The evacuation of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh who have had to leave their homes due to Azerbaijan's offensive in recent days began on Sunday as Baku tightens control over this enclave after the surrender of militias in the area. An evacuation that many fear will turn into an exodus that extinguishes forever the historic Armenian presence in this area of the Caucasus that, internationally, is recognized as Azerbaijani territory but until this week had remained under the control of Armenian forces.
The authorities of the Armenian enclave announced that those who have had to leave their homes in the frontline areas that wish to do so — there are some 10,000 displaced people on the streets of Stepanakert, the Karabakh capital — will be transported to the neighboring Republic of Armenia. "Families left homeless by recent military actions ... will be sent to Armenia. The government will soon provide more information on the resettlement of other population groups," Karabakh authorities said in a statement posted on Facebook.
On Sunday afternoon, the first 377 civilians crossed the border escorted by soldiers from the Russian peacekeeping contingent deployed in Karabakh since 2020. Robert Ghukasián, governor of Syunik province (southern Armenia), told the Armenian media CivilNet that preparations have been made to welcome about 10,000 refugees in border towns.
During a meeting with EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus Toivo Klaar this weekend, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reiterated that "all rights of Karabakh Armenians are guaranteed" including "educational, cultural, religious, municipal and electoral rights." Azerbaijani media, citing government sources, say that some Karabakhis have begun to apply for Azerbaijani passports, but the truth is that the majority of Armenians in the enclave, about 120,000, do not trust Baku's promises.
"Our people don't want to live being part of Azerbaijan. 99.9% prefer to leave our ancestral lands,"David Babayan, presidential adviser to the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, as Armenians call Nagorno-Karabakh, told Reuters. This is also the impression conveyed by all the Armenians of Karabakh with whom this newspaper has spoken over the past week: they would rather leave their homes than live under an Azerbaijani government that has subjected them to nine months of blockade, leaving them practically without food, and to heavy bombardments until forcing their surrender. In Stepanakert, bulldozers continue to open holes to bury victims of the recent Azerbaijani offensive.
Still morning in Stepanakert... pic.twitter.com/sIN3hCqPAh
— Marut Vanyan (@marutvanian) September 24, 2023
In addition, there are still several villages surrounded by Azerbaijani troops, with whom it is very difficult to communicate and of which it is unknown what situation the population is. The NGO NetBlocks, which monitors changes in the global internet supply, said that there has been a very significant drop in Nagorno-Karabakh since the beginning of the Azerbaijani offensive on the 19th.
"Unfortunately, coexistence is hard to imagine right now, after 30 years of conflict and two wars. There is an element of hatred and rejection of coexistence on both sides," says Zaur Shiriyev, an analyst at the International Crisis Group in Baku, in statements to EL PAÍS. On the one hand, there is the hatred accumulated by the more than half a million Azeris expelled from Karabakh and the surrounding provinces when the Armenians took control of them in the nineties, and who now hope to return to their land. On the other, there have been years of nationalist propaganda on both sides and a strong anti-Armenian public discourse from the Azerbaijani government. "It is understandable that mutual hatred has taken root. The older ones, who experienced coexistence during Soviet times, have given way to new generations for whom the other side has always been a foreign concept, an enemy. That is why there is no trust. The crucial question for the future is how much effort Azerbaijan is willing to make to rebuild trust, or at least to make its promises credible," Shiriyev stressed.
However, despite this climate of mistrust, contacts between the parties have accelerated. This weekend, reports have emerged of a second meeting – after the one held on Thursday – between the authorities of the enclave and representatives of the Government of Baku to agree on the shipments of humanitarian aid, the evacuation of civilians and the disarmament of Armenian forces. Over the weekend and under Russian supervision, the so-called Karabakh Defense Army delivered various arsenals, including four tanks, a dozen artillery pieces, about thirty mortars and grenade launchers, hundreds of explosives and 50 missiles.
Armenia's fear for its sovereignty
In an address to the nation, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan explained that his government is working internationally to "guarantee the rights and security of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh," but acknowledged that, if this does not work, the country will "welcome" the "brothers and sisters of Nagorno-Karabakh" in the Republic of Armenia. The Armenian leader divided the blame for the situation between the passivity of the Russian peacekeepers and the "policy of ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijan." In another thinly veiled reference to Moscow, he accused it of violating "treaty obligations" (both countries are members of the same security organization) and "endangering" Armenia's "internal stability and security." Therefore, he called on the international community to "express its determination" to defend the "sovereignty and territorial integrity" of the Caucasian country. Previously, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a telephone conversation with Pashinyan in which, he said on the social network X (formerly Twitter), he expressed the "firm support" of the US for the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of Armenia".
Also on Sunday, it was announced that Pashinyan and Aliyev will meet on October 5 in Grenada, where a European Political Summit will be held, with the aim of moving towards a final peace treaty. Earlier, on Tuesday, representatives of both countries will meet with advisers from the French and German governments to prepare for the summit. Pashinyan seeks to leave as a legacy of his government a lasting peace with Azerbaijan, which allows the reopening of its eastern and western borders and breaks the Armenian isolation in the Caucasus. But he finds himself in a delicate position, cornered by protests, opposition criticism and denunciations from the Armenian diaspora, who accuse him of the debacle of the Armenians of Karabakh and of making too many concessions to Baku.
The fear of Armenians is that, grown by their recent victories, Azerbaijan will increase its irredentist demands. For months, Azerbaijani commentators have increasingly used the concept of West Azerbaijan to claim territories of the Republic of Armenia in which, they claim, its ancestral inhabitants were Azeri. It is true that, until just over a century ago, in parts of Armenian territory, there was a significant amount of Azeri population (for example, in Yerevan, the Armenian capital) and that at least 150,000 Azeris were expelled from the Republic of Armenia during the dissolution of the USSR, but it is no less true that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were also expelled during the twentieth century from the territory now occupied by Azerbaijan.
In addition, Baku demands the implementation of the Zanzzur corridor, one of the conditions of the ceasefire signed by Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020. This corridor aims to link the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan (an autonomous Azerbaijani region sandwiched between Armenia and Turkey) and the rest of Azerbaijan, through Armenian territory and under surveillance of the Russian Federal Security Service, but this demand arouses rejection among Armenians and is highly criticized by the opposition. Precisely, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – whose military aid has been key in the recent Azerbaijani military victories – will meet this Monday in Nakhchivan with Aliyev, and it is likely that one of the topics to be discussed will be the Zangezur corridor, in which Turkey has high hopes because it will allow it to send its products to Azerbaijan and Central Asia in less time.
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