Nagorno-Karabakh residents await their fate

Nagorno-Karabakh residents await their fate
The issue of what rights the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will be granted by the Azerbaijan dictatorship is likely to be key to whether the population stays or leaves. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews September 23, 2023

Talks are continuing over the weekend between the victorious Azerbaijani forces and the defeated breakaway administration in Nagorno-Karabakh over guarantees for the territory’s ethnic Armenians after the territory is reabsorbed by Azerbaijan.

The unrecognised Nagorno-Karababh government in Stepanakert surrendered after 24 hours’ fighting on Wednesday. Now the territory’s 120,000 inhabitants await news over their fate under rule from Baku, or at least whether they will be allowed to flee to Armenia safely.

Russian peacekeepers, who stood by during the invasion, have reported that Nagorno-Karabakh forces have begun handing over their weapons under the peace deal reached on September 22.

Negotiations in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlakh are focused on security guarantees for the withdrawal of the Nagorno-Karabakh forces to Armenia and amnesties for its soldiers and leaders. News agencies reported that Nagorno-Karabakh presidential advisor David Babayan said on Friday that so far there were “no concrete results”.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s authorities say 200 ethnic Armenians were killed and 400 wounded in the fighting, while Azerbaijani social media reports say there were more than 150 casualties on their side.

There have been several credible reports of atrocities committed during the invasion by Azerbaijani forces, though none have yet been independently verified. Azerbaijani military forces have a well justified reputation for barbarities.

The Nagorno-Karabakh population has suffered an Azerbaijani blockade since December, which had only just been lifted before the invasion began.

Annalena Baerbock, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany, told the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday:  “Just at the moment when a glimpse of hope was emerging, when humanitarian supplies were allowed into Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku broke its repeated assurances to refrain from the use of force, causing tremendous suffering to a population already in dire straits.”

The UN Security Council has expressed its willingness to provide support if humanitarian access is granted. The EU Commission has already allocated €500,000.

The issue of what rights the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will be granted by the Azerbaijan dictatorship is likely to be key to whether the population stays or leaves.

President Ilham Aliyev has promised the Karabakh Armenians that "all their rights will be guaranteed: educational rights, cultural rights, religious rights, and municipal electoral rights, because Azerbaijan is a free society."

But Azerbaijanis themselves have few democratic rights and Aliyev has long rejected any kind of real autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh. When Azerbaijan retook some of its territory in the 2020 war, the inhabitants were expelled. Nagorno-Karabakh leaders fear that Baku intends to ethnically cleanse their region and settle it with Azerbaijanis.

"A whole host of questions still need to be resolved," Babayan told Reuters. "We do not know what guarantee of security our people will get. This needs to be resolved."

The region’s inhabitants are already beginning to flee. The Russian peacekeeping contingent in the territory said it had evacuated more than 5,000 people from the regions of Martakert, Martuni, and Askeran after Azerbaijani forces advanced into those regions.

Stepanakert is overrun, with every public building hosting dozens of families. At the city’s airport, thousands of civilians are encamped there in the open air, having fled from the Azerbaijani soldiers who captured their villages.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said in a video address that Nagorno-Karabakh’s residents should stay.

"We don't want to talk about this, because we believe that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh should live in their homes, in their homeland, in dignified and safe conditions," Pashinyan said on September 21. "At this moment, our assessment is that there is no direct threat to the civilian population of Nagorno-Karabakh."

Pashinyan added that a mass evacuation was “not plan A nor plan B,” and that he hoped the Karabakh Armenians would still be able to live a “safe and dignified” life in Nagorno-Karabakh, but that Armenia was ready and able to accept 40,000 families if the need arose.

Pashinyan is facing strong criticism for failing to back Nagorno-Karabakh in recent months, an approach which opponents say encouraged the Azerbaijani offensive.

Thousands have been protesting against Pashinyan in Yerevan this week, with police deploying stun grenades against the crowd at one point. Armenian opposition groups claimed that some 350 supporters were detained on September 22.  The authorities said 16 policemen and 18 civilians were wounded on Tuesday night.

The protesters are also angry with Russia for the inaction of its peacekeepers. The Russian embassy in Yerevan has become one of the main targets of the protests in recent days.