The launch of first commercial flights to and from Nagorno-Karabakh in two decades appears to have been postponed indefinitely despite the virtual completion of reconstruction work on the disputed territory’s sole airport.
The authorities in Stepanakert now refuse to announce any dates for the official reopening of the newly rebuilt facility located 8 kilometers east of the Karabakh capital.
As its $3 million reconstruction nearly completion early this year, some Karabakh officials announced that the airport will reopen its doors on May 9 for an inaugural flight from Yerevan.
Azerbaijan condemned these plans as illegal and threatened to shoot down aircraft entering Karabakh without its permission. The governments of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) and Armenia dismissed these threats, saying that the airport will be inaugurated as planned. President Serzh Sarkisian said in late March that he himself will board the first Yerevan-Stepanakert flight since 1991.
The Azerbaijani threats were also denounced by the United States and other foreign powers trying to broker a peaceful solution to the Karabakh dispute. Baku appeared to back away from them in early April, with an Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman saying that it “did not and will not use force against civil facilities.”
Still, the U.S., Russian and French mediators co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group warned later in April that the airport reopening “could lead to further increased tensions” in the conflict zone.
NKR officials have since claimed that air communication between Karabakh and Armenia was never scheduled to resume on May 9. They have also pointedly declined to clarify when the flight service will be launched.
“I find it difficult to answer that question,” the airport director, Artur Karapetian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Friday. “We don’t set dates, we just work.”
Karapetian confirmed that the small airport’s new terminal has already been fully constructed, furnished and equipped with navigation devices. But he said “some construction work” still needs to be done on its runway.
In a January interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service, the head of Karabakh’s civil aviation authority, Dmitry Atbashian, said that the planned flights will be carried out by three Canadian-made CRJ200 passenger jets. He said two of them will be delivered to Karabakh by the end of April.
Karapetian said, however, that the Karabakh Armenian leadership has still not purchased any civil aircraft. “As yet we have no airplanes belonging to us,” he said.
“Generally speaking, in civil aviation you don’t need to necessarily have your own aircraft. You can carry out flights with the help of other airlines,” the official added without elaboration.