Azerbaijan arrests Russian-Armenian billionaire who fled Nagorno-Karabakh

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Russian-Armenian billionaire Rubin Vardanian, who briefly held a top political post in the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh state, was arrested as he tried to leave the breakaway enclave after Azerbaijan took control of the territory. has been taken.

The former banking executive, who has ties to relatives and politicians but defected to Karabakh last year, was arrested by Azerbaijan’s security services as he was leaving the mountainous region with thousands of refugees.

“My husband . . . has been arrested and imprisoned by Azerbaijani authorities at the border as he tried to join thousands of Armenians fleeing Azerbaijani occupation this morning,” Veronika Zonaband said Wednesday.

Azerbaijani forces captured a fragmented Armenian region internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan in a brief but decisive battle last week that ended a decades-long conflict and 120,000 ethnic Armenians began to migrate.

The clashes followed a 10-month Azerbaijani blockade of the region’s only road to Armenia, leaving residents struggling to access food and medicine. During that time, Vardanyan, who served as state minister of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh for four months until February of this year, stayed inside the small enclave.

Since last week’s 24-hour offensive and the swift surrender of Karabakh, Baku has been moving to absorb the region, which it first lost in a war with Armenia in the early 1990s, and authorities has offered its residents Azerbaijan citizenship.

Over the past four days, more than 50,000 people have fled to Armenia through border posts set up by Azerbaijan during the blockade. Most have gotten out with ease, but fears remain that border guards are searching for and detaining members of Karabakh’s elite.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev last week branded the Karabakh elite a “criminal junta” and said those guilty of war crimes would be “brought to justice”. He said: “Armenian nationalists, war criminals, and the so-called leaders of Armenia and Karabakh [local] He took people hostage and poisoned their minds.

A spokesman for a ministry in the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh government, which no longer exists as an entity since last week’s surrender, said most of its leaders remained inside the enclave.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said on Wednesday that Moscow was ready to defend Vardanyan’s rights if he was still a Russian citizen, but added that if the oligarch renounced his Russian passport There will be “another matter”.

Vardanyan’s spokesman confirmed that the businessman was a citizen of Armenia but not of Russia. Vardanyan gave up his Russian passport and arrived in Nagorno-Karabakh shortly before the blockade began last year. In November, he was appointed as its first minister.

Vardanian immediately angered Azerbaijan, which called him a “foreign element”, amid suspicions that he was a secret emissary for Russia, the traditional power broker in the Caucasus region.

The billionaire’s move to Nagorno-Karabakh, however, was part of plans to burnish his influence in Armenian politics, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Armenia was ruled mostly by members of the Karabakh tribe before current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan took power in a velvet revolution in 2018 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Within months of Vardanyan’s appointment as state minister, Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto president fired him — the result, according to two people, of the billionaire’s failed attempt to seize power in a coup. Vardanians remained trapped in the enclave as food and medicine became increasingly scarce.

“Rubin stood by the people of Artsakh during the 10-month blockade and stood by them in their struggle for survival. I ask for your prayers,” his wife said.

A spokesman for the ministry said that there has been no contact with Vardanian since Tuesday.

Azerbaijan’s border service said Vardanyan was “detained at the Lachin exit point on the state border”.

He was brought to Baku, and “has been handed over to the relevant state authorities,” the agency added.

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