By Andrew Roth and Pjotr Sauer
Ruben Vardanyan flanked by Azerbaijani officers after being arrested. Authorities said he had been taken to Baku after illegally entering the country. Photograph: State Border Service Of Azerbaijan/EPA
Azerbaijan has detained a former leader of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh government in its first high profile arrest since launching a lightning offensive last week that it said would lead to a “reintegration” of the territory into Azerbaijan.
Ruben Vardanyan, a wealthy businessman who had served as the state minister of the Nagorno-Karabakh republic, was detained as he tried to cross the border into Armenia on Wednesday morning, as one of more than 50,000 Armenians who have fled the region to avoid incoming Azerbaijani control.
Vardanyan made his fortune in investment banking in Russia before moving to the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh republic in 2022, where he was appointed state minister. He was dismissed in February 2023, but remained a prominent figure in the region, which many Armenians call Artsakh.
In an interview with the Guardian last week before his arrest, he said that he knew he would be a target for Azerbaijani forces when the war started last week.
“It’s life,” he said. “If you are ready to die for your country, then it’s ok. It’s bad but something you have to be ready for if you’re doing something important... the end of the story can be very bad. And I was ready for it the first day, I knew it.”
As Azerbaijani forces have moved into villages and towns, more than 40% of the population of Karabakh have evacuated in just over 72 hours.
Azerbaijani troops entered the town of Martakert, the first major settlement that has been occupied since the offensive began. It appeared that most of the population had fled before the troops arrived, who filmed themselves in front of the local government administration and declared: “Karabakh is Azerbaijan!”
Vardanyan had accused Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, of launching a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and had called for sanctions against Azerbaijan.
His wife, Veronika Zonabend, confirmed his arrest in a statement. “My husband, Ruben Vardanyan, the philanthropist, businessman and former minister of state of Artsakh, has been arrested and held captive by the Azerbaijani authorities at the border as he attempted to leave this morning, along with thousands of Armenians escaping Azerbaijani occupation,” she said.
“Ruben stood with the Arsakh people during the 10-month blockade and suffered along with them in the struggle for survival. I ask for your prayers and support to ensure my husband’s safe release.”
A photo released by the Azerbaijani government showed Vardanyan under arrest flanked by two Azerbaijani officers in camouflage at an airfield. Azerbaijan said Vardanyan had illegally entered its territory, which is internationally recognised as including Nagorno-Karabakh, and had been taken to Baku. The Azerbaijani government had previously said it intended to arrest Vardanyan, though the charges against him on Wednesday were not made public.
Zonabend told the Guardian she found out about her husband’s arrest from media reports and called the images of it “just awful”. “He left a message yesterday evening to say that he was safe but I did not know his exact plans,” she said. “Since the 19th of September he had been calling to say that he is alive.”
“He came to Karabakh because he wanted the best for his nation, his people,” Zonabend said. “That he stayed so long shows what sort of man and politician he is. I hope the international community will help. I pray for it.”
Azerbaijani forces often photograph and interrogate men crossing the border from Karabakh into Armenia, although Vardanyan’s arrest was the first publicly known arrest since the exodus of refugees into Armenia began last week.
Azerbaijani troops, who had blockaded the Nagorno-Karabakh territory for 10 months and still maintain checkpoints along roads into Armenia, arrested three young men in August for allegedly stepping on an Azerbaijani flag during a football match.
Baku’s search for “terrorists” in the territory has many men of military age concerned they could be arrested if they try to leave.
One teenage boy said he and six other men were led away by Azerbaijani forces and interrogated upon leaving Nagorno-Karabakh, but declined to say what he was asked. Another Karabakh man who had fought against Azerbaijani forces told the Guardian he had burned his documents before crossing the border in order to avoid being identified as a potential security threat.
“Men are worried,” said Siranush Sargsyan, a freelance journalist from Stepanakert. “Every man. All they have is the fear that they will be checked [at the border]. They know that there is some kind of list, they want to kidnap them or arrest them, and every man has this fear.”
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