GP Short Notes # 753, 28 September 2023
In the news
On 28 September, Nagorno-Karabakh separatist leader, Samvel Shakhramanyan, signed a decree stating that their self-declared Republic of Artsakh would “cease to exist” by 1 January 2024.
The same day, the former leader of Nagorno-Karabakh, Ruben Vardanyan, a businessman who led the separatist government from November 2022 to February 2023, was arrested by Azerbaijani authorities while trying to leave the region.
From 24 September, ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh began a mass exodus from Armenia following the military offensive launched by Azerbaijan, culminating in a ceasefire between Azerbaijan and the separatist forces. According to several news reports, over 70,000 ethnic Armenians out of an estimated population of 120,000 have left Nagorno-Karabakh and entered Armenia in the last week over fears of persecution and ethnic cleansing.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement urging the ethnic Armenians to remain in Nagorno-Karabakh: “We call on Armenian residents not to leave their homes and become part of Azerbaijan's multi-ethnic society.”
Issues at large
First, a background to the self-declared republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1923, the former Soviet Union established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, home to a majority of ethnic Armenians but located inside the internationally recognised borders of Azerbaijan. The region has operated for over 30 years autonomously with a de facto government called the Republic of Artsakh. In 1988, the region’s legislature passed a resolution to join Armenia, however, the region went on to officially declare independence. Since then, Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two major wars in 1988 and 2020 and several border skirmishes over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Second, Azerbaijan’s victory and Armenia’s loss over Nagorno-Karabakh. Since the ceasefire brokered in 2020, Azerbaijan has demanded that it should have full control of all of Nagorno-Karabakh. Over the last three years, Azerbaijan has regained substantial territory in the region. However, for Armenia, the situation is bitter once again. Armenia has lost substantial territory over the last three years and has been on the receiving end of Azerbaijan’s aggression. While the recent developments have highlighted Azerbaijan’s aggression over the region and its ability to acquire its demands, Armenia, faces challenges in its planning and regional support.
Third, the uncertain peace agreement. The hostilities on the battlefield may have come to an end, however, the hindrances in the peace negotiations continue to remain. In 2022, both sides began negotiations on a peace agreement that would formally delimit their mutual border, rebuild transport links, and restore diplomatic relations, however, these talks remain elusive. The most contentious issue up for debate would be the transportation links, particularly, the Zangezur Corridor, a road through Armenia connecting Azerbaijan to its exclave of Naxcivan and the Lachin Corridor, which links Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh.
Fourth, the mass exodus from Nagorno-Karabakh. Mass displacements have been a common feature in this conflict. Although concerning, the present exodus is not the largest in terms of numbers. In 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that 90,000 people had gone to Armenia and 40,000 to Azerbaijan. Earlier in 1994, it was estimated that over 900,000 people fled to Azerbaijan and 300,000 to Armenia because of the war. The concern with the present exodus is Armenia’s preparedness and ability to handle the influx of ethnic Armenian refugees.
First, the likelihood of a humanitarian crisis. Given that Nagorno-Karabakh has already been witnessing a humanitarian crisis since December 2022, the displacement of people is likely to threaten the outbreak of a humanitarian crisis in the region. The crisis would take a toll on Armenia as it grapples with the influx of ethnic Armenian refugees. To address these concerns, Yerevan would require vital assistance from the international community.
Second, the complete breakdown of the 2020 ceasefire agreement. The agreement has been criticised for being lopsided in favour of Azerbaijan and for the omission of key issues that needed to be resolved. The agreement failed to discuss communication, transport links, and the issue of Armenian refugees and Azerbaijani Internally Displaced People (IDPs). These issues are likely to become more polarised with the recent developments. The two sides would likely take hard stances on these issues in an attempt to play their power.
Third, the geopolitical implications. Although Azerbaijan’s reclaim of territory in Nagorno-Karabakh seems to be achieved with little effort, its actions reflect the geopolitical development that has taken place in the last three years in the South Caucasus. For instance, Azerbaijan’s closeness to Turkey and Iran is likely to play out in the region further. Conversely, Armenia’s relations with Russia are troubled, while the US, EU and other players remain neutral in taking sides. However, the power politics over the region should not be dismissed as it could manifest itself more evidently in the future.