Explained: Mass exodus underway? Karabakh’s 120,000 Armenians to leave amid fears of ‘ethnic cleansing’

The 120,000 ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh will leave for Armenia as they do not want to be a part of Azerbaijan and live in the constant fear of ethnic cleansing, the leader of the breakaway region told Reuters, on Sunday (September 24). Similarly, the Armenian prime minister also said that the possibility of Karabakh Armenians leaving the region is high and that Yerevan was ready to take them. 

This comes after Azerbaijan, on Tuesday (Sept 19) launched a military operation against the separatist Armenians, who have claimed part of Karabakh – which is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory – as their ancestral homeland. 

While Baku has said that it will guarantee their rights if they choose to stay back and integrate the region, Armenians say they fear repression.

Mass exodus in Nagorno-Karabakh?

“Our people do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan. Ninety-nine point nine percent prefer to leave our historic lands,” David Babayan, an adviser to Samvel Shahramanyan, the president of the self-styled Republic of Artsakh, told Reuters. 

He added, “The fate of our poor people will go down in history as a disgrace and a shame for the Armenian people and for the whole civilised world.” 

The military operation which reportedly led to the deaths of over 200 people and wounded 400 others, ended after the Armenians of Karabakh were forced to declare a ceasefire following a lightning 24-hour attack by the much larger Azerbaijani military.

Meanwhile, AFP reported that furious relatives of ethnic Armenians trapped in the breakaway region gathered at the Azerbaijan border to await a medical evacuation. 

The Armenian health ministry said 23 ambulances carrying a first batch of “seriously and very seriously wounded citizens,” were on their way to the border, accompanied by medics and Red Cross workers.

The leader of the breakaway region said it was not immediately clear when the population would move down the Lachin corridor which links the territory to Armenia. 

The ethnic Armenian authorities also said that Russian peacekeepers will escort the homeless families of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia if they wish. 

“We inform you that families who have become homeless as a result of recent military operations and who have expressed desire to leave the republic will be carried out by Russian peacekeepers,” said the authorities on Facebook. 

It added, “The government will soon provide information about the transfer of other population groups.” 

If a mass exodus were to take place, it could change the delicate balance of power in the South Caucasus region where countries like Russia, the United States, Turkey and Iran are jostling for influence. Notably, the region is home to several oil and gas pipelines and home to people of multiple ethnicities. 

‘Danger of ethnic cleansing’

As the Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan continues to face calls for resignation, he said that Yerevan is ready to accept all ethnic Armenian compatriots from Nagorno-Karabakh. “The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh still face the danger of ethnic cleansing,” said Pashinyan, during a national address, as per TASS. 

He added, “If real living conditions are not created for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh in their homes and effective mechanisms of protection against ethnic cleansing, then the likelihood is increasing that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will see expulsion from their homeland as the only way out.”

“Our government will lovingly welcome our brothers and sisters from Nagorno-Karabakh,” said Pashinyan. However, it was not immediately clear where the 120,000 people could be housed in Armenia which is home to some 2.8 million people. 

The Armenian PM also took a swipe at the long-standing ally Russia after previously criticising Moscow – the traditional power broker in the region – for being too distracted by its own war in Ukraine. 

Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and Moscow-Yerevan military-political cooperation were “insufficient” security guarantees, said the Armenian PM. 

This comes after Moscow refused to come to Armenia’s assistance in the latest Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and reportedly argued that Yerevan itself recognised the disputed region as part of Baku. 

Pashinyan, earlier this week, also said that unidentified forces were planning a coup against him amid widespread protests in Yerevan which have led to the arrest of nearly 100 people. Additionally, he has also accused Russian media of fighting an information war against him.

Moscow, which has around 2,000 peacekeepers in the region as well as a military base in Armenia, regards itself as the prime security guarantor. But that might change soon, as Armenia recently hosted a joint army exercise with the United States.  

Washington has criticised Azerbaijan’s military operation and expressed “deep concern” for ethnic Armenians there and even sent a US congressional delegation to meet with leaders in Armenia to express support. 

During his speech at the United Nations General Assembly Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov promised that Baku would ensure equal treatment for ethnic Armenians from the disputed region. 

“I wish to reiterate that Azerbaijan is determined to reintegrate ethnic Armenian residents of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan as equal citizens,” said Bayramov. It is also worth noting that last week’s Azerbaijani victory may have brought a decisive end to the decades-long conflict. 

Turkey – a member of the US-led military alliance NATO – has previously expressed support for Baku’s operation to preserve its territorial integrity. 

Days, after Washington said it sent delegates to Armenia, the Turkish presidency, on Sunday (Sept 24), reported that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet his counterpart Ilham Aliyev in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan on Monday. 

This comes as the two allies have sought to step up efforts to open a land corridor linking Turkey to Azerbaijan’s main territory via Nakhchivan. 

(With inputs from agencies)


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