The standoff in the disputed Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh has intensified after its ethnic Armenian residents established a tent camp along a key road leading to the Azerbaijani town of Aghdam, mirroring the Azerbaijani blockade of the Lachin corridor to Armenia.
The move comes in response to the attemped delivery of humanitarian aid by Azerbaijan via the Aghdam route, which the locals argue is a ploy to legitimise Baku's ongoing blockade of the Lachin corridor, the only route from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Azerbaijan has imposed a blockade of the Lachin corridor since December – first with self proclaimed environmental activists – in what is widely seen as an attempt to force residents to accept rule from Baku or even flee to Armenia.
Azerbaijan had offered to deliver humanitarian aid via the Aghdam route in response to Nagorno-Karabakh's international campaign to publicise the hardship caused by Baku's blockade of the Lachin corridor.
This week, demonstrators set up a makeshift camp near a Russian military checkpoint, effectively obstructing access to the Aghdam route. The camp remained occupied throughout the night following the arrival of two trucks carrying 40 tonnes of flour provided by the Azerbaijan Red Cross in Aghdam.
"We don't want to receive anything from our adversary," declared Hamlet Apresian, the mayor of Askeran, a neighbouring town to Aghdam, who joined the protesters at the roadblock, reports RFE/RL Armenia service.
Karabakh's leadership in Stepanakert has steadfastly supported the blockade resistance, arguing that Azerbaijan's proposed aid distribution diverts global attention from the blockade itself. By offering help, Azerbaijan – the cause of Nagorno-Karabakh's hardships – also forces Stepanakert to acknowledge it is de jure part of Azerbaijan, although it has been de facto independent since the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the early 1990s after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Stepanakert also emphasises the significance of Baku adhering to the Russian-brokered 2020 ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan after Baku was victorious in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. This agreement stipulates unhindered commercial and humanitarian transit through the Lachin corridor.
Davit Ishkhanyan, the speaker of the Karabakh parliament, affirmed the decision to maintain the road closure during a press briefing in Stepanakert. He later visited the protest camp to show his solidarity with the demonstrators.
The tension between the conflicting sides escalated in mid-June after Baku initiated a stricter blockade of the Lachin corridor. Consequently, Russian peacekeepers and the International Committee of the Red Cross found it increasingly challenging to deliver vital supplies, including food and medicine, to the inhabitants of Karabakh.
A senior aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev conveyed to the BBC that the resumption of humanitarian traffic through Karabakh's blocked link with Armenia hinges on reopening the Aghdam road. This stipulation was reportedly reiterated during a recent phone conversation between Aliyev and French President Emmanuel Macron, whose administration has been increasingly critical of the Azerbaijani blockade.
The European Union, the United States, and Russia have echoed calls for the immediate lifting of the blockade. However, Azerbaijani authorities have brushed aside these appeals.