Karabakh dissolves separatist government amid exodus, crackdowns
The breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh government will cease to exist by next year, after Azerbaijan’s invasion last week. Ethnic Armenians are fleeing Karabakh in fear of civilian reprisals, raising concerns of ethnic cleansing.
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Ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh said on Thursday they were dissolving the breakaway statelet they had defended for three decades, where more than half the population has fled since Azerbaijan launched a lightning offensive last week.
In a statement, they said their self-declared Republic of Artsakh would “cease to exist” by Jan. 1, in what amounted to a formal capitulation to Azerbaijan.
For Azerbaijan and its president, Ilham Aliyev, the outcome is a triumphant restoration of sovereignty over an area that is internationally recognized as part of its territory but whose ethnic Armenian majority won de facto independence in a war in the 1990s.
For Armenians, it is a defeat and a national tragedy.
A decree signed by the region’s separatist President Samvel Shakhramanyan cited an agreement reached Sept. 20 to end the fighting under which Azerbaijan will allow the “free, voluntary and unhindered movement” of Nagorno-Karabakh residents to Armenia, according to the Associated Press. Azerbaijan had imposed a blockade of the only road connecting the region with Armenia in December.
Some 70,500 people had crossed into Armenia by early Thursday afternoon, Russia’s RIA news agency reported, out of an estimated population of 120,000. Meanwhile, a former head of the breakaway ethnic Armenian government was arrested by Azerbaijan on Wednesday while trying to cross the border.
“Analysis of the situation shows that in the coming days there will be no Armenians left in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Interfax news agency quoted Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan as saying. “This is an act of ethnic cleansing.”
Azerbaijan denies that accusation, saying it is not forcing people to leave and that it will peacefully reintegrate the Karabakh region and guarantee the civic rights of the ethnic Armenians.
Karabakh Armenians say they do not trust that promise, mindful of a long history of bloodshed between the two sides including two wars since the break-up of the Soviet Union. For days they have fled en masse down the snaking mountain road through Azerbaijan that connects Karabakh to Armenia.
On Monday night, a fuel reservoir exploded at a gas station where people lined up for gas that was in short supply from the blockade, according to the Associated Press. At least 68 people were killed and nearly 300 injured, with over 100 others still considered missing.
Azerbaijan’s ambassador to London, Elin Suleymanov, told Reuters in an interview that Baku did not want a mass exodus from Karabakh and was not encouraging people to leave.
He said Azerbaijan had not yet had a chance to prove what he said was its sincere commitment to provide secure and better living conditions for those ethnic Armenians who choose to stay.
The Kremlin said on Thursday it was closely monitoring the humanitarian situation in Karabakh and said Russian peacekeepers in the region were providing assistance to residents. It said Russian President Vladimir Putin had no plans to visit Armenia.
The United States is expected to announce the deployment of a Disaster Assistance Response Team in the South Caucasus region to coordinate the U.S. humanitarian response to the crisis.
Western governments have also expressed alarm over the humanitarian crisis and demanded access for international observers to monitor Azerbaijan’s treatment of the local population.
Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said this week she had heard “very troubling reports of violence against civilians.” Ms. Power traveled to Armenia and Azerbaijan this week.
Ms. Power, in a statement seen by Reuters, said Washington would stand in solidarity with Armenia and that it was essential the international community gained access to Karabakh, amid reports of unknown numbers of people being injured and requiring evacuation, or lacking food and other essentials.
Azerbaijan said that, at a meeting on Wednesday, Mr. Aliyev had told Ms. Power that the rights of ethnic Armenians would be protected by law, like those of other minorities.
“The Azerbaijani president noted that the civilian population had not been harmed during the anti-terrorist measures, and only illegal Armenian armed formations and military facilities had been targeted,” a statement said.
Mr. Aliyev’s office said on Thursday he was visiting Jabrayil, a city on the southern edge of Karabakh that was destroyed by Armenian forces in the 1990s, which Azerbaijan recaptured in 2020 and is now rebuilding.
Crackdowns and arrests
While saying he had no quarrel with ordinary Karabakh Armenians, Mr. Aliyev last week described their leaders as a “criminal junta” that would be brought to justice.
A former head of Karabakh’s government, Ruben Vardanyan, was arrested on Wednesday as he tried to cross into Armenia. Azerbaijan’s state security service said on Thursday he was being charged with financing terrorism and with illegally crossing the Azerbaijani border last year.
Mr. Vardanyan, a billionaire banker and philanthropist, moved to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2022 and headed the regional government for several months before stepping down earlier this year, according to the AP.
David Babayan, Nagorno-Karabakh’s former foreign minister and now presidential adviser, said in a statement he was voluntarily giving himself up to the Azerbaijani authorities.
“My failure to appear, or worse, my escape, will cause serious harm to our long-suffering people, to many people, and I, as an honest person, hard worker, patriot, and a Christian, cannot allow this,” Mr. Babayan said, according to the AP.
Mass displacements have been a feature of the Karabakh conflict since it broke out in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union headed towards collapse.
Between 1988 and 1994 about 500,000 Azerbaijanis from Karabakh and the areas around it were expelled from their homes, while the conflict prompted 350,000 Armenians to leave Azerbaijan and 186,000 Azerbaijanis to leave Armenia, according to “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War,” a 2003 book by Caucasus scholar and analyst Thomas de Waal.
Many of the Armenians escaping this week in heavily laden cars, trucks, buses, and even tractors said they were hungry and fearful.
“This is one of the darkest pages of Armenian history,” said Father David, an Armenian priest who came to the border to provide spiritual support for those arriving. “The whole of Armenian history is full of hardships.”