In Yerevan

Eliot Rothwell

Over the weekend of 23 and 24 September, Karabakh Armenians began to leave their homes in the Nagorno-Karabakh. On Monday 25th, the Armenian government set up aid stations and emergency accommodation in Kornidzor and Goris, towns close to the border with Azerbaijan. The first government reports confirmed that a few more than a thousand people had entered Armenia from the former Republic of Artsakh. By the evening of Tuesday 26th, that number rose to 28,120, or around a third of the population. Tens of thousands more were stuck in a line of vehicles that stretched for almost a hundred kilometres, delayed by Azeri checkpoints. On Wednesday 27th, the number approached 50,000 and by the morning of Thursday 28th it reached 65,036. Very few, if any, Karabakh Armenians now remain in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Azeri government, for its part, mobilised its official social media accounts, its unofficial boosters and its paid-for petro-lobbyists in the West to engage in widescale gaslighting of Karabakh Armenians. Those forced to leave their homes, livelihoods and possessions behind for fear of ethnic cleansing were told that they had nothing to worry about, that they had made an unnecessary ‘choice’, that they were émigrés rather than refugees. On 3 October a map was reissued showing a street in Stepanakert renamed after Enver Pasha, one of the perpetrators of the Armenian genocide.

To counter charges of ethnic cleansing, Azeri government social media accounts showed video footage of people registering for Azeri passports in Stepanakert. The individuals, presented in the footage as Karabakh Armenians, are shown stating their names and their villages as they sign various papers. Armenians from those villages responded that, given what small, tight-knit communities they were, it was surprising that they, their families and their neighbours didn’t recognise any of the people in the videos.

In Yerevan, there were few visible manifestations of events a four-hour drive away: a handful of men in uniform stood by the entrance to government buildings, wary of protests; some shops and cars displayed the flag of the Republic of Artsakh; on Northern Avenue, the pedestrian thoroughfare that bisects the city, electronic advertisement hoardings displayed messages of solidarity with Karabakh Armenians. But the presence of the people who’d been displaced was not yet felt. Aid stations and registration points had not been set up.

Armenians felt their country had been abandoned: by Russia, nominally an ally, by the European Union, by the international community. There was little they could do except continue with their daily lives and offer shelter to Karabakh Armenians unable to continue with theirs. A journalist from Stepanakert, who spent twenty hours waiting to cross the border to Armenia, said: ‘This was always going to happen.’ A charity worker said she was worried about her grandmother, who had not been in contact for two days; eventually she received a call confirming that she had crossed into Armenia and found shelter at a hotel in Goris.

The feeling of helplessness also fed resentment of the Armenian government and prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan. After Azerbaijan launched its offensive on 19 September, and when a ceasefire was agreed the following day, thousands of protesters lined the streets of Yerevan calling for Pashinyan’s resignation. Their numbers waned the following week, as Karabakh Armenians fled to Armenia, but their anger did not subside.

I met one of the protesters outside the national library. He worked as a chef at a restaurant in central Yerevan. He called Pashinyan a ‘traitor’ and said: ‘He needs to resign. He can’t protect Artsakh and he can’t protect Armenia.’ The chef was worried that Azerbaijan could strike into Armenia, to seize a stretch of land that separates Azerbaijan from its exclave Nakhchivan. ‘We can’t rely on anybody else,’ he said.