Vardanyan sacked as Nagorno-Karabakh's state minister

Vardanyan sacked as Nagorno-Karabakh's state minister
There have been signs of a rift between President Harutyunyan and State Minister Vardanyan (pictured) related to the Azerbaijani blockade of the only road between the ethnic Armenian enclave and Armenia. / Wikipedia/Aleksey Chalabyan
By bne IntelliNews February 24, 2023

President of the de facto republic of Nagorno-Karabakh Arayik Harutyunyan has sacked the enclave's controversial state minister, Russian-Armenian business tycoon Ruben Vardanyan. He named Prosecutor General Gurgen Nersisyan as Vardanyan's replacement.

In recent weeks, there have been signs of a rift between Harutyunyan and Vardanyan related to the Azerbaijani blockade of the only road in the Lachin corridor between the ethnic Armenian enclave and Armenia.

Last month, Vardanyan publicly ruled out his resignation, which Armenia's government has reportedly sought. Azerbaijan has also repeatedly described Vardanyan as an obstacle to peace talks.

Harutyunyan insisted that Vardanyan's sacking was not the result of pressure from Baku or Yerevan. He attributed his decision to "tactical differences" between the two men over several "factors", including the "interests of geopolitical actors".

Critics have accused Vardanyan, who made his fortune as a banker in Russia, of representing Russia's interests in the territory, an allegation he has rejected. Vardayan had criticised what he called "futile" criticism of Moscow's peacekeepers in the Lachin corridor, who have stood by while Azerbaijani so-called environmental activists blocked the road.

The Karabakh president expressed the need to preserve the enclave's resilience in the face of the continuing blockade, which has caused severe shortages of essential items in the Armenian-populated region. He did not provide further details.

At the same time, Harutyunyan indicated that the crisis could ease in the coming days, but it was unclear whether he was hinting at the impending lifting of the blockade.

The blockade is seen as a transparent attempt by Baku to put pressure on the enclave to return under the control of Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh won de facto independence from Azerbaijan in fighting in the early 1990s but its position has become much more precarious since Baku regained substantial territory in a short war in 2020.

During the cabinet meeting in Stepanakert, Vardanyan confirmed his "differences" with Harutyunyan but did not provide further information. He hoped that Harutyunyan's words would be followed by action so that people would not lose faith in them. Vardanyan also linked his dismissal to strong pressure from outside forces on Karabakh's leadership, but he clarified that he would not leave Karabakh.

"Not only will I not leave, but I can't imagine myself without Artsakh. I will happily continue with the activities that I have been doing so far," he said, alluding to his charity projects launched in Karabakh.

"Azerbaijan, which hoped to bring us to our knees and break us, made a grave mistake," added Vardanyan. "Azerbaijan saw that we became more united."

In a separate development, on February 22, the United Nation's top court ordered Azerbaijan to restore "unimpeded" traffic through the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and the world. Armenia had asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to take this and other "provisional measures" two weeks after Azerbaijani protesters blocked the road on December 12.

During court hearings in January, lawyers representing Azerbaijan's government denied the closure of the Lachin corridor, even claiming there is no blockade.

The ICJ  concluded that the connection between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia through the Lachin Corridor has been disrupted.

"The information available to the court indicates that the disruption on the Lachin Corridor has impeded the transfer of persons of Armenian national or ethnic origin hospitalised in Nagorno-Karabakh to medical facilities in Armenia for urgent medical care," it said. "The evidence also indicates that there have been hindrances to the importation into Nagorno-Karabakh of essential goods, causing shortages of food, medicine and other life-saving medical supplies."

The court based in The Hague highlighted that Azerbaijan is committed to ensuring safe passage through Nagorno-Karabakh's sole land link with the outside world, as per the Russian-brokered agreement that ended the 2020 war in the region.

It said Baku should "take all measures at its disposal to ensure unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles and cargo along the Lachin Corridor in both directions."

At the same time, the panel of 15 ICJ judges rejected Armenia's request for a separate injunction against the disruption of Armenian electricity and gas supplies to Karabakh carried out through Azerbaijani territory.

"The court considers that Armenia has not placed before it sufficient evidence that Azerbaijan is disrupting the supply of natural gas and other utilities to the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh," it said.

The ICJ also rejected Azerbaijan's request to make Armenia stop laying land mines in the Lachin corridor. Yerevan has continually denied the Azerbaijani allegations, stating they are a pretext for blocking the vital road.

The two warring nations have sought injunctions against each other in their mutual lawsuits brought before the UN court in 2021. The legal dispute could take years to resolve. Analysts believe that the ICJ judges lack a real means of enforcing their interim orders.

Yeghishe Kirakosyan, a lawyer representing the Armenian government in international tribunals, said Yerevan would keep ICJ informed about Baku's compliance with its latest order.