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Thousands of Armenian Christians Converge at Airport as Nagorno-Karabakh Hands Over Land to Azerbaijan

On Wednesday, thousands of Armenians residing in Nagorno-Karabakh congregated at the airport, where a contingent of Russian peacekeepers was stationed. 

This gathering followed a momentous development, as separatist forces conceded to a ceasefire agreement, ultimately surrendering Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan.

Photographs captured the airport swarmed with thousands of individuals, including families with young children. The separatist leaders governing the self-proclaimed “Republic of Artsakh” issued an appeal to the region’s population of approximately 120,000, urging them not to hastily head to the airport in the capital city, known as Stepanakert.

“We once again urge the population of Stepanakert not to succumb to panic and not to go to the airport on their own initiative in order to evacuate,” implored the separatist authorities. Azerbaijan has faced accusations of harboring intentions to carry out ethnic cleansing in Karabakh, allegations vehemently denied by Baku.

The historical backdrop of the region is layered with complexity. Armenians, who practice Christianity, assert a deeply rooted historical presence in the area, dating back several centuries before the advent of Christ. Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region situated in the volatile South Caucasus, is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory. Nevertheless, a portion of it has been under the administration of separatist Armenian authorities, who assert that the region is their ancestral homeland.

Azerbaijan declared a cessation of military operations in the region on Wednesday, coinciding with the ceasefire agreement that had been mutually confirmed and effective as of 1 p.m. (0900 GMT) on the same day. The terms of the agreement stipulate the disbandment and disarmament of separatist forces, with discussions concerning the region’s future and the welfare of its Armenian population scheduled to commence on the following day.

Anticipating an uncertain future, gatherings of ethnic Armenians streamed toward the airport in Stepanakert, Karabakh’s capital, known as Khankendi by Azerbaijan. Others sought refuge with the Russian peacekeeping contingent.

Azerbaijan has announced its intentions to integrate the 120,000 ethnic Armenians residing in the region, pledging that their rights would be safeguarded under the constitutional framework. However, skepticism abounds among some Armenians, with neighboring Armenia accusing Azerbaijan of orchestrating an ethnic cleansing campaign—an allegation strongly refuted by Baku.

“They are basically saying to us that we need to leave, not stay here, or accept that this is a part of Azerbaijan—this is basically a typical ethnic cleansing operation,” remarked Ruben Vardanyan, a former high-ranking official in Karabakh’s Armenian administration, in a conversation with Reuters.

Wednesday’s outcome marked a military triumph for Azerbaijan, which enjoys the support of Turkey and possesses significantly superior military forces compared to the separatists. This development could potentially trigger political upheaval in neighboring Armenia, where some political factions express discontent over Yerevan’s perceived inability to do more to safeguard the Armenians of Karabakh.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia was already contending with calls from his political adversaries to resign as of Wednesday. Furthermore, some Armenians harbor resentment towards Russia, a nation with peacekeepers on the ground that had facilitated a previous ceasefire agreement in 2020, following a 44-day conflict, yet failed to prevent Azerbaijan’s recent actions.

The Kremlin rejected such criticism on Wednesday, with President Vladimir Putin affirming that Russian peacekeepers would ensure the protection of Karabakh’s civilian population. The extent to which ethnic Armenians will choose to remain in Karabakh remains uncertain.

Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Paruyr Hovhannissyan conveyed to Reuters that, in an ideal scenario, Karabakh Armenians could coexist under Azerbaijani governance. Nonetheless, historical experiences make it challenging to envision such a scenario.

Azerbaijan’s military operation had faced stern condemnation from the United States and certain European nations, who argued that the Nagorno-Karabakh issue should have been resolved through diplomatic negotiations. Additionally, they contended that Baku’s actions were exacerbating an already dire humanitarian crisis on the ground, stemming from a nine-month blockade of the region imposed by Azerbaijan.

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