Karabakh Armenians: from building their own state to being threatened in their very existence

Azerbaijan’s president warns that Armenians “will have to look for another place to live” if they do not bow to Baku · Armenian government has stopped demanding self-determination for Karabakh

Nagorno-Karabakh’s situation is probably the most serious since the Soviet Union ended. Encapsulated in a space of 3,000 square kilometres and blockaded for four months by Azerbaijan, the Armenians of the territory are caught between the Armenian government's increasingly clear decision to renounce it and the increasingly clear threats coming from Baku. Most recently, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev stated that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will either have to accept Azerbaijani citizenship or “look for another place to live” in an interview on state television.

These words, pronounced just a week before the annual Armenian genocide commemoration, resonated strongly in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenians see in them an open threat of expulsion. Aliyev has said he will not negotiate autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh or special status for Armenians. A situation that, for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, is totally unacceptable, and would in all likelihood lead most of them to leave rather than wait for Azerbaijan —where an undisguised Armenophobic regime rules— to gain control of the territory.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians proclaimed their independence in 1991 and, following their victory in the war against Azerbaijan (1988-1994), which resulted in the flight of hundreds of thousands of Azeris living in the surrounding territories of Nagorno-Karabakh, now controlled by Armenians, they built their own state, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, or Republic of Artsakh, as it is also known. The newly established country did not receive international recognition. In 2020, despite Armenian support, it lost 75 per cent of its territory following a major offensive by Azerbaijan, supported by Turkey. For the moment, 2,000 Russian troops ensure Nagorno-Karabakh's perimeter security. But in 2025, Azerbaijan can unilaterally ask the contingent to leave.

Azerbaijan's military investment and capabilities have far outstripped Armenia's for years, unlike in the 1990s when Armenians gained control of Karabakh. Azerbaijan counts on Turkey's political, economic and military cooperation. Armenia would like Russia to act as a counterweight on its behalf, but Moscow is embroiled in the Ukraine war and in this context is not interested in getting more involved in the Karabakh dispute and instead needs to cultivate better relations with Ankara and Baku in the commercial and diplomatic spheres.

Aliyev, who has ruled Azerbaijan unopposed since 2003, knows he has the most promising opportunity in decades to regain control over the whole of Karabakh and, within the same process, end the centuries-old Armenian presence in the territory. The imbalance of forces means that, from Baku, not only are Armenians' hours in Karabakh numbered, but Armenia's very territorial integrity is in question. Aliyev has suggested that the eastern half of Armenia is historically Azeri, and has turned his attention to Syunik, the Armenian region that separates the main part of Azerbaijan from the Nakhchivan exclave.

Deepening division among Armenians

The Armenian and Azerbaijani governments have been exchanging proposals for months about a final peace agreement between the two countries. Azerbaijan demands that Armenia relinquish any influence over Karabakh —which should be recognised as an exclusively internal Azerbaijani affair— and open new communication and transport routes. This second demand is linked to the so-called Zangezur corridor, a land transport route that should link Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan, whose creation was included in the November 2020 Armenian-Azerbaijani armistice.

The Armenian government insists that Azerbaijan must guarantee Armenian rights in Nagorno-Karabakh, but no longer talks about the territory's self-determination. This week, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told the Armenian parliament that Armenia has recognised Azerbaijan's territorial integrity since 2007. These words have earned him criticism from different quarters, including the five parliamentary groups of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, which have issued a joint statement describing them as "unacceptable" and warning that dropping Karabakh threatens Armenia's future itself.

Installation of an Azerbaijani military checkpoint (updated 24 April)

Immediately following the publication of this piece, another event aimed at further strangling Nagorno-Karabakh occurred. The Azerbaijani government set up a military checkpoint in the Lachin corridor —the only land corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia— on 23 April to prevent "illegal misuse" of this route by Armenians, the Azerbaijani foreign ministry stated. Baku says Armenia uses the corridor to transport military personnel, weapons, ammunition, natural resources, and cultural goods, which contravenes the trilateral agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia of November 2020. Azerbaijan says controls will be done "in interaction with Russian peacekeepers" and that "appropriate conditions" will be established for the traffic of "Armenian residents" in Karabakh.

Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh consider the military checkpoint installation a flagrant violation of the November 2020 agreements. In a statement, the Armenian foreign ministry said that this is the latest step in the "consistent implementation of Azerbaijan's policy of ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh and the complete annihilation of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh". The ministry has called on Russia to end the blockade and remove the Azerbaijani troops from the corridor.