Ecological activists and members of non-governmental organizations from Azerbaijan staged peaceful protests in the country's Karabakh region on Monday to demand that temporary Russian peacekeepers prevent illegal exploitation of Azerbaijan’s natural resources in the region.
The protests came in response to the illegal intervention of ethnic Armenians, which prevented ecological monitoring in the region, and the negligence of the Russian peacekeepers to take preventive measures. The monitoring should have been carried out based on an agreement reached between the Azerbaijani side and the peacekeeping command earlier last week.
The protesters installed tents near the city of Shusha on the Lachin highway which connects ethnic Armenians living in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan with Armenia. They demand the peacekeeping mission’s commander General Andrei Volkov come out and explain why peacekeepers could not prevent ecological crimes. They vowed not to leave the scene until Volkov appears on the site.
Meanwhile, the armed Russian peacekeepers called for additional military equipment and personnel to strengthen the checkpoints along the road.
A quarrel between the members of the peacekeeping mission and Azerbaijani journalists took place during the protests. A high-ranking official from the peacekeeping command requested the reporters to leave the area, which prompted a backlash from the journalists who said they were on the territory of Azerbaijan and should not leave until the demand of the protesters was considered. The peacekeepers were also said to have damaged a car belonging to the Baku-based Report news agency while attempting to block their coverage of the protests.
Azerbaijani authorities have been calling for more efficient control over the Lachin highway by the Russian peacekeeping contingent. The demands followed the illegal transportation of minerals from the Azerbaijani territories temporarily monitored by the Russian peacekeepers to Armenia via the Lachin road. Baku-based Caliber.Az news agency has recently reported that eight Kamaz trucks accompanied by a Nissan Patrol SUV with an Armenian license number 731 - AB - 61 ER, made their way from the Khankendi city of Azerbaijan to Armenia between November 10 and November 14. Moreover, on November 16-18, identical vehicles were seen along the Lachin road from Armenia to Khankendi.
According to operational data, raw materials extracted at the gold mines near the village of Gulyatagh of the former Aghdara (current Tartar) region of Azerbaijan, located in the zone of temporary responsibility of the Russian peacekeepers, have been transported on these Kamaz trucks. The materials were moved by the Base Metals company, a subsidiary of Vallex Group Company based in Switzerland, which engaged in the looting of precious metals in Kalbajar, Zangilan and Aghdara during the occupation and currently in the area where Russian peacekeepers are stationed.
Following the incident, the Ecology and Natural Resources Ministry of Azerbaijan dispatched a group of experts to the Lachin highway to monitor the situation on the ground and demand that Russian peacekeepers stop illegal shipments via the highway. Hours-long talks between the sides at the headquarters of the peacekeeping command in Khankendi ended on December 4 with an agreement permitting a group of experts from Azerbaijan to investigate and monitor the illegal exploitation of minerals in the Azerbaijani territories and ecological consequences of these activities.
However, the experts were not allowed to start the monitoring process last week after they were blocked by ethnic Armenians living in the parts of the Karabakh region temporarily overseen by the peacekeepers. Despite the scandal, the peacekeepers did not take any preventive measures to urge Armenians to stop their illegal intervention, as a result, the ecological monitoring by the Azerbaijani experts was suspended.
Russian peacekeepers have been stationed in certain parts of Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region since November 2020, when a 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended in a tripartite statement.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at odds since the late 1980s with the dramatic rise in anti-Azerbaijan sentiments in Armenia, which were fueled by Armenia's illegal claims for Azerbaijan's historic Karabakh (Garabagh) region. Following the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, Armenia launched a full-blown military aggression against Azerbaijan. The bloody war until a ceasefire in 1994 saw Armenia occupying 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territories. Over 30,000 Azerbaijanis were killed, and one million others were expelled from those lands in a brutal ethnic cleansing policy conducted by Armenia.
The conflict in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan took a violent turn on September 27, 2020, after Armenia's forces deployed in the occupied Azerbaijani lands started shelling the military positions and civilian settlements of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani army took immediate counter-offensive measures to push back Armenia's attack. Azerbaijani army liberated over 300 settlements, including the cities of Jabrayil, Fuzuli, Zangilan, Gubadli, and Shusha, from a nearly 30-year-long illegal Armenian occupation. The war ended in a tripartite statement signed on November 10, 2020, by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. Under the statement, Armenia also returned the occupied Aghdam, Kalbajar, and Lachin districts to Azerbaijan, all of which are internationally recognized territories of Azerbaijan.
Under the tripartite agreement, a Russian peacekeeping mission was deployed in certain parts of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan for five years. A 5-kilometer-wide Lachin corridor, including the city of Lachin and two surrounding villages, also remained in the temporary monitoring zone of the Russian peacekeepers. The city of Lachin and two surrounding villages were due to return to Azerbaijan’s control after a new highway came into operation, connecting ethnic Armenians settled in Azerbaijan's Karabakh region with Armenia.
In August of this year, Azerbaijan completed the construction of the all-new road and eventually put it into operation. Following the launch of the new route, in August 2022, Azerbaijan reclaimed control over the city of Lachin and two surrounding villages to ultimately restore its sovereignty over the entire Lachin district.
However, numerous reports have surfaced about illegal shipments and visitors passing through the Lachin highway, which are meant to be prevented by the Russian peacekeepers.