With the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh falling apart, and no deal between local leaders and the central government in Azerbaijan, the future of Armenians in the region remains precarious.
While the vast majority of Armenian society, the Armenian foreign minister, as well as international observers are gravely concerned for their security, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan says otherwise.
“At this moment, our assessment is that there is no direct threat to the civilian population of Nagorno-Karabakh,” Pashinyan said in a live address on September 21.
In a complete contradiction, Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan told a UN Security Council meeting on the same day that “Azerbaijan’s intention is to complete the ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh.”
Since March 2021, access to Armenian-administered Nagorno-Karabakh has been tightly controlled by the Russian peacekeepers, making information difficult to verify. But three days after the beginning of Azerbaijan’s 2023 offensive, credible reports are starting to emerge of civilian casualties and war crimes. The prime minister’s statement triggered widespread outrage and led his critics to repeat their accusations of treason.
“I believe the PM was talking to the domestic audience and trying to avoid panic in Armenian society, while fighting against Russian state attempts to weaponize the suffering of the Armenians of Artsakh to bring down democratic governance in Armenia. He failed in doing so and even angered many of his own supporters,” analyst Eric Hacopian told Eurasianet.
The timing of the statement, right before the UN Security Council meeting, couldn’t have come at a worse time, according to human rights attorney Sheila Paylan. “The statement is puzzling, and also obviously untrue.”
“Perhaps in trying to calm people down, the prime minister thought he needed to make that statement,” she told Eurasianet, noting the angry protests on the streets of Yerevan.
As of September 20, the de facto Karabakh authorities were counting 200 people killed and over 400 wounded. The streets of Stepanakert are filled with “displaced people, hungry, scared, and in uncertainty,” said Karabakh Human Rights Ombudsman Gegham Stepanyan.
According to Stepanyan, his office has received more than 600 cases of people missing in the region, as of September 22nd.
“Lack of communication made it almost impossible to find them or find out whether they were killed or not. Residential areas are cut off from each other, people’s fates are unknown,” former Armenian human rights defender Arman Tatoyan said. There have been reports of a bounty of $500 being placed on the head of a particular Karabakhi Armenian woman on an Azerbaijani Telegram channel. She is to be given to a man named “Murad” as a birthday present, the alleged Telegram post reads.
Some Armenians on social media recalled video evidence of atrocities by Azerbaijani troops against female Armenian soldiers during Baku’s incursions into Armenian territory in September 2022.
Against this backdrop, many found the prime minister’s comment about Armenians not being under threat in Karabakh inexplicably tone-deaf.
He did say in the same remarks, however, that his government was prepared to handle an influx of 40,000 families from Karabakh (which should roughly cover the region’s entire population that Armenian sources estimate at 120,000).
So far there has been no sign of Karabakh Armenians leaving through the Lachin corridor, the only route connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Azerbaijan has been tightly restricting and at times completely closing the corridor in one form or another for the past nine months, resulting in acute shortages of food and supplies.
“It’s not opening anytime soon,” said journalist Shant Khatcherian, who is standing by on the Armenian side of the border alongside other journalists, NGO representatives and Armenians who have relatives in Karabakh.
Meanwhile in Armenia, today marks the fourth straight day of protests. Roads have been blocked and dozens of people have been arrested. While the anger against Russia, the European Union, and other international institutions has been palpable, many Armenians are looking closer to home for someone to blame.
Fin DePencier is a journalist based in Yerevan
It was Mao Zedong who said that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” That harsh lesson certainly applies to the long-running battle between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested territory known as Nagorno-Karabakh — where Azerbaijan this week imposed its sovereignty by force of arms.
For Armenians, who live in the long shadow of the 1915 Ottoman genocide, the plight of an estimated 120,000 ethnic Armenians in Karabakh has been haunting. Lacking the military power to rival Azerbaijan — and without protection from Russia, the United States or even Armenia itself — the Karabakh Armenians were forced to surrender in two days.
Representatives of the Armenian government that had been running Karabakh met Thursday with Azerbaijani representatives for what officials in Baku said were “constructive” talks. The meeting was evidence that Azerbaijan was reestablishing authority over territory it had controlled legally, but not in fact, and that Karabakh Armenians were submitting to the new political reality they had long hoped to avoid.
At least 200 Karabakh Armenians died in the fighting that began Tuesday, according to local reports, as Azerbaijani artillery pounded Karabakh’s small military force and Baku’s commandos seized strategic high ground. Armenian social media carried wrenching stories about families searching for missing children and thousands gathered at the airport in Stepanakert, the region’s de facto capital, hoping to flee.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev made a televised address Wednesday night that seemed intended to stem a flight of Armenian residents who fear that Baku plans to “ethnically cleanse” the territory. He said that Armenian residents would be treated as “citizens” and that Baku would pursue only “criminal” separatists.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s decision to stay out of the conflict has brought intense criticism inside Armenia from those who feel Pashinyan abandoned his ethnic brethren. Even some of those critics conceded in interviews Thursday that Yerevan lacked the firepower to combat Aliyev’s takeover. Armenia was badly outgunned in the 2020 war that reversed nearly three decades of Armenian control of the region, and this mismatch has only grown worse.
Global power politics overlay this week’s dramatic events. The Karabakh turmoil results in part from the vacuum in the region caused by Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine. Moscow had a small, 2,000-member peacekeeping force in Karabakh that was supposed to prevent conflict. The Russians proved powerless, and Russia said some of its soldiers were killed by Azerbaijani fire this week.
Armenia, which has relied for a century on Russian protection, had begun doubting Moscow and started pivoting to the West this year, hoping for more reliable allies. The Biden administration offered diplomatic help in trying to broker a settlement between Baku and Yerevan, but without effect. The Pentagon this month sent roughly 100 U.S. soldiers to Armenia to train its military, nominally for peacekeeping operations, but they departed on schedule as the assault on Karabakh was underway.
Armenia’s pivot West was probably badly timed. It alienated the Russians without bringing reliable Western help. The Armenians, especially in Karabakh, were isolated and vulnerable — waiting for foreign deliverance that never came. In that respect, it was a cruel recapitulation of modern Armenian history.
The Biden administration has tried for the past two years to prevent a violent resolution of the Karabakh problem by seeking a durable peace deal between Baku and Yerevan. That effort seemed to be progressing, but in the end, Baku decided to gain sovereignty by force rather than negotiation. After the assault began, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Aliyev and urged a ceasefire, which followed soon after.
The armed takeover of Karabakh has been coming in slow motion since Azerbaijan won a 2020 war for control, reversing the breakaway status Armenian troops had won in battle in 1994. Armenians in the enclave had hoped for some form of independence rather than a compromise deal with Baku, which retained authority under international law. It never came. Azerbaijan, flush with oil wealth, grew stronger year by year. Eventually, the hammer fell.
Azerbaijan began a slow strangulation of Karabakh in December, when a government-backed organization closed the road to Armenia, known as the “Lachin Corridor.” Karabakh was gradually starved of food and fuel — and by this month, basic supplies of flour and other essentials were said to be exhausted. That’s when Aliyev struck militarily.
The Biden administration’s policy now is to prevent the ethnic cleansing that Armenians fear. Blinken is said to have urged Aliyev to grant what amounts to amnesty to the Karabakh Armenians and provide reliable guarantees for their security. The United States also hopes that a lasting accord between Armenia and Azerbaijan will be possible now that the Karabakh issue has been resolved at gunpoint. But that overlooks the deep mistrust and anxiety felt by Armenians, which will only increase after this week’s armed takeover.
Karabakh lies at one of the world’s most dangerous intersections, where the ghosts of the past stalk every living resident. An example of this bloodknot is the 1937 novel “Ali and Nino,” set partly in the mountain forests of Nagorno-Karabakh. It opens with a professor in Baku asking his students whether the surrounding region “should belong to progressive Europe or reactionary Asia.” A charming Azerbaijani prince who is one of the heroes of the story opts for Asia and forms a love match with a Georgian princess. It’s a love story, but it’s animated by the conflict between East and West. The darkest passages of the book take place in the “black garden” of Karabakh.
Sending a UN peacekeeping mission to Nagorno-Karabakh is possible only with the decision of the UN Security Council. Stephane Dujarric, the representative of the UN Secretary General, said during a briefing.
“Decisions regarding any peacekeeping mission are made by the UN Security Council,” he said, answering TASS’s question.
Earlier, at the emergency session of the UN Security Council dedicated to the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan had said that it is necessary to create an opportunity for UN-mandated peacekeeping forces to maintain security and stability in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Azeri policemen were killed “on the territory of Azerbaijan, where Russian peacekeepers are temporarily stationed [under the trilateral statement].
The truck was on its way to the site of the terrorist attack that took place on the same day at the 58th kilometer of the Ahmadbayli-Fuzuli-Shusha road passing through the Khojavand district, which killed employees of the State Road Agency of Azerbaijan.” See also GS – Azerbaijani police officers killed as result of Armenian terror. It looks like a two steps trap, and it reminded me of the similar traps on police in the US. The common denominator might be the Wagner Group, possibly still working with the Russian peacekeepers in the South Caucasus. The Invisible Russian Hand (of the GRU) appears to be likely, and the aims may be several and intertwined: revenge for the Pashinyan’s betrayal, distraction from the Ukraine War criticism, etc. The rifle (sniper?) attack on the group of Russian peacekeepers might have been a response to killing of the Azeri policemen. Curiously enough, one of the Russians killed was a commanding submarine officer in the Baltic Fleet.