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Armenians in Azerbaijan

  • Armenians were the third largest minority in Azerbaijan at the time of the 2009 Census, with a population of 120,300 living mainly in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Some also lived outside the region, including in Baku city. By the time of the most recent Census in 2019, however, the official tally for the Armenian minority in the country had reduced to approximately 200 people, although the number of Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh was uncertain. This massive drop in numbers was a stark reflection of recent events, specifically the mass displacements that occurred as a result of the conflicts over Nagorno-Karabakh. Indeed, further drastic declines in the Armenian minority’s population size happened in 2020 and 2023.

  • The conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region first surfaced in 1988 following a campaign by Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians for reunification with Armenia. The area had originally been designated as Armenian by the Bolshevik Caucasus Bureau in 1921; however, days later this decision was revoked by Stalin in his capacity as Commissar for Nationalities, and the area was handed over to Azerbaijan. Both Armenians and Azerbaijanis claimed a historic right to the territory.

    By 1988 the territory, prior to the break-up of the Soviet Union, was 75 per cent Armenian. The campaign for secession from Azerbaijan and the formation of the Armenian Karabakh Committee sparked demonstrations in Yerevan in support of the campaign. Karabakh Armenians had long-held grievances against the Azerbaijani administration over the lack of education and cultural rights, as well as the neglect of ancient Armenian monuments. These grievances were disputed by the Baku authorities. It was also alleged by Armenians that the area had suffered deliberate economic neglect, although Azerbaijanis maintained that the general standard of living in Nagorno-Karabakh was better than in Azerbaijan as a whole, albeit lower than in Armenia itself. Contemporary historians of the conflict agree that while living standards in Soviet Karabakh were not significantly different from surrounding areas of Azerbaijan, they compared less favourably with conditions in parts of Armenia.

    As the violence increased direct rule was imposed by Moscow. Attempts to calm the situation failed, and the region was returned to Azerbaijani rule in November 1989. Armenia responded with a Supreme Soviet declaration that Nagorno-Karabakh should belong to Armenia, a declaration declared null and void by the Soviet authorities. Following the declaration of a state of emergency in mid-1991, Soviet troops were deployed in the region, with little success other than to fuel the resentments of Karabakh Armenians. Strikes and violent protests continued in the enclave.

    With the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan found themselves as independent states facing an increasingly intractable conflict. Nagorno-Karabakh declared its secession as a republic from Azerbaijan on 2 September 1991, according to the then-still-valid Soviet Union Law on Secession, although it stopped short of an outright declaration of independence. By December 1991, a referendum on independence was held and confirmed on 6 January 1992 by the newly elected Nagorno-Karabakh legislature; 1992 witnessed a transition from sporadic outbreaks of violence to outright war.

    In 1989 there were around 400,000 Armenians in Azerbaijan. Around one-third of the Armenian population was resident in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, and there were also significant Armenian communities in industrial centres such as Baku and Sumqayit. Following the escalation of tensions over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and pogroms against Armenians in Baku and Sumqayit, an estimated 300,000 Armenians left the country. It was thought that by the mid-1990s only around 18,000 Armenians remained in Azerbaijan proper, while there were no accurate figures for the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh.

    Attempts at mediation were made by a number of parties, including CIS countries, notably Russia and Kazakhstan, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE; later the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE), Türkiye and Iran. After mid-1992 mediation efforts were undertaken by the OSCE Minsk Group of 11 countries, headed by a tripartite structure of co-chairs from Russia, the United States and France. By the beginning of 1994 Nagorno-Karabakh was in the hands of Karabakh Armenian forces, as was the Lachin corridor linking it to Armenia, and the surrounding territory, representing approximately 13 per cent of Azerbaijani territory. Human rights violations were committed by both parties, including indiscriminate shelling, the taking of hostages, summary executions and the large-scale displacement of civilians. A ceasefire negotiated in May 1994 held for a number of years, despite sporadic instances of violence. The Karabakh Armenians established self-rule, regularly holding presidential and parliamentary elections that were not recognized by the international community at large.

    Negotiations under the auspices of the OSCE continued on a regular basis since the 1994 ceasefire. Several proposals were put forward for a resolution to the conflict, although none were deemed acceptable by all parties. Proposals included so-called ‘package’ and ‘step-by-step’ solutions, envisaging the simultaneous and staged implementation of conflict measures respectively. A third proposal envisaged a ‘common state’ uniting Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, although the terms of such a union remained vague. In 2001 negotiations reportedly came close to admitting the secession of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan, although this proposal unsurprisingly foundered due to resistance within the Azerbaijani political elite.

    Key stumbling blocks were the issues of the continued occupation of Azerbaijani territories by Armenian forces, the return of Azerbaijanis displaced from these territories including Nagorno-Karabakh, the future status of the formerly Azerbaijani-populated town of Shusha and the Lachin corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and the identity of any peacekeepers potentially deployed along the line of contact (the ceasefire was self-regulating with no international presence). In a 2006 referendum which was declared illegitimate by Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh adopted a new Constitution. However, despite the fact there was no official peace settlement, occasional meetings continued between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. Significant progress made between the two countries at talks in 2009 subsequently stalled. In both Azerbaijan and Armenia there was a distinct process of monopolization of the peace process by a narrow elite, and a wide-ranging failure to engender debate in society over what kind of compromises might have been admissible. Without buy-in from wider society, it was unlikely that any peace proposals will achieve success.

    Contacts between the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijanis were limited to occasional reciprocal visits by civil society activists, although Armenian visits to Azerbaijan grew increasingly few due to Azerbaijani reluctance to guarantee security. The Azerbaijani government actively discouraged autonomous initiatives by Azerbaijani NGOs to make contact with Armenians, and Azerbaijani society had few sources of information about developments in Nagorno-Karabakh outside of official propaganda. In this context, conditions for those Armenians remaining in Azerbaijan outside of Armenian-controlled territory remained extremely unfavourable. Hate speech against Armenians continued to be a staple of officially sanctioned media, while peace-building initiatives involving civil society actors were regularly vilified, and sometimes resulted in physical assaults on the property and persons of those involved.

    A major ceasefire violation occurred in April 2016 when dozens of soldiers on both sides died in clashes. Fighting continued for four days before a ceasefire was agreed. In July 2017 there was a further eruption of violence when Armenian-backed troops shelled an Azerbaijani village, killing two Azerbaijanis, one of them a two-year old toddler. In late 2017, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan announces talks with Moscow with the aim of finally finding a solution for the conflict.

    The second large-scale conflict commenced on 27 September 2020 with an Azerbaijani offensive and continued until 10 November 2020, when Russian-led efforts facilitated a ceasefire resulting in Azerbaijani forces regaining all of the occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as well as capturing most of the territories (one-third) occupied by Armenia in the previous war in the early 1990s. Ceasefire violations in Nagorno-Karabakh and on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border continued following the 2020 war.

    Azerbaijan began blockading Nagorno-Karabakh in December 2022. This started with activists, supported by the government, blocking passage along the road through the Lachin corridor with the stated aim of protesting mining activities. The authorities replaced this with a checkpoint in April 2023. The impact of the blockade on the civilian population in Nagorno-Karabakh was harsh, as food and medical supplies ran low.  The government then launched a large-scale military operation in September 2023, resulting in the surrender of the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities.

    On 20 September 2023, a ceasefire agreement was reached, ending the Azerbaijani military operation against the self-proclaimed ethnic Armenian Republic of Artsakh in Nagorno-Karabakh. The agreement was brokered by the Russian peacekeeping contingent based in the region since the second Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2020. Under the terms of agreement, the Artsakh Defense Army was disbanded, and Artsakh officially dissolved on 1 January 2024, ending the conflict.

    According to official estimates, more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled to Armenia in less than a week, despite the promises given by the Azerbaijan government to reintegrate the area and treat all citizens as equals. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, some 30,000 children and older people comprised more than half of this very sudden refugee influx.

  • Adversarial narratives and hateful and dehumanizing content concerning Armenians as an ethnic or national minority community have been widespread in public statements by politicians and traditional and social media. International treaty bodies have shared grave concerns about the language of aggression and regular reference to adversarial narratives that propagate racist stereotypes and perpetuate animosities. The opening of the Baku War Trophy Park in April 2021, where Armenian military personnel and equipment were portrayed very negatively, also raised a lot of criticism.

    In December 2021, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued provisional measures in response to Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s submissions of cases against each other for alleged violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In its ruling on Azerbaijan, the ICJ granted many of the interim measures requested by Armenia, including that Azerbaijan must protect from violence and bodily harm Armenians detained during or following the autumn 2020 fighting and provide for their security and equality before the law. The ICJ did not, however, order the closure of the War Trophy Park, despite Armenia’s request that it do so.

    The ICJ followed up with further provisional measures in February 2023, demanding that the Azerbaijani government lift its blockade against the Nagorno-Karabagh region. This was again in response to a petition by Armenia. Azerbaijan responded that it was not blocking passage along the Lachin corridor and so did not need to do anything. Ultimately, the blockade continued up to the government’s military operation in September 2023 and the mass displacement of approximately 100,000 ethnic Armenians that occurred then.

    By early 2024, only a small number of Armenians were thought to remain in Nagorno-Karabagh. Aside from the lives lost and the human suffering caused by the displacement, a key question is the impact on the Armenian minority’s cultural heritage. According to a Reuters report published at the time of the crisis, the refugees left behind approximately 400 churches, monasteries and other religious sites.

Updated May 2024

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