Ethnic cleansing of Armenians continues in the Caucasus. Is anyone paying attention?

Azerbaijan’s ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh has left over 100,000 people displaced, struggling as refugees in Armenia and facing upheaval, homelessness, and unemployment.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked region in the South Caucasus that has been at the centre of a protracted conflictbetween Armenia and Azerbaijan for decades. Underlying the geographic dispute are deep-seated ethnic and religious tensions, with Armenians predominantly Christian and Azerbaijanis predominantly Muslim, alongside historical grievances dating back to the early 20th century.

A Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast was established under the Soviets in 1923 which was populated with 95 percent ethnic Armenians. In 1988, anticipating the end of the Soviet Union, the regional government signed a resolution to rejoin Armenia.

However, in 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence, forming the Republic of Artsakh. This declaration triggered the first Karabakh war, from 1988 to 1994, between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenian forces gained control of the region and about 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory. As Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Moscow stepped in and brokered a peace agreement, effectively granting de facto independence to Nagorno-Karabakh, which maintained close relations with Armenia, on whom it depended for support.

Sporadic clashes persisted, eventually escalating into full-scale war in 2020, which ended with Azerbaijan regaining significant territories. In 2023, Azerbaijan blockaded the region for ten months, during which Baku denied access to human rights monitors from the EU.

Last September, more than 200 Armenians and Azerbaijani soldiers were killed as the Azerbaijani army moved in to clear the area. Over 100,000 Armenians were driven out of Nagorno-Karabakh after Azerbaijani forces seized the region. As this number represents nearly 100 percent of the Armenians and almost all the Christians in Azerbaijan, the situation has been described as ethnic cleansing.

For those fleeing the conflict, the suffering began the moment they got in their cars. They were forced to give up their homes, businesses, and community, and their children had to leave their schools. With few belongings and their family members, the refugees became trapped in a line of cars trying to reach the border, which took up to 24 hours in the sweltering heat. Some families reported the drive taking two to three days before reaching a small town on the Armenian side of the border, already hungry, exhausted, and dehydrated.

Some of the refugees already hold Armenian passports ,and all of them are entitled to Armenian citizenship. They receive a one-time payment of US$250 to begin their new lives, followed by a $185 monthly support, which is equal to Armenia’s minimum wage. However, this minimum is well below the country’s average income of about $668 per month.

The influx of refugees, amounting to about 4 percent of the country's 3 million people, has strained resources, especially since a quarter of the population already lives below the poverty line. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for the government to continue these payments now that one in thirty residents is a refugee from Nagorno-Karabakh. The EU, UN, and other international organizations have sent aid but it is insufficient.

This situation is complicated by the fact that these are legitimate refugees, not just military-aged men seeking better economic opportunities, as seen in other parts of Europe. They are families with women and children, some of whom have disabilities. It is estimated that about 30 percent of the refugees are under eighteen, while 18 percent are elderly. Consequently, not all will be able to work, and many will need ongoing support. At the same time, jobs and homes have been difficult to find, exacerbating the challenges they face.

Seven months later, many refugees are living in poverty. Most are residing in the country's capital, Yerevan, which is now overwhelmed and extremely expensive. While leaving the capital might seem like a good option, employment opportunities are meagre elsewhere in the country. One town of 20,000 is hosting 8,000 refugees, highlighting the strain on smaller communities. Housing the refugees is a significant problem both in the capital and in other cities, with entire families living in single rooms in disused state buildings like libraries and schools.

Ruben Vardanyan, the former head of the separatist government, was arrested by Azerbaijani forces while attempting to flee the country. Authorities allege that he committed war crimes. As of May 2024, he remains in isolation, denied visits by the embassy or the Red Cross.

The most recent leader of the now-defunct Republic of Artsakh, Samvel Shahramanian, initially stated that as of January 2024, the republic would no longer exist. He later changed his mind. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan reaffirmed Armenia’s dominion over the territory just before Azerbaijan launched its military offensive. However, since then, he has repeatedly stated that for his administration, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is finished, effectively ceding the territory to Azerbaijan.

Shahramanian, along with many displaced people from Nagorno-Karabakh, has refused to relinquish their claim on the territory and wants to return. They are supporting an opposition-backed bid to remove the prime minister.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has stated that Shahramanian will not be permitted to establish a government in exile. Pashinyan has already agreed that the region belongs to Azerbaijan and wants to consider the conflict resolved and sign a peace treaty, a move applauded by the EU. However, continued claims by the separatists complicate Armenia’s relations with Azerbaijan. Additionally, Pashinyan has expressed a desire for Armenia to make a bid for EU membership this year. Being involved in an ongoing conflict could negatively impact Armenia’s accession to the EU. Pashinyan seems to be cutting Armenia’s losses in Nagorno-Karabakh in exchange for the greater goal of joining the EU.


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For a large portion of the population, however, the conflict is far from over. Thousands have turned out to protest the prime minister ceding border areas, including villages in Tavush, to Azerbaijan. The “Tavush for the Homeland” movement has been calling for his resignation. Archbishop Bagrat Galstanian, head of the Tavush Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, has emerged as the leader of the protests and has offered to serve as the country’s interim prime minister if Pashinyan can be forced out of office. In response, the Prime Minister has called the Armenian Apostolic Church a historic "agent of influence."

The people of Tavush have been issued eviction notices by the Baku government, requiring them to leave their homes by June 1. This will mark the departure of the last few remaining Armenian Christians in Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, former citizens of the Republic of Artsakh are struggling to set up homes and survive in Armenia. Some may hold out hope that the disputed territories could someday be recaptured, but that seems a distant and unlikely possibility.

The Prime Minister is struggling to retain his position while shifting Armenia more towards the EU and simultaneously finding ways to care for the refugees. Additionally, he is advocating for a separation of church and state, which has put him in conflict with Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Given the church's deep connection to Armenia’s history and the global diaspora, this new challenge is seen by some as a conflict between a future-oriented government and a community anchored in the past, leaving the refugees trapped in the middle. 

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Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA MBA, is a China economic analyst teaching economics at the American University in Mongolia. He has spent 20 years in Asia and is the author of six books about China. His writing has appeared in The Diplomat, South China Morning Post, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Penthouse, Shanghai Institute of American Studies, Epoch Times, War on the Rocks, Just the News, and Black Belt Magazine.

Image: Wikimedia / Russian peacekeepers help evacuate Ethnic Armenian refugees from Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh 


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