News | War / Peace - Central Asia An Armenian Tragedy

Bernhard Clasen reports on the days after the Azerbaijani conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh



Bernhard Clasen,

Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh in the border town of Goris, Armenia, after fleeing their homes, 28 September 2023. Photo: IMAGO / Le Pictorium

On 19 September 2023, the Azerbaijani military attacked the Armenian, self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, which is not internationally recognized as it is legally part of Azerbaijan. This assault was preceded by a months-long Azerbaijani blockade of the only land bridge between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. The enclave capitulated just one day after the start of the attack by the superior Azerbaijani troops.

Bernhard Clasen is a freelance journalist who has covered the post-Soviet space for over 30 years.

Since then, there has been a mass exodus of Armenians from the region — some 100,000 of the region’s 120,000 residents have reportedly already arrived in Armenia. Journalist Bernhard Clasen, who is currently staying in the region with support from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, reports on the days before and after Azerbaijan’s reconquest of the territory that was contested for decades.

Yerevan, 18 September

The Armenian Mirsoyan family sits peacefully at lunch in the middle of Yerevan, the Armenian capital, not far from the world-famous Blue Mosque. Somewhere in the background, a TV quietly plays Channel One Russia. On the table is tabbouleh with tomatoes, cucumbers, and parsley, along with sautéed potatoes and a meat stew. For dessert, there is a fresh watermelon.

This is a special day, because they have a visitor. Ira beams as she greets her 80-year-old mother Gayana and her 25-year-old son Arthur. Gayana lives in Moscow; she flew in yesterday on Aeroflot. Arthur managed to get out of Stepanakert/Khankendi in Nagorno-Karabakh a few months ago. Only one person is missing: Ira’s brother, Robert. He lives in Kyiv and, because he is a Ukrainian citizen, he cannot leave Ukraine. He doesn’t want to either, says Ira. Her brother is a real Ukrainian patriot. At the table, she tells me all about him and his last visit to Yerevan. But that was before the war in Ukraine.

They all have one thing in common: they have first-hand experience with modern drone warfare. “The Turkish drones showered down on us like a hideous rain”, laments Ira, who lived through the 40-day war in Karabakh in November 2020. She has only been living in Yerevan for a year. The trauma of that war has been burned into the memory of every Armenian, particularly those from Nagorno-Karabakh.

Arthur was sent to Moscow to study early on — Ira did not want him to be killed in the war. “He’s my only son”, she says. Gayana also talks about drones, which are now regularly striking Moscow. “Robert and his wife called recently and asked if we could take their kids — until the war and the drone attacks on Kyiv are over”, says Ira.

Robert’s children, she says, are terrified after several airstrikes. For the family, there is no question that Robert’s request will be granted, “as long as it’s quiet in Yerevan”. Everyone at the table is deeply sympathetic toward Ukraine. “This war will be over once Biden is out of office in the US”, says Aunt Gayana. She means it as consolation, but that reasoning comes from Russian television, which is constantly running in the background.

Baku, 24 September

An Azerbaijani family is having lunch on the outskirts of Baku. They are glad to have a guest from abroad and have prepared the meal accordingly. There are pickled onions, herbs, scallions, mackerel, potatoes, radishes, cucumbers, and a sturgeon, fished from the Caspian Sea, in pomegranate sauce. There is also lemon for anyone who would like to squeeze some onto their sturgeon, as well as juices, mineral water, and a variety of alcoholic beverages to drink.

Our host, Vugar, willingly translates the conversation from Russian into Azerbaijani for his children and his wife, who did not grow up in Baku. The “anti-terrorist operation” in Nagorno-Karabakh comes up quickly.

“We only fought for one day, and almost 200 Azerbaijani soldiers died”, Vugar grumbles. “It’s just not possible. That would never happen in Israel.” The family is silent for a moment in remembrance of the dead soldiers. The fact that Armenians also died is of no interest.

The prospect of a peace agreement has not provoked much enthusiasm in Armenia.

The patriarch, who is an upper-level civil servant, resumes the conversation, saying that “we generally can’t stand the Iranians. We aren’t closing our borders to them, but we are doing everything we can to make their stay more difficult.” He says that nobody wants to see these fanatics and Israel-haters in Azerbaijan.

Eldar Zeynalov, a long-time human rights activist and director of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, is familiar with this criticism of the Azerbaijani military operation against Nagorno-Karabakh. “No, I will not and cannot comprehend the logic,” he says. “Azerbaijan would only have had fewer losses if it had bombarded Karabakh. Azerbaijan had the weapons and munitions to do it — but think of the barbarity of that in the twenty-first century!”

The Exodus

The Exodus began after the “anti-terrorist operation”, as it is called in Azerbaijan, or the “genocide”, as people call it in Armenia. The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh do not trust the people in power in Azerbaijan, and they do not want to be “re-integrated”. Over 100,000 Karabakh-Armenians have arrived in Armenia in the interim.

On his Facebook page, Gegham Baghdasarian, president of the Stepanakert/Khankendi Press Club, describes the situation after 19 September, writing that, “near the city of Martuni, the Azerbaijanis are using loudspeakers to call for people to leave the city or they will all be killed. To the best of my knowledge, the town of Martakert has been given three days. Stepanakert is being fired on from the suburbs (from the direction of Krkjan).” At the time, Stepanakert/Khankendi had not yet been occupied by Azerbaijani troops.

“No evacuation is possible without an international presence, because there is a series of obstacles. The most important one is the position the Russians have taken”, says Baghdasarian. “The Russians want a certain number of people to remain in order to justify their criminal presence here. It’s actually a hostage situation.”

Can Pashinyan Hold On?

In May of this year, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan did something that none of his predecessors had dared to do: he recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. In doing so, he incurred the wrath of the largely pro-Russian opposition.

Immediately after Azerbaijan’s “anti-terrorist operation”, pro-Russian blogger Mika Badalyan became a spokesman for anti-Pashinyan demonstrations. Badalyan is hardly an unknown quantity for many Armenian civil society activists. He had repeatedly denounced demonstrations in Yerevan against Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. When he was arrested in early September for illegal possession of weapons, Russia’s foreign minister expressed his concern about the arrest to the Armenian ambassador.

The anti-Pashinyan demonstrations have also had the support of Russian television journalists Margarita Simonyan and Vladimir Solovyov. In addition, observers believe former prime ministers Serzh Sargsyan and Robert Kocharyan are working behind the scenes of the protests.

The anti-Pashinyan demonstrations are coordinated by members of the “National Committee”, which includes Vazgen Manukyan, the first prime minister of the Republic of Armenia, and Ishkhan Saghatelyan, both a member of the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation party (known as Dashnaktsutyun) and a representative of Kocharyan’s Armenia Alliance party.

What Is Your Take on Russia?

The issue dividing Armenia today is the country’s relationship with Russia. Russia’s presence is felt everywhere in Armenia. Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) units keep watch on the Turkish-Armenian border, and FSB agents are also present in the airport. “It’s been difficult, but I’ve learned a few Armenian salutations”, says Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina, “only to find out at the border that the person I was talking to didn’t understand any Armenian, because he was also from Russia”.

One thing is certain: further conflict in the region is assured, even after the fighting ends.

It is no secret that Prime Minister Pashinyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin do not get along. Russia is furious about Armenia’s new orientation toward the West.

Turkey’s growing regional influence also frightens David, a recently retired officer. He does not like the fact that the Turkish language is now part of Armenian school curricula or that Russia is increasingly turning its back on Armenia. Now Russia is not even delivering the weapons that the Armenians have already paid for.

“If Russia wants to punish us, it is doing it via Azerbaijan”, he says. He believes that Armenia is provoking Russia by sending, of all people, the wife of the Armenian prime minister to bring humanitarian aid to Ukraine. “Has she already forgotten that Ukraine sent weapons, including phosphorous bombs, to Azerbaijan during their war on us?”

But many people feel that Russia has left them in the lurch. Russia could not or would not implement the 9–10 November 2020 ceasefire agreement that Putin had initiated, and watched passively as Azerbaijan seized the Lachin corridor — and Russia let Azerbaijan’s “anti-terrorist operation” happen.

It is against this backdrop that human rights activist Arthur Sakunts, chairperson of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly–Vanadzor, used his Facebook page to call for Armenia’s withdrawal from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), non-aligned status for Armenia, withdrawal of Russian troops, strategic collaboration with the US and France to construct a new security system, and termination of strategic cooperation agreements with Russia.

These demands also largely resonate with political scientist Areg Kochinyan. He has even gone a step further, suggesting through the portal that, if Armenia does not want to be integrated with Russia any more, it cannot avoid coming to an agreement with Azerbaijan and Turkey.

In Azerbaijan, on the other hand, there is a lot of talk about an Armenian–Azerbaijani peace treaty that could be signed before the end of the year. A meeting between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan was planned for 5 October at the third summit of the European Political Community in Granada, Spain, but Azerbaijan cancelled on short notice.

The prospect of a peace agreement has not provoked much enthusiasm in Armenia. “Appetite comes with eating”, says Armenian political scientist Alexander Iskandaryan. He points to Syria and Ukraine as evidence that internationally recognized borders would by no means be a guarantee against attacks. Iskandaryan fears that Azerbaijan wants more than just Nagorno-Karabakh.

Inevitable Fight over the Zangezur “Corridor”

Azerbaijan wants a “corridor” with roads and trains linking its exclave Nakhichevan (and therefore Turkey) with the rest of Azerbaijan. This corridor would be controlled by Azerbaijan. The November 2020 ceasefire agreement did assure Azerbaijan that Russian troops would protect a land bridge, but there was no mention of a corridor — and in the context of the South Caucasus, a “corridor” would mean an extraterritorial land bridge.

Iran can hardly be enthusiastic about a corridor right on its border either. For one thing, it would be a link to Iran’s rival Turkey, a NATO country and therefore an ally of Iran’s arch-enemy the United States. For another, goods from Nakhichevan must currently be transported to the rest of Azerbaijan via Iran. A corridor on Armenian territory would cost Iran an important source of income.

One thing is certain: further conflict in the region is assured, even after the fighting ends.

Translated by Joseph Keady and Anna Dinwoodie for Gegensatz Translation Collective.