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The Aliyev Regime’s Role in the Ethnic Cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians

By Tigran Sargsyan, legal and policy intern

On Sept. 19, Stepanakert, the capital of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, came under a barrage of bombs and artillery fire. Azerbaijan announced the beginning of an “anti-terrorist campaign,” signifying Baku’s final attempt to push ethnic Armenians out of the enclave and reclaim control over its territory. By Oct. 2, Azerbaijani forces controlled Karabakh, a significant majority of its Armenian population had evacuated the territory, and the republic itself de facto ceased to exist.

The Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is a longstanding historical conflict in the South Caucasus. Dating back to the early 20th century, it began as a series of mutual transgressions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in the Russian Empire, instigated by Moscow officials. In April 1918, after the Russian Empire’s dissolution in 1917, the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic (TDFR) was formed but lasted only a month. In May 1918, the TDFR split into Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Soon after, the newly sovereign republics began fighting, aiming to delineate their borders by force. Ultimately, external actors, namely Turkey and Britain, intervened and stabilized the situation. 

The League of Nations designated Nagorno-Karabakh’s status as “disputed” pending deliberation during a 1919-1920 international conference. But this resolution remained elusive as Soviet Russia annexed all three republics and established the Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The Bolshevik Party orchestrated the demarcation between the Azerbaijani and Armenian Republics, neglecting the ethnic makeup and sentiments of the local population. As a result, Nagorno-Karabakh, which is ethnically 95% Armenian, was integrated into the Azerbaijan SSR, forming the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast. Officially, it was done for economic reasons. Realistically, the Bolsheviks most likely adhered to a “divide and conquer” policy, evidenced by the policy toward minorities and borders throughout the Soviet Union.

The onset of “Glasnost,” a period of transparency and abolition of censorship under Gorbachev, in 1985 catalyzed a resurgence of national consciousness in Armenia, giving rise to the “Miatsum” movement for reunification. Representatives from Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia petitioned Moscow and Baku for a legal resolution, proposing the transfer of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region to the Armenian SSR’s jurisdiction. However, the central Communist authority in Moscow, reluctant to antagonize Baku, refused to do so, resulting in increased tension in the region and the displacement of vast numbers of Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Wary of Armenia’s attempts to gain more independence in the late 1980s, Moscow launched Operation Ring in 1991. Aimed at disarming “bandits” in Nagorno Karabakh, the operation resulted in dozens of deaths and injuries and thousands forcibly displaced among the enclave’s population.

After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh established their own republic. After gaining independence, Azerbaijan was able to dispose of the Soviet weapons and supplies remaining in the republic. Thus began the bloodiest phase of the war, during which Azerbaijan tried to regain control over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Karabakh Armenians managed to mobilize the militia and, with the strategic support of Armenia, endured a protracted three-year conflict against Azerbaijan. After 1994, hostilities entered a dormant phase due to diplomatic engagements facilitated by the OSCE Minsk Group.

The first significant geopolitical shift after the 1994 armistice occurred in the autumn of 2020. Azerbaijan’s belligerence towards Nagorno-Karabakh — such as long-term military exercises on the contact line, coupled with aggressive rhetoric and threats of war — culminated in a 44-day conflict. Both sides witnessed substantial casualties, with hundreds of civilian fatalities. Azerbaijan ultimately took control of significant swaths of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), leading to displacement and human rights violations, including war crimes, against the Armenian population. The 2020 armistice saw the deployment of Russian peacekeepers and the Republic of Armenia’s military withdrawal from Karabakh.

On Dec. 12, 2022, Azerbaijan initiated a complete blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Lachin Corridor, the only road connecting Armenia and Karabakh, was blocked, resulting in shortages in essential commodities and utilities. International organizations urged Azerbaijan to lift the blockade to avert a humanitarian crisis. Protracted diplomatic dialogues culminated on Sept. 13, with the delivery of humanitarian aid to the NKR. 

On Sept. 19, Azerbaijani forces began a comprehensive military campaign against Nagorno-Karabakh. Framing it as an “anti-terrorist operation,” Azerbaijani forces targeted Stepanakert and other urban centers while Russian peacekeepers stood by and did not intervene. Azerbaijan presented ultimatums to the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership, such as dissolution of the NKR, liquidation of the NKR police and defense army, and the surrender of the “separatist” leaders to the Azerbaijani regime — all of which the Karabakh Armenians reluctantly accepted on Sept. 20. By Oct. 3, the majority of the NKR population left the republic. The exodus from Stepanakert to Armenia spanned several days, with local Karabakh officials arrested by Azerbaijani authorities. In a decree signed by the republic’s president, the dissolution of Nagorno Karabakh was officially scheduled for Jan. 1.

More than one hundred thousand Karabakh Armenians have provisionally resettled in Armenia. Global institutions and organizations are exerting diplomatic pressure on the Aliyev administration to ensure the safe return and rights of the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh. Yet, confidence in Aliyev’s autocratic leadership remains elusive. For nearly three decades, Aliyev has maintained a state of uncertainty in Nagorno-Karabakh, perpetually breaching ceasefire agreements and launching offensives against Armenian strongholds and urban centers. Beyond their immediate safety, the Karabakh Armenians are concerned about an increased infringement of their rights. 

While the governance structures of the NKR were not perfectly democratic, there was a discernible adherence to power transitions and democratic mechanisms, such as a competitive and transparent electoral process, political diversity, freedom of assembly, and media pluralism. Since 1991, the republic has had four presidents, seven presidential and parliamentary elections, and four referendums.

In Azerbaijan, however, Ilham Aliyev’s autocratic regime has been in power since 2003. He assumed the mantle from his father and predecessor, former KGB operative Heydar Aliyev, who became president in 1993. Essentially, the Aliyev lineage has dominated Azerbaijan’s political system for 30 years. 

The Aliyev dynasty is defined by the Aliyev and Pashayev clans, the latter affiliated with Ilham Aliyev’s spouse, which dominates a vast spectrum of the nation’s sectors, from finance and media to agriculture and global representation. The 2016 Panama and Pandora Papers highlighted their notoriety in Western circles, unmasking extensive financial malfeasance. Over the years, the autocratic Aliyev has channeled the profits from oil production into personal coffers. 

Democratic indices, such as the Freedom House Index of Freedom, categorize Azerbaijan among the most repressive regimes. The legislative apparatus is firmly under Aliyev’s thumb, with the New Azerbaijan Party having the majority in a rubber-stamp parliament, endorsing his autocratic directives. The judiciary, too, is beholden to the regime, often weaponized against dissidents and critics. Independent watchdogs, like Human Rights Watch, estimate the existence of over 200 political prisoners in Azerbaijan, with many regime critics seeking refuge overseas to evade retribution. The Aliyev regime also carries out assassination attempts on activists abroad, like Mahammad Mirzali, an Azeri refugee and activist who was stabbed in France in October 2020.

It’s also imperative to highlight the precarious status of minorities in Azerbaijan, including both indigenous communities and LGBTQ+ individuals, who face punitive measures for their advocacy and rights activism.

Azerbaijan is ruled by an authoritarian regime characterized by pervasive crackdowns on opposition and civic activists. The broader Azerbaijani population, including ethnic Azerbaijanis, bears the brunt of Aliyev’s despotic rule, with minorities being particularly vulnerable. The pressing question remains: Can the Aliyev regime safeguard the rights of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh? Is the repatriation of Nagorno-Karabakh’s native inhabitants feasible under this governance? The plausible solution seems to hinge on a resolute response from the international community, which, so far, has been cozying up to Aliyev and his regime. 

As long as the democratic community doesn’t rebuke Aliyev’s continuing human rights violations and make respect for such rights a cornerstone condition in bilateral relations, his regime will continue its abuses, expansion of territorial control, and targeting of dissidents.

Tigran Sargsyan is a legal and policy intern with the Human Rights Foundation (HRF).