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A refugee crisis is developing in Armenia. A political crisis will likely quickly follow

Ethnic Armenian children from Nagorno-Karabakh look from a truck after arriving in Armenia's Goris in Syunik region, Armenia, on Sept. 28, 2023.
Ethnic Armenian children from Nagorno-Karabakh look from a truck after arriving in Armenia's Goris in Syunik region, Armenia, on Sept. 28, 2023. Copyright AP Photo/Vasily Krestyaninov
Copyright AP Photo/Vasily Krestyaninov
By Will Neal in Yerevan
Published on Updated
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Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan faces the challenge of providing for Nagorno Karabakh refugees while mitigating risks of Azeri aggression against sovereign Armenian territory.

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Caught against a setting sun, the clouds on Monday evening formed an otherworldly spiral of burnt orange above the town of Goris, eastern Armenia.

The day before, a lonely bus ferried in the last of some 100,000 ethnic Armenians fleeing a one-day military campaign that saw Azeri forces secure complete control of the once-autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, itself situated within Azerbaijan’s borders.

Few among the new arrivals have any love for Nikol Pashinyan. A feeling shared by thousands of demonstrators who poured out in the Armenian capital of Yerevan last week to protest against the prime minister’s handling of relations with Azerbaijan and Russia, viewed as precipitating the loss of a place regarded by many as the spiritual homeland of the Armenian people.

While the initial unrest may have since quietened down, what recent developments in the long-running conflict between these South Caucasian nations may mean for Pashinyan’s hold on power remains an open and deeply fraught question.

'The most terrifying thing in the world'

“It’s the most terrifying thing in the world, losing everything like this.”

Mila Hovsepyan spoke softly as if in a daze from a shelter in Goris near the Armenian-Azeri border on Monday afternoon. She and her mother Maro, who suffers from severe mental disability due to advanced cerebral arteriosclerosis, arrived just days before on a bus from Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital of Stepanakert.

“We went straight to the hospital because my mother is very unwell. She cannot walk, and needs a separate toilet and bathroom so I can wash her with dignity,” Mila explained. “We need a wheelchair for me to move her, and a special mattress that prevents sores because she spends almost all of her time in bed.”

“We have no family here,” she said. “It’s the most terrifying thing in the world, losing everything like this.”

At this stage, their story is fairly typical. The vast majority fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia over the past week have now pushed deeper into the country, afraid of remaining so close to the border and the Azeri forces stationed there. Those left behind in Goris are largely either elderly or infirm, or without relatives in Armenia who might otherwise provide assistance.

Azerbaijan’s seizure of the mountainous enclave, which has claimed but failed to secure international recognition of independence since 1991, happened at lightning speed. Following a build-up of Azeri troops around the region, Russian peacekeepers stationed in the area fell short of preventing the launch of an all-out offensive on September 19 that lasted less than 24 hours before authorities in Stepanakert announced their surrender.

Although Artsakh, as it was known by its ethnic Armenian inhabitants, had by that point been under blockade for more than ten months, restricting the supply of food and desperately needed medicines, deputy mayor of Goris Irina Yolyan says there was little Armenian authorities might have done to prepare for an exodus of this scale.

“Right now we’re addressing their immediate needs – shelter, food, clothing and medicine,” she said. “At the same time, we’re also registering people and trying to understand what they may need in the near- to mid-term, especially as winter approaches.”

Asked about how Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has handled relations with both Azerbaijan and Russia, still formally a mediator between the long-warring South Caucasian nations, her manner becomes suddenly cold.

“Thousands of families are now homeless. Azerbaijan is like a steamroller across asphalt,” she said. “Nothing is stopping them, and this situation creates a great unhappiness, a great discontent with territorial losses and the sheer level of human suffering.”

A government with 'little room for manoeuvre'

Most Armenians welcomed what seemed a new dawn in the country’s politics when Nikol Pashinyan assumed power following a pro-democracy and anti-corruption revolution in 2018. Many have now grown increasingly disillusioned with the Prime Minister’s attempts to turn away from historic reliance on Moscow as a security guarantor to seek warmer ties with the West. That disillusionment last week boiled over into protests on the streets of Yerevan, with placards and chanted slogans denouncing Pashinyan as a ‘traitor’ to the country’s interests.

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According to Maximilian Hess, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Pennsylvania, the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh has called Pashinyan’s diplomacy into serious doubt. The prime minister’s legitimacy now appears to rest on the question of how his government faces up to the challenges of managing the emerging refugee crisis, while at the same time mitigating risks of Azeri aggression against sovereign Armenian territory.

Prior to the assault on Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan had long expressed keen interest in the prospect of opening up a corridor through Armenia to Nakhchivan, an autonomous Azeri enclave within Armenian borders. This would in turn provide an overland passage to Turkey, further cementing Azerbaijan’s emerging position as a key trade and transit hub for Russia amid Western sanctions imposed in response to Putin’s war in Ukraine.

“The government is now in a place where it has very little room to manoeuvre,” Hess said. “The refugee crisis is really a question of state capacity – this is not a particularly wealthy country. What would precipitate further demonstrations would be a deteriorating situation around the refugees, and also the potential for further conflict with Azerbaijan.”

“I’m not saying the political crisis is necessarily going to lead to a revolutionary change in government,” he clarified. “But Pashinyan will need international help to ensure there isn’t a further deepening of that crisis as the result of Azerbaijani aggression turning it into a question about the future of Armenia itself.”

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Right now, these wider geopolitical dilemmas all remain fairly academic to Bernik Lazaryan, who fled Nagorno-Karabakh last week with his wife, mother and infant daughter. Over several hours one night prior to his departure, he claims to have carried home the body of a childhood friend shot dead by Azeri forces, only to discover their village had already fallen.

“I have no idea what will happen to us next,” he said outside the Soviet-era Hotel Goris, where he is currently being put up with his family. “We must simply find a way to live.”

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