Karabakh’s State Minister Ruben Vardanyan (right) and President Arayik Harutyunyan (second from right) pray during a Christmas mass at Stepanakert’s Holy Mother of God Cathedral, January 6, 2023

More Signs of Tension Between Armenian, Karabakh Leaders

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By Ruzanna Stepanyan and Gayane Sarikbekyan

YEREVAN/STEPANAKERT (Azatutyun.am) — Ruben Vardanyan, the Nagorno-Karabakh premier, refused to resign over the January 14-15 weekend amid speculation that the Armenian government is seeking his ouster because of Azerbaijan’s continuing blockade of Karabakh’s land link with Armenia.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was criticized by Karabakh’s leadership after claiming on January 10 that the international community has always regarded the disputed region as an integral part of Azerbaijan. Pashinyan also said his government must only deal with Armenia’s problems and that the authorities in Stepanakert should themselves settle the conflict with Baku.

In a joint statement issued the following day, Karabakh’s government and main political factions said Pashinyan’s remarks undermine the Karabakh Armenians’ right to self-determination. Vardanyan went further, linking them with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s latest statements on the conflict also made on January 10.

Pashinyan responded on January 12 by urging the Karabakh leaders to tone down their rhetoric and negotiate with Azerbaijan in order to end the Azerbaijani blockade.

That was followed by reports that Arayik Harutyunyan, the Karabakh president, wants to sack Vardanyan and force snap presidential and parliamentary elections. Artur Tovmasyan, the Karabakh parliament speaker, did not rule out the possibility of such elections when he spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service on Saturday.

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“I am not going to resign, especially in the existing situation,” Vardanyan wrote on social media later in the day. ”At the same time, the possible resignation of the country’s president and parliament is unacceptable.”

“In this situation, we have no right to serve the enemy’s agenda and surrender,” added Vardanyan.

One of his political allies in Armenia said sacking Vardanyan and holding snap elections in Karabakh in the current challenging circumstances would be tantamount to “treason.”

Davit Galstyan, a Karabakh opposition leader, suggested on Monday Pashinyan pressured Harutyunyan to replace the holder of the second-highest post in Karabakh’s leadership. Harutyunyan has not bowed to the pressure so far, he said.

Armenian opposition figures likewise accused Pashinyan of seeking to get rid of Vardanyan to facilitate far-reaching concessions to Azerbaijan.

“It’s possible that there was pressure from Armenia especially aimed at removing individuals who have a principled position contradicting the Armenian government’s approaches,” said Tigran Abrahamian, a senior lawmaker from the opposition Pativ Unem bloc.

Neither Pashinyan nor other Armenian government officials publicly commented on the political situation in Stepanakert. Some Pashinyan allies and supporters criticized Vardanyan in recent days, implying that his exit is necessary for ending the blockade.

Meanwhile, Harutyunyan on Monday, January 16, met with Karabakh lawmakers and insisted that “there is no political crisis in Artsakh.” According to his press office, the Karabakh president said the authorities in Stepanakert should address “internal political problems” only after overcoming the humanitarian crisis caused by the month-long blockade. The office gave no other details of the meeting.

Vardanyan, 54, is a prominent Armenian billionaire who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s and 2000s. He was appointed as Karabakh’s state minister (basically prime minister) in November two months after renouncing his Russian citizenship.

Azerbaijan’s government condemned Vardanyan’s appointment, with Aliyev claiming that the former investment banker was sent to Karabakh by Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted that Moscow “has nothing to do with Mr. Vardanyan” when he met with his visiting Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov on December 23 less than two weeks after Azerbaijani government-backed protesters blocked the sole road connecting Karabakh to Armenia. Speaking at a joint news conference with Lavrov, Bayramov said Vardanyan must step down and leave Karabakh.

Vardanyan has made defiant statements throughout the blockade. He has said that the Karabakh Armenians will continue to resist Baku’s efforts to regain full control over the territory.

Talk to Azerbaijan

Pashinyan on January 12 urged Nagorno-Karabakh’s leaders to tone down their rhetoric and negotiate with Azerbaijan in order to end the ongoing Azerbaijani blockade of the Lachin Corridor.

“Political statements that make the situation even more deadlocked should be avoided because statements without a clear vision of reaching the end point are of no use,” said Pashinyan. ”And then a political conversation between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan should begin, and our partners in Nagorno-Karabakh should not allow anyone to accuse them of disrupting a constructive conversation or making such a conversation impossible.”

“The closure of the Lachine Corridor is a provocation, the ultimate goal of which is a new military escalation, and no steps desirable for those developing the military escalation scenario should be taken,” he added during a weekly session of his cabinet.

Pashinyan spoke the day after Karabakh’s government and main political factions criticized his statements on the conflict with Azerbaijan and, saying that they undermine the Karabakh Armenians’ right to self-determination. In a joint statement, they pledged to continue to fight for independence.

Meanwhile, Alen Simonyan, the Armenian parliament speaker and a top Pashinyan ally, made it clear that Yerevan will not negotiate with Azerbaijan on the reopening of the sole road connecting Karabakh to Armenia. The Karabakh leadership negotiated with Baku shortly after Azerbaijani protesters blocked the road on December 12, he said, adding that the talks should resume.

Simonyan claimed that Baku may be keen to “draw” the Armenian government into such discussions in order to demand that Armenia open a similar corridor that would connect Azerbaijan to its Nakhichevan exclave.

“I presume that this is what the Lachin Corridor was closed for,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.

The speaker also complained that despite its repeated promises given to the Armenian side, Russia is not doing enough to end the Azerbaijani blockade of the vital highway which is supposed to be controlled by Russian peacekeepers.

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