Why Armenia (Still) Matters


Chiara de Luca


Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region in the South Caucasus, long disputed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, made headlines in September 2023, as one of the world’s longest-running armed conflicts came to an end. The world barely seemed to notice, while the global funding landscape did not shift considerably to meet the ensuing challenges.

Although the landlocked enclave was internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh had mostly operated as a self-declared republic (the Republic of Artsakh, backed by Armenia with a majority ethnic-Armenian population) since 1994, at the end of the First Karabakh War. After decades of hostilities, the Second Karabakh War began in 2020.

With the world distracted by the Covid-19 pandemic, Azerbaijan reclaimed a third of the enclave within six weeks, before Azerbaijan and Armenia agreed to a Russia-brokered truce. A further round of fighting (September 2022) marked yet another border crisis between the two neighbouring countries. The incursions Azerbaijan made into the enclave and in Armenian territory escalated first into a nine-month blockade of the Lachin Corridor – the only road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia – resulting in a shortage of food, fuel, and medicines, and then into a third war, which only lasted one day.

Within just twenty-four hours, in late September 2023, Azerbaijan re-took full control of the enclave, killing at least 200 people, injuring many more, and sparking a mass exodus of 120,000 ethnic Armenians. The Republic of Artsakh officially ceased to exist on 1st January 2024, after its president signed a decree dissolving state institutions upon Azerbaijan’s victory. Thousands took the streets of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, in sign of protest.

‘Between delays and appeals, the disbursement of funds has been slow, and long-term housing and employment remain a pressing challenge for Armenia’

Geopolitical powerhouses, such as Turkey and Russia, have long cultivated strategic interests in this war as well as other so-called ‘frozen conflicts’ across the South Caucasus. While Azerbaijan has found a long-term ally in Turkey, Western leaders have declined to confront Azerbaijan over its final offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh, seeking to close natural gas deals with Azerbaijan’s president Aliyev. Armenia, on the other hand, has found itself pulled between the West and Russia. Relations between Putin and Armenia’s prime minister Pashinyan have soured, with Russian forces offering little assistance to Armenia despite their on-the-ground presence in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The scenes of the last chapter of this decades-long war rang tragically familiar to any other story of bloodshed and mass displacement. Thousands of people, without food and gas for months, were suddenly shelled. Long lines of cars and buses dotted the Lachin corridor, as people packed their lives and memories in crowded vehicles. Exhausted families reunited at border-town humanitarian hubs.

Bilateral donors and large humanitarian organisations took time to assess needs and gradually roll out support, especially as international presence in Nagorno-Karabakh had long been barred. We know that the UK gave £1 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) while the US has committed $28 million since 2020. The EU has provided €17.5 million since September 2023, and France committed €27.5 million. However, between delays and appeals, the disbursement of funds has been slow, and long-term housing and employment remain a pressing challenge for Armenia.

For instance, in October 2023, UNHCR launched a $97 million emergency response plan to provide aid and protection to refugees and host communities in Armenia. Roughly 50 percent of the UNHCR response was fundraised by 60 local and international partners. The Armenian government took out a loan from the World Bank to reach the target through March 2024. The UNHCR support has run out, as not a single refugee could return home.

Compared to other recent emergencies, there was little in the vein of additional global support for Armenian civil society organisations working on the front lines to address the humanitarian crisis, particularly from private philanthropy. Where was an Armenian democracy fund for example?

Armenian NGOs pivoted with great flexibility and adaptation to coordinate and deliver a response over Nagorno-Karabakh. Although operating on small annual budgets and predominantly relying upon volunteers, local activists and initiatives remain best positioned to provide timely, culturally-sensitive, and effective emergency responses. For example, Women’s Resource Center and Women’s Fund Armenia, among other local human rights and peace and justice groups, rapidly mobilised to accommodate the flux of refugees – the greatest majority of whom were women and children – with life-saving supplies, medical and psychological assistance.

Armenia is a small country of less than three million, a thriving society preserving a rich culture and history, despite surviving a genocide in the early 20th century. It is led by a government that, with all its flaws, has been democratically elected following a peaceful people-powered revolution in 2018, today a rarity in the post-Soviet space. The size of a country matters little when democracy is in danger. Armenia remains a ‘bright spot,’ to quote Samantha Power’s words, which, notwithstanding the war and global trends of democratic backsliding, has made significant strides in the past decade.

The potential signing of a comprehensive peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan risks being leveraged by anti-democratic actors within Armenia to undo the gains of the 2018 revolution. As part of the world continues to pour support into Ukraine as a bulwark against repression, both bilateral and private donors need to scale up investments to support civil society actors and institutional reforms in Armenia, an equally fledgling democracy in an increasingly authoritarian region.

Chiara De Luca is a human rights researcher and communicator based in London, UK

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