KORNIDZOR, Armenia — The former leader of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians has been detained by Azerbaijani forces as he attempted to escape the war-ravaged region alongside tens of thousands of civilians.
In a statement shared with state media on Wednesday, Azerbaijan’s border guard service said it had arrested Ruben Vardanyan “as a result of the vigilance of military personnel” as he attempted to cross the internationally recognized border into Armenia. A photograph of the bearded Russian-Armenian oligarch being escorted by officers has since been published.
Moments earlier, Vardanyan’s wife, Veronika Zonabend, shared an impassioned plea with POLITICO in which she confirmed her husband was blocked from leaving the exclave, alongside an estimated 42,500 people who have fled their homes in the past three days. “Ruben has stood with the Arsakh people during the 10-month blockade and has suffered with them in their struggle for survival,” she said.
Vardanyan, the billionaire founder of one of Russia’s largest investment banks, Troika Dialog, acquired Armenian citizenship in 2021 and announced he would move to Nagorno-Karabakh, renouncing his Russian citizenship. While he initially denied he had political ambitions, he became state minister in October the following year — a position equivalent to that of prime minister in the unrecognized Karabakh Armenian administration.
As leader, Vardanyan became a lightning rod for anger from Baku at the continued standoff over the breakaway region, with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev saying he had been “sent from Moscow with a very clear agenda.”
The high-profile financier had previously warned that faced with the choice of losing their independence or their homes, the Karabakh Armenians would have to understand that the “third way is to fight. We don’t want war, but of these three options we have to make a choice, even if it is dangerous and you can lose your life.”
Vardanyan was dismissed by the then-president of the Karabakh Armenian government, Arayik Harutyunyan, in February 2023 after just four months in office. His removal was one of Azerbaijan’s main demands after it closed the only road linking the breakaway region to Armenia, creating severe shortages of food, fuel and other essentials.
Azerbaijan insists it is allowing Karabakh Armenians who no longer want to live in the region to leave after its leaders accepted a Moscow-brokered surrender agreement last week, agreeing to disarm and dissolve their de facto state following three decades of autonomy.