corridor, it has become known over time that there is an alternative route. Those who access that route can expect a difficult and bumpy ride on the back of a truck. It is only suitable for young people in good health.

In the beginning of March, shortly after the ruling from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the alternative road was attacked by Azerbaijan. Local authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh reported that a few patrolling policemen were killed.

Despite the fatal attack, usage of the road continued until the evening of March 25. A new attack by the Azerbaijani military resulted in full Azerbaijani control of the road, and consequently, a few Armenian villages next to the road are now isolated from the surrounding world.

Reports from Nagorno-Karabakh indicate that Azerbaijani troops are as close as 300 meters from Stepanakert, the capital city.

The Azerbaijani side accuses the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh of using the road to smuggle weapons into the region, an accusation that local authorities decline.

The fact is that just a few weeks before the blockade of the Lachin Corridor, Azerbaijan accused the Armenian side of the same thing, without any reactions.

In November, an anonymous official in Azerbaijan suggested that a blockade of the corridor would solve the situation. In an article by Gabriel Gavin in Eurasianet, the official said, “How can you breathe with no air?”

The answer is revealed 125 days later: it works with artificial respiration.

Only cars from the International Red Cross Federation and the Russian peacekeeping contingent can pass the blockade. The Red Cross has one daily convoy, while the Russian troops have a more constant flow.

The latter is responsible for bringing goods into Nagorno-Karabakh, and there is a rumor that people can pay them for certain deliveries, and even pay for a whole truck with goods. However, such information changes day by day, and journalists who try to verify the facts will most likely end up with different replies.

The queue for returning to Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia since the blockade started is decreasing but consisted of 3,000 names in March. According to sources we talk to, the only demand is that name lists are shared with Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Russian counterparts – nothing else.

As with everything connected to the situation around the Lachin Corridor, the sources – which we value as reliable – cannot be public.

The situation is very tense, and each misquotation or mistake can result in serious policy changes, especially from the Azerbaijani side. Policy changes that the local population in Nagorno-Karabakh has learned over the past 3 years never mean an improvement.

“What will I do without my home in Artsakh?”, says Nune. Artsakh is the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the city of Goris, the closest bigger Armenian city to the Lachin Corridor, we checked in at a hotel where Karabakh Armenians were stuck on the wrong side of the blockade, as well as Russian peacekeepers.

They have grown used to each other’s presence. One of the women, who cannot return to Stepanakert, asks one of the Russians to bring cigarettes to her relatives. He smiles at her and says that he will do it without any cost. They were acquitted after more than 100 days of the blockade.

When the Russian troops notice that there is a foreign journalist in the hotel, they close the doors to the rooms. Outside, military clothes are hanging to get dry, and the hotel cleaner helps them fold them.

Ilham Aliyev said, after a few weeks of the blockade, that those who want to leave Nagorno-Karabakh can get a one-way ticket. Those who want to come back should be prepared to become Azerbaijani citizens. It is a policy that few, if any, Armenians agree with. Nune from Stepanakert still waits for her turn to return.

“There is no alternative. I want to return to my house, my family, and my roots. I am from Karabakh, and I will never move”, she says.

Are you not worried about what will happen if there is a new war?

“We Armenians have been worried for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. We have more or less always been hunted. We have always moved for greater powers. This time we won’t. Because if we do, it might be the bitter end,” Nune says.

It is a common reasoning.

The conflict is described by many as “existential” for Armenians. It is connected to the genocide against Armenians and Christians in 1915, which, despite happening over 100 years ago, is still top of mind. Most Armenians have relatives who, in straight family lines, became refugees from the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

Nune’s friend, Karina, from Chartar in Nagorno-Karabakh adds that there are those who have lately started to question staying in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“We want to go home. It’s clear. But I heard that there are those who question if it’s worth staying in Karabakh, that they can’t stand the psychological terror conducted against us. But we must persist,” she says.

After more than 100 days of blockade, the women say that the Russians too will start returning Karabakh Armenians who are stuck on the Armenian side of the blockade. The reason is the limited capacity of the Red Cross, and the queue is just slowly decreasing.

Two weeks later, the twisted rhetoric from Azerbaijan had calmed down slightly, at least when this report was written. However, on the same evening the report was due to be published, reports of shootings in Tegh, the village between Kornidzor and the former starting point of the Lachin Corridor, surfaced again.

The Armenian side reported four casualties and six wounded, while the Azerbaijani side reported three casualties. A video from the Armenian Ministry of Defence showed that Azerbaijan initiated the attacks, while the Azerbaijani army accused Armenia of provocations.

The firefights were seen as more serious than the sporadic shootings that nobody wants to get used to, but that still happen.

The twisted rhetoric followed by shootings is seen as a warmongering cycle that has been ongoing since February 1988, when the Armenians of the then-autonomous oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh voted in favour of becoming part of the Armenian Soviet Republic instead of Azerbaijan.

The referendum in the local parliament, which was neglected by both Baku and Moscow, was the starting point of a 35-year long suffering that never seemed to end. The cycle of twisted rhetoric and inherited existential fear through generations materializes from time to time when rockets hit civilian positions again.

The region is surrounded by some of the world’s greatest powers that are watching and competing for influence in a Caucasus located between Europe, Russia, Asia, and the Middle East.

In the end, a small and poor region is the center of all suffering, where never-ending conflicts have caused tens of thousands of human beings to lose their lives and over a million refugees to leave their homes in the last 35 years.

It is all for the black garden, whose name Nagorno-Karabakh can be translated into most languages of the region.

About the author: Rasmus Canbäck has been covering the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan since 2020 and is current with the book “Every day I die slowly” about the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Read the previous articles from the series “Armenia’s new reality”.

Part 1: Armenia’s new reality – report from the borderland between war and peace

Part 2: Meet the women who clear mines in Nagorno-Karabakh (by Siranush Sargsyan)

Part 3: Nu avgörs framtiden för Nagorno-Karabach (only in Swedish)