(Reuters) – Russia told Azerbaijan on Tuesday that a key road leading into the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh must be quickly cleared of protesters but Baku remained unmoved, according to differing accounts from the two sides.
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but home to a mainly Armenian population. The issue is becoming a major irritant for Russia, which wants to maintain good relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia, two small former Soviet states in the Caucasus region.
For the past month, Azeris claiming to be environmental activists have blocked transport along the Lachin Corridor, the only road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, in what Yerevan has called a government-endorsed blockade.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke to Azeri counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov and “stressed the need for a swift and complete unblocking of traffic through the Lachin Corridor”, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Bayramov dismissed what he called allegations of a roadblock and a humanitarian crisis in the enclave, saying dozens of cars and ambulances used the corridor every day, according to an Azeri statement cited by Russia’s Interfax news agency.
Baku says the protesters have legitimate concerns over illegal Armenian mining in the area.
“In this context, the need to fulfill the just demand of the protesters was noted,” said the Azeri statement.
Officials in Yerevan have grown increasingly angry at Russia – formally an ally through a mutual self defence treaty – for not doing more to end the blockade, especially since Russian peacekeepers are deployed in the corridor.
Russia blamed Armenia last week for a breakdown in bilateral peace talks with Azerbaijan.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Jonathan Oatis)