Nagorno-Karabakh to dissolve, ending independence dream
By Mariam Harutyunyan and Thibault Marchand
YEREVAN /GORIS – Nagorno-Karabakh’s long and bloody dream of independence ended on Thursday (28) with a decree declaring that the ethnic Armenian statelet in Azerbaijan “ceases to exist” at the end of the year.
The dramatic announcement was issued moments after it became clear that more than half of the ethnic Armenian population has fled in the wake of last week’s assault by arch-rival Azerbaijan.
It appeared to draw the curtain on one of the world’s longest and seemingly most irreconcilable ‘frozen conflicts’ – one successive administrations in Washington and leaders across Europe failed to resolve in ceaseless rounds of talks.
But it also raised the levels of anger in Yerevan.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan accused Azerbaijan of conducting “ethnic cleansing” and called on the international community to act.
Baku’s decisive 24-hour military blitz ended with a September 20 truce in which the rebels pledged to disarm and enter “reintegration” talks.
Two rounds of talks were held as Azerbaijani forces methodically worked with Russian peacekeepers to collect separatist weapons and enter towns that had remained outside Baku’s control since the sides first fought over the region in the 1990s.
Azerbaijani forces have now approached the edge of Stepanakert – an emptying rebel stronghold where separatist leader Samvel Shakhramanyan issued his decree.
“Dissolve all state institutions and organizations under their departmental subordination by January 1, 2024, and the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) ceases to exist,” said the decree.
“The population of Nagorno-Karabakh, including those located outside the republic, after the entry into force of this Decree, familiarize themselves with the conditions of reintegration presented by the Republic of Azerbaijan.”
The republic and its separatist dream have been effectively vanishing since Azerbaijan unlocked the only road leading to Armenia on Sunday (24).
Tens of thousands have since been piling their belonging on top of their cars and taking the winding mountain journey to Armenia every day.
Armenia said more than 68,000 of the region’s 120,000-strong population had left by Thursday afternoon.
Pashinyan said he expected the entire population to clear out “in the coming days”.
“The exodus of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh continues,” he told a cabinet meeting.
“This is an act of ethnic cleansing of which we were warning the international community about for a long time.”
Nagorno-Karabakh has been officially recognized as part of Azerbaijan since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
No country – not even Armenia – supported the statelet’s independence claim.
But ethnic Armenian separatists have been running the region since winning a brutal war in the 1990s that claimed tens of thousands of lives.
The fighting was accompanied by allegations of massacres against civilians and gross violations of human rights that many in the region recall to this day.
The latest chapter of the bloody feud between mostly Christian Armenia and predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan dates back to the years in the 1920s when the region was handed to Baku by the Soviets.
Yet its origins stretch back much further.
Armenians are believed to have first settled in the winegrowing region in the 2nd century BC.
It was handed to Azerbaijan by Moscow just years after the massacre of ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
Many ethnic Armenians still derogatively refer to Azerbaijanis as “Turks.”
Turkish drones and other weapons transformed Azerbaijan’s once-feeble army into a potent fighting force that clawed back large parts of the region in a six-week war in 2020.
A group of refugees who were discussing the latest news on the Armenian side of the border identified the main problem facing people who agree to live under Azerbaijani control.
“If you have a son, he will have to serve in the Azerbaijani army, against Armenia,” a man who requesting anonymity for personal safety reasons told his friends. “Only a madman would want that!’
Azerbaijan has agreed to allow rebel fighters who lay down their arms to withdraw to Armenia.
But Baku added that it reserved the right to detain and prosecute suspects of “war crimes”.
Azerbaijani border guards on Wednesday (27) detained Ruben Vardanyan – a reported billionaire who headed the Nagorno-Karabakh government from November 2022 until February.
Baku said on Thursday it had charged him with “financing terrorism” and other crimes.
The security service said Vardanyan has been placed in pre-trial detention for four months.
The charges could see Vardanyan jailed for up to 14 years.
The region’s former foreign minister David Babayan said he had also been added to Baku’s “blacklist” and agreed to hand himself over to Azerbaijani authorities.
Pashinyan accused Azerbaijani border guards of making “illegal arrests of people at the checkpoint, which worries us gravely”.
– Agence France-Presse