What happens next following Azerbaijan's victory? Analysis

There are fears over the future of 120,000 Armenians living in the enclave.

September 20, 2023, 3:01 PM

LONDON -- The 35-year conflict around the disputed Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh appears to have finally ended in Azerbaijan's favor.

However, after pro-Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh agreed to lay down arms in the face of Azerbaijan's offensive, there are worries for the enclave's Armenian population.

Unable to withstand Azerbaijan's new offensive, the enclave's ethnic Armenian government has effectively surrendered, agreeing to fully disarm and disband its forces in return for a ceasefire. Both sides said talks will now be held on Thursday on issues around the "reintegration" of Nagorno-Karabakh into Azerbaijan.

The major question now is what will happen to the enclave's majority Armenian population.

An estimated 120,000 ethnic Armenians live in Nagorno-Karabakh and will now find themselves living under Azerbaijan's rule.

A resident of the Azerbaijani capital hangs a state flag in Baku on Sept. 20, 2023, in support of the country's offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Tofik Babayev/AFP via Getty Images

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but a breakaway Armenian government has controlled it since Armenian forces won a bloody war in the enclave between 1988-1994 amid the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It has been one of the most bitter, longest-running ethnic conflicts in the world, marked by cycles of ethnic cleansing by both sides over the decades. Armenian forces drove an estimated 600,000 Azerbaijani civilians from their homes during the war in the 1990s as they succeeded in taking over most of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan recaptured some areas of Nagorno-Karabakh after a new war in 2020 that paved the way for the Armenian defeat today. Most of the Armenian population fled those areas and some Armenian cultural and religious sites have been defaced or destroyed, as Azerbaijan has sought to rebuild them as symbols of its own culture.

It means there are grave doubts over whether Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh will now be willing to remain there and whether they could face persecution or even violence under Azerbaijani rule. It raises the specter of a terrible repetition of the cycle of ethnic cleansing the region has faced.

"They now lose any means of self-defense and face a very uncertain future in Azerbaijan. The Karabakhis may have avoided complete destruction, but they are more likely facing a slow-motion removal from their homeland," Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and prominent expert on the conflict, told the Guardian Wednesday.

Protestors block a street, Sept. 20, 2023, in Yerevan, Armenia.
Karen Minasyan/AFP via Getty Images
Demonstrators clash with police at the Armenia government building to protest against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Sept. 19, 2023, in Yerevan, Armenia.
Vahram Baghdasaryan/AP

He said nonetheless, "A ceasefire is positive, obviously, if it lasts, as the threat of mass bloodshed will be averted,"

Already, thousands of Armenians have fled inside the enclave from the fighting. Video shows large crowds of frightened civilians, many with young children, seeking shelter at a Russian peacekeeping base.

A lot depends on what Azerbaijan will demand in negotiations with the Karabakh Armenians on the status of the region and to the extent that Azerbaijani security forces will be deployed there.

Armenian police detain a protestor in downtown Yerevan as separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan's authorities announced they would cease hostilities, Sept. 20, 2023, in Yerevan, Armenia.
Karen Minasyan/AFP via Getty Images

Russian peacekeeping forces are also, for the time being, still deployed in the enclave, tasked with protecting Armenian civilians.

But after three decades, within just two days, Karabakh's Armenians suddenly face a very uncertain future.

Advisor to the President of Azerbaijan Hikmet Hajiyev, left, speaks during a briefing held for diplomatic representatives with the participation of Elchin Amirbayov, right and Fariz Rzayev, Sept. 20, 2023, in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images