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ALM Special

Azerbaijan eyes Iran, Armenia borderlands after 'voluntary' exodus from Nagorno-Karabakh

The fall of the Nagorno-Karabakh government after 30 years could empower Turkey and weaken Iran.
A refugee and her children waits at the Lachin checkpoint to leave Karabakh for Armenia, on Sept. 26, 2023.

The convoys snaked for miles along mountain passes as the mass exodus of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, a majority Armenian enclave that is formally part of Azerbaijan, continued to unfold. Western leaders wrung their hands but did nothing to stop it. With the few belongings they could retrieve — mattresses, refrigerators, pots and pans — piled precariously on their battered Soviet-era cars, over 100,000 people, almost triple the population of Lichtenstein, fled the contested region where Armenians dwelled for millennia until Azerbaijan first starved them under a nine-month-long blockade then attacked them on Sept. 19 in what it called an “anti-terror operation.”

The effective ethnic cleansing of an entire population in less than two weeks marked one of the largest civilian displacements in the South Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union and a geopolitical shift of seismic proportions that empowers Turkey, weakens Iran and puts Armenia’s fledgling democracy at risk. For most Armenians, it was — as Armenian political analyst Tigran Grigoryan put it — “the greatest catastrophe to befall our people since the genocide of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915.” Yet the story has already vanished from international headlines.

By Sunday, when Western media and aid organizations were finally allowed into Stepanakert, the region's capital, practically all of Nagorno-Karabakh’s estimated 120,000 Armenians had left. The clutch of the elderly and disabled who remained acknowledged they had not been “forced” to leave by Azerbaijani authorities.

On paper, it is true. Azerbaijan did not order any Armenians to leave. Lest there be any doubt, Baku’s well-oiled propaganda machine flooded social media with pictures of Azerbaijani forces handing chocolates to the very same children it deprived of the most basic foodstuffs for months as they crossed into Armenia. Yet it ensured that life was so miserable that few would opt to stay. Indeed, even as Azerbaijani authorities rebuffed claims of ethnic cleansing, insisting their forces had struck “legitimate military targets,” eyewitness accounts of rape and indiscriminate shelling that wounded and killed children began to emerge.

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