Fernando Novo Lens
Expert in water management, environmental sustainability and circular economy
he Joint Declaration of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia and the President of the Russian Federation, on 9 November 2020, put an end to 44 days of confrontation over the control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, with an approximate death toll of 6,500 people.
The Declaration stipulated that Azerbaijan regained the Nagorno-Karabakh area and Armenia withdrew from the occupied areas and, among other things, stipulated that, within three years, the two countries should agree on a plan to build a new route in the Lachin corridor that would allow for the regular and sustained movement of people and goods.
Finally, in October 2022, thanks to international mediation, a ceasefire was again agreed. On this occasion, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed their commitment and recognition of each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev also stated that the Armenian people, as well as Azerbaijanis, could feel safe in the territories of Azerbaijan.
But this integrity and sovereignty will not be complete in terms of sustainable development as long as it is not applied and enforced in all the territories of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and here we refer to the worrying situation regarding respect for human rights that the European NGO “Freedom of Conscience” has denounced in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
This NGO, which was founded in 1995 and has consultative status with the United Nations, promotes the elimination of all forms of human rights discrimination based on religion or belief. And following this line of work, the NGO denounced, last December 2022, the attacks on a resident of the town of Stepanakert (in Azerbaijani, Khankendí) for the simple fact of having announced on his Facebook account a peaceful demonstration against the management of the “administration of Nagorno Karabakh”, in particular to question the policy of confrontation that seems to have been chosen by Ruben Vardanyan, recently appointed “Minister of State of Nagorno Karabakh”. Mr. Vardanyan is an Armenian-Russian billionaire who made his fortune from his financial dealings and who maintains close relations with the top Russian oligarchs.
This (or any other) kind of mistreatment of the population sounds, by all accounts, incongruent with the Azerbaijan-Armenia peace agreement project that promulgates peaceful coexistence and mutual respect as tools for enjoying a lasting and sustainable peace. The recent “settling” of businessman Ruben Vardanyan in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, and his rejection of his Russian citizenship, does not seem to have changed one iota the policy of continued illegal exploitation of Azerbaijan’s natural resources, and instead acts aimed at destabilisation have intensified.
And if we are talking about environmental sustainability in the territory of Karabakh, we cannot fail to mention the extensive environmental damage being caused in the region by the Vallex Group companies in connection with the exploitation of a gold deposit and copper mines.
Indeed, the international community is concerned that in early December 2022, Vardanyan rejected the Azerbaijani government’s request for environmental monitoring of the gold deposit and copper mines operated in Karabakh by Vallex Group companies. Also, the Nagorno-Karabakh government has prevented environmental experts from visiting the site of the copper mine operated by the Vallex group of companies.
The Vallex group is an Armenian copper mining monopoly that some sources link closely to former Armenian President Serj Sarkissian, which has mined in Karabakh during the Armenian occupation and continues to do so today around Khankendi, despite the fact that this region is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory. This group is made up of numerous industrial groups that are reported to have been associated with Armenian military groups that participated in the wars against Azerbaijan and took advantage of the occupation to enrich themselves.
In addition, the company Base Metals, a member of the Vallex Group (owned by Russian-Armenian businessman Valeri Mejlumyan), and the NGO CAP Freedom of Conscience accuse Vallex of “hiding” behind the protection of VTB Bank, one of Russia’s leading banks and owned by Russian oligarch Andrey Leonidovich Kostin, who has been sanctioned by the EU for involvement in financing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He has previously been sanctioned by the US (2018) and Canada (2019).
In these circumstances, the Lachin road has been misused by Vallex to carry out illicit trafficking of minerals and other resources from the territories of Azerbaijan, the area of deployment of the Russian peacekeeping contingent. In fact, of the 151 mineral deposits identified in these territories prior to the occupation, 52 sites were first exploited in the period between 1993 and 2020. Apart from being illegal, this activity causes serious damage to the environment, polluting the area and destroying the fragile ecosystem. This environmental damage consists, among other dramatic effects on the environment and the populations living there, of groundwater contamination, deforestation on a significant scale and pollution of the river whose course is the vital source of water for irrigation and to feed a reservoir that supplies water to the region.
In response to this serious damage to the ecosystem, a group of Azerbaijani eco-activists have been blockading the Lachin corridor for over a month in protest against the illegal development of the Kashen and Drombon mines, the exploitation rights to which were transferred to the British company Anglo Asian Mining (which operates gold, silver and copper mines) in July last year.
Armenia has interpreted the eco-protest as a destabilisation action, initiated by Azerbaijan. However, videos shared on social media confirm the unimpeded passage of different types of vehicles, including ambulances and humanitarian convoys. There is also no impediment to the delivery of goods.
The Vallex Group should work to prevent the enormous environmental damage that its lucrative activity is infringing in this area, as well as respecting the human rights of those who work and live there. This is perfectly possible, not only because its top executives, Valeriy Mellumyan and Artur Mkrtumyan, have the capacity and power to do so, but also because financially (between 1999 and 2017, the Vallex Group made a profit of $177.5 million from its precious metal mining in the Nagorno-Karabakh area).
Industrial profits should be perfectly compatible with sustainable development, with care for the environment, and such actions that degrade environmental scenarios and undermine people’s dignity do not seem to be the right policy if we want to have sustainable development in all aspects, as well as to bring the Nagorno-Karabakh region to higher levels of social growth.
Therefore, it would be a great start if, in order to achieve a welfare state, the newly appointed State Minister of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), Ruben Vardanyan, just as he has received various awards for his performance as a businessman and has done philanthropic work supporting Museums, National Orchestras or carried out reconstruction of Churches, would take an interest in these issues of human rights and the environment that are bringing such tragic consequences to the area where he governs. Create ties of cooperation and understanding with the legitimate government of Azerbaijan, end the blockade of the region, work to restore environmental damage and its future consequences for generations to come.
Azerbaijan and Armenia can be united by the will of their people to develop and by the opportunity to seize the opportunities presented to them in terms of sustainability, in its various implications. This sustainability, embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, can lead both countries (their starting situations are different but the potential for growth in both cases is clear), each in its own way, to achieve economic, environmental and social development, a development with all the respect for human rights and dignity that every person deserves in our “common home”.
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