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The long-running territorial dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan is once again making headlines.
After a three-decade attempt at independence, Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist administration announced on Thursday that it would dissolve itself and the unrecognized republic would cease to exist by year’s end. The actions followed Azerbaijan’s last-week rapid offensive to regain control of the area and its demands that Armenian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh disarm and the separatist government disband.
On Thursday, the region’s separatist president, Samvel Shakhramanyan, signed a decree to that effect. The document highlighted a cease-fire agreement negotiated last week under which Azerbaijan will allow “free, voluntary, and unhindered movement” of Nagorno-Karabakh civilians in exchange for Armenia disarming soldiers.
What is the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute about?
The conflict dates back to the early twentieth century, when the region’s ethnic composition was primarily Armenian, but it was assigned to Soviet Azerbaijan in the 1920s.
Tensions rose in the late 1980s when Armenia and Azerbaijan both made claims to Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict became violent in 1988, escalating into a full-fledged war in 1992–1994. In 1994, a cease-fire was established, although the issue remained unresolved. Between 1988 and 1994, around 30,000 people were killed and over a million people were displaced, with Azeris constituting more than half of those affected.
The conflict flared up again in 2020, resulting in a six-week war that ended with a ceasefire brokered by Russia. As a result of the ceasefire, Azerbaijan regained control of several territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh.
Events that led to the current situation
In December 2022, Azerbaijan blocked the only road between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, alleging that the Armenian government was using it to smuggle illicit weapons to the region’s separatist troops.
Armenia claimed that the closure deprived Nagorno-Karabakh of basic food and fuel supplies. Azerbaijan denied the claim, arguing that supplies could be delivered to the region via the Azerbaijani city of Agdam—a solution long opposed by Nagorno-Karabakh officials, who saw it as a plot by Azerbaijan to acquire control of the region.
Azerbaijan’s military accused Nagorno-Karabakh inhabitants last week of torching their homes in Martakert, a town in the region’s north that was under the control of ethnic Armenian forces until last week’s offensive. Their allegations were not independently verifiable. However, this occurred in 2020, when people evacuated territory taken over by Azerbaijan.
On Monday night, a fuel reservoir exploded at a gas station where people were queuing for gas, which was scarce due to the blockade. At least 68 people were killed, nearly 300 were injured, and over 100 are still missing.
Weakened by the embargo and Armenia’s leadership’s withdrawal from the battle, ethnic Armenian soldiers in the region agreed to lay down their arms less than 24 hours after Azerbaijan launched its invasion last week. Baku and Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist authorities have initiated talks about “reintegrating” the province into Azerbaijan.
Mass exodus that has never been seen before
Since the war in which Armenians occupied the region as the Soviet Union split up and hundreds of thousands of Azeris fled, the South Caucasus has not seen an exodus of this magnitude.
Although Azerbaijan has stated that it is willing to protect ethnic Armenian rights when it reabsorbs the area, the Armenians are running away in terror due to folklore about claimed genocide, ethnic cleansing, pogroms, and at least two wars.
By Thursday morning, Yerevan reported that 65,036 people had entered neighbouring Armenia, the majority after traveling for more than 24 hours with their possessions across Azerbaijan on a congested mountain road.
Father David, a 33-year-old priest from Armenia who travelled to the border to offer spiritual assistance to those escaping, described the event as one of the darkest pages of Armenian history.
Many of the Armenians who were traveling in massively loaded vehicles, trucks, buses, and even tractors described spending the chilly mountain nights with their bellies churning with hunger and anxiety.
Arrest of former Karabakh leader
Ruben Vardanyan, the former head of Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist administration, was accused by Azerbaijani authorities on Thursday of funding terrorism, organizing unlawful military formations, and illegally crossing a state border.
According to Russia’s official news agency, RIA Novosti, millionaire banker Vardanyan, who was arrested on Wednesday, may spend up to 14 years in prison if found guilty. According to Azerbaijani media, he was held in pre-trial detention for at least four months.
Vardanyan, who built his money in Russia, was reportedly detained along with thousands of others when he attempted to enter Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh and transferred to Baku, according to Azerbaijani officials. The arrest seemed to demonstrate Azerbaijan’s intention to quickly tighten its control over the area.
After relocating to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2022, Vardanyan served as the region’s governor for a number of months before resigning earlier this year.