What is going to happen to ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh?

Ethnic Armenian boy looks out the window of a car.
An ethnic Armenian boy from Nagorno-Karabakh, looks on from a car upon arrival in Armenia’s Goris, the town in Syunik region, Armenia, Monday, Sept. 25, 2023. Thousands of Armenians have streamed out of Nagorno-Karabakh after the Azerbaijani military reclaimed full control of the breakaway region last week. AP Photo/Vasily Krestyaninov

Although Emin Abrahamian was born in the United States, he learned Armenian before he learned English.

He went to an Armenian elementary school in a Boston suburb, visited Armenia multiple times and joined the Armenian Student Association of Northeastern University as soon as his first semester of college had started.

Abrahamian, 21, who will graduate in May with a degree in bioengineering, says that a lot of people get surprised when they hear that his parents grew up in Iran, where his father’s family lived for generations in the predominantly Armenian town of Nor Jugha (or New Julfa) and where his mother’s family escaped to from Eastern Turkey during the Armenian genocide.

Headshot of Emin Abrahamian.
Like other members of the international Armenian diaspora, Northeastern student Emin Abrahamian is concerned that ethnic Armenians are in danger of extermination under Azerbaijan’s rule. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Like other members of the international Armenian diaspora, Abrahamian has been focused for the last week on the news coming out of Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region in Azerbaijan about the size of Rhode Island populated by ethnic Armenians.

“These past few days have really been tough for all diasporans,” he says.

What is happening there has been distracting to his work and studies. Abrahamian says he is “genuinely related by blood” to residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, which he visited once with his fifth grade class.

“Getting to meet the people there was incredible. They just love that they are from there, and that they are able to live where their ancestors lived for years,” he says. “It’s crazy to think that everything is kind of being upended now.”

On Sep.19, Azerbaijan launched large-scale heavy artillery bombardment of Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh in Armenian, which is internationally considered to be part of Azerbaijan’s territory. Azerbaijan demanded the withdrawal of ethnic Armenian forces from the region and its re-integration under Azerbaijan’s constitution.

The next day, Nagorno-Karabakh’s leadership agreed to a ceasefire and other conditions to prevent further bloodshed as they were overpowered.

120,000 ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh

About 120,000 ethnic Armenians live in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Armenia and the Armenian diaspora believe that they are in danger of extermination under Azerbaijan’s rule.

Armenians carry the generational historical trauma of the Armenian genocide when as many as 600,000 to more than 1,000,000 Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed by the Young Turk government or died on the marches out of the country in 1915-1916. Azerbaijan and Turkey are the only two predominantly Turkic countries in the Caucasus region, and Turkey has been supporting its very important ally. 

“It’s just not going to end well,” Abrahamian says.

Over the last 30 years, the population of Nagorno-Karabakh lived through three military escalations with Azerbaijanies. In 2020, Azerbaijan regained control of the surrounding territory. According to a Russia-brokered peace agreement, Russian peacekeeping forces were to supervise the main road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, known as the Lachin Corridor. 

In December, Azerbaijan took the road under its control, cutting off supplies of food, medications, hygiene products and other essential goods to Nagorno-Karabakh.

International human right organizations as well as Armenian diaspora have been raising concerns about deliberate starvation of the ethnic Armenians under the blockade. 

The former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court issued a report in August that the blockade was a preparation for genocide against ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh

Situation is very difficult for negotiations

The situation is very difficult for negotiations, says Zinaida Miller, professor of law and international affairs at Northeastern, because Azerbaijan is already in a position of power after it had taken control over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The European Court of Human Rights and the International Court of Justice have issued rulings to try to protect the rights of the minorities and the movement of people and goods through the Lachin Corridor. However, Russia is more concerned with its war in Ukraine, Miller says, and the European Union and the U.S., who should maintain the pressure on Azerbaijan, have limited (albeit important) instruments of control in the region.

“The importance of maintaining minority rights for ethnic Armenians in the area as well as broad economic and social guarantees, of preventing what could become real retaliation against the population, and of ensuring that those who want to stay, return, or leave are all protected are huge issues on the table,” Miller says.

Ethnic Armenians should be subject to the protections of being within Azerbaijan, she says, that anyone would have under international law. 

“This is such a difficult and sensitive conflict where territory has changed hands multiple times, and both sides have lived experiences of violence and dislocation,” says Jelena Golubović, assistant professor of cultural anthropology and international affairs at Northeastern.

Despite the assurances of safety that the Azerbaijan leadership is promising for the ethnic Armenians, Golubović believes that Armenians’ disbelief and fear are warranted. 

“Guarantees of safe integration sound absurd in the immediate aftermath of a months-long blockade and a military offensive,” she says. “And the track record shows that when territory has changed hands here, it has been accompanied by violence and forced displacement.”

Safety guarantees cannot come only from Azerbaijan leadership, and their own state vision of what integration would look like, Golubović says. The ramifications need to come from external actors in the international community and, ideally, in consultation with Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians themselves.

This is such a difficult and sensitive conflict where territory has changed hands multiple times, and both sides have lived experiences of violence and dislocation.

Jelena Golubović, assistant professor of cultural anthropology and international affairs at Northeastern

Prosecuting perpetrators after the fact

The international community is better at prosecuting perpetrators after the fact, says Gordana Rabrenovic, associate professor of sociology and director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern, than at prevention of genocides or mass murders. And perpetrators usually don’t think about the consequences and punishment.

There are often signs, however, that lead to a genocide and can alert the international community. 

“It is not happening from nowhere,” Rabrenovic says.

Those signs include opportunistic, typically authoritarian leadership that tries to divide groups of people and denies previous atrocities. It might villainize certain groups as dangerous and deserving to be eliminated, and manipulate the rest of the population by using historical narratives.

One can also observe increased nationalism and bonding around ideology. Another indicator to look for is what is happening with the legal framework and the rule of law in the country.

The perpetrators could be spreading ideas through the media to justify their future actions to the public. Rabrenovic says another sign of future atrocities could be leaders assembling the means to conduct genocide.

“I certainly think there is a lot that we can do. It’s not like we are powerless to deal with that,” she says. 

Other countries should consider what resources they have, Rabrenovic says, and their potential in using backchannels to negotiate with the possible perpetrator. They can use the economic power they have over the aggressor.

Raising awareness about what is going

Raising awareness about what is going on in conventional and social media around the world is crucial as well, Rabrenovic says, because it can influence public opinion of citizens who can force their governments to act before genocide begins. 

The Nagorno-Karabakh official InfoCenter announced Monday that everyone willing to move from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia will have the opportunity to do so.

“I’m hearing a lot of discussion about how Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians can leave ‘if they choose’ and I think this obscures the degree of coercion and the lack of genuine choice that Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians are facing,” Golubović says. “If people flee out of fear for their safety, they are not “choosing” to leave, they are being displaced.” 

The language is important, she says, because the international perception of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians as either refugees or as willing migrants will inevitably affect the humanitarian response.

To many Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia is not a “natural” homeland, Golubović says, and their arrival there would not be a “repatriation.” Beyond the immediate humanitarian appeals of the moment, she says, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians will need longer-term structural support to rebuild their lives in Armenia or further abroad. 

Abrahamian says he is not in a position to judge those who choose to leave Nagorno-Karabakh, because these people have endured much hardship by staying in the region.

“Of course, if there was a safe way for them to stay there, I would want them to stay there,” he says. “But in this moment in time, it is so much more valuable to us to save those 120,000 ethnic Armenians, then try and stand on our land, dying for it and losing generations upon generations of our people.” 

Alena Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at a.kuzub@northeastern.edu. Follow her on Twitter @AlenaKuzub.