Nationalism under the Guise of Eco-Activism: What is Happening in the Lachin corridor?

Murad Gattal on the causes and prerequisites for a new escalation in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and the transformations that it caused in Azerbaijani society.

Less than a month ago a new official national holiday, the so-called Day of Victory in the Patriotic War, was celebrated in Azerbaijan for the second time. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh war lasted 44 days – from the 27th of September to the 9th of November 2020 – and took over 7,000 lives on both sides. As a result of it, Azerbaijan restored its control over seven regions, the majority of the population of which before the First Nagorno-Karabakh war (1992-1994) were Azerbaijanis, as well as over a part of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) together with its principal cities Shusha and Hadrud. On the remaining territories with the center in Stepanakert (also known as Khankendi) the Russian peacekeeping contingent was deployed in accordance with the ceasefire agreement signed on the 10th of November by the President of Azerbaijan, the Prime Minister of Armenia, and the President of Russia. The peacekeepers were given control over the Lachin corridor – the road linking Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.

640px-Lachin_Corridor_2020.pngMap of the Lachin corridor. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Equal Citizens?

Although Azerbaijan officially claims that the question regarding the status of Karabakh Armenians is no longer a problem, de facto there remains an administration of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) on these territories. The length of the mandate of the peacekeeping forces is five years with a possibility of extension given the agreement of all parties. Azerbaijan certainly hopes no such extension will happen and the entirety of Karabah will finally submit under its control.

Those Karabakh Armenians who had become citizens of the NKAO by 1988 as well as their descendants (that is, everyone, except for later immigrants) have been offered Azerbaijani citizenship and equal rights with other citizens of the country. However, no concrete plans to realize this project have been announced and the Armenians themselves are justifiably concerned about their safety in case total Azerbaijani control is established. Fearing revenge for ethnic cleansings, which took place during the First Karabakh war, as well as crimes motivated by inter-ethnic hatred, which for many years has been fueled by the official propaganda, they hesitate to stay on the territories occupied by the Azerbaijani army. The evidence of war crimes by Azerbaijani soldiers, which was leaked on the internet and the investigations of which either resulted in the denial of the committed crimes or were hushed up, could hardly compel anyone to trust the Azerbaijani authorities either.

But even if somehow Azerbaijan manages to keep its promises and avoid violence, the Karabakh population will still lose its self-government. Azerbaijan is a rather centralized state: the president appoints heads of executive power bodies who govern locally, whereas the municipalities have a decorative character. The only autonomy – the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic – exists as a relic of the Treaty of Kars of 1921, but in the last couple of months an investigation against the once all-powerful leader of Nakhchivan Vasif Talibov has begun and there is much talk about the liquidation of the autonomous republic and the transformation of Azerbaijan into a completely unitary state.

What happens with the observance of the national minority rights in Azerbaijan does not inspire in the Armenians a sense of optimism either. Despite the fact that Azerbaijan ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, there are in fact serious problems with ensuring the right of ethnic minorities to preserve their languages and culture. For instance, not enough hours are dedicated to teaching minority languages in the areas of compact residence of national minorities and, in addition, the languages are often taught by badly prepared teachers faced with the problem of the shortage or lack of textbooks. Meanwhile, the representatives of local authorities go so far as to declare that it is useless to study these languages in schools.

There are obstacles to the creation and functioning of independent minority language media, and Talysh activists, who embody for the authorities the threat of the formation of the second nest of separatism that already asserted itself at the beginning of the 1990s, are being persecuted. Both politically moderate editor-in-chief of the newspaper Tolyshi Sado (Voice of the Talysh) Novruzali Mammadov and supporter of the independence of Talysh Fahraddin Abbasov, who had been extradited by Russia, died in prison. Also noteworthy is the case of the Lezgins from Uryanoba village who, when the decree returned their village from the Russian jurisdiction into the Azerbaijani one, chose to stay in their homes and became Azerbaijani citizens: even 12 years later they received neither an opportunity to register their agricultural lands as private property nor agricultural subsidies promised to farmers by the government. At the same time, the neighboring village of Khrakhoba, the citizens of which had chosen to immigrate to Dagestan, was populated by representatives of the titular nation from other regions of the country.

Political Passions in the Lachin Corridor

Another point of the trilateral agreement is the opening of transport communications that link Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia through the Lachin region – the “Lachin corridor” – as well as the main territory of Azerbaijan with its Nakhichevan enclave. In Azerbaijan, the latter is called the “Zangezur corridor” and is seen as an extraterritorial road through the territory of Armenia; however, the Armenian authorities are willing to permit nothing except transit of Azerbaijani transport and goods through their territory. The conflict reached its peak in September last year, when military clashes on the border took place together with the shelling of the Armenian territory and when the Azerbaijani troops captured several Armenian posts.

President Aliyev made a number of strong statements regarding his willingness to “cut the corridor through by force,” whereas the Armenian Azerbaijanis proclaimed in Turkey the creation of the “Goycha-Zangezur Republic,” which was supposed to include the territories of the Syunik, Vayots Dzor, and Tavush provinces of Armenia as well as a part of the Gegharkunik province. In the Lachin corridor, the Azerbaijani authorities employed the tactic of using a domesticated ‘civil society,’ too. Having failed to capture the Zangezur corridor, they declared that the existence of the road on the territory of Azerbaijan that is not under the control of its government is unfair and dangerous because it allows for the delivery of military supplies to those Armenian organizations in Karabakh that have not yet been disarmed and for the entry of foreign citizens without the Azerbaijani visa and entry stamps.

Since Azerbaijan sought to avoid direct confrontation with the Russian peacekeeping contingent, the authorities made use of the ecological factor. Representatives of the Ministry of Ecology of Azerbaijan demanded access to gold and copper-molybdenum deposits for monitoring but were not given an opportunity to carry it out. Shortly thereafter, the Lachin road was blocked by “eco-activists,” among whom one could find soldiers in disguise, state officials, and representatives of the pro-government NGOs and youth organizations that had not been previously seen in any of the environmental protests in Azerbaijan.

lahchin01.jpgAzerbaijani “eco-activists” during the blockade of the Lachin corridor. Photo: Aykhan Zayedzadeh, Wikimedia Commons

They set up a well-equipped tent campsite, and shortly thereafter the demands for the deployment of Azerbaijani border and customs checkpoints were added to the demands to protect the environment and stop illegal mining. The “activists” refused to let most of the cargo through; at the same time, the supply of gas to the part of Karabakh uncontrolled by Azerbaijan was cut off. Representatives of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic have accused Azerbaijan of seeking to organize a blockade and humanitarian catastrophe, whereas the Azerbaijani authorities deny these allegations as well as their involvement in the cut-off of the gas supply. Nevertheless, after the representatives of the EU and the US expressed their concerns, the gas supply was miraculously resumed.

The Gold Must Flow

The deposits, the failed monitoring of which provided an excuse for the “eco-activist” action, are the Gyzilbulakh (known Drmbon in Armenian) gold mine and the Demirli (or Kashen) copper-molybdenum mine. Today, they de facto belong to a Swiss businessman of Armenian origin Vartan Sirmakes. His Base Metals CJSC, which is a part of the Vallex Group holding, has been mining for gold in the Zangilian district. Likewise, it is the company owned by Roman Trotsenko, a Russian billionaire connected to the head of Rosneft Igor Sechin, that has been operating Armenia's largest gold mine –​​​​​​​ the Sotk (or Söyüdlü) deposit in the Kalbajar district.

The right to exploit all these deposits has been granted by Azerbaijan to Anglo-Asian Mining, a company that established itself in the country long ago and the co-owners and management of which include American and British politicians. Three other deposits located on the territories that are once again controlled by Azerbaijan have been given to Turkish companies. Although Azerbaijan calls for partners from almost all over the world to participate in the restoration of the returned territories, it is those firms that are close to the Presidents of Azerbaijan and Turkey Ilham Aliyev and Recep Erdoğan and those from the countries that have developed good business relations with the Azerbaijani authorities, such as Great Britain, Israel, and Italy, that become the main contractors and concessionaires. On the returned territories, these business structures replace the companies that, connected with the moneybags of the Armenian diaspora in Russia, Europe, the US, and Lebanon, as well as with Russian and French capital, previously controlled a significant part of the economy of the self-proclaimed NKR. And in the part of the Karabakh region that has not yet submitted to the rule of Baku, they plan to do the same.

Geopolitical Backgammon

Getting bogged down in the war against Ukraine not only diminishes Russia's chances of preserving its dominance in the South Caucasus but also increases Azerbaijan's influence in the European Union as a producing and transit country for energy resources, primarily for gas.

Within the framework of RepowerEU, Azerbaijan is considered one of the key gas suppliers that can take the place of sanctioned Russia and Iran. Turkey, Azerbaijan's “big brother” and patron, also has a great deal of interest in this: it is in its plans to become a “gas hub,” the largest re-exporter of gas from Russia, Azerbaijan, Central Asia, and the Middle East to Europe. The Shusha declaration on allied relations, signed on the 15th of June 2021, officially consolidated these special ties with Turkey.

At the same time, Azerbaijan continues to pursue a “multi-vector” foreign policy, and its primary aspiration is to replace Armenia as the key partner of Russia in the South Caucasus. Although Azerbaijan is not a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and is in no hurry to join the Eurasian Economic Union, both of which are Russia-oriented, nevertheless Azerbaijan is a more understandable and predictable partner for the Kremlin than Armenia: unlike Nikol Pashinuan, who came to power on the wave of popular protests, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev is well in with others from the “club of post-Soviet dictators.” On the 22nd of February, 2022, the eve of the Ukraine invasion, the Declaration on Allied Interaction between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation was signed by the Presidents of both countries. On the one hand, therefore, Azerbaijan openly supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the borders of 2013 and helps it with non-military aid. On the other hand, however, the Azerbaijani delegation “leaves for a smoke break” during the UN voting on resolutions condemning Russia's actions, while Azerbaijan itself continues to buy the gas from Gazprom in order to replace with it the domestic market volumes that are redirected to the growth of export to Europe.

lahchin02.jpgThe Russian peacekeeping contingent in the Lachin corridor. Photo: Aykhan Zayedzadeh, Wikimedia Commons

Azerbaijan's relations with another major regional power, Iran, are developing differently. The Islamic Republic recognized Azerbaijan's right to restore its territorial integrity, but the possible advance of the Azerbaijani army into Armenia, as well as the enthusiasm of a significant portion of the ethnic Azerbaijanis in the north of the country about Azerbaijan's military successes in the Karabakh conflict, are a source of concern to Tehran, already cautious about Azerbaijan's close contacts with Israel. In its turn, Azerbaijan constantly expresses its discontent over the fact that Iranian goods, in particular oil products, continue to be delivered to the remaining uncontrolled region of Karabakh through the Lachin corridor. On the section of the Kafan-Goris road that passes through the Azerbaijani territory, Iranian trucks are now forced to undergo inspection and pay duty in order to pass from one part of Armenia to another.

After the end of the war, Iran gathered troops and conducted military training on the border with Azerbaijan several times. But the protests that erupted after the murder of young Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini showed the weakness of the Mullah regime. The media in Azerbaijan started an active anti-Iranian campaign, expressing support for the national feelings of the compatriots on another side of the Aras river. Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani intelligence service reported the disclosure of an Iranian spy network, and Azerbaijan itself, together with Turkey, held military training clearly targeted against their southern neighbor.

War and Peace

The Second Karabakh War led to an unprecedented consolidation of Azerbaijani society. It washed national humiliation away with blood, facilitated the return of the ancestral lands to the bosom of the motherland, and inspired a belief that the impudent invaders would pay for their crimes. These ideas united regular workers, who signed up as volunteers at enlistment offices, large capitalists, who felt that they could profit off contracts concerning the restoration and reintegration of the returned territories, the Azerbaijani diaspora and students abroad, who rallied around the national flag, supporters of the current regime, as well as the “intransigents” from the so-called “national-democratic” opposition. Even independent journalists, who had previously bravely exposed the corruption schemes of officials and oligarchs, started to echo narratives of state propaganda.

Only a small number of progressive liberals and leftists, many of whom live outside of Azerbaijan, spoke for peace and signed anti-war statements. The authorities did not even have to repress them, because public ostracism was enough.

Two years later, as could be observed this September during the military conflicts on the border with Armenia, one could no longer witness the same unity. The pro-government press (that is, the majority of the Azerbaijani media), as well as the nationalist-minded channels that flooded the Telegram, did everything to stir up militant sentiments, but now many of their readers found themselves at a loss, why one would cross internationally recognized borders. Some of the public figures who supported the return of Karabakh stated that the status of the Zangezur corridor should be negotiated rather than fought for. The same spirit permeated the statements made by the activists of the “traditional opposition,” who had previously been dissolved in the “Karabakh consensus.”

This time, the reaction of the authorities was harsher, but there was no consensus in the society. The activists, who published pacifist posts on social media, were summoned for a chat with the police, whereas the leader of the left-liberal “Democracy 1918” movement, Ahmad Mammadli, got 30 days of imprisonment and was threatened with being mobilized to the army soon after his publication of radically anti-war posts. And yet, the “Know the Traitor” campaign, which was released on social media, failed: hardly anyone apart from the officials and activists of the ruling party supported it with likes and reposts, and in general, the campaign went unnoticed by society.

Interim Results

Although two years have already passed since the end of the war, no substantial progress has been made in negotiations with Armenia regarding a peace treaty. The situation of Karabakh Armenians, who are practically hostages at the moment, has not been regulated either, and Russian Z-peacekeepers still remain present in the region. Finally, the return of the refugees is taking place at a very low rate. At the same time, the exploitation of natural and agricultural resources has already begun, and infrastructure projects are being actively implemented as well, although their financing and contract conditions are far from being transparent.

However, a wide public discussion that would be open to expressions of alternative opinions on these questions is nearly impossible. The only place where it is feasible to conduct a protest, which would not be dispersed by the police, is the “eco-activist” camp in the Lachin corridor. Like a smokescreen, the patriotic frenzy conceals the real results of the war: the increase in the profits of the Azerbaijani oligarchs and their foreign partners.

Translation: Vladlena Zabolotskaya