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Over 120,000 ethnic Armenians are preparing to flee the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region amid fears of ethnic cleansing by Azerbaijan, according to local leaders. The mass exodus would drastically reshape the demographic landscape of the contested territory.
The Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, an area viewed internationally as part of Azerbaijan but controlled by local ethnic Armenians since the Soviet collapse, were forced into a ceasefire on September 20th after a rapid 24-hour Azerbaijani military offensive. While Azerbaijan claims it will guarantee their rights and integrate the region, Nagorno-Karabakh’s leadership told Reuters their people wish to leave rather than live under Azerbaijani rule.
“Our people do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan. Ninety-nine point nine percent prefer to leave our historic lands,” said David Babayan, adviser to the president of the self-declared Republic of Artsakh. It remains unclear when exactly the evacuation down the Lachin corridor connecting Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia will occur.
“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 civilized world,” Babayan lamented. “Those responsible for our fate will one day have to answer before God for their sins.”
The surrender of weapons by Nagorno-Karabakh fighters is already underway according to Babayan. Azerbaijan has repeatedly pledged not to harm Armenian civilians, but distrust runs deep. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan controversially stated residents should stay unless unsafe, while critics demand his resignation for failing to defend the region.
This potential mass migration marks a dramatic new chapter in the contentious history of mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh, conquered over centuries by Persians, Turks, Russians, and Ottomans. It could also alter the delicate regional power balance, as Russia, the U.S., Turkey, and Iran compete for influence in the South Caucasus.
While mainly Muslim Azerbaijan insists Armenians can leave if desired, medical evacuations were expected on Sunday. With thousands left without food, around 150 tons of humanitarian aid from Russia and 65 tons of flour from the Red Cross arrived late Saturday.
Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Background
Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized by the UN and wider international community as part of Azerbaijan. However, the majority Armenian population declared independence in 1991, sparking a bloody war with Azerbaijan that killed 30,000 people and displaced over 1 million.
A 1994 ceasefire left Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding occupied Azerbaijani districts under de facto Armenian control. Several thousand Russian peacekeepers have been deployed to patrol the truce lines. Ethnic cleansing during the war left Nagorno-Karabakh almost entirely Armenian, while former Azeri areas are deserted.
Over the decades, negotiations by the Minsk Group of OSCE mediators failed to deliver a final peace deal. September’s military offensive allowed Azerbaijan to regain large swathes of occupied territory and reshape facts on the ground.
Fear and Distrust Among Ethnic Armenians
While Azerbaijan promises security and rights for Armenians who remain, deep suspicion lingers. The unrecognized Republic of Artsakh’s leadership dismissed these pledges as hollow given past ethnic cleansing.
During the 1990s war, both sides engaged in atrocities and expulsions along ethnic lines. However, Human Rights Watch noted Azerbaijan committed large-scale ethnic cleansing of Armenians, but no evidence showed Armenia did the same to Azeris.
Previous Azerbaijani threats to retake Nagorno-Karabakh by force, coupled with the celestial of Armenian heritage during its recent offensive, stoke fears of similar ethnic cleansing recurring. Armenia also highlights that Azerbaijan’s autocratic government allows little space for dissent.
Uncertain Future for Nagorno-Karabakh
Russia’s peacekeeping role, resettlement of internally displaced peoples, and the reconstruction of war-torn areas remain uncertain. Emigration of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians may pressure Armenia’s struggling economy and trigger lasting demographic change.
Azerbaijan will likely present this exodus as voluntary to counter Armenian ethnic cleansing claims and bolster its integrating narrative. But international observers continue highlighting risks Armenian civilians face under Azerbaijani control.
The dramatic population shifts caused by the latest outbreak of fighting will likely only perpetuate the deep-rooted grievances underpinning this long-running conflict. Rebuilding trust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis will prove even more challenging amid renewed trauma and turmoil.