Empy shelves in Stepanakert (courtesy private photographer)

Stuck in Limbo: Why Nagorno-Karabakh Needs a Legal Status More than Ever

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I have been told countless times during the past two years not to, as an anthropologist, engage in a politically active discourse. At the same time, we are entering the second month since Azerbaijani so-called eco-activists have blocked the Lachin Corridor – the only road leading to Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia. It has been over 30 days that no supplies of food or medicine can enter Artsakh. Grocery stores are empty. Children are being born in under-resourced hospitals. Over a thousand Nagorno-Karabakh citizens found themselves stranded and separated from their families during New Year celebrations. For them, this is not just another inconvenience, but the consequence of living in a constant state of conflict for more than two years. Even though in Yerevan we moved on with our lives after the 44-day war, the 120.000 residents of Artsakh still live in a perpetual state of insecurity – they are facing what Vicken Cheterian referred to as “the second siege.”

Queue for eggs in Stepanakert (courtesy private photographer)

American journalist Lindsey Snell has already proven that the blockade has little to do with the environmental movement and, as Sossie Tatikyan states in an article in EVN Report, “consists mainly of members of Azerbaijani special services, military officers, beneficiaries of Aliyev’s foundation and other supporters of the state authorities.” Nevertheless, the truth remains irrelevant. Even though the members of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative called for at least modest assistance in the form of a humanitarian airlift, such an initiative seems impossible to undertake. The Responsibility to Protect Doctrine seems not to apply to the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In fact, there never was any humanitarian agency based in Stepanakert aside from the International Committee of the Red Cross. As the conflict froze in 1994, this territory remained on a technical legal basis within the official borders of Azerbaijan, despite its de facto independence. Therefore, it became impossible to welcome international bodies without Azerbaijan’s permission. For the past 30 years, neither the United Nations nor Amnesty International operated in Stepanakert and even officials designated to issues related to conflict-resolution were not allowed to set foot in Nagorno-Karabakh, as this would have been understood technically as illegally crossing the Azerbaijani border. 99% of so-called experts who tend to be vocal regarding the issue never visited Artsakh. Access is currently sabotaged by the Russian peacekeepers who, being useless in any other way, do surprisingly diligent work restricting foreign professionals from entry.

Empty shelves in Stepanakert (courtesy private photographer)

As an unrecognized state, Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be a member of any international agency, nor a party to negotiations over own status. It has never been a part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, and instead was forced to solely rely on Armenia to represent its best interests. In the meantime, as Peter Oborne has recently reported in BylineTimes.com, United Kingdom and Russia have successfully sabotaged the efforts of signing a UN resolution calling for the immediate lifting of the blockade. As always, major institutions remain silent or produce condescending and harmful statements such as the recent tweet of the UN Human Rights Office calling on both sides to resolve the issue. The lack of recognition consequently locks Nagorno-Karabakh, in both a political and symbolic state of power imbalance, into an inability to demand fair and equal treatment. It took 30 days for Amnesty International to stand up for the values it claims to represent.

When shortly after the 44-days war the residents of territories passing under Azerbaijani control had only a few days to leave their entire lives behind, many considered it a valid political solution. I, however, see this as a complete failure of all international agencies to maintain any humanitarian standards in the aftermath of the conflict. There was no attempt to advocate or to propose measures protecting these people from economic and psychological damage. The primacy of the political perspective silents the humanitarian aspect of the problem – any further border shift within Nagorno-Karabakh creates an opportunity for the gross violation of human rights and possibly an attempt of ethnic cleansing. I truly doubt that anyone proposing this variant fully embraces the moral and ethical weight of such solution. As anthropologist Eviya Hovannisian states, Artsakh soldiers who fought during the war would be the first to fall under persecution – accused of treason and severely punished. This would encompass a large percentage of its male population. There is no discussion of confidence building measures necessary to be enacted and systemic hate towards Armenians in Azerbaijan is consequently omitted in the public debate regarding the conflict.

We witness Nagorno-Karabakh being referred to as “disputed territory,” “occupied Azerbaijani territory,” or a “quasi state.” These labels, while technically accurate, continuously contribute to inaccurate framing of the issue as solely political in nature, which in turn perpetuates a myriad of grave consequences. If the problem is political, then any public reference becomes politicized and can be disregarded as influenced by an agenda, which successfully deters many forms of advocacy. As we see, not only activists, but also international agencies and press become reluctant to address the issue.

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A “disputed territory” brings a notion of temporality, a suspended status – it undermines the value of people inhabiting it.  A discursive framework of an “occupied Azerbaijani territory” indirectly implies that as long as Nagorno-Karabakh formally belongs to Azerbaijan, its political elites are within their rights to use any form of terror towards its residents. It is not the first time that Azerbaijan uses humanitarian crisis as a tool of warfare. A five-year-old boy died during the last time when gas supply to Artsakh was cut on March 2022.

A “quasi state” is in fact a lapse of nature, a strange phenomenon not meant to exist in the nation-state politics of 21st century – an anomaly. Its residents remain invisible, lacking not only political, but also symbolic representation. Using the terminology of Edwin and Shirley Ardener, they are a marginalized, muted group whose voice remains structurally suppressed. Hearing those voices would require a radical discourse shift and moving from the rhetoric of territory and state towards a humanitarian perspective of human life and its value. And any form of a political representation is a first step towards battling the structural imbalance of power and holding international institutions accountable to values they claim to represent and principles they swore to protect. In the absence of it, the residents of Artsakh will remain vulnerable to any form of harm Azerbaijan decides to inflict on them in the future and the war of terror will only continue. We tend to forget that safety and stability are the ultimate conditions in which any reconciliation, any move forward can take place.

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