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8 June 2023

Fear and loathing in Armenia

The prospect of losing the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan has Armenians bracing for another humanitarian catastrophe.

By Ido Vock

YEREVAN — Walk around Yerevan, the capital Armenia, and you’ll notice two flags flying from most flagpoles and many windowsills of the city’s eclectic buildings, from grand Stalin-era blocks of flats to ultra-modern museums. One is the national tricolour of red, blue and apricot, the colours used during the medieval period when the French House of Lusignan ruled the region. The second is the emblem of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, almost identical to Armenia’s but with an added carpet-inspired motif.

The prominence of the Karabakhi flag here reveals how strongly locals feel about the region, an ethnic Armenian enclave inside neighbouring Azerbaijan that has been disputed for decades. But Armenia, after a catastrophic defeat by Azerbaijan, its long-time enemy, in a 2020 war, is on the cusp of giving up on Nagorno-Karabakh. A deal to resolve the decades-old conflict appears to be closer than ever, on terms which many in Yerevan feel amount to a de facto Armenian surrender. Many fear that the peace deal could result in the region’s centuries-old ethnic Armenian population facing mass displacement.

Accordingly, the mood in Yerevan is grim. “A sense of helplessness and powerlessness permeates Armenian society,” said Karena Avedissian, a political scientist and editor for EVN Report, an Armenian new website, when I met her in Yerevan in late May. My arrival in the country had coincided with a seeming rapprochement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with rounds of negotiations mediated by the US, EU and Russia. Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian prime minister, now regularly meets Ilham Aliyev, the Azerbaijani president.

In many ways Armenians have reason to be optimistic about the future. Outwardly the capital is booming. The country’s economy has flourished since the war in Ukraine began, largely because of an influx of Russian citizens. At first Russians fled south for political reasons, fearing government repression and the army draft. They would often work remotely in professional jobs once they had arrived. Now a different type of Russian can be seen across the city: tourists, exploring one of the few destinations still open to them. Russians from Moscow to Volgograd take advantage of plentiful direct flights to Armenia. They can be seen strolling around Yerevan’s grand Soviet-era Republic Square and frequenting the new coffee shops and pizza parlours opened by émigrés.

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Both groups of Russians have brought money – a lot of it – to this poor country of fewer than three million people. Armenia’s GDP grew a record 12.6 per cent last year. The IMF forecasts growth of a further 5.5 per cent this year, largely driven by Russian migrants and tourists bringing Russian money. Along with other countries bordering Russia, Armenia’s economy has further been boosted by reselling sanctioned goods to Russia, Jim O’Brien, sanctions co-ordinator at the US State Department, told Politico.

But despite the economic windfall, the surrender of Nagorno-Karabakh – with the uncertainty about the future of the civilian population of the region – is looming. Pashinyan made a monumental statement to local reporters on 22 May, a few days before I arrived in Yerevan: “Armenia recognises Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity of 86,600 square kilometres. Those 86,600 square kilometres also include Nagorno-Karabakh.” (He did caveat that that recognition was conditional on Azerbaijan recognising the sovereignty of Armenia.)

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There was a time when it was unthinkable that an Armenian prime minister would pronounce those words. Control over Nagorno-Karabakh has been an existential cause for Armenia since the Soviet era. An Armenian nationalist movement in the 1980s pushed for Nagorno-Karabakh to be transferred to Armenia; this then escalated into ethnic conflict and all-out war when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Armenian forces expelled the territory’s 600,000 Azerbaijani residents, declaring it independent from Azerbaijan; about 230,000 ethnic Armenians were forced to leave Azerbaijan.

For 30 years Nagorno-Karabakh existed as a de facto independent state, although its sovereignty was not recognised by any country. Periodic efforts to reach a peace deal between the two sides always failed, in part because of intransigent public opinion in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, opposed to any concessions to Azerbaijan.

But in 2020, after having quietly built up its military, Azerbaijan launched an assault on Nagorno-Karabakh, conquering significant parts of the territory it claims as its own. A fragile Russian-brokered ceasefire was reached. Late last year, with the Russian military tied up in Ukraine and the EU increasingly reliant on Azerbaijan – a major oil and gas producer – to replace energy imports from Russia, Azerbaijan sensed an opportunity. The government began ratcheting up the pressure on Nagorno-Karabakh, blockading the territory’s only road to Armenia to attempt to force a settlement.

Pashinyan is less wedded to the Nagorno-Karabakh cause than some of his predecessors as prime minister who hailed from the region and were known as the “Karabakh Clan”. Pashinyan has made it clear that he prioritises a peace agreement for Armenia. A delicate balance is needed for what has traditionally been the touchstone issue of Armenian politics, but his policy has at least some support among voters, Avedissian told me. “There are a lot of Armenians who have no connection to Karabakh at all, who are quite happy to give it up in exchange for a sense of security and peace.”

The future of the 150,000 ethnic Armenians who remain in the region is unclear. Azerbaijan says the territory’s inhabitants can live as Azerbaijani citizens under its sovereignty, but Armenians treat these claims with derision. “Azerbaijani dissidents say even Azerbaijanis do not enjoy their constitutional rights,” Tigran Grigoryan, head of the Regional Centre for Democracy and Security, an Armenian think tank, told me. “So how can Armenians expect to?”

Thirty years of mutual hatred and numerous documented war crimes during the 2020 war, mostly committed by Azerbaijani forces, mean few Armenians trust the Azerbaijani government. “There is huge concern that this peace process could lead to massive ethnic cleansing as conditions for people there are made unbearable, so that they are induced to ‘voluntarily’ leave the territory,” Grigoryan said.

There are warning signs to justify this concern. In a speech in May in the town of Lachin – which returned to Azerbaijani control in 2022 – President Aliyev told Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians to “obey the laws of Azerbaijan [and] be a loyal and normal citizen of Azerbaijan”. He threatened that if the territory’s separatist institutions were not dissolved, Azerbaijan would dissolve them by force and rejected the prospect of international protections for ethnic Armenians.

In Yerevan Armenians know that Azerbaijan dominates the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict militarily. The question is whether the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians decide to fight for their territory, as some of their leaders have indicated they could, or accept Azerbaijani control. The region’s heavily armed de facto army is under the control of Stepanakert, the capital, not Yerevan.

If Azerbaijani control over Karabakh is formally established, Armenians fear massive ethnic cleansing of the population. Many Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians are unlikely to wait to see whether Azerbaijan will keep its promises and will leave if the territory is handed over. Others, such as the elderly, may refuse to vacate their homes, risking confrontations with Azerbaijani forces with a reputation for brutality. Another humanitarian catastrophe risks being added to the Armenians’ already too long history of genocide and displacement. Yerevan may be flourishing but it only takes a quick glance up to the sky to catch a glimpse of those ubiquitous flags and be reminded of what could be lost.

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