Sat, 02 Dec 2023

Speaking before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva this week, Armenia's ambassador Andranik Hovhannisyan said that his country had previously warned of "looming ethnic cleansing" in Nagorno-Karabakh, stressing it was now "in progress". For Armenians, the recent attacks in the enclave have brought back bitter memories of the 1915 genocide.

"This week has been a catastrophe for the South Caucasus," says Lara Setrakian, president of the Yerevan-based think-tank Applied Policy Research Institute (APRI).

"The military action and offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh have caused a devastating humanitarian crisis. You have many dead, wounded and missing. This is no way to conduct diplomacy," she told RFI.

Talks between Armenian separatists and Azerbaijan on integrating the breakaway territory were held on Thursday, after fighters from the Nagorno-Karabakh region - home to some 120,000 ethnic Armenians - agreed to lay down their arms in a ceasefire deal.

Images distributed by Azerbaijan's state media showed the Armenian separatist delegation sitting around a table with negotiators dispatched by Baku to resolve the decades-long dispute over the breakaway mountainous territory.

According to a dispatch by Azeri news portal Azadliq, the "anti-terrorist operation has been suspended" as long as "units of the Armenian armed forces and illegal Armenian armed units located in the Karabakh region of the Republic of Azerbaijan lay down their weapons, leave their combat positions and military posts and are completely disarmed".

"We were hoping for peaceful and genuine negotiations between Baku and the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh ... and now they are essentially being bombarded and starved into submission," says Setrakian.

The peace talks followed "three extremely brutal days in Nagorno-Karabakh and it is simply a negotiation by force," she added.

"People are desperate and they're being driven out of their homes. They have no choice. So what happens next is apparently in the hands of Baku because it is willing to exert force at every turn to get what it wants."

Mass protests

Following Baku's recent claims that Nagorno-Karabakh is now fully under Azerbaijani control, many people took to the streets in the Armenian capital Yerevan earlier this week deeming the Armenian government had capitulated.

But Setrakian doesn't agree.

"I don't think the government of Armenia could have done more. They were negotiating in good faith. They thought that the government of Azerbaijan was serious about peace talks," she says.

The assault, earlier this week, came as a complete surprise. "Five days before it began, the US State Department said it would be absolutely unacceptable for Azerbaijan to use force against this population."

Despite that, there was prolonged bombardment, reports of gunfire and even ground movement of Azerbaijani troops into Nagorno-Karabakh, with dozens of people killed, hundreds wounded and thousands displaced.

Armenia's Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, "is now caught in a very bad position," says Setrakian. "He had invested a lot in the peace process and this doesn't convince anyone in Armenia that that was a good idea."


Today's situation is a replay of a conflict that goes back more than a hundred years. The enclave, with a majority Christian Armenian population, is separated from Armenia proper by high mountain ranges and only reachable via a narrow pass - the Lachin Corridor - but easily accessible from mainly Muslim Azerbaijan.

Research by scholar Arsène Saparov found that when the regions of the "South Caucasus" - Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia - were incorporated in the newly created USSR as "Socialist Republics" in the 1920s, the Bolsheviks just granted Nagorno-Karabakh "autonomy" instead of attaching it to Armenia to avoid antagonising Azeri sentiments.

Under Soviet rule from 1921 to 1989, the area lived in relative peace, but when the USSR started to fall apart, hostilities flared up with a brutal, six-year war starting in 1988 which cost the lives to some 25,000 people.

According to Human Rights Watch, both sides were guilty of extreme atrocities. In 1994 a stalemate resulted in a fragile peace guarded by international peacekeepers, but hostilities broke out again in 2020.

Powerless Russians

That war ended with a Moscow-brokered ceasefire. A Russian force of 1,960 military personnel and 90 armoured personnel carriers was deployed in the enclave to keep the peace, with a renewable, five-year mandate.

That deal, says Setrakian, "was essentially thrown out the window this week" by Azerbaijan, and the Russian peacekeepers were powerless.

"Since the start of the Ukraine war, Russia has simply been unable to maintain that position and unable to keep the peace," she says. As a result of western sanctions imposed following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has become increasingly dependent on Turkey and Azerbaijan "for various economic interests and energy exports".

At the same time, Armenians are highly suspicious of Baku's talk of "integration" of the "Artsakh" population into an Azeri-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh. "They [Azerbaijan authorities] say that they want to integrate Armenians as citizens and live in peace. But in fact, Azerbaijan has made life miserable, unliveable for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

"Children are hungry, civilians have died, people are trying to evacuate, and the routes are blocked. It is a crisis, a true humanitarian crisis.

"Now if we start to see many of them going, this will be evidence of ethnic cleansing. Genocide, ethnic cleansing by some definition is happening now," Setrakian underlines.

INTERVIEW: Lara Setrakian, President APRI Armenia in Yerevan 07:10

Interview with Lara Setrakian President APRI Armenia in Yerevan

Jan van der Made

Another genocide?

In August this year, a hard-hitting "expert opinion" by former ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, claimed that by isolating the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and using "starvation" as a weapon, Azerbaijan may be guilty of genocide.

Quoting the UN Genocide Convention, Ocampo said that "the blockade of the Lachin Corridor by the Azerbaijani security forces impeding access to any food, medical supplies, and other essentials, should be considered a Genocide," since Baku is "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction".

"Starvation as a method to destroy people was neglected by the entire international community when it was used against Armenians in 1915, Jews and Poles in 1939, Russians in Leningrad in 1941, and Cambodians in 1975-1976.

"Starvation was also used in Srebrenica in the winter of 1993-1994," Ocampo wrote.

Last Thursday, the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said in a statement that "while a ceasefire has been concluded, FIDH remains concerned that there is a real risk of genocide of ethnic Armenians in areas coming under Azerbaijan's effective control".

The fact that Turkey presents itself as the main backer of Azeri aggression may strengthen painful memories of the 1915 Armenian genocide - still officially denied by Ankara - where an estimated 1.2 to 1.5 million Armenians were systematically killed by the Ottoman empire.

Armenia genocide monument in Yerevan {{ scope.counterText }} {{ scope.counterText }} i

The events are commemorated by an impressive monument overlooking Yerevan today.

"I think this is very much the legacy of genocide that Armenians feel is being perpetuated now," says Setrakian.

French concerns

France houses some 750,000 members of the Armenian diaspora - the world's third largest Armenian community after Russia and the US - and takes a special interest in the developments in Nagorno-Karabakh. At the ongoing session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, French Foreign Affairs Minister Catherine Colonna called the Nagorno-Karabakh situation "illegal, unjustifiable and unacceptable," while French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Late August, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo led a group of French politicians in a humanitarian mission with the International Red Cross to the Nagorno-Karabakh border in an attempt to bring relief goods to the isolated enclave.

Originally published on RFI

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