By: G. Dutra
Standing on the roads leading into and out of Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, one would witness a steady flow of vehicles leaving but only a few coming in. In fact, since the middle of September, roughly one hundred thousand of Karabakh’s residents fled to Armenia, out of a pre-migration population of one hundred and twenty thousand. This has left the enclave nearly abandoned and Armenia to scramble to absorb the sudden flood of refugees. It is thus plausible for the reader to pose the following questions: Where is Nagorno-Karabakh, what country is it a part of and who lives there? And why have so many people left in the last month?
What is Nagorno-Karabakh?
Nagorno-Karabakh is a territory found in the South Caucasus region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Whilst it is found within the territory of the Azerbaijan Republic, Nagorno-Karabakh’s population is comprised of ethnic Armenians, resulting in a dispute for the region between the two countries. The ethnic tension culminated in a bloody war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union allowing both nations to vie for control of the land. During this war, ethnic Azerbaijanis, a minority at the time, were forcibly removed from Karabakh and the land was made an almost exclusively Armenian territory. From the mid-90s onwards, the land was administered by the Armenian state whilst being in Azerbaijani territory. This began to change in the mid-20s, with the Azerbaijani state putting increasing pressure on the land by closing border posts and refusing to allow imports of fuel, leading the land to rely entirely on the much poorer Armenia.
The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War
In September 2020, whilst the world was busy tackling the Coronavirus pandemic, Azerbaijan launched a surprise offensive on Armenia. The war, which was supported by Azerbaijan’s vast natural gas reserves, resulted in the capture of the second-largest town in Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijani forces. A ceasefire brokered by the Russian Federation ended hostilities in November of that year, with both sides agreeing to Azerbaijan’s control of a substantial part of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as the 7 districts adjacent to the region that were previously held by Armenian forces. The rest of the region was left autonomous under Russian patrol. However, peace was short-lived, and a series of escalating border clashes through 2021-22 culminated in a blockade of a vital route into the enclave, which began in March of this year.
How do things stand today?
The Azerbaijani blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh which began in March of 2023 has been sustained until today. Because it blocked a route that is a key artery for supplies into the region, residents are faced with severe shortages of food, fuel, medicine, and electricity, with rationing in place, schools being shut and a spike in unemployment. This situation proceeded to deteriorate, with Armenian politicians being unable to avert Azerbaijan’s blockade due to the loss of its major security partner, Russia, when the war in Ukraine began in 2022. Last month, on September 20th, Azerbaijan began yet another offensive on Nagorno-Karabakh, and although it lasted under 24 hours before a ceasefire was reached, Azerbaijan succeeded in seizing the disputed region.
At the risk of genocide under Azerbaijani occupation, the ethnic Armenians living in Karabakh began fleeing the region in mass. The lack of essential resources made life in the region entirely unviable. In 13 days, 80% of the residents fled to Armenia, no longer comfortable with the everlasting mark left in the national psyche of the country’s people by the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century.
As long lines form in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, refugees are met with a strained system that has had to accommodate over 100,000 people in under 2 weeks. The newcomers have brought unrest to the state, with demonstrators expressing their discontent as to how Armenia’s prime minister dealt with the situation, blaming him for bringing about the loss of a place which many regard as the spiritual homeland of the Armenian people. Many, however, are happy to get even a little help following the months of blockade which have left many people sick and emaciated. Meanwhile, apart from fearing political unrest, Armenian politicians are ever worried about their increasingly hostile and militarily more powerful neighbour to the east and a threat to political stability. With growing instability and a flaring up of ethnic conflicts in the Caucuses, the future looks increasingly worrying for one of the most historically rich regions in the world.