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What You Need To Know About... Azerbaijan, Baku Nagorno-Karabakh & The Republic of Artsakh

I live in Los Feliz, halfway between L.A.’s Little Armenia and the city of Glendale. Los Angeles County has around 218,000 people who identify as Armenians (including 80,000 in Glendale)… more than any other city in the world, besides Armenia’s capital, Yerevan (1.1 million). The other U.S. cities with substantial Armenian populations are New York City, Boston, San Francisco and Detroit. There are also substantial Armenian communities in Toronto and Montreal. Americans may be confused by the sudden news reports about difficult to pronounce places— Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh— half way around the world where there has been tens of thousands of people fleeing for their lives, 78,000 as of Thursday.

A few years ago, I was in Moscow too long and had an extra week before meeting a friend there. I decided to take a quick trip to Azerbaijan, formerly part of the USSR, but since 1991 an independent secular Muslim-majority republic, wealthy from oil. I spent most of my time in Baku, a modern, prosperous city on the Caspian Sea. It has once be a city that was between a quarter and a third populated by Armenians but there were no Armenians to be seen when I was there, I had recently been in Dakar, capital of Senegal and you could see how embedded Armenians were into the city’s cultural and economic life. There was nothing like that in Baku.

A month after Azerbaijan declared its independence from the crumbling Soviet Union, the ethic Armenian majority of the Nagorno-Karabakh region declared its independence from Azerbaijan as the Republic of Artsakh, completely surrounded by Azerbaijan. Azeris had massacred and expelled Armenians from their parts of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1920s before the region was absorbed by the USSR. At the time, around 95% of the people in the region were Armenians. That was down to around 77% before the first Nagorno-Karabakh war and then up to 99.7% until last week. Azerbaijan and Armenia fought two wars (1991 and 2020) over the region and last month Azerbaijan forces marched in and took control. So why did so many Armenians leave their ancestral homes so fast? The Associated Press repeorted that “In three decades of conflict between the two countries, each has accused the other of targeted attacks, massacres and other atrocities, leaving people on both sides deeply suspicious and fearful of the other. While Azerbaijan has pledged to respect the rights of ethnic Armenians in the region, they do not trust the authorities to treat them fairly and humanely or to grant them their language, religion and culture.”

In December, Azerbaijan blockaded the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, alleging the Armenian government was using it for illicit weapons shipments to the region’s separatist forces.
Armenia alleged the closure denied basic food and fuel supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan rejected the accusation, arguing that the region could receive supplies through the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam— a solution long resisted by Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, who called it a strategy for Azerbaijan to gain control of the region.
Weakened by the blockade and with Armenia’s leadership distancing itself from the conflict, ethnic Armenian forces in the region agreed to lay down arms less than 24 hours after Azerbaijan began its offensive last week. Talks have begun between officials in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku and Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist authorities on “reintegrating” the region into Azerbaijan.
…In Yerevan, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that “in the coming days, there will be no Armenians left in Nagorno-Karabakh.”
“This is a direct act of an ethnic cleansing and depriving people of their motherland, exactly what we’ve telling the international community about,” he said.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry strongly rejected Pashinyan’s accusations, accusing him of “seeking to disrupt Azerbaijan’s efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and the reintegration process” and undermining prospects for negotiating a peace treaty between the two countries.
“Pashinyan knows well enough that the current departure of Armenians from Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region is their personal and individual decision and has nothing to do with forced relocation,” the ministry said.
It urged the Armenian population of the region “not to leave their places of residence and become part of the multinational Azerbaijan.”
Azerbaijani authorities said they were sending 30 buses to Stepanakert at the request of “the Armenian residents” for those who don’t have cars but want to go to Armenia.

Let’s go back to the early 1990s when Azerbaijan and Armenia were declaring their independence from the soon to no longer exist USSR. There were about a quarter million Armenians in Baku, living well. In 1990, however, there was a week of pograms (January 13-20) organized by the Azerbaijani Popular Front, a nationalist movement that was gaining power, many Armenians were killed and virtually everyone who wasn’t left. The violence started after a Popular Front rally which turned into a frenzy of murder, with Azeris hunting down Armenians in the streets and in their homes, killing people— often with great brutality— burning people alive, throwing people off rooftops, raping women. The violence was pre-planned and not really spontaneous. By the time the Soviet military arrived to stop the violence hundreds of Armenians had been massacred and thousands were already fleeing.

The pogram also radicalized Armenian nationalists and made any kind of peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh situation almost impossible.

It might be worth remembering that with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which had kept a lid on ethnic conflicts, Baku wasn’t the only place were this kind of long-simmering violence broke out. Even earlier (1988) Azeris slaughtered Armenians in Sumgait— the country’s second largest city— for 3 days. In 1992 a civil war broke out in Moldova between Moldovans and Russian-speaking— and Russian-supported— Transnistrians, just before another civil war broken out between Abkhazians and Georgians and a civil war commenced in Tajikistan that lasted for 5 years.

One more thing, there is also an Azeri diaspora, mostly in Russia, Turkey and Iran, but there are at least 100,000 Azeris living in the U.S., with at least 10,000 in L.A. County.

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