EuropeYerevan Letter

Speedy takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh and generational memory of genocide pose existential threat to Armenia

Long-running dispute came to a sudden halt when a two-day military offensive by Azeri forces overran local defences

The riot squad appears to have taken up residence on Republic Square. Dressed in khaki blue, they occupy the steps of government buildings 24 hours a day, their metal shields resting upright like cello cases, batons at the ready. Things may have calmed down a little in the Armenian capital but tensions are running high. The protests could easily restart.

As helmeted riot police lined up like a praetorian guard, some were seen to lower their heads when berated by a middle-aged woman. She suggested quite forcibly that they should be ashamed of themselves, questioning why they defend buildings when the government inside those buildings had turned its back on their own people.

She was referring to the 120,000 ethnic Armenians who belong to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, known historically as Artsakh. This little-reported but long-running dispute came to a stunning conclusion when a two-day military offensive by Azeri forces last month overran local defences.

The speed of such abject capitulation meant that these remote, rural highlands have been virtually emptied out, its panic-filled civilians loading up cars to the rooftops and chugging across the mountains into Armenia.


President Ilham Aliev of Azerbaijan has resolved to return some 5,000 Azeris displaced from the region during war. He also assures that any ethnic Armenians who stay will be treated fairly as Azeri citizens. The urgency of the exodus, however, belies any trust in that promise and the vast majority of evacuees do not expect to return.

Only UN observers and the International Red Cross have been allowed in to witness the aftermath. Silent footage, images devoid of human life, are surreal. Family possessions lie strewn everywhere in a mad rush to get away. The UN estimates that only a couple of hundred people remain and a humanitarian effort is under way to reach those unable or unwilling to leave; the old, the infirm and the stubborn.

Of course the conflict has deep roots. Although overwhelmingly Armenian in tradition, religion and culture, the region was parcelled into Azerbaijan in 1923. The Soviet Union brought both states under one roof but the dispute reignited when Artsakh voted to secede from Azerbaijan before the USSR collapsed.

Six years of fighting ended in 1994 with Armenian victory but a shorter war in 2020 went decisively in Baku’s favour. Russia, a traditional overseer in the Caucuses, stationed 2,000 peacekeeping troops there but Aliev tightened Baku’s grip on the breakaway republic last December by cutting off supplies of food, fuel and medicine.

Despite severe hardship, the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh refused to yield. Baku, fuelled by wealth from its vast oil and gas reserves – and possibly encouraged by Russia’s diversion into Ukraine – duly carried out a lightning strike. That a 35-year conflict should end in less than a week has left Yerevan reeling.

Strangely, there are very few traces of this mass influx on the Armenian side. A makeshift refugee tent billows emptily outside the border village of Kornidzor. Adults and children gather in the reception area of Hotel Goris, a mountain retreat, their heavily laden cars parked outside like tired mules. Otherwise, this entire community has dispersed like the wind, as though vanished into thin air. Ask where they’ve gone and people will shrug. Those without the shelter of relatives or friends will soon resurface, like a tracksuited man doubling up as parking attendant on a busy Yerevan street. Humbly extending an open palm he explained his need for spare coins in one word: “Artsakh”.

For a gradually dwindling number of protesters, this calamity has reawoken other deeply felt fears. It is 105 years since the Ottoman Empire carried out genocide here, wiping out an estimated 1.5 million Armenians. The synchronicity has not been lost locally that the very week ethnic Armenians were again forced to flee their homeland, Aliev welcomed his staunch ally, Turkish president Tayip Erdogan. Such is the Ottoman imprint on the Armenian psyche that older protesters refer to the military takeover not as advancing Azeri soldiers but as invading Turks.

They feel angry that Moscow has let them down again. The protesters are also ready to turn up the heat on their own prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, who they say has abandoned the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.

They angrily question why thousands of lives were sacrificed on both sides because it now looks like Nagorno-Karabakh has simply been given away. They wonder what their wealthy and emboldened neighbours will want next, especially if Baku is supported by Ankara. And if they must come to terms with the idea that Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh is no longer Armenian, what, they ask, is to become of Armenia itself?