Azerbaijan President Demands Total Armenian Retreat From Nagorno-Karabakh, Raising Fears of Ethnic Cleansing

Azerbaijan and Armenia have both dismissed calls for a ceasefire amid the latest outbreak of fighting around the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The two sides have been in conflict over the pocket—internationally recognized Azeri land but governed by the ethnic Armenian, self-declared Republic of Artsakh—for decades, but this week's violence is the most serious since a bout of fighting 2016.

Both sides have deployed heavy artillery, tanks and drones, and more than 100 people—including civilians—have been killed so far.

International calls for calm have fallen on deaf ears. Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said Wednesday: "We only have one condition: Armenian armed forces must unconditionally, fully, and immediately leave our lands."

The country's foreign ministry said Wednesday that the government is "resolutely determined to continue the counteroffensive operation until its sovereignty and territorial integrity is fully restored...[and] we clearly see the Armenian troops leaving the territory of Azerbaijan."

There are some 150,000 people living in Nagorno-Karabakh, the majority of those ethnic Armenians who fear violence if Azeri troops do indeed take control of the territory. Observers have warned that ethnic cleansing is a possibility.

"It's quite realistic," said Laurence Broers, a Caucasus analyst at the British Chatham House think tank. "I can understand that there is concern about this."

There is a dark history of violence and ethnic cleansing between Armenia and Azerbaijan, who fought a war over Nagorno-Karabakh between 1988 and 1994 amid the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Ethnic cleansing was a feature of that conflict, Broers said.

"I think it's part of what people expect, in a gruesome and very concerning way," he told Newsweek. "Neither society has ever had a reckoning with the fact that very substantial numbers of people from the other nationality were ethnically cleansed from their territory."

The areas immediately around the front lines are sparsely populated, though shelling has been reported in more densely populated civilian areas. For now, it is the troops taking the majority of the casualties. But if Azeri forces are able to advance, they will pose a threat to civilians.

Azeri troops were accused of executing and mutilating Armenian soldiers and civilians during the 2016 fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. Olesya Vartanyan, an analyst at the Crisis Group, warned that fresh atrocities could occur if populated areas are caught up in the violence.

The Azeri side has "made no secret of its main goal in this current fighting," Vartanyan told Newsweek. "The president spoke about this on the very first day of the fighting—he wants to take back the territories and the territories are populated only by ethnic Armenians."

"If the Azerbaijani army moves in, we unfortunately will probably see lots of destruction," Vartanyan said. "If the Azerbaijani army is able to hold the territory, then I cannot imagine any ethnic Armenian—especially after this fighting—will want to go back to the territory to live under the Azerbaijani rule."

Nagorno-Karabakh, armenia, azerbaijan, ethnic cleansing, civilians, war
A man shows a shell fragment in the yard of his brother's house damaged by shelling during fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, in the city of Martuni on October 1, 2020. -/AFP via Getty Images/Getty