ArmInfo. In an interview with Meduza, Artsakh State Minister Ruben Vardanyan spoke about the present situation in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh).
Azerbaijan imposed a blockade on Nagorno-Karabakh on December 12, 2022. The Artsakh Cabinet was discussing the hard winter. "The very first Cabinet meeting I chaired after arriving last November discussed Azerbaijan's intention to spare no effort to expert pressure on the Artsakh population - to break the people's will and force them into agreeing to Azerbaijan-set terms [an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace agreement]," Mr Vardanyan said.
As a result of the blockade, Artsakh has run out of numerous products - from food to toilet paper, toothpaste and washing powder.
"The people are not fully aware that even during the Leningrad blockade, with numerous victims because of cold and starvation, at least meager supplied were brought in. In this sense, there is no total blockade. And we continue receiving aid from the Red Cross and from the Russian peacekeepers, and we are grateful to them. But their resources are limited. And this shortage causes rumors and people have a feeling of injustice. We have introduced coupons for those working to be sure they can purchase what is due to them," Mr Vardanyan said.
He also spoke of Azerbaijan's provocations hindering agricultural work in Artsakh. "Last autumn farmer were to gather harvest, and the Azerbaijani side started sniping to prevent their work. That was on regular basis, in defiance of the Russian peacekeepers' presence. And many land plots have remained mined since the end of the war. The situation is serious, we lack equipment and have not yet restored much since the war," he said.
Mr Vardanyan also confirmed several deaths as a result of the Azerbaijan-imposed blockade. "Some of them needed transportation by air. Formerly, the Russian peacekeepers could transport such patients to Yerevan by helicopter, but Azerbaijan banned the use of helicopters. We tried to transport some of the patients by car, but we could not do that for all of them, so we have tragedies," he said.
Up to ten people died though they might have been saved.
As regards the gas supply to Artsakh, Mr Vardanyan stressed Azerbaijan's cynical conduct - they now turn it on and now turn it off.
"We cannot supply gas to all the households and part of our population has to switch off their water- heaters. Azerbaijan has disrupted electricity supply to Artsakh as well. But we can use the Sarsang Reservoir. Ambulance cars are using the government's fuel reserves," he said.
As regards the restrictions on free movement, Mr Vardanyan said the martial law implies rules.
"There is a threat of provocations by the so-called Azerbaijani ecoactivists. But we have no restrictions on freedom of speech - rallies, including opposition one, are taking place in Artsakh. They are sometimes unacceptable to me - some opposition members may use very strong language. However, they can speak up, and no one is disbanding them," Mr Vardanyan said.
As to whether the big Russian-Armenian businessmen - Samvel Karapetyan, Sergey Hambartsumyan, the Sargisov brothers - are assisting Artsakh in any way, Mr Vardanyan said that Samvel Karapetyan is helping to deal with the energy crisis: his team at Artsakhenergo are working hard.
"It is a very problematic area now because the blockade does not allow abundant supplies. But we are all in contact with one another," he said.
In this context he stressed that only one road - the Lachin corridor - is a link between the Nagorno- Karabakh Republic (NKR) and Armenia.
"This road runs by Shushi [under Azerbaijan's full control since the end of the 2020 war]. An Armenian roadblock is located near Shushi, with Russian peacekeepers deployed farther [to control the Lachin corridor]. Even farther the Azerbaijani 'ecoactivists' enforced a blockade. On December 12, they lined up along the road in front of the Russian peacekeepers and blocked the traffic. I do not know if you are informed of how the blockade was enforced. At first, an Azerbaijani ambulance car appeared on the road - they are allowed to travel in both directions. But it was followed by a crowd of Azerbaijanis, who made use of the corridor and put up their tents round the ambulance car," Mr Vardanyan said.
During the first month of the blockade, about 370 vehicles of the Russian peacekeepers passed through the corridor, whereas 800 to 900 vehicles a day passed through it before the blockade.
"There was one more disagreeable situation. Before the blockade, many Artsakh children, gifted children, went to Yerevan to see the finals of the Junior Eurovision Contest. And they were without their parents on the New Year's eve. On January 18, some of them were brought here. The Russian peacekeepers arranged for them to be allowed to go home. But the Azerbaijani entered the bus, inspected all the children and exerted psychological pressure on them. I am sure the children - they are aged 12, 13, 14 - will remember that stress forever," Mr Vardanyan said.
As to whether the people blocking the road include members of Azerbaijan's ruling party and reservists, Mr Vardanyan said that the "ecoactivists" even include university students, who are "rewarded" with credits they would not otherwise get. "But special service agents and even members of the Grey Wolves are among them as well."
As regards Azerbaijan's claims about the mine exploration in Artsakh, Mr Vardanyan said that the mines have actually been explored for decades - since the Soviet times. Thereafter, a private company [Base Metals, a daughter company of Vallex Group] made huge investments in the mines.
"When Azerbaijan made its first claims about monitoring, it turned our that the trip of the 'ecoactivists' was organized in a rough-and-ready fashion. That caused a protest by the locals [the residents and the miners, who blocked the crossroads of the Drmbon village on December 10].
"But then, we and the managers of the Base Metals company said: 'You are welcome. Let only experts come. We do not consider Azerbaijani environmentalists - who are hardly protecting their own environment - competent enough to assess our environment.'
"We addressed a letter to Russian peacekeepers and stated our readiness to provide access to the monitoring group. But we demanded unblocking of the road and proper process in exchange. And we have not received their response so far. And now we are hearing our neighbors' formal claims that the 'waste water could damage the agricultural lands' and so on. And our simple response is: 'let us organize an international expert examination of both this mine and of other mines in the region, instead of resorting to provocations over what you are not experts in.
"Questions about the 'environmental aspects' make me laugh. And how many environmental protests have taken place in Azerbaijan over the last 20 years? Double standards - absolutely! Some of them are applied to a small democratic republic, while the others to the authoritarian Azerbaijani sultanate," Mr Vardanyan said.