In the past week the world has unquestionably witnessed the vast ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
You have to feel for the Armenians. This ancient 2,000-year-old Christian civilisation, speaking an Indo-European language, suffered enormously during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. It is happening again.
Large-scale exterminations of Armenians took place in the 1880s, but it was after a series of defeats the Ottoman Empire suffered during the Balkan Wars that over one million Armenians were massacred in 1916 at the orders of Talaat Pasha, a Turkish Ottoman leader. While the menfolk were exterminated, some 200,000 Christian Armenian women and children were forcibly converted to Islam and integrated into Muslim households. Massacres and ethnic cleansing of Armenian survivors continued throughout the Turkish War of Independence after World War I, all carried out by Turkish nationalists.
The Turkish government strongly objects to this carnage being described as “genocide”, maintaining that the deportation of Armenians was a legitimate action. But only two Muslim countries—Azerbaijan and Pakistan—agree with Turkey.
Relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey, the only two predominantly Turkic countries located west of the Caspian Sea, have always been strong, so it’s not surprising that Turkey is on Azerbaijan’s side in the current conflict. Former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev frequently described the two countries as “one nation two states”.
Once again, Armenia fears that genocide or at least ethnic cleansing has reared its ugly head, this time by Azerbaijan on ethnic Armenians in the break-away region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave at the heart of one of the world’s longest-running conflicts. The name reflects its turbulent past: “Nagorno” means “mountainous” in Russian, while “Karabakh” is Azeri for “black garden”. Nagorno-Karabakh is recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan, but large areas have been controlled by ethnic Armenians for three decades. Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a bloody war over the enclave in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it has been the trigger for further violence in the years since. The last major escalation in the conflict took place in 2020 when thousands of people were reported killed during six weeks of fierce fighting. It was only the deployment of Russian peacekeepers that brought the fighting to a halt. However, tensions had been ratcheting up for months ahead of the latest fighting, resulting in the movement of thousands of Armenians, fleeing to the safety of their mother country.
As in the current war in Ukraine, the root cause of the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan lies in the collapse of the Soviet Union thirty-two years ago. For centuries, czarist Russia warred with Ottoman Turkey and backed ethnic Armenians living there. In 1946, Turkey hastily joined NATO to thwart Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin’s plans to annex its easternmost parts that were dominated by ethnic Armenians. Modern-day Armenia and Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union in the 1920s. At the time, the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh had a majority ethnic Armenian population but was controlled by Azerbaijan. Relationships held until the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the regional government in Nagorno-Karabakh voted to become part of Armenia. The government in Yerevan backed the move, which was strongly resisted by the Azerbaijani government in Baku. Inevitably this led to ethnic clashes and—after both Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence from Moscow—a full-scale war.
In a foretaste of the conflict in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis were forced out of Armenia to become refugees in Azerbaijan. During the following years, tens of thousands of people from both sides were killed and more than a million were displaced. The first war over Nagorno-Karabakh ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994, after Armenian forces had gained control over the enclave and the areas adjacent to it. Both sides agreed to a deal that Nagorno-Karabakh should remain part of Azerbaijan, but since the agreement was signed it has become a self-declared republic run by ethnic Armenians backed by 2,000 Russian “peacekeepers”.
Moscow was the key to keeping peace between the two sides, but when Russia invaded Ukraine and began to suffer from western sanctions, President Putin pivoted the Kremlin towards Turkey, calculating that his relationship with President Erdogan would help mitigate their effect.
Now that his sponsor, Turkey, had some influence over Russia which was so preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev saw the opportunity to solve the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh once and for all. Twelve days ago he ordered his troops to launch a new offensive against the enclave, which they took in just 24 hours. Having lost more than 300 of their fighters, the separatists agreed to surrender all their weapons as part of the subsequent ceasefire.
The fate of the 1,20,000 Christian Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh now rested with Baku’s will to build a multi-ethnic nation. However, few appear to trust the Azerbaijanis. Since Baku re-opened the only road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia last Sunday, more than 1,00,000 people have fled their homes. Long lines of buses, trucks and cars have formed at the border, with many spending over 24 hours in their vehicles. While President Ilham Aliyev promised to guarantee the rights and security of the remaining ethnic Armenians, decades of distrust, wars, mutual hatred and violence, not to mention the lingering trauma of the genocide a hundred years ago, have clearly left many residents sceptical over the possibility of the region’s peaceful reintegration into Muslim Azerbaijani territory. They fear the erasure of what they consider a central part of their historic Christian homeland.
This fear was proved correct on Thursday. According to a decree issued in Baku, Nagorno-Karabakh will cease to exist and its remaining ethnic Armenian population will have to accept being ruled as part of Azerbaijan. In a statement, the unrecognised Karabakh administration said that de facto President Samvel Shakhramanyan had signed an agreement that would “dissolve all state institutions and organisations under their departmental authority by 1 January 2024”.
Many believe that Azerbaijan has still to achieve all its goals. Yerevan fears that Baku’s ultimate aim is to open a ground link to its own enclave embedded in Armenia: the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, which has a population of just under 45,000. This would give mainland Azerbaijan direct access to its “brother” country, Turkey. Armenia has always bitterly opposed the so-called Zangezur corridor as it would effectively block the country’s border with Iran. Part of the agreement that settled the Karabakh war of 2020 was for Azerbaijan to have freedom of movement through Zangezur, but it was never implemented. Now the issue is back on the table, raised by President Ilham Aliyev during a meeting with Turkish President Erdogan last week when they met in Nakhichevan.
The downstream effects of Armenia’s capitulation over Nagorno-Karabakh are likely to continue for some time to come, creating instability in the South Caucuses. Baku’s military superiority over Yerevan and Turkey’s continued strong military and political support for fellow Muslim country Azerbaijan, together with Russian peacekeepers’ unwillingness to intervene, will give Azerbaijani authorities the perception that they are in a dominant position to press their advantage. It signals the start of a new era in the South Caucuses, with Russia’s influence declining and Turkey’s growing.
In Los Angeles, one of the world’s largest Armenian diaspora communities has staged several protests in recent days. Kim Kardashian, perhaps the best-known Armenian-American today, urged President Joe Biden to “Stop another Armenian genocide”. She needn’t worry—genocide is now very unlikely. But in the past week, the world has unquestionably witnessed the vast ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Best described, perhaps, by a 33-year-old Armenian priest, Father David, who travelled to the border to provide spiritual support for those ethnic Armenians arriving hungry and fearful: “This is one of the darkest pages of Armenian history—the whole of Armenian history is full of hardships”. Sadly, there is probably more to come.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.