Neil Hauer is a Canadian journalist reporting on Russia, Ukraine and the Caucasus.
Ethnic cleansing was supposed to be a thing of the past. “Never again,” and all that.
Yet that’s exactly what we all watched take place last week in the South Caucasus. Following a military offensive on Sept. 19, Azerbaijan put an end to the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, the local Armenian name for the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Most of its 120,000 people followed, fleeing to neighbouring Armenia. The territory is now empty: a one-day UN mission last week found as few as 50 people still there, while television crews showed the stark emptiness of the region’s once-vibrant capital, Stepanakert.
The exodus itself was like a vision of a past age – or at least, one that we had hoped was past. Against the backdrop of the majestic Zangezur mountains, an endless line of refugees packed the only road from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, spending entire days in their cars as they waited to cross. In scenes reminiscent of 1990s Yugoslavia, the Karabakh Armenians fled in whatever vehicles could carry them – tiny sedans holding five or six people, in the backs of open-air lorries, on tractors and farm equipment. Most had only a few bags of clothes and memories with them.
Nagorno-Karabakh had never had an easy existence, its tenuous, de facto independence having been won in 1994 following the USSR’s collapse as the local Armenian population sought to avoid the pogroms and forced exile of their ethnic kin elsewhere in Azerbaijan. Defeat in another war in 2020 saw Azerbaijan conquer much of the territory and Russian peacekeepers introduced to safeguard the shaky ceasefire agreement.
That, too, did not last. In December of last year, Azerbaijan, in violation of the ceasefire agreement, blocked the only road from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, allowing traffic only from Red Cross aid vehicles. From June, those, too, were barred, leading to starvation conditions as Baku attempted to choke the local population into submission. Then, in yet another unprovoked act of violence, Azerbaijan launched a full-scale offensive on the starving populace on Sept. 19, killing and wounding hundreds in artillery and rocket strikes while displacing thousands to the capital. Nagorno-Karabakh’s government agreed to a full capitulation, and as soon as the road to Armenia was opened a few days later, the population fled.
Azerbaijan says that these people left voluntarily, and that it guarantees their rights and security should they return. A quick glance at the evidence, let alone testimony from Karabakh Armenians themselves, shows this is nonsense. Azerbaijan starved these people for months before bombing and killing them, all while refusing any outside observers or international aid to reach them. Azerbaijan itself is a hereditary dictatorship ruled by the same family for the past three decades, with conditions that Freedom House describes as one of “the worst of the worst” – amongst the most repressive regimes worldwide. Anti-Armenian ethnic hatred, meanwhile, has been established as the foundational pillar of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s autocratic rule. Perhaps nowhere was this on display more vividly than Azerbaijan’s “Victory Park” outdoor museum commemorating the country’s 2020 military victory, featuring grotesque caricatures of dead and dying Armenians with features that would not look out of place in a 1930s Der Stuermer antisemitic cartoon. To think that ethnic Armenians could be safe in such an environment is to defy reality.
The Armenian heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh is also under immense threat. This includes sites like the Amaras monastery, the first place in the world where the Armenian alphabet was taught in the fifth century. Azerbaijan has repeatedly destroyed all traces of Armenian history in its territory, most notable in Nakhchivan, where every single Armenian site was eradicated. Karabakh is likely next.
The question now is what comes next. Azerbaijan has made little effort to disguise its designs on Armenia itself, and its willingness to use force to achieve them. Azerbaijani officials regularly demand, with Turkish backing, that Armenia provide it with the Zangezur corridor, a land link between mainland Azerbaijan and its Nakhchivan exclave, and have stated that they have a ”plan B” to acquire it if Yerevan does not comply. Azerbaijani officials also regularly refer to all of Armenia as ”Western Azerbaijan,” with Mr. Aliyev repeatedly stating that these are Azerbaijan’s ”historic lands” and that “we will return there.” International alarm from the U.S., France, Canada and others has underscored the seriousness of a new war.
For the 120,000 people of Nagorno-Karabakh, meanwhile, their lives as they knew them are over. They must now start again, as the victims of the 21st century’s latest ethnic cleansing.