In just 24 hours, Azerbaijan’s military achieved a swift victory, compelling the surrender of an enclave inhabited by 120,000 ethnic Armenians. What lies ahead for these men, women, and children in the South Caucasus region has become a growing source of anxiety. Despite Azerbaijan’s assurances, Armenians in the area are deeply concerned about their future, fearing they may be compelled to leave or face even worse outcomes.
Siranush Sargsyan, after visiting several shelters in the regional capital, expressed her distress through a series of voice messages, emphasizing the severe lack of food. She lamented, “I don’t know anyone who wants to stay here. I have very close elderly relatives who lost their sons in previous wars, and they prefer to die here.” However, for many, like her generation, this marks the fourth war they have endured.
While oil-rich Azerbaijan is making efforts to reassure the civilian population with promises of food, fuel, and “re-integration,” there appears to be little desire among Armenians to remain in the region. As the Azerbaijani army advanced towards the city Armenians call Stepanakert (known as Khankendi to Azerbaijan), many civilians fled their outlying villages, leaving them in a state of uncertainty and concern for their relatives.
Wars have plagued this region since the Soviet Union’s fall, with the first one occurring from 1992 to 1994 when Armenia occupied the area. At least 200 more lives were lost this week as Azerbaijani forces pushed further into the enclave, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
President Ilham Aliyev claims that Karabakh Armenians can now “finally breathe a sigh of relief.” However, trust in Karabakh towards Baku’s government, which has been controlled by one family for 30 years, is severely lacking, especially when the president refers to the region’s leaders as “bloodsucking leeches.”
Currently, the prevailing images are of ethnic Armenians searching for their relatives, seeking shelter, and using makeshift stoves to cook meager food supplies. Last year, Azerbaijan imposed a blockade on the only route into Armenia, known as the Lachin Corridor, which will become crucial if Karabakh’s ethnic Armenians decide to leave in large numbers.
This once-separatist enclave, with its own TV stations, university, and language, will now be assimilated into the surrounding state, according to Azerbaijan. While Azerbaijan asserts that only 50,000 people are affected, Ms. Sargsyan estimates the actual number to be around 110,000. Some 5,000 have sought refuge at a Russian peacekeepers’ base at the local airport.
Caucasus specialist Thomas de Waal of Carnegie Europe is increasingly concerned about the fate of the Karabakh Armenians and believes there is a genuine threat of ethnic cleansing, whether it occurs peacefully or with bloodshed. The primary concern is about men who have fought against Azerbaijan, constituting the majority of the Karabakh population.
Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, has made preparations to accommodate 40,000 families and has accused Azerbaijan of ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani officials are contemplating amnesty for fighters who lay down their arms, but this excludes those who committed crimes in the First Karabakh war.
The involvement of two international groups—the Red Cross and 2,000 Russian peacekeepers—could potentially prevent a deadly exodus of ethnic Armenians. However, there is little faith in the peacekeepers among some Armenians.
Azerbaijan vehemently denies any plans to force the local population to leave and emphasizes its focus on the “re-integration” of ethnic Armenians into society. They claim that full normalization is possible, highlighting that 30,000 Armenians already live in Azerbaijan outside Karabakh, engaging in mixed marriages. However, this optimism is contrasted by the reality of Azerbaijani forces on the outskirts of the regional capital, and the disarmament of the Karabakh army is yet to be completed.
The local population will become entirely dependent on Azerbaijani promises once Azerbaijani forces take control. Security guarantees, not just from Azerbaijan but also from Russia’s peacekeepers, are the immediate concern for Karabakh Armenians, according to Richard Giragosian, the head of the Regional Studies Center think tank in Armenia.
While international attention may prevent the mass exodus of Karabakh’s male population, doubts remain about their willingness to join Azerbaijani society. Armenians like Siranush Sargsyan are apprehensive, believing that Azerbaijan’s true intentions are to erase them from the region.