The sleepy southern Armenian city of Goris rarely finds itself at the centre of events. Nestled amid high mountains in Armenia’s southernmost province of Syunik, its elegant stone houses and broad central square have the relaxed air of a place where there is rarely much of importance taking place.
But these days, the town attracts a menagerie of foreign visitors: EU and UN cars drive by in small convoys, flags waving in the wind; Russian peacekeepers in their camouflage uniforms and enormous Kamaz trucks are omnipresent; alongside them are several hundred other civilians whose lilting, accented Armenian sets them slightly apart from the locals – Karabakh Armenians, trapped here for more than two months as Azerbaijan’s blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh grinds on.
Following its victory in the 2020 Second Karabakh War, in which it recaptured three-quarters of the territory held by the unrecognised Republic of Artsakh (also known as Nagorno-Karabakh), Azerbaijan has continued to seek control over the rump remainder of Karabakh.
These efforts have only intensified since Russia, whose peacekeepers in Karabakh guarantee the 2020 ceasefire agreement, invaded Ukraine a year ago, a move which has sapped Moscow’s strength and influence.
While most of Azerbaijan’s moves have come in the form of military offensives, Baku hit upon a new tactic in December, one less brazen and less likely to draw international ire. On December 11, a group of Azerbaijani ‘eco-activists’ set up a protest camp outside Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital Stepanakert, blocking the one road connecting the enclave with Armenia and the outside world.
The protesters, who have been linked to the Azerbaijani government, have stopped all traffic into and out of Karabakh, save for a handful of Russian peacekeeping and Red Cross vehicles. The result has been food shortages, power cuts and mass unemployment in Karabakh, as life comes to a halt for the 100,000 residents of the territory. Despite growing international pressure to reopen the road, Azerbaijan and its leader, Ilham Aliyev, have shown little sign they will end the blockade soon.
Goris, as the last major settlement in Armenia before the border and the road to Karabakh, has become the primary witness to this drama. Numerous hotels in the city are filled with Karabakh Armenians who were in Armenia at the time of the road closure and have been unable to get home ever since. The local government, supported by Yerevan, is putting them up as best they can.
“We have more than 300 people from Karabakh in Goris right now,” says Karen Zhabagiryan, an advisor to the city’s mayor. “Of these people, 60 are children. They are attending school [in Goris] now, because no one knows how long they will have to be here for,” he says.
The government has paid for the stranded Karabakhtsis to stay in local hotels for as long as they need, Zhabagiryan says. But while they are surviving, the psychological pressure of their situation is getting worse all the time.
“There are new problems arising constantly,” Zhabagiryan says. “People get sick, they miss their loved ones. They can’t even contact them [in Karabakh] very often, because of the power and communications cuts there. They can’t live like this forever,” he says.
Scenes at the blockade itself border on farce. While bne IntelliNews’ correspondent, like all others in Armenia, was unable to visit the protest camp itself, the photos and videos of the so-called protesters make it look more like a party than any sort of grassroots action.
The ‘demonstrators’ revel in comfortable conditions, with plentiful hot food and supplies brought from nearby Shusha, under Azerbaijan’s control; during the recent football World Cup, enormous viewing screens were erected for the Azerbaijani activists to enjoy the matches. All the while, tens of thousands of Karabakh Armenian civilians are shivering in the darkened streets of Stepanakert, just a few kilometres away.
Centre of displacement
The present situation as a displaced persons centre is a sadly familiar one for Goris. During the 2020 war, the city was overrun with Karabakh civilians fleeing the fighting there – “at least 10,000 people [from Karabakh],” according to Zhabagiryan, a startling figure given that Goris’s population is only 20,000. “We have already become professionals [at hosting them] as a result,” he says with a sad smile.
Venera and Oksana are two of them. Both in their mid-40s, they are now indefinite tenants at the Mina hotel, which has become a mini-Stepanakert at the northern end of Goris. Both were caught in Armenia when the blockade began.
“I came to Yerevan for a thyroid operation on December 12,” says Oksana, pointing to a recent scar on her neck. “By the time it was finished, the road was already closed. We drove down to see if it would clear, but it became obvious once we got near [the border] that we wouldn’t get to Stepanakert,” she says.
Venera had a similar experience, having gone to the Armenian capital to visit relatives. She now spends her days idling away at the hotel, waiting for the rare moments of steady internet and electricity in Karabakh to speak with her family there.
“We speak almost every day,” Venera says. “My nine-year old son is in our village, Berdashen [east of Stepanakert], and my daughter is in Stepanakert – she studies at university there. The stress is already unimaginable – the shops are empty, they have no fruit or vegetables for almost two months now. My son says to me, ‘mom, I’m tired of eating just grechka [buckwheat].’ What can I say to him?” she says.
There is another factor on everyone’s mind as well: Russia. While it is Azerbaijani protesters that have set up camp on the road itself, Russia’s 2,000 peacekeepers have made no attempt to remove them. Despite being obligated by the 2020 ceasefire agreement to ensure free passage of people and cargo along the road, Moscow’s servicemen have instead served as tacit enforcers of the blockade, establishing barriers separating the Azerbaijanis from any possible contact with the besieged inhabitants of Karabakh on the other side.
“We all understand that Russia is not fulfilling its mandate [as a guarantor of the road staying open],” says Zhabagiryan, the advisor to Goris’s mayor. “The road is supposed to be open, but it stays closed,” he says.
The two women are similarly torn over Russia’s role.
“Without Russia, I would not be here right now,” Oksana says. “[The Azerbaijanis] would have come into Stepanakert [in 2020] and killed us all. So we have to be grateful for that, but at the same time, there is a feeling now that the situation is different than what it was before,” she says.
“I have a question: why can’t the Russians just reopen the road?” Venera asks. “Why can’t they push these miserable people [protesters] out of the way? There are only 40 or 50 of them – it would be very easy for [the Russians] to do it, but this is some dirty political business,” she says.
The psychological terror of the situation is the hardest. No one knows when the road will reopen – and how long it would be until Azerbaijan simply closes it again. Venera admits that this has affected her thoughts on her family’s future in her homeland.
“My husband works in construction,” Venera says. “Because of the blockade, he has been out of work for weeks now. Even if I somehow get there [to Karabakh], how can I find a job and feed my family? Azerbaijan is subjecting us to pure terrorism: blocking our food and gas, shooting at our villages. It’s one thing for me to experience hardship – I am used to it by now. But how can I raise my children in these conditions?” she asks.
Oksana, by contrast, is unwavering.
“[Azerbaijan] does this so that we, the people of Artsakh, will leave Artsakh,” she says. “But we will not! I am an Armenian from Artsakh. My grandparents, great-grandparents lived there. This is our land! Our roots are deep. I lived there, I live there now, and I’ll keep living there. Azerbaijan doesn’t have a history, so they don’t understand this,” Oksana says.
“They just have oil,” Venera says. “That’s enough for the whole world to be silent while they choke us. Because the strong are always right, and money closes the mouths of others.”