Every day since December 12, 25-year-old Davit Gabrielyan has been fighting for his business.
Gabrielyan, a marketing specialist and small business owner, is from Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh).
His family-owned business, Nakhshun Tea, prepares and sells teas made from herbs native to the region. Gabrielyan says. "There was only one such company in Artsakh, and it is focused mostly on exports. We decided to create our herbal teas, started branding, and today we have a popular brand."
The businesses were thriving until December 12, 2022, when the only road connecting Karabakh to Armenia was blocked by a group of Azerbaijani environmental activists who are generally seen as supported by the Azerbaijan government.
Karabakh is a contested territory that Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars over, most recently in 2020. The blockade, which official Baku denies causing, effectively cut residents off from Armenia, which is Karabakha’s main source of trade and goods. The closure has been widely condemned by the international community--on February 22, the UN International Court of Justice ordered Azerbaijan to “ensure unimpeded movement” through the area. But no progress has been made on the ground.
In the meantime, the estimated 100,000 people trapped in Karabakh and businesses like Nakhshun Tea, are suffering.
Gabrielyan says the business lost most of its contracts and clients nearly overnight.
"We have temporarily stopped cooperation with about 80 percent of our customers in Artsakh, until we understand what will happen in the future. percent includes our clients in Artsakh who continue to make purchases."
Orders to clients abroad have been put on hold indefinitely. “Currently we have an order from the US for 200 boxes of tea but we can't proceed with delivery because of the situation,” he says.
While the Karabakh authorities have provided some aid for people who lost their jobs or livelihoods due to the blockade, not all businesses have received support.
To fill the gap, organizations like the Artsakh Social Development Program Fund are trying to support small businesses and entrepreneurs who have been affected. Sofya Hovsepyan, director of the fund, notes some of the businesses were just getting started with the blockade hit.
"There is mushroom production, for which we bought bags that were supposed to be brought from Armenia to Artsakh on December 15, but we could not bring them. The other is the chocolate business, for which there is a problem of raw materials. There is also the problem of bringing some printing materials from Armenia. We had a serious problem with rabbit farming, because the feed ran out and the animals had health problems," she says.
"We cooperate with the Buy Armenian platform, through which products produced in Artsakh had been entering the international market. But those products, which are people's small businesses, can no longer be sold on the online market, and may depend now on local consumption—or may not [have any clients any more].”
The fund, which is based in Armenia, is also trying to help families and children affected by the blockade.
The biggest issue, however, according to Gabrielyan, is what happens next. He and his family are surviving off of the vegetables they grow on their own land, and he is still working remotely as the head of marketing for a company based in the Armenian capital and has other businesses that he is trying to maintain. But uncertainty and the difficult conditions are taking a toll.
"Now there is only one question in the mind of every Artsakh resident: what will happen next?" You don't know what will happen tomorrow if you take a risk. You cannot run away from the situation. There are queues everywhere, a tense situation, people who stand in line for basic bread, eggs, sour cream in the middle of winter in order to have food everyday,” he says.
“The electricity is only on for a few hours a day, the natural gas comes and goes. We live in an incomprehensible situation. It seems we have returned to the dark and cold years."
*This report was prepared before Azerbaijan’s April 28 claim that the blockade is over. Armenia has denied reports that traffic has resumed on the contested pass.
This feature story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES.