Ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh: A European tragedy

As I write this article, Armenian refugees are streaming out of Nagorno-Karabakh and into Armenia by the tens of thousands. Nagorno-Karabakh is the small territory, inhabited by 120,000 Armenians, which the Azerbaijani army attacked on September 19. Its leadership surrendered within 24 hours and now, predictably, its population is fleeing its new master.

In this kind of disaster, there are many people to blame, starting with the dictator – Ilham Aliyev – who unleashed the war. There will be little talk of the EU’s responsibility. It is considerable however.

Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but its inhabitants are Armenians, as are most people in neighbouring Armenia. Its population resisted an attempt at ethnic cleansing when the Soviet Union collapsed and it has been a de-facto, unrecognised state since then. In 2020, Azerbaijan launched a new war to recover the territory. It won the war, and Russia then brokered a cease-fire. Russian peacekeepers came to protect the local population from the Azerbaijani army while the terms of a definitive peace were being negotiated.

Russian troops were due to leave in 2025 at the latest, but Azerbaijan could not wait that long, apparently. In the attack of September 19, the 120,000 Karabakh Armenians stood no chance. The Russian peacekeepers stood by and, after the Armenian surrender, tens of thousands of people began to flee for their lives.

A minority problem

From the days this conflict first erupted, in the final years of the Soviet Union, the safety and rights of the local Armenian population were at its core. Over the past decades and to this day, however, the government of Azerbaijan has refused to talk of guarantees to the people it claims are its citizens.

These people had good reason to fear their new masters. Azerbaijan is a dictatorship, and dictatorships need enemies, a role they have attributed to Armenians. The level of state-promoted hate speech towards Armenians in Azerbaijan is extreme [1]. Official discourse, the media, social media, and even schoolbooks systematically portray Armenians as the enemies of Azerbaijanis. Contacts between Azerbaijanis and Armenians are made all but impossible. War crimes committed in the past against Armenians (in 2016, 2020, 2021 and 2022 in particular) were often advertised on social media as acts of patriotism or heroism by the perpetrators themselves and were ostensibly encouraged as such.

As if to compound the causes for concern, there have been reports of new atrocities since September 19. The international media and international organisations have no access to Nagorno-Karabakh however, and this blackout further compounds concerns.

Now that the catastrophe has occurred, Europe is finally beginning to pay attention. Humanitarian aid is urgently needed to help the victims and the refugees. International presence of all kinds is also needed to help prevent atrocities and to protect civilians remaining in Karabakh.

A very predictable disaster

This was a tragedy long in the making and which many people predicted. The problem is, at its root, a problem of minority protection. This kind of conflict is well known and widespread. Failing to address the need for minority rights and representation, or addressing them through repression only, can degenerate into a local conflict; local conflicts in turn attract outside actors aiming to advance their interests, to thwart their rivals or simply to help out. Conflicts of this kind are widespread in Russia’s periphery – think of the Donbass and Crimea in Ukraine, Transnistria in Moldova, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. Think also of Cyprus, Kosovo or Kurdistan and many others. Needless to say, they are a major source of international conflict if they are not addressed sensibly early on.

The Nagorno-Karabakh problem, as it stood just a few years ago, was one of these conflicts. The international community, such as it is, considered Karabakh to be part of Azerbaijan because the former Soviet Union’s internal borders placed it inside (Soviet) Azerbaijan. But the territory was actually self-governing, de-facto independent, until the recent attacks. Negotiations to resolve the problem therefore required a quid-pro-quo: a credible system to guarantees the rights of the Armenians, in exchange for the transfer of the territory to its rightful Azerbaijani overlords.

These negotiations had to involve the people whose lives were at stake: the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan would have none of it however, as they insisted that the problem was not a minority problem, but a foreign invasion.

In 2017, I wrote in the EU Observer why Azerbaijan’s position on keeping Karabakh out of the negotiations was a recipe for war. “War is brewing the Caucasus… There is quite simply no chance at all that the [current format for peace negotiations], as it is currently set up, might achieve peace without outside help. The Republic of Azerbaijan has long refused to talk with the leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh, which it views as a puppet state, and only accepts negotiating with the Republic of Armenia.

The resulting configuration – bilateral negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan – was designed for failure, however. If the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is an interstate conflict, as Azerbaijan would have it, then Armenia must be an invader; Azerbaijan is therefore entitled to demand Armenia’s unconditional withdrawal [from its territory]. Armenia, for its part, is unable to make concessions on behalf of Nagorno-Karabakh. It nevertheless accepts to remain in the talks, for fear that their collapse would be worse than the current deadlock.

After two decades, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh still have no partner with whom they can try to build trust or explore paths to peace. Nor can they speak out in the wider world to promote or explore solutions to the conflict [….]” because the rest of the world – and Europe in particular – makes a point of acting as if they did not exist.

A year after this article, in 2018, the new prime minister of Armenia, Nikol Pachinyan, tried to insist that the people of Karabakh be involved in the negotiations on their future. He said that “the most important component of the solution is negotiations in the right format. One of the parties to the conflict, Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh], should be a fully-fledged negotiator”. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, bluntly rejected the idea. Choosing to interpret this proposal as a threat to withdraw Armenia from the negotiations (which it clearly was not), she demanded “prime Minister Pashinyan’s full engagement in negotiations without preconditions”.

Over the years, all the EU’s other actions have been consistent with this rigid position and it has refused to even acknowledge Karabakh Armenians as legitimate actors. For instance, no EU official ever visited the actual territory of Nagorno-Karabakh or accepted to speak to its representatives; they were concerned not to upset an intransigent Azerbaijan. Even the human rights ombudsmen of Nagorno-Karabakh were boycotted by the EU’s executive when they came to Brussels. Nor did the Commission ever provide aid of any kind to the population of this territory, which had been isolated, unrecognised and under threat for three decades.

By entirely delegitimising the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, the EU effectively conceded that Azerbaijani sovereignty trumped all other concerns, including the search for peace and the protection of vulnerable populations. Far from arguing for a solution that reconciles minority rights and human rights, on the one hand, and the sovereignty of Azerbaijan, on the other, the EU considered the conflict as an interstate problem. Azerbaijan heard the EU’s message loud and clear and the war was on.

Why exclude the people of Karabakh?

The question must be asked, therefore, as to what led Europe to support a negotiation format that could only lead to war.

There are a number of theories, and no doubt they are all true in some measure. Oil and gas dependency is one – Azerbaijan is an oil and gas producer, though not one of the EU’s major suppliers. Azerbaijan’s effective and well financed campaigns of influence and corruption in Europe are another. All that has been abundantly documented [2]. NATO is yet another factor: the EU delegates its security policy to NATO, of which Turkey, Azerbaijan’s unconditional ally, is an important member. In 2021, Turkey boasted in an official report on the war that it had always argued Azerbaijan’s case in all international fora «especially NATO, [and had] prevented possible decisions against Azerbaijan […].”

All of this is true, but I believe there is a deeper and more worrying explanation. The EU was indeed founded to remedy the grave shortcomings of the nation-states, those very nation-states that caused two devastating world wars. The nationalist ideology places all power and all legitimacy in the hands of states governed in the name of one nation. Ethnic cleansing and occasionally genocide are among its unfortunate by-products. The European Union might therefore be expected to search for solutions that transcend nationalist thinking.

“Expulsion [of people] is the method which, insofar as we have been able to see, will be the most satisfactory and lasting,Winston Churchill, December 15, 1944.

But that is not the path it has taken. The EU is a Union of states, constructed to defend their interests and it has a surprisingly old-fashioned and state-centric approach to the international order. As Member States haggle behind closed doors, shielded from public scrutiny, they converge on the lowest common denominator. The resulting worldview legitimises fellow states only, regardless of their regime or record, and ignore the rest. Far from being a remedy to nationalism, the European Union has become its ardent enforcer.

That is how the EU came to support a representation of the Karabakh conflict that excluded key human concerns and how it played an important role in triggering the ethnic cleansing in Karabakh. Of course, Azerbaijan and its ally, Turkey, are primarily responsible for the war they unleashed. Russia certainly shares part of the blame. No doubt the Armenian leadership also missed opportunities. But we are Europeans and must look at the EU’s responsibility. Despite its protestations to the contrary, the EU holds all the cards and it is the indispensable actor in Europe: it channels trade and investment flows; it decides on sanctions and funds major transnational projects, such as the pipelines that allow Azerbaijan to export its gas to Europe. Through its legal system, its economic might and its normative and informational power, it set a framework for the entire wider European political space.

Europe could have put that enormous power in the service of peace. The political capital and the eight billion euros inexplicably spent on the TAP and TANAP pipelines in the midst of a climate emergency, for instance, could have been used as leverage to resolve the Karabakh conflict. Because it did nothing of the sort and opted instead to validate Azerbaijan’s idea that its sovereignty over a minority population is unconditional and unlimited, and because it denied any legitimacy to those who felt threatened and ignored their concerns, the EU has helped set in motion the war of 2020, the ethnic cleansing of 2023, and the attacks that are likely to follow. It was the EU that opened the path to war.

[1] The ECRI, an agency of the Council Europe, reports on racism and intolerance. Its successive reports on Azerbaijan are unambiguous on this subject.

[2] A few of the many reports on the subject include: On advocacy and influence, and on corruption, Resolution in the European Parliament: Texts adopted – Corruption and human rights in third countries – Wednesday, 13 September 2017 (, The Azerbaijani Laundromat – YouTube (OCCRP), Who Profited From The ‘Azerbaijani Laundromat’? (RFERL)


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