Staunton, November 12 – In the 19th century, the territories which are now Armenia and Azerbaijan were extremely ethnically diverse; but with the rise of nationalism and the fighting first in the wake of World War I and then after the decay of the USSR, these two republics have become among the most ethnically homogeneous places in the entire region.
Now, both the fighting itself and the armistice settlement are accelerating that process, leading many Armenians to leave areas that had been controlled by Armenia and even ones that it will still control after the settlement and perhaps even more Azerbaijanis, who became IDPs after the 1994 violence, to flood back in.
With the best will in the world which may or may not be present, it is difficult to imagine that this won’t lead to ethnic clashes or even pogroms as one nation displaces another in the portions of Azerbaijan that Armenia had controlled for more than a generation – or even in adjoining regions where the sight will trigger fears that any violence may spread.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has repeatedly said that ethnic Armenians are free to remain and will be fully protected (ng.ru/cis/2020-11-13/100_131120.html), but in the wake of a war and with uncertainty that local officials or even returning Azerbaijanis will be equally committed to that, Armenians are frightened and fleeing.
Not only are they leaving but some have burned their houses so that Azerbaijanis can’t use them, actions that underscore the level of their anger and fear (echo.msk.ru/news/2741580-echo.html, newizv.ru/news/world/13-11-2020/luchshe-szhech-chem-ostavit-azerbaydzhantsam-zhiteli-karabaha-unichtozhayut-svoi-domavestikavkaza.ru/news/storonniki-okkupacii-karabaha-predaut-ognu-azerbajdzanskie-sela.html).
Both Baku and Yerevan have an interest in preventing such violence – it could torpedo the agreement or become the occasion for even more massive Russian intervention that some around the world might accept as a price worth paying to prevent such outcomes. But both capitals will be under pressure to defend their co-nationals come what may.
As of now, Armenia has called for the development of a program that would concentrate ethnic Armenians in Karabakh although it is uncertain how effective this might be given that Armenians are leaving Karabakh itself (vestikavkaza.ru/news/pasinan-prizval-razrabotat-programmu-vozvrasenia-armanskogo-naselenia-v-nagornyj-karabah.html
vestikavkaza.ru/news/polad-bulbul-ogly-vse-vynuzdennye-pereselency-vernutsa-na-rodnuu-zemlu.html) and to rebuilding mosques and other facilities in those areas damaged or destroyed over the last three decades (vestikavkaza.ru/news/minkultury-azerbajdzana-na-osvobozdennyh-territoriah-budut-vosstanovleny-i-meceti-i-hristianskie-hramy-i-sinagogi.html).
One aspect of this issue may be especially fraught: there are at least three groups of Armenians in Karabakh and the formerly occupied territories more generally: ethnic Armenians who had lived in those areas for decades or even centuries, Armenians who came to the region in the 1990s, and ethnic Armenians Yerevan has introduced from abroad, including the Middle East, recently.
Aliyev’s words about protecting the Armenians certainly apply to the first group, and many Azerbaijanis may be supportive of them. But it isn’t certain that either he or returning Azerbaijanis feel the same way about the second and especially the third. Indeed, Baku has protested this Yerevan effort at ethnic engineering many times (ng.ru/cis/2020-11-13/100_131120.html).
The international community can help prevent a humanitarian disaster by taking three steps: First, it must continue to focus on this region rather than assuming that the Kremlin-brokered deal has solved all the problems. Second, it can make very clear that its relations with both Baku and Yerevan will depend on their actions. And third, it can provide massive humanitarian assistance to help all concerned.
In the present environment, that may be more than one can hope for. But if the international community doesn’t take these steps, it will bear some of the responsibility for any broader tragedy that may occur in the coming days, weeks, and months.