Few were surprised when just over 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled Karabakh in late September. Their departure followed Baku’s military operation to ostensibly take out the last remnants of local ethnic Armenian forces in the breakaway region. For almost three years since the November 2020 trilateral ceasefire statement, local analysts and political figures in Yerevan said that no-one would remain in Karabakh unless it received some kind of autonomy, independence, or security guarantees.
Baku rejected all three and Karabakh as an unrecognised ethnic Armenian political entity will cease to exist at the very beginning of next year. Even some foreign commentators called for the immediate exodus of the ethnic Armenians, though they could hardly impact the situation on the ground even if they had urged the opposite. The reason for the panicked departure was clear to everyone but it could have been avoided had there been genuine support throughout for the peace process. Without one, this was arguably always going to happen.
With the return of the seven surrounding regions to Azerbaijan in November–December 2020, Karabakh could never be sustainable without amicable mutual relations with Baku whatever its status. Though the Lachin Corridor was slated to be kept under the control of the Russian peacekeeping contingent, that would only be for as long as Moscow maintained a presence. Had Russia left in 2025 or even 2030, all utilities and infrastructure such as electricity, gas, and telecommunications, as well as trade and movement, would fall under Baku’s direct control.
Lacking a land border with a powerful neighbouring security patron as is the case with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, let alone a coastline and access to the sea as in Northern Cyprus, Karabakh’s fate was inextricably linked to Azerbaijan. Even Karabakh's airport didn’t function. Yet there was the possibility to prepare the ground for a slow integration to take place over years or likely decades. Russia had foreseen the future as one where the sides were gradually brought together leaving the issue of status for sometime in the future.
But maximalism from all sides followed. Even Pashinyan sought re-election in 2021 with a manifesto that included remedial secession as a goal. Less than a handful favoured a Cyprus-like situation emerging. Trade and people-to-people contact could have followed and confidence building measures put in place. Another example is Georgia despite it facing lower intensity conflict. There are still ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia, for example, and ethnic Ossetians in Georgia proper. Meanwhile, Georgian police guard two Administrative Boundary Lines (ABLs) and not the army.
Despite the 19 September exodus of Karabakh’s ethnic Armenians, however, the international community increasingly calls for their voluntary return. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has too, and without the withdrawal of Azerbaijani police or military forces. Baku says they are free to do so but without any special assurances, conditions, or status. A framework for how integration would work exists but there are few takers and even fewer raising issues such as how ethnic Armenians would serve in the Azerbaijani military, for example.
And while many projects examine the text of both Armenian and Azerbaijani history books, nobody is under the illusion that the educational systems in both countries would adopt new narratives on a complex and antagonistic past so quickly, let alone how a multilingual curriculum could function. Any such changes would take decades and hardly prove simple. Nonetheless, the right of return remains.
Though some Armenians believe that the Karabakh Armenians should not return, but nor too should they remain in Armenia, this issue has become even more urgent. For Azerbaijan, however, there also appears to be the expectation that those ethnic Azerbaijanis that fled Armenia in the late 1980s and early 1990s should have the voluntary right to return as well. Of course, Georgia experienced similar situation with the Meskhetian Turks deported during the Soviet-era but later expected to return under the country’s obligations to the Council of Europe.
Despite Tbilisi’s delays, very few eventually did and instead remain scattered throughout other countries.
It is quite possible that the same would be the case for the ethnic Azerbaijanis that left Armenia three decades ago and the ethnic Armenians that fled Karabakh earlier this year. And then there would the issue of those ethnic Armenians that left Ganja, Sumgait, and Baku. But theoretically at least, the return of all IDPs and refugees would at least offer the potential for some kind of interdependency by the sides. The same could be true for the enclaves.
However, population exchanges have always been part of the histories of both countries and that appears to continue. Even so, the plight of the Karabakh Armenians is pressing, as is the question of how well they will be able to integrate into Armenian society. The international community has rightly offered financial assistance but that will not be indefinite and Yerevan is also concerned that they could emerge as a hostile political factor in the future.
Coincidentally, a few days ago former Karabakh strongman Samvel Babayan claimed that the last de facto leader of the territory’s ethnic Armenian population, Samvel Shahramanyan, was still negotiating with Baku over the return of the population in absentia. Few believe this and there is certainly so far no evidence to support such claims, but this should at least be pursued despite the seemingly unsurmountable difficulties that it would entail.
That is, before it is too late.