The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh as it is also known in Armenian, was, until last week, populated by some 120,000 Armenians, half of whom have fled over the past eight days to Armenia. Those remaining, mostly around the capital, Stepanakert, are expected to leave in the coming days.
Azerbaijan has offered Karabakh Armenians the possibility of remaining in the territory and becoming Azerbaijani citizens, a proposal that very few, if any, will accept. The Azerbaijani authorities do not offer them any special status or rights, and the prevailing Armenophobia in Azerbaijani state structures makes the proposal impracticable and unacceptable. As explained later, several organisations have in fact warned of the risk of genocide.
More than three decades of history with no official recognition
Nagorno-Karabakh had been an Armenian-majority autonomous oblast within Soviet Azerbaijan. At the time of the USSR's dissolution, the Armenian authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh organised a referendum on self-determination (December 1991) and proclaimed independence, with the ultimate goal of joining Armenia.
Armenia and Karabakh fought a war against Azerbaijan, which did not recognise the independence of the new state. A ceasefire was signed in 1994. The Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh managed to control virtually the entire territory of the Soviet oblast and annexed 7 non-Armenian-majority districts, allowing the self-styled state to gain territorial continuity with Armenia.
As a result of the Armenian-Azeri conflict, the non-Armenian population of these 7 districts (around 500,000 people) was expelled, or fled. In addition, 235,000 Armenians were expelled from Azerbaijan between 1988 and 1990. A further 250,000 Azeris were expelled from Armenia during the same period.
Between 1994 and 2020, Nagorno-Karabakh controlled about 12,000 square kilometres and established a democratic system there. The country's authorities tried to gain international recognition, but failed. Throughout its history, the republic has been heavily dependent on Armenia.
Conflict resolution was left in the hands of a group of OSCE countries, co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States —the Minsk Group, established in 1992 with the mandate to facilitate a negotiated and peaceful solution, which did not materialise.
That war marked the beginning of the end of Artsakh as a viable political entity: the country was theoretically protected by Russian peacekeepers, but they did not engage militarily in any action to prevent the Azerbaijani army from occupying almost all that was left of Nagorno-Karabakh on 19-20 September this year, and forcing the enclave's authorities to capitulate.
Fresh ethnic cleansing
The flight of 120,000 Karabakh Armenians has become the most recent episode of ethnic cleansing in the world. It began to brew in December 2022, after alleged Azerbaijani "activists" blocked the corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. The blockade has lasted until today, endangering the physical survival of the Nagorno-Karabakh population.
The Lemkin Institute for the Prevention of Genocide had warned that the blockade and the conditions under which it was taking place posed a risk of extermination for the Karabakh Armenians, and called on international actors to put pressure on Azerbaijan to stop its actions and to consider Artsakh's demands for recognition of their right to self-determination. Genocide Watch has also issued a genocide alert and called on the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia to take several measures, including the rejection of "forced integration of Artsakh into Azerbaijan because it will lead to deportation and genocide."
These calls, however, have virtually had no effect. Azerbaijan, a key exporter of oil and gas to Europe and other markets, has had virtually no opposition to its annexationist policies, as Armenia has seen its allies - Russia being the main one - fail to move to prevent the tragedy of the Karabakh Armenians.