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A modern-day ethnic cleansing: Karabakh Armenians flee as Azerbaijan takes over

The past week marked the worst period for Nagorno-Karabakh, bringing a tragic end to the 30 years of existence of the breakaway state that proclaimed independence in 1991. While not recognised by any other country, Nagorno-Karabakh was backed by Armenia until the government under Nikol Pashinyan recognised it as a part of Azerbaijan after the 2020 war, paving the way for Baku to proceed with its coercive policy of “integration”.

September 29, 2023 - Ani Avetisyan - Hot Topics

Ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh evacuated from their homes on September 21 2023. Photo: Mil.ru (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

Editorial context: On September 19th 2023, Azerbaijan began what it has called an “anti-terrorist operation” in the Nagorno-Karabkh region – a breakaway republic which is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory but has had a population of nearly 150,000, 95% of which were ethnic Armenian. The operation took place after a 9-months-long blockade of the region and quickly came to an end as the authorities representing Nagorno-Karabkah surrendered to Azerbaijan, triggering a massive exodus of the ethnic Armenian population. To get a full picture of this situation, New Eastern Europe commissioned two pieces from different perspectives. We present an Armenian perspective below. To read the Azerbaijani perspective click here.

After nine months of blockade, humanitarian crisis and starvation, Azerbaijan has resorted to military escalation last week convincing the local Armenian population in the Nagorno-Karabakh region (also called Artsakh by Armenians) once again that coexistence is a long-gone dream.

As soon as the Lachin corridor – connecting the region with Armenia – was opened on September 24th, heavy traffic began on the Goris-Stepanakert highway. The flow of private cars and buses did not end even during the night, with those displaced fleeing towards an uncertain future as refugees. Thousands of people have left their homes, likely forever, to an uncertain future as refugees.

The Lachin corridor, what Armenians called a “road of life” since the 1990s, was closed to traffic since mid-December last year and had not seen any humanitarian convoy passing through it and reaching the population since mid-June. A first aid truck was allowed to enter Nagorno-Karabakh a day before Azerbaijan’s attack of September 19th. Azerbaijan started its military assault when the region faced the worst phase of the blockade, displacing thousands of Armenians from their homes and forcing them to settle in the region’s capital, Stepanakert (or Khankendi the Azerbaijan name for the city — editor’s note), with many spending the nights in the basements, hotels or the streets.

Stepanakert  was left without electricity until September 24th, when Azerbaijan took over the energy infrastructure and started providing electricity. The gas supply to the region has also been suspended since last January. Adding even more chaos to the region, a fuel depot which was supplied by Baku – to facilitate the deportation of Armenians from the region – exploded, leaving hundreds wounded and, reportedly, hundreds more dead.

The past week marked the worst period for Nagorno-Karabakh, bringing a tragic end to the 30 years of existence of the breakaway state that proclaimed independence in 1991. While not recognised by any other country, Nagorno-Karabakh was backed by Armenia until the government under Nikol Pashinyan recognised it as a part of Azerbaijan after the 44-day War in 2020, paving the way for Baku to proceed with its coercive policy of “integration”.

With a track record of using force and coercion to achieve political aims, oil-rich Azerbaijan’s promises have not been helpful for Karabakh Armenians, filled with hatred, mistrust and fear of future escalations and atrocities. The current situation with Azerbaijan’s national minority and human rights was another factor for Armenians’ concerns about coexistence. Most in Armenia believe Baku’s final goal is the total ethnic cleansing of the region.

The possible evacuation of Karabakh Armenians was a taboo topic in Armenia’s public discourse, yet occasionally discussed after the end of the 44-Day War in 2020. Despite the claims of a peace agreement being “within reach” and Baku’s pledges that Karabakh Armenians would have “equal rights” in case of surrender, the mass exodus of Armenians was predictable even during the tensest rounds of talks. The Armenian government and the local authorities relied on the Russian peacekeeping forces for the rights and security of Nagorno-Karabakh. However, it did not take long for the peacekeepers to prove that the physical safety of the population could not be trusted to them, as Russians were seen missing in action whenever an escalation would take place along the line of contact.

Russian peacekeepers once again went missing as Azerbaijan attacked. The International community, too, did not take steps to intervene, leaving Karabakh Armenians alone with the Azerbaijani army. Russian peacekeepers, however, emerged as mediators to reach an agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh’s surrender.

Uncertainty: for those leaving and staying

Nagorno-Karabakh officials stated the vast majority of Armenians want to leave the region for Armenia. The number of those wishing to stay in their homes remains unclear. Stepanakert and Baku are currently defining the basics for resolving the situation and agreeing on the region’s future, with the latter inviting Karabakh Armenians to Baku for “confidence-building”. At the same time, Stepanakert authorities aim to address the urgent humanitarian needs.

As Azerbaijan aims to dissolve the government bodies in Nagorno-Karabakh, the authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh carry out the last operations in the region, providing the population with fuel for leaving, conducting search and rescue operations in the settlements of the area to evacuate dead bodies and living people.

Authorities in Stepanakert do not expect Karabakh Armenians to remain in their homes, citing the impossibility of living under Azerbaijani rule given Baku’s coercive policy and the toxic propaganda towards Armenians. Official Yerevan said it was ready to host 40,000 families, almost as much as Nagorno-Karabakh’s post-war population, and take care of their essential needs, meanwhile saying Baku was trying to avoid responsibility for the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh by making the deportation look like it was “their decision to leave”.

The housing problems in Armenia and the government’s incapacity to prepare for the possible deportation well in advance promise huge challenges for Karabakh Armenians, which might later cause an increase in migration from the country.  The Pashinyan, Armenia’s prime minister, stated after the September 20th ceasefire that the priority for them should be ensuring that Armenians will be able to live in their homes “safely and with dignity”. Five days later, however, Pashinyan said that they had “failed” to prevent the “ethnic cleansing” despite Armenia’s warning and requests for international support.

As the Armenian government and Armenians aim to meet the needs of the refugees and integrate them into the country, the US State Department claims it is working “with allies” to deploy an international mission to Nagorno-Karabakh, which will ensure the security of the local population.

Currently, around 2,000 Russian peacekeepers remain in the region, with their tenure ending in 2025. Yet, many believe Russians will be required to leave as soon as the region’s Armenian population is gone.

In either scenario, the Armenian refugees will have little chance of returning to their homes in Aliyev’s Azerbaijan, as it hinders international organizations’ activities in the country, refusing any special status or protection for Karabakh Armenians. With Armenia trying to deal with the emerging refugee crisis with little strategic planning, the future for those few people who would decide to stay is as bleak as it gets.

Ani Avetisyan is a freelance journalist covering Armenia, the South Caucasus and the wider region. She has previously worked as a correspondent with OC Media.

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