120,000 Armenian Christians face an uncertain future after control of their disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh was surrendered to Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union.
It followed a ceasefire to this week’s military offensive by Azerbaijan troops against Armenian separatist forces which Armenia claims left 200 dead and 400 wounded and destroyed critical infrastructure. Some reports indicate casualties were significantly lower.
Russian peacekeepers evacuated 2,000 residents while thousands more crowded the main airport next to the Russian base, hoping to get a flight out of the enclave where Armenians claim their people have lived for around 2,500 years.
Nagorno-Karabakh which is completely surrounded by Azerbaijan territory is internationally recognised as part of Muslim-dominated Azerbaijan, despite its rich Christian history dating back centuries.
Talks on Nagorno-Karabakh’s future and that of its Armenian residents started this week. The BBC reports Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan as saying his country was ready to take in as many as 40,000 families, which would account for most of the population.
He said accommodation had been prepared for tens of thousands of people, although he saw “no direct threat” to ethnic Armenians who remained in Nagorno-Karabakh. He said those who wanted to remain should be allowed to stay “in their homes in dignified and safe conditions”.
Azerbaijan said it was seeking a “peaceful reintegration” of the enclave and pledged to protect the rights of the Armenian residents. “It must be highlighted that with the elimination of the risks and threats associated with the illegal presence of the Armenian armed forces in its territory, Azerbaijan is fully committed to provide its Armenian residents with rights and freedoms the citizens of Azerbaijan are fully entitled to according to national and international legislation, including on the rights of persons belonging to national minorities,” the Azerbaijan foreign ministry said.
The ethnic Armenian forces who called themselves the Republic of Artsakh surrendered after Azeri troops broke through their lines and seized a number of strategic points. The Armenian separatists agreed to disband and disarm, seemingly putting an end to a decades long conflict with Azerbaijan which has been influenced by powerful regional players, including Russia and Turkey. While Russia took on a mediating role, Turkey threw its weight behind longtime ally Azerbaijan.
Armenia had retained control of the region since 1994 following the fall of the Soviet Union, but Azerbaijan regained control in 2020 after six weeks of brutal fighting between the two countries.
Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan urged the United Nations Security Council to demand protection for civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh; to immediately deploy a UN mission to monitor the human rights, humanitarian and security situation; to seek the return of prisoners of war; and to consider deploying a UN peacekeeping force to the region.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said the US was “deeply concerned” about Azerbaijan’s military actions and was closely watching the humanitarian situation. Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev to guarantee the rights and security of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to the Tass news agency. President Aliyev apologised for the deaths of at least six Russian peacekeepers during the offensive.
Protesters have rallied in the Armenian capital of Yerevan for several days demanding that the government support the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Pashinyan. They smashed windows of government buildings on Yerevan’s Republic Square as they fought with police officials in an attempt to get inside.
Nagorno-Karabakh has strong religious and cultural ties to Christian Armenians. It is a place that features monasteries and other religious sites, some dating back to the Middle Ages. The Azerbaijani government has previously destroyed churches and memorial stones at Armenian heritage sites in Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani enclave separated from the main part of the country by Armenian land.
Armenia which adopted Christianity as its state religion in the early 300s, is the world’s first Christian nation. Tradition holds that St. Thaddeus preached there in the first century. About 97% of the country’s citizens belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, an Eastern Christian denomination in communion with other Orthodox churches.