It happened quickly, the final invasion, and with hundreds of Orthodox Christians killed by the aggressors. Armenia, led by a one-time human rights lawyer, had no alternative but to save thousands of its people from death by surrendering their enclave at Nagorno-Karabakh to the brutal forces of Ilham Aliyev, dictator of Azerbaijan.
It was Russia, once again, that was principally to blame: it was given by a foolish UN Security Council the duty to keep the peace, but when Armenia condemned the invasion of Ukraine, Putin in revenge withdrew all protection of Nagorno-Karabakh and let the Azerbaijan army off its leash.
120,000 citizens are now at its mercy, being forced either to abandon their ancestral homes or else live under a tyranny that has fomented hatred against them for many years.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a small, mountainous country in the clouds, settled by Armenians for many centuries. It was the first in 301 AD to adopt Christianity.
Hundreds of Orthodox churches, and their ancient mysterious tombstones (many now defaced or demolished by the aggressors), attract visitors from Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, who take the 6 hour road trek via Mount Ararat to Stepanakert, centre of the Karabakh’s democracy that was this week snuffed out. The trip is only 20 minutes by air from a modern airport. But planes have not flown for years because the Azeri government threatens to shoot them down.
The country fell to Russia in the early nineteenth century, and the demographic evidence from the first census of that time proves that it was all-Armenian and the area should have been allocated to this state when Stalin divided the territory in 1920. Instead, he gave it to Azerbaijan, and the mistake was not rectified until a civil war after the collapse of the USSR.
The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh – still the great majority of the population – voted first to join with Armenia (the wiser course) but then (courageously as they thought) opted for independence. The war had commenced with pogroms by Azeris in Sumgait and Baku. But in time a local Karabakh defence force took the upper hand. Fighting was brutal. With ethnic hate on both sides. The siege of Stepanakert during which Azeri forces killed several thousand in bombings of schools and hospitals, was Guernica writ small. The people only survived because of supplies brought on a narrow road – a humanitarian corridor – from Armenia, which Azerbaijan closed earlier this year.
Nagorno-Karabakh won the war by 1994 and declared, like Kosovo, its right to self-determination. For the next quarter-century it governed itself with help from Armenia. It did so, reasonably enough, with fair elections and democratic institutions like an independent judiciary – as I found when investigating the situation in the country for a court case in 2014. It was not, as many news reporters said last week, a country of “Armenian separatists” but of an Armenian people whose ancestors had lived in these highlands for centuries and who had fought for, and won, for a quarter of a century, the right to resist a brutal dictator. But there were many Azeri provocations at the border – the “line of control”.
The Security Council, quite absurdly, entrusted the enclave security to Russia which did not take its duties seriously and in 2020 the war broke out again. Armenia voted at the UN to condemn Russia for attacking Ukraine and in consequence Putin determined to end all support for it and to take revenge. The last straw came this month, when Armenia joined the International Criminal Court (ICC) which is prosecuting Putin for kidnapping Ukrainian children. Last week the Kremlin carpeted the Armenian ambassador and made what it described as a “harsh protest”: it threatened to withdraw its security mandated protection for Nagorno-Karabakh. When it did so, Azerbaijan invaded.
How should the UK react? Aliyev, like Putin, is guilty of the international crime of aggression, and this country should denounce this violation. Russia, too, should be condemned for betraying the duty imposed on it by the Security Council. We should certainly offer to take some of the many thousands of refugees: they are innocent victims of an international double-cross. They have every reason to fear persecution if they stay where they belong. Their political leaders are already being arrested.
As for the United Nations, Nagorno-Karabakh will be remembered as yet another reason why it is no longer fit for purpose. That purpose, its Charter reminds us, is to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” yet it cannot expel Russia (even were Putin to use nuclear weapons) which would veto its own expulsion, and it cannot even expel Azerbaijan for aggression (because Russia would veto the necessary Security Council recommendation).
The only way forward is to replace the United Nations, because its Security Council is not fit for purpose. It is incapable of reform, because Russia and China will veto reform. ‘Security” will only come from an international representative body with the moral, military, economic power to deter authoritarian aggression.
Geoffrey Robertson AO KC is a former UN war crimes judge and author of An Inconvenient Genocide: Who Now Remembers the Armenians?
Published: 19:46 BST, 29 September 2023 | Updated: 20:36 BST, 29 September 2023
The Armenian government said on Friday evening that more than 97,700 out of the 120,000-strong population had fled as the region’s separatist government said it will dissolve itself and the unrecognised republic inside Azerbaijan will cease to exist by the end of the year.
The moves came after Azerbaijan carried out a lightning offensive last week to reclaim full control over the breakaway region and demanded that Armenian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh disarm and the separatist government disband.
A decree signed by the region’s separatist President Samvel Shakhramanyan cited a September 20 agreement to end the fighting under which Azerbaijan will allow the ‘free, voluntary and unhindered movement’ of Nagorno-Karabakh residents to Armenia.
Some of those who fled the regional capital of Stepanakert said they had no hope for the future.
More than 80 per cent of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population has fled to Armenia
Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh and European Union observers drive their cars past a check point on the road from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia’s Goris
Ethnic Armenians began fleeing almost as soon as Azerbaijan lifted the blockade on the Lachin corridor
More people are expected to leave in the coming days (pictured on September 26)
Refugees have been fleeing the Nagorno-Karabakh region for fears they may be subjected to ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Azerbaijani government
Azerbaijan launched the major military operation on September 19
Refugees, mostly ethnic Armenians, have been fleeing the region for days
Student Ani Abaghyan, 21, said on Thursday: ‘I left Stepanakert having a slight hope that maybe something will change and I will come back soon, and these hopes are ruined after reading about the dissolution of our government.’
During the three decades of conflict in the region, Azerbaijan and separatists inside Nagorno-Karabakh, alongside allies in Armenia, have accused the other of targeted attacks, massacres and other atrocities, leaving people on both sides deeply suspicious and fearful.
While Azerbaijan has pledged to respect the rights of ethnic Armenians in the region, most are now fleeing as they do not believe the Azerbaijani authorities will treat them fairly and humanely or guarantee them their language, religion and culture.
After six years of separatist fighting ended in 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by Armenia.
Then, during a six-week war in 2020, Azerbaijan took back parts of the region in the south Caucasus Mountains along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed earlier.
Nagorno-Karabakh was internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory.
In December, Azerbaijan blockaded the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, alleging the Armenian government was using it for illicit weapons shipments to the region’s separatist forces.
Armenia alleged the closure denied basic food and fuel supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, assured that the rights of ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh would be respected
The explosion at the fuel depot in Nagorno-Karabakh has killed at least 68 people
The explosion happened outside Stepanakert, the de facto capital of the breakaway enclave
Hundreds are still missing after the explosion on Tuesday night
A blockade preventing anyone from accessing the Lachin corridor was lifted by Azerbaijani authorities after 10 months
Azerbaijan rejected the accusation, arguing that the region could receive supplies through the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam – a solution long resisted by Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, who called it a strategy for Azerbaijan to gain control of the region.
On Monday night, a fuel reservoir exploded at a petrol station where people lined up to fill their cars to flee to Armenia. At least 68 people were killed and nearly 300 injured, with over 100 others still considered missing after the blast, which exacerbated fuel shortages that were already dire after the blockade.
On Thursday, Azerbaijani authorities charged Ruben Vardanyan, the former head of Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist government, with financing terrorism, creating illegal armed formations and illegally crossing a state border.
A day earlier, he was detained by Azerbaijani border guards as he was trying to leave Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia along with tens of thousands of others.
Vardanyan, a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia, was placed in pre-trial detention for at least four months and faces up to 14 years in prison.
His arrest appeared to indicate Azerbaijan’s intent to quickly enforce its grip on the region.
Another top separatist figure, Nagorno-Karabakh’s former foreign minister and now presidential adviser David Babayan, said on Thursday he will surrender to Azerbaijani authorities who ordered him to face a probe in Baku.
The illegal separatist regime in the Karabakh (Garabagh) region of Azerbaijan announced its self-dissolution on Thursday.
A relevant decree was signed by the regime’s self-proclaimed “president,” Samvel Shahramanyan. The document states, “All institutions and organizations are to be dissolved by January 1, 2024, and the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) ceases to exist.”
It also calls on the Armenian residents of the Karabakh region to become acquainted with the conditions of reintegration presented by Azerbaijan in order to subsequently make an independent and individual decision on the possibility of staying in or returning to the Karabakh region.
The dissolution of the decades-old illegal separatist regime in the territory of Azerbaijan came as the culmination of the latter’s recent anti-terror measures and ensuing reintegration efforts.
From September 19 to 20, the Azerbaijan Armed Forces conducted a counter-terrorism operation in the Karabakh region to disarm the remnants of the Armenian army. The operation followed the intensifying Armenian attacks on Azerbaijani positions and the recent deadly mine incidents, resulting in the deaths of Azerbaijani police officers and road construction workers. By the cessation of hostilities, dozens of military posts, strongholds and equipment of the illegal military formations were disabled.
On September 20, the so-called “defense forces” of the separatists surrendered, agreeing to full disarmament and withdrawal. Since then, the Azerbaijani army, in coordination with the temporary Russian peacekeeping mission in the Karabakh region, has been confiscating arms, ammunition, and equipment from the Armenian army formations. The process will reportedly continue until the illegal armed formations are completely disarmed and removed from the territory of Azerbaijan.
The Karabakh region was outside of Azerbaijan’s control for nearly three decades. During this period, the region was illegally occupied and ruled by Armenia and the separatist regime established and backed by the Armenian authorities. The occupation of the Karabakh region by Armenia was the result of an illegal territorial claim by Armenians with its roots dating back to the Soviet era.
Separatist sentiments in the highland part of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan rose after it was given the status of so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (Region) within Azerbaijan by the Soviet rulers in 1923. As a result of continuous relocation of Armenians to the region, they began to claim the Azerbaijani lands as their own. The anti-Azerbaijan sentiments expanded over the years until the late 1980s and early 1990s when it grew into a full-blown war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia launched a military aggression against Azerbaijan. The bloody war, which lasted until a ceasefire in 1994, resulted in Armenia occupying 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territories, including the Karabakh region. Over 30,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis were killed and 1 million others were expelled from their lands in a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign conducted by Armenia.
Armenia designed an illegal separatist “government” in the occupied Karabakh region, throwing military and financial weight behind it to consolidate the occupation. Certain parts of the Armenian military were deployed in the region to form the so-called “defense forces.” The separatists were also assisted in establishing their bogus “executive, legislative, and judiciary” structures. By 2023, five self-styled “presidents” were “elected” to rule the separatist regime. The last illegal “elections” took place on September 9, 2023, with Samvel Shahramanyan becoming the next “president” to fill the shoes of the resigned Arayik Harutunyan. The separatists sought “independence” from Azerbaijan, claiming the Karabakh region should never be part of the country.
On September 27, 2020, the decades-old conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated when Armenia’s forces deployed in occupied Azerbaijani lands shelled military positions and civilian settlements of Azerbaijan. During counter-attack operations, Azerbaijani forces liberated over 300 settlements, including the cities of Jabrayil, Fuzuli, Zangilan, Gubadli, and Shusha, from nearly 30 years of illegal Armenian occupation. The war ended with a statement signed on November 10, 2020, under which Armenia also returned the occupied Aghdam, Kalbajar, and Lachin districts to Azerbaijan.
According to Azerbaijani data, up to 25,000 ethnic Armenians live in certain parts of Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region, temporarily monitored by the Russian peacekeeping contingent. Armenia demanded so-called status for this area post-war, while Baku rejected these claims as a threat to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.
Since late 2020, Azerbaijani authorities have been calling on ethnic Armenians residing in the Karabakh region to eliminate anti-Azerbaijan propaganda and take steps to become part of Azerbaijani society. The Azerbaijani government and people consider the territory partially settled by the Armenian residents as the Karabakh region and the Armenian residents living there as Azerbaijani citizens.
Azerbaijani authorities initiated the reintegration of Karabakh Armenians by arranging a meeting between officials from Baku and representatives of the Armenian residents in the region. The meeting in the town of Khojaly on March 1, 2023, discussed the reintegration of the Armenian residents of the Karabakh region into Azerbaijani society in line with the Constitution and laws of Azerbaijan. The sides agreed to continue contact in the next meetings. The Azerbaijani government even suggested that it take place in Baku. However, due to the refusal of the Armenian side, the process ended in a deadlock.
Following the counter-terrorism measures on September 19-20, the meetings between officials from Baku and representatives of the Armenian residents of the Karabakh region have been resumed.