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Despite The Warm Welcome, Karabakh Refugees In Armenia Are Struggling, Unsure Where To Go Next

Azat Adamian, proprietor of the Stepanakert bar Bardak, which he reopened in Yerevan after fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh. Behind him are the things he took with him from the old bar.
Azat Adamian, proprietor of the Stepanakert bar Bardak, which he reopened in Yerevan after fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh. Behind him are the things he took with him from the old bar.

YEREVAN -- When he fled his home in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azat Adamian didn't know where he was going to go.

"To be honest, I didn't want to stay in this world. If there was an option to go to space and live there, I would have chosen this option, 100 percent," he said.

It was late September and, following Azerbaijan's renewed assault on the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, the ethnic Armenian authorities who had de facto ruled the territory for the last three decades had just surrendered. The attack had been preceded by a nine-month Azerbaijani blockade that had steadily squeezed the food supply for the roughly 100,000 people living there. Adamian recalled being so weakened from eating so little that a 2 kilometer walk to his small farmstead required him to stop and rest seven times.

Throughout the ordeal, people in Karabakh were hoping for salvation to come from somewhere: Armenia, which had propped up the unrecognized, self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic for three decades; Russia, Armenia's traditional security patron ,which had 2,000 peacekeepers deployed to Karabakh; or the broader international community, to which Armenians appealed based on ideals of human rights and humanitarianism. In the end, though, the salvation never came. "They had all abandoned us," Adamian said.

After the September surrender, the territory's population fled en masse, most taking with them only what they could pack in their cars. When Adamian made the decision to leave, he went to the bar he had run since 2016 in the territory's capital, which Armenians call Stepanakert and Azerbaijanis call Xankendi. He took down a few knickknacks from the whimsically jumbled walls (the name of the bar, Bardak, is a colloquial Russian phrase meaning "mess"): a Wisconsin license plate reading "Bardak" and a woodcut map of Armenia and Karabakh joined.

He planned to go back the next day, the day of his departure, and take more mementos from the bar. "I could have taken a lot more, I had plenty of room in the car," he said. But in the end, he didn't. "There was a moment when you realize everything is lost. If you take something with you, it doesn't ease your pain," he said. "So I took one suitcase and that's it."

With over 100,000 people leaving at once, the single road connecting Karabakh to Armenia was catastrophically gridlocked. It took people 24 hours or longer to make the roughly 80-kilometer drive. When Adamian, along with his wife and young son, finally crossed the Armenian border, he was greeted by volunteers offering food, tea, and temporary places to stay.

Refugees from the Nagorno-Karabakh region arrive by truck in the border village of Kornidzor, Armenia, in September.
Refugees from the Nagorno-Karabakh region arrive by truck in the border village of Kornidzor, Armenia, in September.

It was the generosity that broke him. During the course of the blockade, "I made myself stronger than I have ever been," he said. But at the border, "I started to cry like a child," he recalled. "I used to be the one helping people, and now someone is helping me."

The family continued on to Armenia's capital, Yerevan, and on Adamian's first morning in the city, he took a walk. He had been resentful of what he had thought was Armenians' indifference to the plight of their kin in Karabakh, but the reception they received changed his mind. "I saw how they were welcoming us. And because of this attention and care, I decided that maybe I will stay here. I came home and said: 'We are staying here. We're not going anywhere.' And on the same day I started looking for a place for the pub.

The new Yerevan Bardak opened on December 8. It is fancier than the old Stepanakert Bardak: 10 times the space and, unlike its predecessor, a kitchen serving bar food. "We wanted to do our best to make sure that, at least somewhere, we feel like we've won," he said. "If this Bardak isn't better than the previous one, I will feel like I have been completely defeated."

The defeat of Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenians is the latest grim chapter in the decades-long conflict between Azerbaijanis and Armenians over the territory. Armenian-backed separatists seized the mainly ethnic Armenian-populated region from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s that killed some 30,000 people. Diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict brought little progress, and the two sides fought another war in 2020 that lasted six weeks before a Russian-brokered cease-fire, resulting in Armenia losing control over parts of the region and seven adjacent districts. With its offensive of September this year, Azerbaijan retook control over the rest of the territory.

Karabakh is now almost entirely emptied of its former population. It is a dark mirror to the events of three decades earlier, when ethnic Armenians won the first war over Karabakh and the more than 600,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis who had been living there were forced to flee. Those displaced Azerbaijanis, after languishing in exile for three decades, can now look forward to the prospect of returning home.

For Karabakh's displaced Armenians, the future is deeply uncertain. In theory, all the involved parties -- the Armenian government, the Azerbaijani government, foreign powers, the Karabakh Armenians themselves -- say they want to see a return of the ethnic Armenian population to Karabakh. Behind the platitudes, though, lies an intractable political and ethnic conflict that the last months has only deepened. The return of the refugees to Karabakh now seems much less certain. And with many now facing difficult living conditions in Armenia, more and more refugees are looking for other options -- another country or even back to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Settling Down

For such a large and rapid influx of refugees -- amounting to about 4 percent of Armenia's population over the course of just more than a week -- the short-term reception and settlement has been a relatively smooth process. There are no camps; all the refugees are housed either with family, in government-run shelters, or have found new accommodation on their own.

Most have settled in or close to the capital: According to official Armenian figures, 38 percent of the refugees now live in Yerevan, and a further 15 percent are in the neighboring Kotayk and Ararat provinces. Housing in and around the capital is far more expensive than anywhere else in the country. Yerevan's real estate prices spiked with the large influx of Russians who left their country after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Despite the higher rents, the capital is also where most of the jobs are.

Tatevik Khachatrian, who had worked as a journalist in Stepanakert, fled the war with her husband and young son. The family looked into options outside the capital, such as the second city, Gyumri. While rent is lower there, the employment options for them -- her husband is an architect -- were worse. "If there is no normal work in Yerevan, there's no work there at all," she said. She found an apartment on the far outskirts of Yerevan for which she pays 300,0000 drams (about $750) a month. A total of seven family members now lives in its four rooms.

Still, families like theirs are relatively lucky.

Government-run refugee accommodation in Metsamor, just to the west of Yerevan.
Government-run refugee accommodation in Metsamor, just to the west of Yerevan.

Refugees who don't have family in Armenia or the means to pay for their own housing are sheltered in a variety of disused hotels, sports schools, and other facilities around the country.

In a former state-run hotel in the city of Metsamor, just to the west of Yerevan, the hallways are chilly but the room of Svetlana Abramian, with a pot of soup cooking on a portable stove, is toasty. She and her extended family fled from her village (known as Ughtasar in Armenian and Selli in Azerbaijani) in the 2020 war, when Azerbaijan retook the territory. They then resettled in Stepanakert and were forced to flee again in September. She now lives with four other family members in a single hotel room.

"[The government] is helping us, and we're satisfied, but we need to think about what to do next," she said. "This isn't permanent."

The Armenian government has offered a series of cash payments to refugees. It first offered 100,000 drams (about $250) to all refugees, then an additional 50,000 drams in rent assistance for those paying for their own apartments. In November and December, all refugees are getting 40,000 drams per month.

The money doesn't go far, especially in Yerevan. One couple, Andranik Vanian and Lusine Stepanian, fled here from their village in Karabakh, known as Kochoghot in Armenian and Yayici in Azerbaijani. After four nights of living out of their car and searching for a place in Yerevan, they finally found a one-room apartment a long way from the center. Stepanian said she had to do extensive cleaning when they moved in to get rid of an unpleasant smell.

Andranik Vanian and Lusine Stepanian in their new apartment in Yerevan. They are going through old photos that they took with them from their home in Kochoghot, Nagorno-Karabakh.
Andranik Vanian and Lusine Stepanian in their new apartment in Yerevan. They are going through old photos that they took with them from their home in Kochoghot, Nagorno-Karabakh.

As modest as the apartment is, it still costs more than the government provides: rent is 120,000 drams a month, and Stepanian has to supplement the state assistance with a job at a bakery in a nearby mall that pays a fraction of what she used to make as a teacher in Karabakh. For a visitor, she pulls up photos on her phone of the home they left -- a large, two-story house with lovingly planted rows of flowers in the yard. "When I close my eyes to go to sleep, that house is what I see," Vanian said.

As for the long-term strategy, the Armenian government is pushing for the right of the refugees to return to Karabakh, and officials say it is part of the ongoing negotiations to reach a peace agreement with Azerbaijan. Officials from the Foreign Ministry and the office of the deputy prime minister, which is the government lead on refugee issues, declined RFE/RL's request for an interview.


When Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev announced the capitulation of the de facto Karabakh authorities on September 20, he described a bright vision of coexistence for the region's Armenian population. "I am sure that the Armenian population living in Karabakh will soon see a change for the better," he said. "We intend to build a life together based on peace, mutual understanding, and mutual respect. We have no problems with the Armenian people. We have no enmity."

Few, if any, of Karabakh's residents took him at his word, and nearly the entire population left. The ethnic Armenians who remain behind number about 25, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is providing aid and practical assistance to the handful of holdouts.

Azerbaijan's State Migration Service has opened a portal for Karabakh Armenians to "join the reintegration process." On October 4, the service reported that 15 people had applied -- two of them using the portal and 13 in person -- and it hasn't updated the numbers since. (Officials at the migration service did not respond to a query from RFE/RL.)

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (file photo)
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (file photo)

Since the mass exodus, Aliyev has barely spoken about the potential return of Karabakh's Armenians. When the president was asked about it at an appearance with representatives of foreign think tanks in early December, he said the issue was still on the table and reiterated promises of language, educational, and cultural rights for ethnic Armenians.

Beyond formal statements, though, it is unlikely that Azerbaijan "will do anything substantive to ensure the return of the Karabakh Armenians," said Shujaat Ahmadzada, a nonresident research fellow at the Baku-based Topchubashov Center, which focuses on international relations and security. "Perhaps, we'll see this rhetoric of 'anyone is free to come as long as they get Azerbaijani citizenship' continue for some time, without turning into anything concrete."

Refugees interviewed by RFE/RL said that they would only return to Karabakh if it were Armenian-controlled. "If Karabakh is Armenian, then people will return," said Abramian, at the Metsamor settlement. "If it's Azerbaijani, no one will go back."


As part of the formal surrender after the September offensive, the de facto leader of Karabakh, Samvel Shahramanian, signed a decree agreeing to disband the territory's armed forces and to dissolve all of the state structures by January 1, 2024. Azerbaijani forces arrested many senior members of the de facto leadership, and they remain behind bars awaiting trial in Baku. It appeared to be an emphatic end to Armenian political rule in Karabakh.

But in recent weeks, there have been signs of life among the former authorities, and indications that they don't plan to give up.

There have been multiple reports in the Armenian press about secret meetings in Armenia of the Karabakh parliament; deputies themselves have refused to comment. On December 10, the parliament issued a statement implying that it would continue to work. The assembly said it remained "faithful to the mandate that it received as a result of the will of the people of Artsakh (an alternative Armenian name for the territory) and determined to defend the rights and freedoms achieved at the price of blood and sweat of thousands of Armenians."

At the same time, a group of over 200 Karabakh political parties, local government leaders, civil society organizations, and media outlets, signed a statement effectively calling for the decree dissolving state structures, including parliament, to be ignored. "A free people cannot renounce their sovereign rights and submit to the rule of an alien state," it began. The statement also made a number of demands, including the withdrawal of Azerbaijani forces from Karabakh, the deployment of United Nations peacekeeping forces to the territory, and a UN administration to be established there.

The list of demands is ambitious. "This is something that everyone, including myself, says is unrealistic in this phase," said Artak Beglarian, who has held various posts in the de facto Karabakh government. "For sure, I understand that now we are the most vulnerable side and we don't have enough levers to impose these kinds of conditions," he said. "But are human rights and justice something you can compromise on?"

Beglarian said the Karabakh authorities will likely continue operating. "I hope, I am almost sure, that by the end of the year this decree [on dissolving the de facto state structures] will be canceled."

If that happens, it would probably set up a confrontation both with Baku and Yerevan.

In Azerbaijan, Aliyev regularly rails against "revanchism," the purported desire by Armenians to regain control of Karabakh in the future. A Karabakh government-in-exile based in Armenia would certainly be seen as Yerevan's official endorsement of revanchism.

"If the Armenian authorities create the conditions for the activities of separatist structures and give them financial support, then official Baku will see that as a form of territorial claim against Azerbaijan," wrote Asker Manafov, a columnist for the news website, which is thought to have connections to Azerbaijan's security services. The article -- about a secret meeting of the Karabakh parliament -- concluded with a warning: "In this case, the real threat to the national security of Armenia would start to acquire more concrete forms."

Armenia's government, for its part, has made plain its opposition to the continuation of the Karabakh de facto government in exile. "We have a big problem connected to the Artsakh Armenians," said Armenian speaker of parliament Alen Simonian, a close ally of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, during a November 16 legislative session. "I don't see the point of creating or maintaining the development of [Karabakh] state institutions here. It would be a direct threat to the Republic of Armenia."

Former Karabakh official Beglarian said he understood but didn't agree with the Armenian authorities' opposition. "But what are they going to do?" he asked with a smile. "The Armenian authorities can say 'we don't agree with your activities, it's dangerous,' etc. For sure the Artsakh authorities should take that into account. But they should continue their work…. They are the legitimate, legal representatives of our people."

The Karabakh structures have gotten support from the Armenian political opposition, and Beglarian acknowledges that involvement in Armenian domestic politics could be a double-edged sword.

"Usually when a topic becomes a domestic political issue between the opposition and the government, the government becomes more aggressive. And it may harm our situation to some extent," he said. "In this situation it can be somewhat risky. But on the other hand, we need some public pressure on the government to understand that it's a public demand and to find a solution."

The desire to recreate the Karabakh government in exile is not universally welcomed. Khachatrian, the journalist, blamed the authorities for effectively disappearing during the September offensive; she said the government knew that an attack was coming and failed to prepare the population for it. "No one has taken responsibility for that," she said. "That is the only thing I want from them."

She described a terrifying assault by Azerbaijani forces in Karabakh, which started while her son was at school, forcing her to try to find him amid the bombardment. "What is this government supposed to do for us if they couldn't even warn us to get our children?" she said.

What's Next?

Most of the refugees told RFE/RL that the situation was still so uncertain they weren't making plans even months in advance. "For them to decide what comes next, you need to allow space and time," said Kiri Atri, a press officer for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Armenia. "Right now people are in shock." Refugees need "first to digest what happened, then understand what is happening, and then can think about what next," he said.

The UNHCR, in coordination with the Armenian government and several international and Armenian NGOs, has worked out a plan to assist the refugees through March 2024, which they estimate to cost $97 million.

The difficult conditions many of them live in now may force them to move out of Armenia, Beglarian said, and there has been increasing talk of the possibility of moving back to Karabakh, even under Azerbaijani control.

"If these kind of conditions remain -- the uncertainties in Armenia -- in spring lots of people will migrate, to Russia or wherever they can," he said. "And some of them will decide to return to Nagorno-Karabakh. But it's very hard to assess how many people are ready to do that, and under the current situation, I expect that to be very rare."

Many more cling to the illusion that they might return to their previous lives, said Khachatrian.

"In parliament they say 'we need to do everything possible for the Karabakhis to return,' and so on. But it's just propaganda and there is nothing to it," she said. Some people believe it, especially older people, she said. Old people "don't have anything except this faith that [they] will return. But we younger people, who don't live with such hopes but with reality, understand that there is no chance."

She is just trying to adapt to her new reality. "Nobody knows what's going to happen tomorrow, so we don't plan our tomorrow," she said.

"We miss everything," she said. "We even miss those difficult days [of the blockade]. Even those bad days. Because we lived in our own homes, and we were together."

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