One of the last bus convoys carrying Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians arrived in Armenia during the first week of October. Armenia’s southernmost region Syunik is currently serving as a refuge for thousands. Community centers and hotels are full, as people are left to make sense of the situation and think about how to get out of the current predicament. Over 100,000 Armenians have left Nagorno-Karabakh. According to the United Nations, the remaining Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh is now fewer than 1,000 individuals.

The mass exodus of Armenians began following Azerbaijan’s most recent military operations in Nagorno-Karabakh. A 24-hour military offensive on September 19-20 forced the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh authorities to surrender, resulting in an agreement on disarmament and (re)integration into Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh will cease to exist as an unrecognized secessionist entity by the end of this year.

“The One Day War” represents an apex point in Azerbaijan’s coercive diplomacy. In 2020, Baku regained control over most of its previously occupied territories as a result of the 44-day war. Subsequently, the objective shifted towards de-internationalizing the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement process and isolating Armenia as a kin-state of the secessionist entity. Restrictions on movement in the Lachin corridor and the establishment of the checkpoint have been instrumental in helping Baku reach this goal.

Having accomplished the first objective, Azerbaijan moved towards the second – deinstitutionalization. The blockade of the Lachin corridor for over nine months significantly weakened the defense capabilities of the secessionist entity. Furthermore, the evolving regional geopolitical landscape, following the invasion of Ukraine, disrupted the already fragile post-war security architecture.

On September 20, Azerbaijan achieved its long-standing aim of complete sovereignty over its internationally recognized borders, albeit with considerable human casualties. Following the ceasefire agreement, the Lachin corridor was effectively opened. Initially, it was anticipated that only those who had lost their homes would seek refuge in Armenia. However, within days, almost all of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh became refugees.

The mass exodus was not unexpected. Firstly, we must acknowledge the profound social shock resulting from the abrupt dissolution of a political realm that had endured for over three decades. Many struggled to envision what would come next, even in abstract terms. Secondly, there is a legacy of conflict that has persisted for over 30 years. Two major wars, dozens of skirmishes, deaths, injuries… All of this has left lasting individual and collective fears in its wake.

The problem, however, does not simply entail the presence of fears, uncertainties, and traumas. The crux of the problem lies in the fact that, over the past 30 years, and particularly in the last three years, there have been no efforts to address these deeply ingrained fears and traumas. The ultimate endpoint of the negotiations regarding Nagorno-Karabakh’s status was well understood in Baku, Yerevan, and Stepanakert (Khankendi). Yet, the authorities propagandized a myriad of myths to the general public. On the other hand, concepts such as “autonomy,” “reintegration,” and “rights and security” remained mere rhetorical tools in the negotiations, failing to evolve into comprehensive policies.

The mass exodus of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh does not bode well for either Armenians or Azerbaijanis. What is urgently needed now, more than ever, is institutional cooperation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The absence of such cooperation only serves to exacerbate the aggressive and intensive exploitation of this conflict by outsiders, turning this already war-torn region into a proxy battleground. The longer this conflict persists, the less sovereignty Armenia and Azerbaijan can claim to enjoy.

At present, it might seem like searching for a needle in a haystack, but it is still possible to reach a deal. Any workable and acceptable arrangement must grapple with the legacy of Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies at its core. For some, reaching an agreement without addressing the Nagorno-Karabakh issue may appear to be a straightforward task. However, the effectiveness and durability of such an arrangement remain uncertain. There are three steps that could pave the way for this deal.

First, there is a need to secure a temporary, short-term return. It has been observed that many individuals, especially those residing in areas heavily affected by the military operations, departed hastily and were unable to take many of their possessions with them into Armenia. They should be allowed to return to their homes to retrieve the belongings they left behind. Additionally, it is anticipated that some may need to relocate the graves of their loved ones.

For some Armenians and Azerbaijanis, this brings back memories of what happened three decades ago. Amidst the waves of exodus driven by inter-communal violence between 1988 and 1991, there were numerous instances of such returns. Through mutual agreements struck at the community level, individuals revisiting their homes retrieved some possessions and sold their homes to generate much-needed funds.

The second step should involve crafting a comprehensive and workable plan for the permanent return and (re)integration of those who desire to live in Nagorno-Karabakh. This plan should intricately outline the rights that the Armenian minority can enjoy within Azerbaijan, and it must address how they can safeguard their national identity upon their return. Civil, political, religious, and cultural rights, citizenship issues, property issues – all these and many others have to be outlined clearly so the return can take place.

Fortunately, there are signs of optimism. Some have already indicated their willingness to come back. One of those who spoke to Human Rights Watch said he would consider returning with his family for the longer term “if Azerbaijan allows Armenians to live there as a community – with Armenian schools, an Armenian church, administration staff recruited from members of the community.” It is hard to predict the scale of such thinking among the Armenian refugees, but surely a considerable part would consider returning if their concerns and questions are answered.

Examining other conflict scenarios shows that post-violence returns are possible and achievable. Notable instances include the return of a part of the Serbian population who left Croatia following Operation Storm in 1995 and the return of displaced Georgians to Abkhazia’s Gali region in the mid-1990s. Yes, each conflict is unique, but there are lessons to be learned.

Thirdly, there is a need for international involvement in facilitating both temporary and permanent returns. It is certainly difficult to assert that Russian peacekeepers, who have been the sole foreign presence since the 2020 war, have played a role in fostering reconciliation between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the past three years. Given that nearly all Armenians have now left the region, it is probable that the peacekeeping mission has only a limited lifespan remaining, possibly just a few months, if not weeks or days.

In this regard, there is a need for more effective international engagement. The recent visit by the UN monitoring mission to Nagorno-Karabakh is a promising step. A logical continuation would involve enhancing the mission’s operational capabilities and making it a more consistent, enduring presence. Additionally, broadening the range of activities conducted by other international organizations in the region, such as the Red Cross Committee, can make a constructive contribution to the overarching process.

The paramount goal at this juncture should be averting any potential future military escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan and establishing institutional cooperation. To achieve this, comprehensive, workable, and acceptable political arrangements are imperative. Particularly concerning Nagorno-Karabakh, short-term return aided by international support, followed by a more extended process of return and (re)integration is needed.

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