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Russian-Armenian billionaire Ruben Vardanyan, who briefly held a top political job in the self-proclaimed state of Nagorno-Karabakh, has been arrested while attempting to leave the breakaway enclave, after Azerbaijan seized control of the region.
The former banking executive, who has ties to Russian oligarchs and politicians but moved to Karabakh last year, was arrested by Azerbaijani security services as he was making his way out of the mountainous region alongside thousands of refugees.
“My husband . . . 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,” Veronika Zonabend said on Wednesday.
Azerbaijani forces seized the region — a breakaway Armenian enclave which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan — last week in a short but decisive battle that ended a decades-long conflict and triggered an exodus of its 120,000 ethnic Armenian residents.
The clashes followed a 10-month Azerbaijani blockade of the only road linking the region with Armenia, leaving residents struggling to source food and medicine. During this time, Vardanyan, who served for four months as state minister of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh until February this year, remained inside the tiny enclave.
Since the 24-hour assault last week and Karabakh’s swift surrender, Baku has been moving to absorb the region, which it first lost to Armenia in a war in the early 1990s, and officials have offered Azerbaijani citizenship to its residents.
More than 50,000 people have fled to Armenia in the past four days, exiting through a border checkpoint set up by Azerbaijan during the blockade. Most have exited with ease, but fears remain widespread that border guards are seeking out and could detain members of Karabakh’s elite.
Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev last week described the Karabakh elite as a “criminal junta” and said those who had committed war crimes would be “brought to justice”. He said: “Armenian nationalists, war criminals, and the so-called leaders of Armenia and Karabakh, took [local] people hostage and poisoned their brains.”
A spokesperson for a ministry of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh government, which no longer exists as an entity since the surrender last week, said most of its leaders remained inside the enclave.
Dmitry Peskov, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, said on Wednesday that Moscow was prepared to defend Vardanyan’s rights if he were still a Russian citizen, but added it would be “another matter” if the oligarch had given up his Russian passport.
A spokesperson for Vardanyan confirmed that the businessman was a citizen of Armenia but not of Russia. Vardanyan relinquished his Russian passport and arrived in Nagorno-Karabakh shortly before the blockade began last year. In November, he was appointed its first minister.
Vardanyan quickly infuriated Azerbaijan, which called him a “foreign element” amid suspicions he was a secret emissary for Russia, the Caucasus region’s traditional power broker.
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 largely ruled by members of a Karabakh clan in the first decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse before current prime minister Nikol Pashinyan swept to office in a velvet revolution in 2018.
Within a few months of Vardanyan’s appointment as state minister, Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto president dismissed him — the result, according to two of the people, of the billionaire’s failed attempt to seize power in a coup. Vardanyan remained trapped in the enclave as food and medicine grew increasingly scarce.
“Ruben stood with the people of Artsakh, during the 10-month blockade and suffered with them in the struggle for survival. I ask for your prayers,” his wife said.
The ministry spokesperson said there had been no contact with Vardanyan since Tuesday.
Azerbaijan’s border service said Vardanyan was “detained at the Lachin exit point on the state border”.
“He was brought to Baku,” the agency added, and “has been handed over to the relevant state authorities”.
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