When Saribek Gevorkyan heard reports that Food City, a vast food distribution centre owned by entrepreneurs from Azerbaijan, had suddenly blocked Armenian farmers and turned away 50 truckloads of fresh apricots, he took action. He offered space for free in his own shopping centre to the farmers, helping to host a fruit rescue mission that its organisers have dubbed “Operation Apricot”.
“We told our friends that in the Russian Federation nobody can close their doors to us Armenians,” boomed Gevorkyan, the owner of the Shelkovy Put (“Silk Way”) shopping centre. “The Russian Federation is open for everyone to come here, make money, and sell goods.”
This month’s military clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which left 17 people dead including a prominent Azeri general, were the worst in four years. Their aftershocks have rippled around the world, sparking violent skirmishes among diaspora communities in the US and Europe and a small-scale economic war in Moscow.
The violence appears to be getting worse. In Moscow, Russian media reported that at least 25 people were arrested in a mass brawl late on Thursday night. Video footage appeared to show a group of men targeting the drivers of cars with Armenian licence plates. One Armenian man was reportedly stabbed during the attacks.
Video also showed men with sticks storming an Azerbaijani restaurant in Moscow and an Azerbaijani fruit seller was also reportedly attacked. Members of both diaspora communities, as well as the Armenian embassy, have called for restraint.
There have been a few hopeful moments. To save the freshly harvested apricots from spoiling, organisers in Moscow’s Armenian diaspora sent out an online alert on behalf of several shopping centres that had given free space to the farmers to sell their stock.
The online messages attracted thousands of people, launching an impromptu celebration of the apricot, an Armenian staple. At one shopping centre, people danced a traditional kochari as buyers lugged away crates of fresh fruit.
“It turned into quite a beautiful city festival,” said David Tonoyan, who helped organise the campaign. He said that many of the apricots went to charities, hospices and old people’s homes. “It had the effect to bring us closer together in the diaspora.”
Asked by the Observer whether Food City had turfed out Armenian sellers, God Nisanov, the chairman of its parent company, Kievskaya Ploshchad, wrote that “following Russian law is an unconditional priority”, and that the company has “continuously demonstrated its care about the interests of consumers, partners and tenants regardless of their nationality or religious beliefs”.
While the “apricot war” has ended, there are new reports of Azeri-run businesses barring Armenian products. On Thursday, the Armenian ambassador to Moscow told the news site RBC that Armenian canned foods, mineral water and cognac had all disappeared from a major Moscow supermarket chain owned by an Azeri businessman.
The two countries have fought often, particularly in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, but it’s rare to see the conflict spill over into commerce in Moscow, where both countries have large diaspora communities.
“Even in 2016 during the four-day war with Azerbaijan … there wasn’t this mood in Moscow. This economic war: there’s not been anything like it before,” said Tonoyan, the director of the Armenian Museum of Moscow and Culture of Nations.
Experts have warned of a high risk of renewed fighting along the border between the two countries. Richard Giragosian, the founding director of the Regional Studies Centre thinktank in Yerevan, said it could be a “hot summer”.
“To rely on political will and the situation on the battlefield for regional stability is dangerous,” he said. “There are no external security guarantees … this is a rare ceasefire that’s upheld only by parties to the conflict without any external actor.”
In a new report, the International Crisis Group warns that the clashes “should serve as a warning and call to action”.
Tonoyan said that he wanted to do more to protect Armenian farmers and other traders in Russia by helping to organise dedicated selling points.
“We asked all Muscovites to come and help out the Armenian farmers, try some tasty apricots, take part in this flashmob and photograph themselves,” he said. “But we all understand this isn’t a permanent solution. So we’re thinking about what’s next.”