Canada called to help clear Lachin corridor as accusations of ‘de-facto ethnic cleansing’ of Armenians fly at Foreign Affairs committee
The Canadian government is being called upon to play a greater role in convening a peaceful resolution to the blockade of the only road connecting Armenia to the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. But as the conflict closes in on its second month, creating shortages of essential goods like food, medicine, and electricity, Canada must do more than “ask,” says one Armenian-Canadian living behind the blockade.
On Jan. 25, the House Foreign Affairs and International Development Committee held two of its three scheduled meetings examining the blockade of the so-called “Lachin Corridor,” the only connection between Armenia and the breakaway Republic of Artsakh, an Armenian majority state located within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. On Dec. 12, 2022, the road was blocked by Azerbaijanis claiming to be environmental activists protesting an illegal gold mine in the region.
MPs on the committee heard from witnesses representing both the concerns of Armenia, describing the blockade as “de-facto ethnic cleansing,” and Azerbaijan, which continues to deny that the protests are affecting traffic or the flow of necessary goods to the region, and accuses Armenia of creating a false narrative to embolden separatist groups.
For Huri Zohrabyan, an Armenian Canadian who moved from Montreal to Stepanakert, the Republic of Artsakh’s capital, in 2021, the consequences of the blockade are very real, including the hours-long electricity blackouts she and her husband, Petros Asryan, deal with on an almost daily basis.
“Azerbaijan is not letting us go fix it, so now, for several hours a day, we don’t have electricity,” Zohrabyan said. “Sometimes we know the hours, and sometimes we don’t; there’s no guarantee.”
Born in Lebanon, Zohrabyan immigrated to Canada as a teenager. After marrying her husband following the war in 2020, which saw Asryan’s hometown of Shushi reclaimed by Azerbaijan, Zohrabyan decided she still wanted to fulfill her dream of moving to their shared homeland.
However, since the blockade began in December, that dream has turned into a nightmare, with shortages of electricity and fuel to heat her home during the region’s frigid winter.
“We’re freezing sometimes,” Zohrabyan said, describing how the solution they had devised was to heat up one room in their home as much as possible while electricity supplies lasted in order to get through the blackouts inside with only blankets.
“It’s part of a survival problem that [the blockade] creates,” Zohrabyan explained, adding that simply surviving had become an “everyday problem.”
There have also been multiple interruptions of the gas supply, prohibiting Zohrabyan from using her gas stove or accessing hot water, including a days-long interruption that had only been restored on Jan. 29.
Even when she can use her stove, Zohrabyan said all the grocery stores are mostly empty.
“We usually receive, like, 400 tonnes of essential goods daily, but now with this blockade, there’s nothing coming in,” she explained. “So we’re left without normal food like vegetables, fruits, flour, eggs, rice, sugar … even chocolate.”
The shelves at her local pharmacy are equally bare, Zohrabyan told The Hill Times, with shortages of everything from medications to diapers and baby food.
Due to the lack of necessary medications and hospital supplies, there have also been reported interruptions of urgent surgeries, putting patients’ lives at risk, with some having reportedly died waiting for transport into Armenia for treatment.
While the Red Cross has been able to move a few patients in dire conditions across the border, Zohrabyan said there were still “a lot of sick babies and people” awaiting treatment.
Not only was the blockade stopping supplies and medicine for the 120,000 people living in Nagorno-Karabakh, but it was also stopping some 1,100 Armenians, including 270 children, from reuniting with their families trapped behind it.
“There’s a humanitarian crisis, and it’s getting worse by the day,” Zohrabyan said, adding that with each passing day, the feelings of anger, worry, and panic have only grown stronger.
“We don’t have a guarantee of what’s going to happen tomorrow, or after tomorrow, or in one month … I can’t even guarantee that we’re gonna have electricity in one hour,” she explained. “It’s like we’re cut off from the whole world and we’re helpless … we don’t know what to do anymore.”
What Zohrabyan can do, however, is raise as much awareness of the realities faced by Armenians like herself with the hope it will spur governments of larger countries, like Canada, to help.
NDP MP Heather McPherson (Edmonton Strathcona, Alta.), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and her party’s critic, told The Hill Times that Canada should be using its diplomatic channels and its voice within the United Nations to put pressure on Azerbaijan to open the corridor.
“It needs to be opened up for humanitarian aid, food, and fuel … that’s international law,” McPherson said. “I think there is a role for Canada as a country that still has some of that … honest broker reputation, that we could play a bigger role to make sure that corridor is open.”
When asked what Canada was currently doing to enable a peaceful resolution, Global Affairs Canada said it is continuing to monitor the situation, and is calling for Azerbaijani authorities to reopen the corridor and ensure freedom of movement to avoid any potential humanitarian impact.
“Canada also calls on Armenia and Azerbaijan to continue negotiating to resolve issues through peaceful dialogue,” GAC spokesperson Jean-Pierre Godbout wrote in a statement to The Hill Times. “Lastly, Canada will continue to respond to humanitarian appeals for the Nagorno-Karabakh region.”
Still, Zohrabyan said more needs to be done than just asking Azerbaijan to stop the blockade.
“It’s a humanitarian crisis,” she reiterated. “We’re humans, and we’re struggling, so I would like Canada to be more active in this.”
Zohrabyan said that without more forceful action to open the Lachin corridor, Azerbaijan would continue to pursue what she said is President Ilham Aliyev’s goal of an “ethnic cleansing” of Armenians from the region, using the blockade to create panic and conditions so miserable that it forces them to leave for good.
‘False’ allegations meant to boost Armenian separatist groups: Azerbaijani network chair
In response, Network of Azerbaijani Canadians board chairman Anar Jahangirli said that Azerbaijan had “on numerous occasions” declared its willingness to embrace its Armenian citizens.
“There is no question … that there is an intent of ethnic cleansing is an overstatement and an exaggeration,” Jahangirli said in his testimony, arguing that Azerbaijan is advocating for “peace” and “the rules-based international order.”
“Territorial integrity of states [should be dealt with first], and then we can talk about minority rights,” Jahangirli continued.
In a written statement to The Hill Times, Jahangirli said the allegation the Lachin road was blocked for humanitarian and civilian access is false and is meant to justify the position of the separatist groups in “Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region.”
“While we have not seen one photograph or video demonstrating any physical closing of the road (i.e. barricades, persons blocking access), countless videos are being released by the Azerbaijani protesters, attesting to the open road,” Jahangirli wrote, noting that by Azerbaijani sources, “more than 1,000 trucks and vehicles had passed through the road,” between Dec. 12, 2022, and Jan. 24, an average of roughly 23 vehicles per day.
While Jahangirli said the protestors staging the blockade are environmental activists demanding a stop to “illegal gold mining” in the region, he said that one of the reasons Azerbaijan isn’t motivated to remove them is the allegation that the road is being used to smuggle landmines and weapons from the Republic of Armenia into Karabakh.
Artsakh State Minister Ruben Vardanyan, who spoke with The Hill Times via Zoom on Jan. 31, challenged Azerbaijan’s count of the number of vehicles being allowed to travel through the Lachin corridor, describing the flow of vehicles as “a few hundred” since Dec. 12, most of which belonged to Russian peacekeepers and the Red Cross bringing medicine and humanitarian aid.
“For comparison, before the blockade around 800-1,000 vehicles were entering Artsakh every day,” Vardanyan said, adding that the blockade had shut down more than just sufficient deliveries of medicine, fuel, electricity, or food.
“Our entire economy is shut down because we cannot bring any commercial vehicles, we cannot bring any resources or any materials for production or export any commodities that are produced here,” Vardanyan explained, adding that due to the shortages of fuel and electricity, schools have also been forced to close.
Vardanyan is calling on Canada and the international community to pressure Azerbaijan to reopen the corridor. In the meantime, he called for the creation of an “air corridor” to fly in supplies to the region, and for sanctions on the government of Azerbaijan.
“It is unacceptable in a winter to put 30,000 kids in a situation where they have no food, no education, and no electricity or gas,” Vardanyan added. “[Azerbaijan] needs to accept that there needs to be dialogue … this cannot be solved with a military solution or by squeezing 120,000 people from their own homeland in an ethnic cleansing.”