Sept 28 2023
Ethnic Armenians are pouring out of the enclave. But the US and Europe must press Azerbaijan to respect the rights of those who remain
The self-declared republic of Nagorno-Karabakh will cease to exist on New Year’s Day 2024, its ethnic Armenian officials announced on Thursday. The former autonomous region broke away from Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but was not recognised even by Armenia, which backed it. All its institutions will now be dissolved.
The truth is that it is already vanishing. A place is its people, and more than half the population of the enclave has fled to Armenia since last week’s 24-hour offensive by Azerbaijan to reclaim full control. As of Thursday morning, 68,000 of the 120,000 ethnic Armenians living there had left. Many more will follow. Armenia, a country of only 3 million, must be supported to integrate this number of refugees.
While Baku insists that ethnic Armenians are choosing to leave, and that they have nothing to fear, Thomas de Waal, an expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, observed: “That is not how bitterly contested ethnic conflicts are fought, when armed groups are sent into civilian areas.” Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, has called it “a direct act of ethnic cleansing”.
What is clear is that few are willing to take the risk of staying. The context is a months-long blockade, which left residents without food or medicines; the warnings from Ilham Aliyev, the autocratic president of Azerbaijan, to “bend your necks”; last week’s military offensive, during which civilians, including children, were killed; and claims of abuses by Azerbaijan’s troops. Further back lies the shadow of the Armenian genocide of 1915, and more recently a history of ethnic cleansing on both sides in the 1990s conflict, in which Azerbaijanis suffered especially heavily. In the brief but vicious 2020 war, Azerbaijan reclaimed large swathes of territory, allowing Azerbaijanis who had left to return home. It also led to crimes including the decapitation of Armenian civilians.
Azerbaijan’s words also carry little weight right now. It launched its operation despite assuring foreign governments that it would refrain from force and in the face of clear warnings from the US and others that they would not countenance ethnic cleansing or other atrocities against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia, Armenia’s treaty ally, brokered the previous ceasefire in 2020 and sent in a peacekeeping force, but is preoccupied with its invasion of Ukraine and is displeased with Armenia’s overtures to the west, including a recent joint military drill with the US. It has also been improving its ties to Azerbaijan. Turkey’s increasingly open support also emboldened Baku.
The US and others are rightly pressing for access for a UN monitoring mission. If Baku is doing nothing wrong, it should have nothing to hide. But given the speed of events, Washington, the EU and European governments must also insist that there will be accountability for what is now happening, including via the European court of human rights. European leaders appear genuinely shocked at the actions of Azerbaijan, with whom they had enjoyed warming relations. They should act accordingly.
This is not just about addressing the current crisis, but staving off future violence. There is concern about Azerbaijan’s desire to establish a corridor to Nakhchivan, which is territorially separated from the rest of the country, and President Aliyev’s recent talk of “western Azerbaijan”, in reference to Armenian territory. What happens now is essential not only for the ethnic Armenians who remain in Nagorno-Karabakh, but for others in the region.