By Lillian Avedian, The Armenian Weekly
Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan has announced that Prosecutor General Gurgen Nersisyan will replace Ruben Vardanyan as State Minister.
Harutyunyan announced Vardanyan’s removal in a televised address on February 23.
“I am grateful to Mr. Vardanyan for the fact that, in both friendship and professional relations, he always tried to share responsibilities with me to the maximum extent and did not try to put [pressure] on me by citing constitutional norms,” Harutyunyan said.
In the week following Vardanyan’s dismissal, official representatives from Artsakh and Azerbaijan held two meetings. The meetings, held on February 25 and March 1, were the first since the start of Azerbaijan’s blockade of Artsakh.
On March 1, Lusine Avanesyan, spokesperson for the Artsakh president, said that the representatives discussed “humanitarian and infrastructural issues.” Specifically, they addressed the restoration of movement along the Lachin Corridor and electricity and gas supply from Armenia to Artsakh.
The Azerbaijani side said that the representatives discussed the “reintegration of Armenian residents living in the Karabakh region into the Republic of Azerbaijan.” They said that the head of the committee investigating illegal mining in Artsakh attended the meeting. They did not mention the lifting of the blockade of Artsakh.
President Harutyunyan ruled out “any integration process with Azerbaijan” during a cabinet meeting on March 1 announcing Nersisyan’s appointment. “However, this does not mean that we will avoid contacts to solve problems of an infrastructural and humanitarian nature,” he said.
Azerbaijani authorities had been critical of Vardanyan’s appointment as State Minister, accusing him of having been exported from Russia to Artsakh to serve Russian interests. On February 18, just days before Vardanyan’s dismissal, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said that Azerbaijan would refuse to negotiate with Artsakh officials as long as Vardanyan was in power.
Aliyev said that Azerbaijan was ready to “start practical communications with representatives of the Armenian community in Karabakh.” “But we can do it only when the Russian citizen-criminal oligarch, a person involved in money laundering in Europe, Vardanyan, is out of our territory,” Aliyev told reporters on February 18 on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.
Harutyunyan denied that he dismissed Vardanyan to fulfill Aliyev’s request. “No one can feel more pained by this decision than I do,” Harutyunyan said. Harutyunyan did not give a clear reason for dismissing Vardanyan. He said that he and Vardanyan shared strategic differences on internal and external issues.
Vardanyan held the position of State Minister for just three months following his appointment by Harutyunyan in November 2022. The Russian Armenian billionaire renounced his Russian citizenship last September and moved to Artsakh.
The powers of the state minister’s office expanded significantly during Vardanyan’s brief tenure. Vardanyan launched an operational headquarters to manage the state response to the blockade of Artsakh.
Since his dismissal, Vardanyan has said that he will continue to live in Artsakh and pursue humanitarian initiatives.
These leadership changes are taking place amid Azerbaijan’s ongoing blockade of Artsakh, which surpassed 80 days this week. A group of Azerbaijanis claiming to be eco-activists protesting illegal mining in Artsakh has closed the Lachin Corridor, the sole route connecting Artsakh and Armenia, since December 12. Artsakh is facing a humanitarian crisis, as imports of food and medicine from Armenia have come to a halt. Gas and electricity supplies from Armenia to Artsakh have also been periodically disrupted since the start of the blockade, which Artsakh authorities blame on Azerbaijan.
Hospitals in Artsakh have temporarily suspended treatments due to the blockade. At least 750 people are awaiting medical treatment. A number of illnesses have increased in Artsakh since the start of the blockade, including a 58-percent increase in heart disease, a 36-percent increase in strokes, and an 11-percent increase in childbirth complications, according to official data.
On February 22, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Azerbaijan must “take all measures at its disposal to ensure unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles and cargo along the Lachin Corridor in both directions.”
“The disruption on the Lachin Corridor has impeded the transfer of persons of Armenian national or ethnic origin hospitalized in Nagorno-Karabakh to medical facilities in Armenia for urgent medical care. 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 United Nations court said.
Under the trilateral ceasefire agreement ending the 2020 Artsakh War, Azerbaijan “guarantees traffic safety along the Lachin Corridor of citizens, vehicles and goods in both directions.”
Azerbaijani authorities denied that the ICJ had ruled that the Lachin Corridor is closed. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said that the ICJ had not determined that the government of Azerbaijan is responsible for the closure of the corridor.
While speaking with reporters in Munich, Aliyev also proposed the establishment of checkpoints along the Lachin Corridor.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov ruled out the creation of checkpoints along the Lachin Corridor while speaking with reporters on February 28. He said that the corridor must operate in compliance with the trilateral ceasefire ending the 2020 Artsakh War, “which means the need to ensure free movement for exclusively civilian and humanitarian cargo and civilians.”
However, Lavrov said it may be “possible to use technical means to remove the existing suspicions that the corridor is really used for its intended purpose.”
In the weeks before closing the Lachin Corridor, Azerbaijani authorities accused Armenia of using the route to illegally transport mines. Last week, the ICJ rejected a request from Azerbaijan for provisional measures ordering Armenia to stop using the Lachin Corridor for this purpose.