Top Nagorno-Karabakh official sacked as blockade approaches fourth month

CIS summit in Saint Petersburg

By Felix Light

TBILISI (Reuters) - The head of Nagorno-Karabakh's separatist government, Ruben Vardanyan, was removed from office on Thursday, Armenian state news agency Armenpress reported, almost three months into an Azerbaijani blockade of the enclave.

It gave no reason for Vardanyan's dismissal, but the billionaire banker, appointed only in November, had clashed with Armenia's prime minister over the role of Russian peacekeepers in the region. Vardanyan had also been criticised by Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but its 120,000 inhabitants are predominantly ethnic Armenians and it broke away from Baku in a war in the early 1990s.

Azerbaijan regained much of its lost territory in a six-week conflict in 2020 in which thousands of people were killed. The fighting was ended by a Russia-brokered truce and the dispatch of Russian peacekeepers to the region.

Last December, Azerbaijani civilians identifying themselves as environmental activists began blocking the Lachin corridor, the only remaining road connecting the territory to Armenia.

Separatist officials have repeatedly warned of a humanitarian disaster unless the road is opened, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has repeatedly criticised Russia for not doing more to lift the blockade.

In January, Vardayan said that "futile" criticism of Moscow's peacekeepers only helped Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan, for its part, has repeatedly described Vardanyan as an obstacle to peace talks.

At the recent Munich Security Conference, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said Baku was ready to speak to Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenian population, provided Vardanyan depart the enclave.

Pashinyan said earlier this month that he had sent Baku a draft of a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In a statement announcing Vardanyan's dismissal, Nagorno-Karabakh's 'president', Arayik Harutyunyan, praised the minister's contribution to the territory's government without giving a reason for the sacking.

He named Prosecutor General Gurgen Nersisyan as Vardanyan's replacement.

Vardanyan had previously been a Russian citizen. President Vladimir Putin granted Vardanyan's request to be stripped of his Russian passport in a decree published in December.

(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Gareth Jones)