Return and its Alternatives: a Case Study on the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict




This article discusses the issue of return, obstacles and opportunities for its realization and other possible durable solutions for the displaced populations in the context of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (NK), which has produced the largest number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region. The origins and the scope of displacementThe first forced population movements occurred in late 1987 and early 1988 as Azeris fled communal violence in Kafan and Megri in Armenia.

The conflict, provoked by Armenian demands to transfer Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, quickly spiraled and by early 1991 the entire Azeri population of Armenia of some 200,000 people, and virtually the entire Armenian population living in Azerbaijan outside of the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous oblast (NKAO), some 330,000 people, fled violence from Armenia and Azerbaijan respectively and inter-communal fighting broke out in and around NK.Starting from late 1991-early 1992, as the Soviet Union collapsed leaving a huge power vacuum behind, the conflict escalated into a full-scale war. Displacement became predominantly internal in nature, with both Armenian and Azerbaijani forces employing elements of ethnic cleansing in order to secure control over the territory.By mid-1992 a series of attacks by ethnic Armenian forces drove out the entire Azeri population of Nagorno-Karabakh, some 40,000 people. This was followed by a displacement of a further 47,000 people, who fled adjacent Lachin district, populated overwhelmingly by Azeris and located between NK and Armenia.

Some 30,000 Armenians were similarly displaced within NK and from the then predominantly Armenian-populated Shaumyan district (now part of the Goranboy district) bordering NK in the north.The last and the largest forced displacement occurred in 1993, at the height of the conflict. By the end of 1993, when Armenian advances deep into Azerbaijani territory were at their height, some 780,000 Azeris were internally displaced. It was at that time that the Azerbaijani government for the first time announced the occupation of some 20% of its territory and the presence of one million refugees and IDPs. By the time of the ceasefire agreement in May 1994 Azerbaijan succeeded in retaking small patches of land in Fizuli and Agdam districts and in subsequent years many people displaced from the frontline areas returned. However, in public statements the Azerbaijani government still refers to one million refugees and IDPs, although the total figures are slightly lower. According to official statistics, today Azerbaijan hosts over 200,000 naturalised ethnic Azeri refugees from Armenia and some 586,000 IDPs from NK and adjacent occupied areas; the occupied territories constitute about 14% of the country. Azerbaijani policies and perceptions on return Government policies towards the Azeri refugees and IDPs The Azerbaijani government had neither proper housing nor financial means to accommodate the IDPs displaced during the 1993 Armenian offensives. Most of the existing available housing stock and many public buildings, schools, dormitories, kindergartens and sanatoria, were already occupied by the previously displaced Azeri refugees from Armenia and those displaced in 1992 from NK and Lachin.

The government was confronted by huge three- and even four-digit inflation, caused by the demise of the Soviet-era economy and the unfolding war, and thus, was unable to provide adequate assistance to the fleeing population. As a result, the bulk of the 1993 wave of IDPs were settled in hastily established tent camps, abandoned railway cars and makeshift mud huts.By the late-1990s, as the economy began to stabilise, the Azerbaijani government assumed more proactive policies towards the refugee and IDP populations and shifted focus from strictly humanitarian assistance to more durable solutions.The government granted citizenship to all Azeri refugees from Armenia following the adoption of a Law on Citizenship in 1998. According to the law, refugees who settled in Azerbaijan from 1988 till 1992, almost exclusively consisting of some 200,000 Azeri refugees from Armenia and some 50,000 Meskhetian Turks, were granted citizenship. The law, however, stipulated that granting of citizenship does not deprive naturalised refugees of the right to return to their original homes; they were also eligible for the benefits provided by the state to the IDP population. In spite of this legal reservation naturalisation of the Azeri refugees facilitated their integration, reinforcing the prevailing perception both among former refugees and the general public that return of this category to Armenia is an unlikely scenario. The government’s policy towards the IDP population similarly evolved from strictly humanitarian assistance to improvement of quality of life.

From 2001 government began allocating large sums from the State Oil Fund (SOFAZ) for building of housing for refugees and IDPs. In 2004 soon after President Ilham Aliyev came to power, he pledged to abolish tent camps and provide IDPs with more decent housing. By end-2007 Azerbaijan closed the last of tent camps, moving some 100,000 IDPs living in most precarious conditions to specially designated compact settlements. The government has also considerably increased state assistance for IDPs: the $1 million allocated in 1995 rose to $348 million by 2010, of which $100 million came from SOFAZ.However, while the government has undertaken measures to improve the quality of life for the IDPs, it also tried to ensure that IDP communities retain their social cohesion and integrity through spatial proximity and do not assimilate within the local population. Thus, the government built many of the new settlements close to the frontline to ensure that IDPs stay closer to their original homes. Such proximity to the frontline raises certain security concerns and is a factor that discourages IDPs to seek local integration as an alternative to return. IDPs have not been consulted in the choice of the area for new settlements and as a result, lack employment opportunities and social infrastructure in these areas, which further deepens their dependence on the state.

The IDPs who have been settled in state-built homes do not own them, and therefore cannot sell or sublet these homes. The government has also excluded IDPs from land privatization, although there are no restrictions for IDPs to buy property and land. If an IDP buys or becomes owner of a house or apartment in a location other than his original area of displacement, s/he can freely register at this property, but having registered, s/he would lose IDP status, which many IDPs are reluctant to do (see below). IDP communities, scattered all over Azerbaijan in small communities, still retain their authorities in exile, schools, medical clinics and other social infrastructure. Although IDPs are free to move and choose their place of residence, the government tied access to aid and social benefits with the place of temporary registration, thereby discouraging them from moving away from the places designated for them by the government.  As a result, many families get split up, with men leaving for Baku or abroad in search of employment, while other family members remain in place where they are registered. The purpose of these measures is to retain and reinforce the dominant perception among the IDPs that return is the only long-term solution for their enduring problems.

Thus, it remains a challenge for the government to find the right balance between its desire to preserve the social cohesion of the IDP communities and developing sustainable livelihoods for them beyond state support.Perceptions of the IDPsAzerbaijani government’s preservationist policies towards IDPs have occasionally been criticised by international human rights organisations. The main point of criticism is that this policy reinforces IDPs’ social marginalization and dependency on the state. While this criticism is fair to some degree, there is another side to the coin as well: many IDPs themselves consider return as the only durable solution for their ensuring problems. They are afraid that assimilation within the local communities would result in the loss of their identity as Karabakhis and also would remove social pressure on the government to solve the conflict and provide for their return. Many older generation IDPs are also concerned that younger generation, which has no or few memories of Karabakh, would not feel the same degree of emotional attachment to the land of their parents. The younger generation, particularly those living in Baku and other major urban centres, may be less predisposed to return permanently to the lands of their ancestors. But even the younger generation, born in displacement in Baku and elsewhere, still largely identifies itself with the place of their ancestors. Even if they may not return, they still want to have the first say.

Regardless of generational differences, many feel the lack of dignity living as IDPs and do not view local integration as a remedy for the emotional distress caused by forced displacement.As mentioned above, many IDPs do not want to lose their status. This is partly conditioned by their desire to remain eligible for state benefits provided to IDPs, which include a modest monthly food allowance, virtual exemption from utility payments, income tax exemptions, free higher education for those passing exams, waivers of fees for various state certificates and several other benefits. Perhaps more importantly, many IDPs want to retain their status for fear that loss of that status would obstruct their right to return and reclaim the property in their original homes. Azerbaijani IDPs are not yet in a position to make free and informed choices as to what constitutes the best long-term solution to their problems – return, local integration or resettlement. When asked whether they want to return most IDPs from both NK and adjacent territories say they are committed to return. However, in reality, many of them will defer their final decision until there is a political solution to the conflict. Like in all similar contexts, the decision to return will be largely conditioned by the security guarantees provided for them. In the context of return to NK proper, the decision to return will also be significantly affected by the way the issue of final status of NK is resolved. As long as there is no political solution to the conflict, Azeri IDPs will remain passive in their right to choose between return and local integration. The efforts undertaken by both the Azerbaijani government and the international community aimed at finding durable solutions to IDP problems will similarly yield limited results. Many of the IDPs will continue to perceive the choice between local integration and retaining commitment to return as a zero-sum game, and hence, there will remain an internal resistance to local integration. Only with a solution to the conflict, which would provide for their right to return, can Azeri IDPs make a genuine free and informed choice as to which option – return, local integration in the area of displacement and/or resettlement elsewhere in the country – constitutes the best long-term solution for them.

Politicization and obstruction of returnThe return issue in negotiations While both Azerbaijanis and Armenians have greatly suffered from forced displacement, there is a perceptible difference between the importance and sense of urgency that the general public and political leaderships on each side attach to the issue of return. For most Azerbaijanis, regardless of whether they are displaced or not, return of the displaced Azeris to the places of their habitual residence in the occupied areas, is a critical component without which no peace proposal can hold. Accordingly, Baku treats the return of Azeris to the occupied territories as a second major conflict resolution goal after the restoration of country’s territorial integrity. For most Armenians, including many of those who were displaced as a result of the conflict and now live in Armenia, abroad or have resettled in the occupied territories, the issue of return to pre-war homes does not feature as prominently. A greater emphasis in political discourse is put on Armenian refugees’ local integration and relocation, particularly to the occupied areas which were formerly inhabited by Azeris.

The difference in these approaches is conditioned by political motives. Azerbaijan wants the restoration of pre-war demographics to reverse Armenian war acquisitions and regain its sovereignty in the occupied territories, including in NK. Armenians, on the other hand, want to entrench ethnic demarcation obtained through the use of force in order to secure their control over the territory. The fact that the negotiations revolve around the idea of a population vote in NK to determine the final status of the entity, further increases the importance that both sides attach to the issue of post-settlement demographics. As a result, the humanitarian issue of return is extremely politicized on both sides.Armenians and Azerbaijanis disagree on the timing and conditions under which return is possible and desirable.

Azerbaijan insists that the return of IDPs, including to NK, should take place before the final status of the territory is resolved. Azerbaijan, however, also recognises that the return of IDPs will be a gradual process, which most likely will start from return to five lowland districts (Agdam, Fizuli, Gubatly, Jabrayil, Zangilan) to the east and south of NK, and then to Kelbajar, Lachin and finally, to NK itself. Armenians, on the other hand, argue that return of Azeris to NK, or according to a more extreme view return to all occupied territories, including those around NK, should take place only after final status of NK is decided.

The international community has been supportive of the right of all the displaced to return. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in a 2005 resolution expressed concern that war in NK “led to large-scale ethnic expulsion and the creation of mono-ethnic areas which resemble the terrible concept of ethnic cleansing” and reaffirmed “the right of displaced persons from the area of conflict to return to their homes safely and with dignity.” In its 2008 resolution the UN General Assembly has similarly “reaffirm[ed] the inalienable right of the population expelled from the occupied territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan to return to their homes, and stress[ed] the necessity of creating appropriate conditions for this return.”   In May 2010 resolution, the European Parliament demanded “withdrawal of Armenian forces from all occupied territories of Azerbaijan” and called on Armenian and Azerbaijani leaderships to “demonstrate their commitment to the creation of peaceful inter-ethnic relations through practical preparations for the return of displaced persons.”

The International Crisis Group in its recommendations has similarly called on the Karabakh Armenian authorities to stop support for settlement of formerly Azeri majority areas with Armenians. Armenian discourse against returnTo understand the complexity of the issue of return in the context of the NK conflict, it is important to look at the prevailing Armenian arguments against return of Azeris. To justify its opposition to Azeri return to NK and adjacent areas, Armenian political discourse heavily relies on several polemical and selective arguments, which mix contemporary security considerations and past historical grievances. It is commonly understood that return of Azeris cannot take place unless there are security guarantees and safe conditions both for local Armenians and Azeri returnees. Proceeding from this premise, Armenian political discourse interprets the acceptable security guarantee as NK’s independence or unification with Armenia. As long as Azerbaijan disagrees to NK’s independence, the proponents of this view say, any return of Azeris would be detrimental to Armenian security. This position makes any effort aimed at alleviating the consequences of the conflict a hostage to the intractable issue of the final status of NK, on which Armenians and Azerbaijanis hold diametrically opposite views. As a result, negotiations have failed to bear fruit during almost two decades since the 1994 cease-fire and the conflict remains unresolved and dangerous.The security argument is further supported by the so-called “cause-and-effect” arguments.

Since the status of NK was the cause of the conflict, Armenian elites argue, occupation of Azerbaijan’s territory and displacement of Azeris from their homes are consequences of the aggression unleashed by Azerbaijan against Karabakh Armenian’s “peaceful” expression of their right to self-determination. This argument, thus, bases itself on distorted narrative of the recent history and serves to divert attention away from the present-day human displacement to futile disputes about who started the conflict first.Another argument used against Azeris right to return is so-called “reciprocity” argument. Accordingly, Azeris can return to NK and adjacent areas only if Armenians can similarly return to Azerbaijan. While it seems perfectly legitimate, and is not fundamentally denied by Azerbaijan, this argument is frequently used to deny the Azeris right to return. Most Armenian refugees do not wish to return, nor do the Armenian government and the Karabakh Armenian authorities seem interested in having them return to places under Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction. Instead, as explained in the next section, they prefer displaced Armenians to resettle in formerly Azeri-inhabited areas to boost its claim on territory. The security and the cause-and-effect arguments are frequently mixed with selective historical narratives about genocide perpetrated against Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks during World War I.

The discourse on Armenian genocide has been deliberately interweaved into the contemporary Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, and presented to Armenian society as a struggle to avert another “genocide” against them, this time at the hands of the Azeris, the ethnic kinsmen of the Turks. Such portrayal of the conflict further entrenches extreme viewpoints in the Armenian and Karabakh Armenian societies, making them oppose any return and co-habitation with Azeris. Ironically, regular war threats coming from Azerbaijan help the Armenian nationalists to further entrench the enemy image of Azeris-Turks in the Armenian public conscience. Policy of ethnic engineeringArmenian settlement activity in and around NK represents a major obstacle for future possible return of IDPs and for peaceful resolution of the conflict. Azerbaijan accuses Armenia of “consistent measures aimed at further consolidation of the current status quo of occupation” in the form of encouraging settlement activities, destruction and appropriation of historical and cultural heritage and properties of displaced Azerbaijanis. Armenian activities in the occupied territories, Baku contends, constitute a breach of the Geneva and Hague Conventions, which prohibit building settlements in the occupied territories and encroaching on historical and cultural property.At Azerbaijan’s insistence, the OSCE sent two fact-finding missions to areas around NK in February 2005 and most recently, in December 2010. Based on a week-long mission, the 2010 report estimated the number of settlers at some 14,000, less than claimed by both Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

Based on the conclusions of this report, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmen called on the Karabakh Armenian authorities to avoid changes in the demographic structure of the region, which would “prejudice a final settlement or change the character of these areas”.NK’s de facto president Bako Sahakian regularly says that resettlement in the occupied territories is “a major strategic component of the state policy”. In international settings, however, Yerevan formally denies involvement in settlement activity, although this is an open secret in Armenia. President Serzh Sargsyan chairs the “Hayastan” All-Armenian Fund, which is a principal body coordinating Armenian and diasporan efforts aimed at raising and disbursing funds for resettlement in NK and the adjacent areas. Armenian high-level officials make public calls for supporting resettlement efforts in Karabakh. More than half of NK’s budget, including funds covering resettlement efforts by de facto authorities, is funded from the Armenian state budget.Most Armenian resettlement efforts have been directed at Lachin, as the strategic link between NK and Armenia. A relatively lesser degree of resettlement has been observed in Shusha, Kelbajar and Zangelan. According to Armenian sources cited by the International Crisis Group, up to 30,000 Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan are estimated to have settled in NK and adjacent areas after a period of living in Armenia, Russia or Central Asia. Even though there was sufficient housing left from Azeris to accommodate the Armenian refugees in Armenia proper, Yerevan encouraged many of them to resettle in occupied Azerbaijani territories.

The settlers can obtain Armenian citizenship, but their passports have a special identification, designating them as citizens of the “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic”.The incentives offered to settlers include free housing and land plots, subsidised or free utilities, low taxes, one-time financial assistance per person to buy cattle and agricultural products. The settlers may become legal owners of a home at no cost after living in it for three years. Stimulating a high birth-rate plays a big role in Armenian policy of consolidating the post-war demographics in NK and adjacent areas. The de facto authorities pay families some USD $270 for their first child and USD $550 for their second. Starting from the birth of the third child, a special deposit account is established in banks for each child born thereafter. The authorities build a house for each family with seven or more children under 18 years of age. The diaspora plays a big role in supporting settlement efforts. Thus, in an extravagant but also rather telling move, wealthy Armenian businessmen from Russia sponsored in 2008 a mass wedding of some 700 couples in the formerly Azeri-majority town of Shusha and pledged giving these couples USD $2,000 following the birth of their first child, $3,000 – for two children, $10,000 for four, $20,000 for five, $50,000 for six and $100,000 for seven.US-based Armenian charity foundations, such as the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) and Tufenkian Foundation have also been active in projects openly stimulating Armenian settlements both in and around NK.

The Tufenkian Foundation, for example, has set up several villages in Lachin district, which Armenian authorities have renamed Kashatag. As a lead mediator in the conflict, the Washington administration has a moral duty to review the activities of these foundations and close tax loopholes that allow these organisations to channel tax-free money to fuel Armenian settlement efforts, and thus, pre-emptively sabotage peace efforts.Although the majority of the settlers are Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan proper, many settlers are ordinary Armenian citizens, attracted by financial incentives to settle. Thus, in Zangelan district settlers from Armenia have settled villages named “Van”, “Moush”, “Alashkert”, “Berkri” – all geographic names of towns in eastern Turkey, which in Armenian popular parlance is often called “Western Armenia”. The choice of names for these villages is illustrative of the fact that Armenian nationalist discourse exploits historical grievances against Turks to provide for present-day ethnic mobilisation against Azerbaijanis.The Armenian authorities also use archaeological excavations to “prove” primordial Armenian origins in the region and boost their exclusive claim to territory of not only NK, but also of adjacent areas. Archaeological excavations conducted by Armenian historians near Agdam discovered ruins of what Armenians now call an ancient Armenian city of “Tigranakert”. In November 2010, de facto Armenian authorities renamed Agdam (which had a pre-war population of some 30,000) to “Akna”.

Also in November 2010 the Karabakh Armenian authorities said they are going to reconstruct several mosques in Shusha in order “to preserve the region’s Islamic heritage”. Azerbaijan painfully reacts to Armenian encroachments to its historical cultural legacy, particularly in Shusha, which has an important symbolic meaning for Azeris being the historical capital of Karabakh and home to many prominent Azeri cultural figures. As Crisis Group writes, “such activities in the occupied territories are not driven by historical concerns but rather political interests to reinforce the new realities on the ground”. In a way, the Armenian authorities are mirroring in NK and adjacent occupied territories the Israeli policy in the occupied Palestinian territories and Turkish policies in Northern Cyprus, although with more limited success. However, replicating such policies in NK is unfeasible given the political and military power correlations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as compared to Israel and Palestine or Turkey and Cyprus. Such activities, even if thus far limited, complicate the peace process by narrowing chances for a negotiated settlement of the conflict and should be abandoned. Alternatives to return According to customary international law, states and non-recognised entities alike have an obligation to allow for the return of refugees and IDPs and provide restitution or compensation for their property. But in practice, return and restitution are negotiated processes, which often involve political decisions and compromises.Restitution for Armenian and Azerbaijani refugeesAs mentioned above, both Armenian and Azerbaijani governments do not view return as a preferred option for the majority of refugees displaced from both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Neither do most Azeri and Armenian refugees (perhaps, with a notable exception of some Armenians displaced from the present-day Goranboy district) view return as a feasible and desirable option for themselves. International organisations similarly consider local integration in Armenia and Azerbaijan as the best and most realistic option for these refugees.

However, physical return is not a precondition for restitution of property. Most Armenian and Azerbaijani refugees still want to either reclaim or receive compensation for their abandoned homes. This claim is complicated by the fact that most of their abandoned properties were not privatised and technically remained state-owned at the time of displacement. The Soviet legal system (until the late 1980s) did not recognise private ownership of property and acknowledged only state-owned and collective socialist property. Since the displacement of Azeri and Armenian refugees took place before the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of the refugees did not possess the homes, which they held. No Azeris and only a handful of Armenians could privatize their property before being displaced, and therefore, most refugees have weak legal claim to their pre-war homes.

Therefore, property restitution and compensation for these refugees will to be decided on a political level between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The key here is to ensure that neither side exaggerate its losses or instrumentalize the issue to deny the return of the IDPs.In the initial years of displacement some Armenians and Azeris exchanged their properties in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenian sources claim more than 80,000 Azeris living in Armenia have exchanged their properties with Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan. It is impossible to independently verify this figure, as both Armenian and Azerbaijani government discouraged such private initiatives and there has been no comprehensive study to find out the number of such private swaps.The most interesting case of property swap between Armenians and Azeris is the one between the residents of Azeri village of Gyzyl-Shafag in northern Armenia and Armenian village of Kerkenj, in central Azerbaijan. This swap, which took place in 1989, at the height of Armenian and Azeri exodus, is unique in a sense that it was the first and only peaceful collective village swap between the two peoples.

The communities are still committed to their agreement to care for each other’s graves and regularly exchange through Georgia amateur videos of their village.Such private property swaps have constituted effective property restitution remedy for these Armenian and Azerbaijani refugees. IDPs and the decision whether to seek alternative solutionsThe case of Azerbaijani IDPs is more complex, because their claim is based not only on property restitution but also on physical return. Unlike refugees, the IDPs have the right under international customary law to choose between three options: return to their homes, local integration at the site of displacement or settlement in another part of the country. To generalise, certain categories of IDPs will be less predisposed to return than others and are more likely to seek local integration or resettlement. Thus, IDPs living in urban areas are generally believed to have fewer incentives to return than those living in rural areas. This is because they have been integrated more into mainstream society and enjoy greater opportunities for employment and access to better social infrastructure.

It is estimated that over half of all IDPs live in urban areas, one-third of them in Baku. Younger generation of IDPs, particularly in urban areas, are also widely believed to be less predisposed to return than the older generation.Another major factor which will influence IDPs’ eventual decision to return is the geographical area of displacement. For those from areas adjacent to NK it will be easier to return, because they will still constitute a majority in their area of return and will live directly under Azerbaijani jurisdiction. In the context of Azeri return to NK itself we are talking about so-called “minority returns”, whereby returning populations will constitute a minority, and will have to share power with the local Armenian majority. Given the security concerns and wartime memories, the decision to return to NK will be a tough choice for many IDPs once they have an opportunity to realise their right to return. It is quite likely that some NK Azeris will prefer local integration over permanent return, and will simply visit their homes in NK, primarily in Shusha, only in summer time for recreation.Most Azeri returnees in NK are more likely to be concentrated in Shusha district, which was the only town and district in NK with an overwhelming Azeri majority before the conflict. The return of Azeris to Shusha represents an important conflict resolution goal for Azeris both on political and emotional levels. Once there is a chance for Azeris to return to Shusha, many Azeris IDPs from other parts of NK, who want to return to the entity, are more likely to seek resettlement in Shusha, as opposed to actual return to their isolated villages surrounded by Armenian settlements.

These are only generalised statements and certainly, do not apply to all IDPs. Local integration should not be implemented to the detriment and with a prejudice against the IDPs right to return. In a similar fashion, return should not be viewed as the only viable option for IDPs. But it should be also recalled that return is not a collective, but an individual right derived from several fundamental human rights, including right to return home and property rights. Therefore, the state policy should employ all three options simultaneously with a view of the individual desires of IDPs.Azerbaijan as an “accepting society”Although most of the debate on displacement revolves around the plight of the Azeri IDPs, Azerbaijan should also be prepared to accept the return of the Armenian displaced. Official Baku says that it recognizes the Armenian refugees’ right to return. But in practice, it has done very little to work out contingencies and provide for conditions for safe return of Armenians. On a public level, the issue of return of Azeris to the occupied territories dominates the debate and there is virtually no discussion about reciprocal return of Armenians. Largely owing to Armenian political discourses, which have been described above, many Azeris perceive the issue of return of Armenians to Azerbaijan proper as a hypocritical pretext to deny their return to Karabakh.Before the conflict, more than twice as many Armenians lived in Azerbaijan proper (330,000) than in NK itself (145,000). Unlike their mostly rural Azeri counterparts in Armenia, most of these Armenians lived in urban centers, such as Baku, Sumgayit and Ganje. Just like the Azeri refugees from Armenia, these refugees prefer local integration and it is highly unlikely that they would be willing to return.

The case of Armenians displaced from the Soviet-era Shaumyan district, presently part of the Goranboy district, stands out from the rest of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan. Shaumyan was the only district of Soviet Azerbaijan outside of NK, which had an Armenian majority. Given the geographic proximity to NK, some, or perhaps even most Armenian refugees from the present-day Goranboy district would seriously consider return if provided with adequate opportunities.Although the territory of the former district both geographically and administratively was never part of NK, the district’s Armenian majority population (some 80 percent before the conflict) controversially voted in 1991 to join NK in declaring independence from Azerbaijan. As a result, the contemporary Armenian political discourse refers to a section of the Goranboy district as part of NK and as a territory “under Azerbaijani occupation”. Similar to the Azeris, who view return as part of a strategy to regain sovereignty over NK, many Armenians view their return to parts of Goranboy district as part of a strategy to attach it to NK. The Armenian authorities have settled most of the Armenian displaced from Goranboy in Kelbajar district and have often linked the return of Kelbajar with the transfer of parts of Goranboy to NK’s control.

Azerbaijan objects to this linkage arguing that the question of repatriation of Armenian refugees from parts of Azerbaijan outside of NK should be dealt in parallel with recognition of similar rights for the Azeri refugees from Armenia. To counter Armenian linkage between Kelbajar and Goranboy, Azerbaijan has similarly settled displaced families, mainly consisting of Azeri refugees from Armenia, IDPs from Khojaly in NK and Kelbajar itself in Goranboy’s formerly Armenian-settled villages. Such mirroring positions divert attention away from human aspects of return and instead turn refugees into pawns at the hands of nationalist politicians.Although some Armenian politicians declare support for Armenians return to Goranboy, in practice they are more interested in retaining Kelbajar, as an alternative strategic land link between Armenia and NK in addition to Lachin. According to this underpublicized position, return of Armenians to Goranboy can be sacrificed if that would solidify Armenian control over Kelbajar. Azerbaijan shoots itself on the foot by imitating Armenian settlement policy, because such politically-motivated relocations only further complicate any possible return process, thus playing into the hands of the Armenian hardliners.Armenians, who are genuinely interested in their return to Goranboy should detach such return from the demand to transfer jurisdiction of the region’s territory to NK. The focus should be on creating conditions for safe return of the Armenian refugees and establishing effective municipality structures for their self-governance. As strange as it may sound to Azerbaijani ears, the return of Armenians to Goranboy may also be in the interest of Azerbaijan, since it would release lands and properties belonging to Azeri displaced in Kelbajar, and thus, would facilitate their return. It would also send a strong message to Karabakh Armenians and the world that Azerbaijan is ready to provide for security guarantees to Armenians living on its territory.

The Azerbaijani government must start preparing contingencies for allowing the choice of return of Armenians to Goranboy district, including if necessary, planning for alternative housing for Azeri refugees and IDPs, who currently live in formerly Armenian-held houses. Such bold moves can help Azerbaijan overcome the Armenian nationalist’s strategy of not only denying Azeris return, but also keeping their displaced locked up to certain areas as an instrument of advancing territorial claims.Making return happenRegardless of how close the prospect of return of the Azerbaijani IDPs is, it is necessary to discuss contingencies for their return. Such discussions are not merely theoretical exercises, but constitute an important element of the peace-building effort.Azeris in general and Azeri IDPs in particular do not usually differentiate between the Azeris from NK and more numerous displaced populations of adjacent areas, identifying them all as “Karabakhis” (Qarabağlı).

But in practical terms, it is unavoidable to differentiate between these two subgroups of IDPs. This differentiation is required given the different conditions and timing in which return will be addressed.Thus, in the context of Azeris’ return to areas outside of NK, we are talking about so-called “majority returns”, whereby returning populations will constitute a majority in the area of return and will be placed under direct Azerbaijani jurisdiction. In the context of Azeris’ return to NK itself, and most likely to parts of the Lachin district, a land corridor separating NK from Armenia, we are most likely talking about the final phase of return, so-called “minority returns”, whereby returning populations will constitute a minority, and will have to share power with the local Armenian majority as part of an interim arrangement designed for NK. The success of return efforts and of the peace process in general, will be largely determined by the way the minority returns take place. Return and the issue of legitimacy of Nagorno-KarabakhUnlike in Bosnia, where the international efforts were aimed at keeping the integrity of the country, or Kosovo, where the Western segments of the international community supported secession from Serbia, the international community holds no pre-determined view on the final status of NK.

It supports an open-ended process, which guarantees neither restoration of Azerbaijani sovereignty over NK, nor its eventual de jure secession from Azerbaijan.However, Armenians demanding self-determination for NK must understand that responsibility is a necessary corollary of a right. As a matter of principle, the international community will never recognise the legitimacy of the NK’s de facto authorities as long as the latter retains the territory ethnically cleansed of Azeris. Recognition of these authorities as a legitimate (and not only a de facto) power in charge of self-government functions within the entity will require satisfaction of complex measures relating to internal governance and protection of the Azeri minority in NK.As mentioned earlier, the shape of the discussions on return to NK is deeply influenced by the ongoing talks revolving around a population vote, the modalities of which have yet to be agreed, to determine NK’s final status. While both sides should agree that the population of NK should have a key role in determining their status, Armenians’ insistence on starting negotiations from final status is a prescription for indefinite delay.

To move the process forward, the negotiations should focus more on the human dimension of the conflict, such as adequate security guarantees for local Armenians, similar guarantees for Azeri returnees, and a local governance system based on the rule of law. Such measures would in the long term provide more security and legitimacy to NK than the present policy of keeping territories and people hostage to knee-jerk demands for NK’s independence or unification with Armenia. Return to ShushaReturn of Azeris to Shusha will be a litmus test for the success of the return process and of the peace process in general. Shusha was the only town and district in NK with overwhelming Azeri majority (over 90 percent) before the conflict. Being the historical capital of Karabakh and home to many prominent cultural figures, it is perceived by Azeris as one of the cornerstones of their national identity. Azerbaijani attitudes to any future peace deal will largely depend on how effectively that deal provides for Azeris return to Shusha. The inability to return to Shusha would be exploited by nationalist forces as a proof that Azerbaijanis cannot get a dignified peace by peaceful means.

It would also discredit the international efforts to achieve a genuine peaceful co-existence between Armenians and Azeris.When contemplating Azeri return to Shusha it is useful to look at the similar case of Bosniak and Croat returns to Brcko, a strategic district at the juncture of the eastern and western halves of the Republika Srpska. Brcko has a special status as a condominium between Republika Srpska and Bosniak-Croat Federation and is governed autonomously without external intervention from either of the two entities. Certain elements of Brcko condominium could be usefully implemented in Shusha and in Lachin corridor.Brcko and the Bosnian experience in general also provide useful lessons on how to deal with the issue of secondary occupants. Many Armenians displaced from Azerbaijan proper have settled in the abandoned properties of Azeris. Over the years they have built a new life in the occupied territories, a whole new generation of Armenian displaced was born and raised in NK and some adjacent areas. Naturally, these people would be at the forefront of Armenian opposition to return of Azeris, because of fear of being uprooted again from their newly founded livelihoods. In Bosnia the international community has found a creative solution to alleviate the tension between the problem of the displaced secondary occupants and return of original residents.

Based on UNHCR proposals, it supported local integration and building of houses for displaced settlers only in municipalities which allow minority returns. In a similar manner, the refugee Armenians who have settled in Shusha could be allowed to legitimately remain in Shusha or elsewhere in NK and be eligible for housing and other assistance provided that they do not obstruct the return of Azeris to their properties. Certain limitations over the number of Armenian settlers to remain in Shusha could be considered to avoid politically motivated overpopulation and maintaining mutually acceptable demographic balance. The Annan Plan for Cyprus, for example, introduced a concept of “permissible limitations” to residence by Greek and Turkish Cypriot citizens in each other’s constituency. In a similar manner, temporary derogations could limit the right of non-Karabakhi Azeris and Armenians to reside and to buy property in NK. Azerbaijan and international donors could also consider certain financial inducements to persuade some Armenian settlers to leave Azeri properties and seek resettlement either in Armenia or elsewhere in NK.

Getting popular support for returnThe success of any peace process is dependent on popular support. It is critical that Armenians and Azeris build pro-peace constituencies supporting return processes. Again, the Balkan experience provides some useful lessons in this regard. The international community supported in Bosnia the so-called “Coalition for return”, a grassroots movement of the displaced from the opposing ethnic groups, who wanted to return and who would publicly support each other’s right to return. The Bosniak, Croat and Serb members of this movement succeeded avoiding politicization of their movement and infiltration attempts by nationalist groups wishing to use it for political manipulations. In the context of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, the groups of IDPs who genuinely want to return could similarly be encouraged to combine in jointly advocating for their right of return. As the Crisis Group wrote, referring to this initiative, “displaced persons’ organisations are the best channels for discrediting the nationalist parties’ propaganda and persuading displaced persons that their interests would be better protected if they too returned rather than violently opposed the returns.”

The key for the success of such a grassroots initiative is to avoid becoming hostage to nationalist discourses, which use manipulated arguments to make return impracticable, such as the “reciprocity” argument, elaborated above. For a grassroots initiative such as “Coalition for return” to succeed, return of all Armenians and Azeris wishing to do so, should be supported without political conditionalities. The issue of return, particularly in the context of Azeris return to NK and Armenians return to parts of Goranboy should be delinked from the issue of final status for NK and should be discussed in the context of provision of human security, rule of law and better governance.6. ConclusionThis paper was an effort to discuss major issues relating to the issue of return in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, given the page and knowledge limitations, the issues touched upon in this paper are only the tip of the iceberg. There are still many things that Azeris and Armenians need to discuss, understand and agree among themselves.Return will certainly not be an easy process in Karabakh conflict. It will most likely be implemented in phases, over a long time span. But time should not be wasted, because in the Karabakh conflict time works against the long-term interests of everyone.

It is of utmost importance that Armenians and Azeris both on official and civil society levels start seriously discussing contingencies for their displaced to return. The discourse of the Armenians and Azeris on return is still largely exclusive, limited to their own positions, often disregarding the interests of the opposite side. Such exclusive discourses serve only to polarize and perpetuate existing insecurity, misery and massive displacement that scar the societies both physically and morally. Both Armenians and Azeris must rethink the language they speak to each other and develop more deferential and inclusive discourses towards each other.Return will play an important role in breaking the false stereotypes and premises about “ethnic incompatibility” of Azeris and Armenians that nationalist politicians have tried to instill in people’s minds. Once Azeris and Armenians start living side-by-side again, they will rediscover the wealth of positive cultural and historical experiences that far outweigh their negative experiences and can bring about a new rapprochement.



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