Armenian Exodus Marks a New Front in East-West Power Tussle

The departure of 100,000 Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh ends a 30-year conflict, but raises the specter of more tension with Putin’s Russia.

(Bloomberg) — Presenter Marianna Ghahramanyan dissolved into tears on live television as she read out the breaking news that her nation’s dream had died.

Apologizing, the experienced broadcaster tried again to tell her viewers that Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh had announced the dissolution of their breakaway republic after more than three decades of fighting for independence against Azerbaijan.

Tears choked her words once more. “It was so painful,” Ghahramanyan, 39, recalled later at a café in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. “It’s a personal tragedy for me and a huge tragedy for my people.”

The exodus of practically the entire Armenian population from the region they call Artsakh has underlined the scale of the trauma. More than 100,000 people have flooded into Armenia, abandoning their homes and possessions in the rush to leave since Azerbaijan took full control of Nagorno-Karabakh in a lightning military attack.

The sudden resolution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts resonates way beyond the Caucasus, a hotbed of ethnic unrest since the demise of the Soviet Union. It is now bound up more tightly in a new great-power struggle as the US, Russia, Turkey and Europe vie for dominance in a region that’s a vital bridge to the energy and mineral wealth of central Asia.

With Russia mired in its war in Ukraine, the US and Europe see an opportunity to loosen Moscow’s grip as Armenia looks for support in mending troubled relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. That’s infuriated the Kremlin, which is making increasingly open threats as Russia seeks to capitalize on Armenian anger over the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh to undermine the pro-Western government in Yerevan. Azerbaijan took over Nagorno-Karabakh despite the presence of some 2,000 Russian troops stationed in the region.

“The developments in Nagorno-Karabakh have probably shown you can do whatever you want to do and get away with it,” said Tigran Grigoryan, president of the Regional Center for Democracy and Security in Yerevan, who is from the region. “Russia basically colluded with Azerbaijan.”

The events mark the latest chapter in a history of tragedy for Armenia, a nation that once faced off against the Roman Empire and survived Persian, Ottoman and Russian rule as its homeland shrunk remorselessly.

At the Yerablur national military cemetery on a desolate hillside outside Yerevan, the coffins of three Nagorno-Karabakh soldiers draped in Armenia’s national flag were laid in a line on Saturday before families who’d waited under a punishing sun to say a final goodbye.

Women hugged each other and wailed inconsolably, one repeatedly crying “my child, my child” as she lay her head upon the casket, before honor guards carried the coffins away to the gravesides where a three-gun salute rang out.

Cousins Armen and Stepan Arakelyan were killed in the first day’s fighting on Sept. 19, their relative Inara Arakelyan said, as a mechanical digger covered their coffins with earth. Her brother-in-law Ishkan had also died and would be buried here later that day, she added.

Arakelyan fled Stepanakert to Armenia with her husband and five children. “I don’t know what we will do now, but I know for sure that we won’t go back to Karabakh,” she said.

What’s Nagorno-Karabakh and Why Do Azerbaijan and Armenia Fight Over It?

A mountainous landscape of intense natural beauty filled with plunging ravines and thick forests, the struggle for Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan erupted repeatedly into violence that claimed tens of thousands of lives and turned more than a million into refugees.

The region’s Armenian majority declared independence as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, while Azerbaijan asserted the right to regain its internationally recognized territory. Traditionally part of Russia’s backyard, Turkey inserted itself into the tinderbox region in 2020.  

Turkey’s military helped staunch ally Azerbaijan take back seven districts occupied by Armenian forces since the early 1990s and to advance into part of Nagorno-Karabakh during a 44-day war. Azerbaijan finished the job with last month’s blitz of less than 24 hours that forced Armenian authorities in the regional capital, Stepanakert, to agree to disband and accept integration into the country. The defeat came on Sept. 20, the eve of the Republic of Armenia’s Independence Day.

Yerablur is a place of pain and now defeat for Armenia. Hundreds of national flags hang from flagpoles dotted between thousands of soldiers’ graves, many dating from the 2020 conflict that shattered the country’s sense of security in the face of Azerbaijan’s clear military superiority.

Larisa Israelyan, 62, journeyed with family members from Stepanakert for two days in lines of cars that snaked along mountain roads to reach the Armenian border. Now she stood before the grave of her son Karen who was killed in the fighting three years ago, aged 39.

Had he died in vain? “Certainly” she replied. “It turned out that my son has gone for nothing — I don’t have him, we don’t have our home and we don’t have our country anymore.”

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev are due to meet in Spain on Thursday for crunch talks that may open the way for a peace agreement or plunge the region into fresh crisis. 

Aliyev’s demand for a transport corridor across southern Armenia is raising fears in Yerevan about a potential military assault by Azerbaijan with support from its ally Turkey — with a blind eye from Russia and Western allies preoccupied with Ukraine.

Statements from Azerbaijan don’t bode well for a “normalization” of relations, Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Vahan Kostanyan said in an interview. “We see now that our sovereign territory is at risk as well.”

While Armenians grieved the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh, there’s little sign so far that anguish may translate into a revolt against Prime Minister Pashinyan. Only a couple of thousand turned out to an opposition demonstration in Yerevan’s main Republic Square on Saturday. Much larger numbers joined a march demanding Azerbaijan release detained Armenians.

The government is pouring money and resources into providing aid to the displaced. At a cultural center in the village of Parakar about 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) outside Yerevan, officials and volunteer students registered hundreds of arrivals from Nagorno-Karabakh, offering food, medical care, psychological assistance and help with finding accommodation.

“They are very depressed, they’ve lost everything,” said Zhanna Gasparyan, who helps run the center. “We feel the pain of everybody here and do what we can to help them.”

Azerbaijan rejects Armenian accusations of ethnic cleansing. President Aliyev urged the region’s Armenian population to stay after his victory, pledging to uphold their cultural, religious and social rights. Facing pressure from the US and the European Union to allow in international monitors, Azerbaijan organized a visit by local United Nations representatives to Stepanakert on Sunday.

But Aliyev is seeking to capitalize on his victory by pushing for the corridor across Armenia’s southern Syunik region to Azerbaijan’s Naxcivan exclave, bordering Turkey and Iran. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan supports the demand, seeing an opportunity to build direct transport links to Azerbaijan and onward to central Asia and China in a grand network via Turkey to Europe.

While it’s unclear exactly what Azerbaijan wants, the proposal risks cutting Armenia off from neighboring Iran, which opposes the severing of its access routes north to Russia. Syunik is also home to valuable mineral resources for Armenia including copper and molybdenum that contributed some $850 million in export earnings last year.

Meanwhile, the tensions between Armenia and Russia — its traditional ally — are adding to Yerevan’s sense of vulnerability.

Russian troops were sent to the region under a truce brokered by President Vladimir Putin that halted the 2020 war. Rather than intervene, they acted as go-betweens delivering Azerbaijan’s ultimatum to the Armenians to surrender and disband. That stirred huge resentment in Yerevan, where many say Russia betrayed them and may do so again if Armenia is attacked.

The conflict has also raised specters from the past on both sides. While Nagorno-Karabakh was always a territorial rather than a religious dispute, the 1915 genocide in Ottoman Turkey is seared into the Armenian psyche. Many in the world’s oldest Christian state see no distinction between Muslim Azerbaijanis and Turks.

More recently, hundreds of thousands of Azeris fled an Armenian advance in 1993 in Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas that broke a lengthy siege of Stepanakert and made many refugees in their own country.

Azerbaijan has so far avoided sanctions despite calls before the assault by the US and the EU not to undermine years of mediation efforts. The EU in particular is relying on a doubling of gas deliveries from energy-rich Azerbaijan to help end the bloc’s dependence on Russian supplies.

Pashinyan had already made a key concession by acknowledging that Nagorno-Karabakh was part of Azerbaijan, bending to the diplomatic reality after three decades of negotiations that no country was willing to countenance redrawing borders to support Armenian claims to the territory.

Decades of enmity since fuels the distrust among Karabakh Armenians that they can live peacefully under Azerbaijani rule. The arrests of high-profile Armenian leaders such as former Moscow investment banker Ruben Vardanyan and Baku’s announcement that more than 300 are on a wanted list hasn’t eased anxieties.Few Armenians believe they’ll ever return to Nagorno-Karabakh. The question is whether the powers jockeying for control in the Caucasus will just move the conflict elsewhere. Aliyev said on Monday Azerbaijan will pursue a peace agenda now that it has restored its territorial integrity.

“As a result of a catastrophe, the Karabakh issue is no more,” said Areg Kochinyan, president of the Research Center on Security Policy in Yerevan. “We just want to save what’s possible to save right now, and to do that you need a peace treaty.”

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–With assistance from Demetrios Pogkas, Sara Khojoyan, Zulfugar Agayev and Nick Wadhams.

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