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No EU Sanctions Despite Death in Nagorno-Karabakh

A humanitarian emergency which threatens to leave 120,000 people without food or medicine continues to escalate.

It has now been eight months since Azerbaijan initiated its blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan's official borders. Despite widespread condemnation, with one former International Criminal Court chief prosecutor stating that it is “reasonable” to believe genocide is being committed, the European Union has abstained from more active intervention such as sanctions.

This week saw the first death due to “chronic malnutrition” and “protein and energy deficiency” reported from the enclave. Almost one month ago, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Minister of Health Vardan Tadevosyan warned that the humanitarian situation under the blockade had become critical. Food prices were spiralling, with a tomato costing five times more than in Armenia; fuel supplies were so low that only one in every 100 vehicles was on the road; and medical supplies were running out as many go without treatment. Things have continued to deteriorate since.

Local journalist Laura Avetisyan, explains that “public transport is completely suspended due to the fuel shortage. People cannot get to work. Others, like taxi drivers, have just lost their jobs and their sole source of income. When it comes to food, vegetables and grains are extremely scarce and bread, a staple of the local diet, is strictly rationed.” One doctor told local media that miscarriages had tripled in the past month due to malnutrition.

Azerbaijan has repeatedly ignored warnings to re-open the narrow land corridor which connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Instead, it has sought to further restrict access. In December, when the blockade was first instituted, Russian peacekeeper and Red Cross vehicles were still permitted. Following an exchange of gunfire in June, however, Azeri forces began to deny access to even humanitarian convoys. By the end of July, the transfer of critically-ill patients from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia had been halted indefinitely.

Azerbaijan sees an opportunity to end the stalemate over the disputed territory, with regional peacekeeper, Russia, distracted. Historically, “Russia’s interest has been to maintain the status quo around the conflict, enabling it to maintain separate bilateral relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan” says Neil Melvin, RUSI’s Director of International Security Studies, “but the status quo is now becoming untenable.”

Talks held in Moscow in May concluded that Armenia would recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, which “has shifted the framing of the core issues” Melvin adds. However, since then, the conflict, which dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, seems closer to reignition. Last month, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced that a repeat of the war which left seven thousand soldiers and civilians dead in 2020 was now “very likely”.

The invasion of Ukraine has left Russia’s capacity to mediate the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia “severely depleted”, notes Laurence Broers, Caucasus programme director at Conciliation Resources, a peacebuilding organisation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said Moscow does not intend to impose sanctions or solutions of its own.

The European Union has recognised the need for action, initiating peace talks and announcing that the bloc is “deeply concerned” about the worsening humanitarian situation, yet the decision to abstain from sanctions indicates a hesitancy to disrupt relations with Azerbaijan.

Last year, the European Union notably doubled up on an energy deal with the autocratic regime, helping it to cope with the lack of supply from Russia since the invasion. At the time, Ursula von der Leyen called Azerbaijan “a crucial and reliable partner for our security of supply.”

Consequently, Azerbaijan’s “methodological destruction of the ceasefire system introduced by Russia in 2020, and the removal of Russian boots on the ground,” as Broers puts it, has gone largely unchallenged. Azerbaijan’s territorial sovereignty is at stake, while Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population demands the right to self-determine and fears Azeri rule. Yet, without international intervention, an Armenian-backed Nagorno-Karabakh is no match for Azerbaijan.

The population faces a difficult decision. “Azerbaijan’s new ultimatums are forcing residents to reconsider their personal thresholds and take leaving their homes more seriously,” Avetisyan says. The recent arrest of a man who was passing through the blockade checkpoint with the Red Cross by Azerbaijani forces on war crime charges has shaken the population, who fear that this is just the beginning. “Some will stay no matter what, but there is a looming acknowledgement that Azerbaijan is unlikely to compromise. Resistance hangs by a thread thinner than ever before,” Avetisyan adds.

For the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, Broers emphasises, “there is an urgent question of who or what can provide security.” No one is yet willing to answer.

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