Nearly all ethnic Armenians have fled Nagorno-Karabakh 

Refugees load a truck in Goris on Sept. 26, 2023, before leaving to Yerevan. A continuous stream of vehicles crept along the only road out of Nagorno-Karabakh toward Armenia, carrying tens of thousands of refugees now faced with an uncertain future. / Credit: ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images

CNA Staff, Oct 3, 2023 / 16:45 pm (CNA).

All but a few ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region have fled their ancestral homeland following a violent takeover by Azerbaijan two weeks ago, the Armenian government announced Tuesday.

According to the Armenian government, 100,617 Nagorno-Karabakh refugees — out of a population of 120,000 — have been “forcibly displaced.” The government said that 345 refugees are currently receiving medical care and that “many of them remain in critical and extremely critical condition.” 

Meanwhile, a small military clash close to the Armenia-Azeri border on Monday further evidenced rising tensions between the two neighboring nations. 

What is going on? 

Until a short but intense Azeri military offensive reestablished control of the region on Sept. 19, Nagorno-Karabakh was majority ethnically Armenian and Christian.

Separated from mainland Armenia since the 2020 Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, ethnic Armenians in the region had their own military and claimed self-sovereignty under the auspices of the Republic of Artsakh.

Since the Azeri takeover, widespread fears of genocide and religious and cultural persecution have led nearly all of the Nagorno-Karabakh population to leave the region.

Videos on social media taken over the last two weeks have shown miles-long lines of cars filled with ethnic Armenian refugees attempting to flee. 

Lara Setrakian, an Armenian journalist, told CNA last week that “nine months ago these people did not want to leave their homes,” yet “as a result of so many abuses and deprivations by the government Azerbaijan they were desperate to leave.”

On Sept. 25 a large underground gas tank just off the highway exploded, killing at least 68 Armenian refugees and injuring hundreds more. 

“These were innocent people desperate to escape the abysmal conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh after Azerbaijan’s military attack,” Setrakian said. “They were families waiting for fuel for their cars, hoping to evacuate to safety.” 

Armenians and Azeris clash at the border

As the mass exodus of Nagorno-Karabakh continues, the Armenian Defense Ministry reported on Oct. 2 that Azeri military units opened fire on Armenian soldiers stationed close to the border, killing one soldier and injuring two others.

The Armenian Defense Ministry said on Monday units of the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan “opened fire from small arms at a vehicle carrying food for the personnel of the Armenian positions located in the Kut sector” near the Armenia-Azeri border.

The Armenian Defense Ministry also said that Azeri soldiers “targeted” an ambulance, which they said “is a gross violation of international humanitarian law norms.”

Though a minor clash, this comes amid already widespread fears among experts that Azerbaijan, which is backed by Turkey, is planning to invade Armenia.

Experts fear Armenia faces invasion

Both Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have proposed constructing a highway in the far southern portion of the Armenian province of Syunik, which is bordered by Azerbaijan both to the east and the west.

The road would connect the main portion of Azerbaijan to both its western enclave, known as Nakhchivan, as well as to Turkey. Experts fear that if it is built, Azerbaijan could soon move to wrest control of all of Syunik.

“Let us be realistic,” Siobhan Nash-Marshall, a U.S.-based human rights advocate, told CNA last week. “Azerbaijan already has grabbed a part of the region … They are also firing on border villages and have been for a year. What, then, is the threat to Armenia? Invasion.”

Eric Hacopian, a human rights advocate who has been on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh, also told CNA last week that he believes an invasion of Armenia proper is “quite likely.”

Armenia backs away from Russian influence

Armenia, a former Soviet territory, has long been allied with Russia. Now Armenia appears to be backing away from Russian influence after Russia’s peacekeeping forces failed to prevent Azerbaijan’s violent takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Armenia’s Parliament voted on Tuesday to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has an active arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin. This indicates that if Putin were to set foot in Armenia, authorities would be obliged to arrest him. 

The Russian government decried the decision, calling it “incorrect” and “an unfriendly step,” according to reporting by the Associated Press. 

Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, for his part, has tried to reassure Russia that the move was only made in response to Azeri aggression in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to the Guardian.

The two nations’ relationship, nonetheless, continues to grow more strained. 

Expert says U.S. could replace Russian influence in Armenia 

In a Monday opinion piece in the Washington Times, Sam Brownback, former U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedom, urged the U.S. to give Armenia security backing. 

Brownback has said that now is the time for the U.S. to align itself with Armenia, replacing Russia as the primary influence in the region. 

“The central defining characteristic of Armenia is its faith,” Brownback wrote. He called Armenia one of the only Judeo-Christian democracies in the Middle East “in a sea of Muslim authoritarian states.”

He said that Armenia “has made a concerted effort in recent years to align itself more closely with the Western world despite Russia’s best efforts to stop it from doing so.” 

“Russia’s weakened state,” Brownback said in a Sept. 23 X statement, “presents a perfect opportunity for the U.S to expand its influence in an important region by supporting Armenia and her people in this vital time of need.”

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