(December 2022 - May 2023) 



Laura Baghdasaryan, Director of “Region”  Research Center (Armenia),
Arif Yunusov, Head of the Department of Conflict and Migration Studies of the Institute for Peace and Democracy (Azerbaijan)

In Azerbaijan the term “Western Azerbaijan” is used to describe the territory of Armenia, and the refugees of Azerbaijani origin who left Armenia during the early and mid-20th century due to deportation carried out by Soviet authorities, and Azerbaijanis who left Armenia in the initial years of the Karabakh conflict are considered to be natives of Western Azerbaijan.

In the context of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, Armenian refugees in Armenia are referred to as the Armenian population that left Azerbaijan in the years prior to the start of the first Karabakh war (1989-1991) and refugees from the NKR, who, following the 2020 war, were unable to return to their original places of residence due to several regions falling under the control of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Throughout the studied period, the issue of refugees gained prominence in the Armenian and Azerbaijani media and on social media at the instigation of the President of Azerbaijan in December 2022, when he introduced the “Western Azerbaijan” narrative along with claims about the return of compatriots in that region. He argued that there had never existed Armenia within Western Azerbaijan, and, generally, present-day Armenia is an Azerbaijani territory. From 1989 to 2022, the Society of Azerbaijani Refugees operated in Azerbaijan. On August 3, 2022, it was announced that a new organization, “Western Azerbaijan Community” (WAC), was established based on that society. This rebranding, according to the Azerbaijani side, was motivated by the increasing number of internally displaced persons who had already started returning to their places of former residence following the 2020 war, with Western Azerbaijanis being the next in line.

Still in 2018, I. Aliyev declared that the territories of the Republic of Armenia were historical Azerbaijani lands that had been handed over to Armenians over the years as a result of the unfair policy of the USSR leadership, the forced deportation of Azerbaijanis from Armenia during the past century. But now, following the 2020 war, two years later, he unveiled his plan to promote the concept of the “Great Return” of compatriots to their land. This involves organizing international conferences and other events to popularize the term “Western Azerbaijan”, publishing and distributing books with scientific research on the subject.

The President's instructions on this issue have started to be implemented with considerable diligence in Azerbaijan. Just a month after the public instructions, the concept of Western Azerbaijan was developed and published. Azerbaijan has also shared the WAC’s appeal with the UN and the EU as an official document, presenting its goals and objectives in all official languages of these organizations. Two months later, WAC appealed to the RA Government, demanding to immediately begin negotiations on the return of Azerbaijani refugees to Armenia.

Judging by this concept, the right to return to the places of their former residence is granted exclusively to Azerbaijani citizens, as the Armenians from the Republic of Armenia are portrayed as citizens “resettled to their homeland from other countries.” Although the Azerbaijanis from Armenia declare that they are ready to peacefully coexist with the Armenians, there have, nevertheless, been statements indicating intentions to bring “to trial (Armenian) individuals who have committed crimes against Azerbaijanis”, and also cancel “changes in geographic names” , i.e. all Armenian names of cities and villages of Armenia will be replaced with Azerbaijani ones.

While some Azerbaijani figures, who are originally from Armenia, have shown interest in this plan and immediately began to express readiness to return to their former places of residence, there exists a group of figures in Azerbaijan that remain skeptical about the feasibility of this initiative. Moreover, in their view, the concept of Western Azerbaijan should be considered in the context of domestic politics, as a move by Aliyev to fight against other clans and consolidate various clans around him.

It is obvious that Armenia unequivocally holds a critical stance towards this concept. From a political standpoint, it is regarded as Azerbaijan’s territorial claims on Armenia, AR promotion of a manipulative approach towards the resolution of Armenian-Azerbaijani issues, specifically regarding the return of refugees. Interestingly, I. Aliyev and his associates completely avoid discussing the issue of the return of Armenian refugees who left Azerbaijan in the late 20th century and those that left the NKR after the war of 2020. However, this very issue is mentioned in the 7th paragraph of the 2020 ceasefire statement.

Instead, the Azerbaijani side employs a mirror approach to the demands presented by the Armenian side. Namely, in the pieces published in Azerbaijani media the right of the Armenian population of the NKR is equated to the rights of the Azerbaijanis to reside in Armenia, and the right of the NKR population to unhindered movement through the blocked Lachin Corridor is equated with the so-called Zangezur Corridor, which, according to the Azerbaijani demands, should be opened by Armenia to connect the residents of Nakhichevan with Azerbaijan. “...The risk of such a mirror approach is that Aliyev may then declare that just as the Azerbaijanis were unable to return to Armenia, the Karabakh Armenians cannot live on the territory of Azerbaijan. Against the backdrop of the blockade of the Lachin Corridor, this is another alarming message suggesting the potential ethnic cleansing to be perpetrated against the Armenian population of NK.

Although Armenian academic circles consider the concept of Western Azerbaijan as pseudo-scientific, and regarding it as “an absurd narrative in all respects”, whose provisions are easily refuted by the entire global historiography, overall, there have already been calls in Armenia to treat I. Aliyev’ aspirations much more seriously.

Read the full version in Russian HERE.

This research has been organized within the framework of the Region Research Center's project "New Agendas for Peace and Stability in the South Caucasus after the Karabakh 2020 War". The project is being implemented by the support of the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation. The opinions expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions and positions of the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation or its partners.




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