At least 30,000 people have left Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia in recent days following the new offensive launched by Azerbaijan to annex the territory, which has been disputed with Yerevan since 1994. This goal seems to have been achieved. On Thursday 28 September, the self-proclaimed separatist republic of Nagorno-Karabakh announced the dissolution of all its institutions as of 1 January 2024. The decree issued by the enclave’s leader announced the dissolution of “all state institutions and organisations (…) on 1 January 2024” and that consequently “the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) will cease to exist”.
The ongoing exodus affects almost a quarter of the 120,000 ethnic Armenians living in the region. The majority of Armenians in Karabakh do not accept Azerbaijan’s promises to guarantee their rights, fearing instead that the Baku government will launch a violent campaign of ethnic cleansing. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), most of those arriving are vulnerable and are mainly elderly people, women and children. “People arriving at the borders,” it says, “are exhausted and in need of urgent assistance and psychosocial support. With freezing night temperatures and limited accommodation, emergency shelter assistance is urgently needed”.
But Nagorno-Karabakh is not the only area under observation. Nakhchivan, a territory belonging to Azerbaijan but located in Armenia on the border with Iran and Turkey, is being watched with increasing interest. Nakhchivan became an exclave separated from the Azerbaijani mainland after the Soviet occupation of the South Caucasus region in 1920. It accounts for about 6% of Azerbaijan’s territory and is home to 460,000 people, mostly Azeris but also ethnic Russians.
With the Azerbaijani victory in the latest offensive, there is renewed talk of the ‘Zangezur corridor’, the roughly 30-kilometre-wide stretch of Armenian territory that separates Azerbaijan from its exclave. Baku has long demanded the opening of the corridor to end the exclave’s isolation, as it was one of the conditions of the 2020 ceasefire agreement with Yerevan. In Soviet times, Nakhchivan was connected to Azerbaijan by road and rail, but these were cut off at the start of the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia closed all energy, electricity and transport links to Nakhchivan, including highways and railways, leaving it without gas for 15 years. Currently, the only land links to Nakhchivan are through Iran or Turkey.
The 2020 agreement, which followed a six-week war between Yerevan and Baku over control of Nagorno-Karabakh, provided for the unblocking of all economic and transport links in the region. Armenia pledged to secure transport links between the western regions of Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan to allow the unrestricted movement of citizens, vehicles and goods in both directions. Despite the ceasefire, however, tensions remained high and the links were never effectively reopened.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday 26 September that Turkey (Baku’s ally) would do “everything possible” to open the corridor as soon as possible, which Armenia continues to oppose because without Armenian checkpoints it would undermine the country’s sovereignty. Instabul is in favour of a land corridor that would connect it to the rest of the Turkish world.
Reaffirming the strategic importance of the area, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday inaugurated a brand new cross-border gas pipeline linking Nakhchivan with the Turkish region of Igdir. The new pipeline will run from Igdir to the Sadarak district of Nakhchivan, covering a distance of 97.5 kilometres. The initial transport capacity of the Igdir-Nakhchivan pipeline is 2 million cubic metres of natural gas per day and 730 million cubic metres per year, but the pipeline capacity can be more than doubled in the future.
Another key player is Iran, an ally of Azerbaijan. As early as March 2022, the governments of Azerbaijan and Iran signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the establishment of new communication links between the Eastern Zangezur Economic District of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan through Iranian territory. The purpose of the memorandum was to establish a new railway, motorway, communications and energy lines.
* On the cover photo, Nagorno Karabakh map; Armenia vs Azerbaijan (vector illustration) © sameer madhukar chogale/Shutterstock.com