The news agenda of the South Caucasus has been filled with the protests of Azerbaijani eco-activists on the Lachin–Khankendi road. On this road, which starts on the Azerbaijan–Armenia border and extends to the Azerbaijani city of Khankendi, civil protests have been organized since 12 December 2022. The protesters demand to eliminate the damage caused by the illegal exploitation of Azerbaijan’s natural resources to the environment and to stop illegal mining operations in Azerbaijan’s Karabakh Economic Region (KER), where Russian peacekeepers are temporarily located and where ethnic Armenians live.
Lachin road, which is the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan, was left open to meet the humanitarian needs of the residents of the KER in accordance with the Tripartite declaration signed by Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia on November 10, 2020. However, after the war, Armenia continued using this road for military purposes to protect supply separatists in the region with arms and munitions against Azerbaijan. In addition, the road was used for the illegal entry of the third countries nationals. For example, those passing through the Russian peacekeeping force’s checkpoint and using this road to enter Khankendi without permission from Azerbaijan include Valeri Pekres, a candidate in the last French elections (December 2021) and 27 Iranian citizens (November 2022). For this reason, a second demand of the demonstrators has emerged: the establishment by Azerbaijan of a crossing control point to prevent the use of this road in violation of the terms of the November 10, 2020 Tripartite Declaration.
Chronology of Recent Events
To understand how the current situation came about, it may be useful to draw up a chronology of recent events. First, in accordance with an agreement reached on December 3–7, 2022, between officials of Azerbaijan and the command committee of the Russian peacekeeping troops regarding the cessation of illegal production in the Kizilbulak gold and Demirli copper mines in Karabakh, a visit was to be made to the region to measure the impact of these activities on the environment, including underground and surface potable water resources; to inventory the property there; and to assess the mining operations. This visit, which Azerbaijani officials planned to make on December 10, was blocked by radical groups in Karabakh. A representative of the official Azerbaijani delegation stated that the Russian peacekeepers did not provide a safe environment, despite the previously reached agreement, and the inspection could not be carried out as planned.
Thereupon, 23 Azerbaijani NGOs wrote a letter to the Russian embassy in Baku demanding that environmental organizations be permitted to visit the mines in this region, with Russian peacekeeping troops ensuring the safety of this visit.
Azerbaijani environmentalists, who could not get a reply to their demands from the Russian embassy, started to organize protests on the Khankendi–Lachin road, where the area of responsibility of the Russian peace troops begins, beginning December 12. At first, Russian peacekeepers tried to prevent the demonstration, but they were forced to back down when the demonstrators resisted. The demand of the demonstrators was to meet with the peacekeeping unit commander and visit the mines, but the commander did not come to the meeting and the environmentalists were not allowed to visit the mines on the territory he controls.
On December 15, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan presented a note to the Russian Federation demanding that the necessary security measures be provided for access to the mentioned mines, without hindrance or restriction of any kind, in accordance with the agreement previously reached. A day after that, the Azerbaijani state officials again met with the peacekeeping unit command regarding entering the mines, but access was not provided.
As a result, while the Russian peacekeeping troops did not provide the necessary access for the inspection of the mines, at the same time they blocked the Lachin road in both directions and prevented movement. In the meantime, despite the disinformation from the Armenian side that “Azerbaijan has blocked the road and there is a humanitarian crisis,” the Azerbaijani side made a statement on the same day announcing that it was ready to send necessary humanitarian aid to Azerbaijani citizens in Karabakh. Thus, while Russian peacekeepers blocked the road in both directions, radicals in Karabakh said there would be no humanitarian crossings unless the Azerbaijani demonstrators were withdrawn from the road. In doing this, the Armenian side had three important expectations. The first was to present the issue as a humanitarian crisis in the international arena and to put pressure on Azerbaijan by getting the support of the Armenian diaspora and third states instead of meeting the just demands of Azerbaijan. As a matter of fact, the subject of Armenia’s request was discussed in the UN Security Council shortly afterwards, but no statement was adopted on behalf of the Security Council. France tried to revise repeatedly the statement with no success.
Armenia then requested of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that “Azerbaijan should open the Lachin road.” But the ECHR noted that the idea that the road was blocked by Azerbaijan was disputed. Concerned that the court’s decision would lead to pressure being directed against them, the Russian peacekeepers removed the obstacles and opened the road to humanitarian aid. The Armenian side, disturbed by this decision of the ECHR, has taken the issue to the International Court of Justice. However, it is expected that Armenia’s attempt at the ICJ won’t bring a tangible outcome.
The Armenian side, which could not get the result it hoped for from the UN Security Council or the ECHR, focused on the international press and social media, which are open to disinformation. With the support of the Armenian diaspora and third states, a serious disinformation attack was launched against Azerbaijan. However, at the same time that the Armenian diaspora was creating black PR campaign such as “Christian Armenians went hungry on Christmas Day,” the International Red Cross and Russian peacekeepers were carrying fuel, medicine, and food to the Armenian residents of Karabakh.
Meanwhile, the Armenian side hoped that Azerbaijani eco-activists would withdraw owing to the increasingly difficult weather conditions and increasing international pressure. However, even though the temperature in the region dropped below freezing, the demonstrators continued their protests. The long duration of the demonstrations caused divisions between the Armenians and the Karabakh separatists. As psychological collapse occurred on the opposite side, which could not obtain its desired result, the demands of the Azerbaijani environmentalists began to expand. One significant demand was for the removal of Ruben Vardanyan, who had been sent to Karabakh from Russia.
The Spoiler in the South Caucasus: Ruben Vardanyan
After Azerbaijan’s victory in the Second Karabakh War, some meetings were held between Azerbaijani officials and Karabakh residents. These concerned the joint use of the region’s Serseng dam, the construction plan for an alternative Khankendi–Lachin road, and some other issues. These talks also gave rise to hopes for the integration of Karabakh Armenians into Azerbaijan. President Ilham Aliyev evaluated these developments positively and declared that there was no need for a mediator in the ongoing negotiations between Azerbaijan and Karabakh Armenians, and that the Azerbaijani state is the guarantor of the security and rights of the Karabakh residents of Azerbaijan.
However, the peaceful resolution of such issues, the normalization of Azerbaijan–Armenia–Turkey relations, and regional stabilization were contrary to the geopolitical interests of some states that had interests in the region. In such an environment, Ruben Vardanyan, a Russian billionaire of Armenian origin who had lived in Russia for many years and had no relationship with Karabakh, came to the region by surprise, passing through the checkpoint of the Russian peacekeeping troops, and soon began to take control of all the authorities in this region.
Ruben Vardanyan, born in Yerevan in 1968, became Russia’s 103rd billionaire in 2020. He was documented in the Organized Crime and Corruption Research Project (OCRP) Troika Laundromat Report in 2019 as having smuggled $4.6 billion abroad through offshore accounts. With the arrival of Vardanyan in the region, the process that had started between Azerbaijan and Karabakh Armenians began to be reversed. Karabakh Armenians, who had not prevented the previous visit of Azerbaijani authorities to the Serseng dame, blocked a similar visit to the mines following the arrival of Vardanyan.
Vardanyan addressed the Karabakh Armenians and declared that he had decided to fight Azerbaijan from the day he came to Karabakh, when presented with the options of either integrating with Azerbaijan, leaving the region, or fighting against Azerbaijan. While organizing people in Karabakh against Azerbaijan through his financial means, Vardanyan tried to disrupt the reintegration process of Karabakh Armenians and to increase radicalism through his rhetoric. Toward this aim, the new team formed by Vardanyan replaced those who had negotiated integration with Azerbaijan with radicals. This shows that there are parties that want to disrupt the peace process with Azerbaijan and destabilize the region, and it is known from experience that the people residing in Karabakh could not become game changers or playmakers without outside support.
The general understanding in Azerbaijan is that Vardanyan was sent to Karabakh from Russia. In fact, Azerbaijan Foreign Minister Ceyhun Bayramov, who on December 27 issued a press statement in Baku after meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, said: “A positive process had begun with the Karabakh Armenians and the arrival of someone with a dark past damaged the process. Even though a peace agreement was signed between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Russia proposes to leave the solution of the Karabakh issue to the next generations.” Of course, the stance of Azerbaijan, which sees the Karabakh issue as its own internal issue, is clear to all parties.
It is clear that Vardanyan is an actor who is tasked to negatively influence the normalization process that has emerged in the region. For example, Ruben Vardanyan is also known as the person who financially supported Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Armenia, which seriously damaged the peace process. Pro-Armenian members of Congress, Bob Menendez, Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and others clearly supported Ruben Vardanyan, whose name is mentioned in the list of sanctions imposed on certain individuals in Russia by the US House of Representatives.
In short, Vardanyan and his supporters’ main targets are to prevent the integration of KER residents with Azerbaijan; to maintain the influence of a radical ideology on KER residents; to arm KER residents; to enable the Lachin road to be used for smuggling; to illegally use the underground and aboveground assets of Azerbaijan in KER; and, most importantly, to prevent the fulfillment of the November 10 Tripartite Declaration.
On December 28, after the Russian peacekeeping troops met with the separatists, it was announced that activities in the mines had been temporarily suspended and international experts could inspect them. However, this statement does not mean that the demands of the demonstrators have been met; rather, it aims to make their demands controversial. In short, the Armenian side and its supporters aim to maintain their hidden agenda in the region by presenting these events to world public opinion as a “humanitarian crisis.” It is known that the rhetoric of the radical opposition in Yerevan, such as “the geopolitical balance in the region is against us, so we will lose if we sign a peace agreement” and “let’s delay fulfilling the conditions of the November 10 Tripartite Declaration,” has been adopted as the strategy of the Armenian government. In this sense, this attitude of the Armenian side coincides with the policy of delaying the peace agreement. Instead of fulfilling the agreements reached and speeding up the process of signing a peace agreement, the Armenian side is playing for time by constantly putting forward new conditions. Nevertheless, despite all the difficulties experienced, the Azerbaijani side remains determined to establish state authority in the KER, and important results in this respect are expected in 2023.