How France became the target of Azerbaijan’s smear campaign

What do the absence of French observers at Azerbaijan’s February 7 presidential election, a group denouncing “French colonialism” and an online campaign targeting the 2024 Paris Olympics have in common? They are three facets of a new offensive strategy adopted by Azerbaijani diplomacy towards France. FRANCE 24 investigated this shift with the Forbidden Stories consortium and other media outlets as part of “The Baku Connection” project.

Azerbaijan’s February 7 presidential election, which handed President Ilham Aliyev an unsurprising and unopposed victory with 92% of the vote and a fifth term in office, provided the backdrop for the latest illustration of deteriorating Franco-Azerbaijani relations.

For the first time in at least a decade, there were no French elected representatives or independent observers on the team of international observers monitoring the vote. As Aliyev tightens his grip on power and the country’s electoral system, there were fewer West European nationals on the international monitoring team. But a few German, Austrian, Spanish and Italian nationals did make it on the observer mission.

Abzas media’s fearless journalists ended up in jail for delving into stories that challenged Azerbaijan’s regime.

Following their arrest, 15 media, coordinated by Forbidden Stories, joined forces to carry on their investigations. © Forbidden Stories

Escalating tensions

The absence of a French presence on the observer team is the result of a disaccord between France and Azerbaijan. French parliamentarians who have visited the former Soviet republic in the past as election observers no longer want to hear about it. “When you have a president who systematically gets elected with over 80% of the vote, I wouldn’t call that free and fair elections,” said Claude Kern, senator from France’s eastern Bas-Rhin region, who was part of the French delegation for the 2018 presidential election.

Even the Association of Friends of Azerbaijan at the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament, has experienced an exodus of almost all its members in recent months.

Azerbaijan also appears to have closed the door on the few independent French nationals wishing to observe the presidential election on the ground. This was the case with journalist Jean-Michel Brun, who contributes to the websites, “Musulmans de France” and “Gazette du Caucase”, two portals with a very pro-Azerbaijani slant.

His candidacy was rejected by Azerbaijani authorities, without explanation, a few days before the election. “Relations with Azerbaijan are so rotten at the moment that they may have decided not to invite any French people,” said Brun. When contacted by FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories, Azerbaijani authorities did not respond to the reasons for the absence of French observers.

The election observer issue is part of a wider context of escalating bilateral tensions. The month of December was marked by a particularly sharp deterioration: a Frenchman was arrested in Baku and accused of espionage, Azerbaijan then expelled two French diplomats, Paris promptly responded, declaring two Azerbaijani embassy officials persona non grata. The diplomatic tit-for-tat was accompanied by acerbic statements from both sides.

For French nationals in Azerbaijan, the message was clear. “French authorities made us understand that we had to be careful because we could be expelled overnight,” confided a Frenchman living in Azerbaijan who did not wish to be named. Despite the strained ties between Paris and Baku, the Frenchman said he was quite satisfied with living conditions in Azerbaijan. When contacted, the French embassy in Azerbaijan did not respond to FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories.

The rapid and overt diplomatic deterioration between Azerbaijan and France is a new low, according to experts. “It’s the first time we see this kind of development against a European country, a Western country,” said Altay Goyushov, a political scientist at the Baku Research Institute, an independent Azerbaijani research center. “This is a completely new development, when a French citizen is arrested on spying charges, it’s never happened before,” he noted, adding that Azerbaijani authorities have mostly used “these kind of tactics” against the domestic opposition and the media in the past.

A song against Macron

Historically, it hasn’t always been this way. France, like other European countries, has long been the target of what has come to be called “caviar diplomacy”. It’s a term employed by experts and journalists for over a decade to describe oil-rich Azerbaijan’s particularly lavish and distinctive lobbying strategy, which includes costly official trips for foreign politicians and influencers, and providing expensive gifts and funds for projects such as the renovation of churches. The payback, documented in several news reports, includes soft-power wins for Azerbaijan by securing its influence in Europe’s political and media worlds.

In the past, France held a special place for Baku’s political elites. France is a member of the OSCE Minsk Group, which also includes the US and Russia. Since the early 2000s, Paris has attempted to play a key role, within the Minsk Group, to try to find a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

France was therefore considered an important European power in Baku, one worth wooing and trying to keep on side. For Azerbaijan, this is particularly important since Baku has long believed the Armenian community in France to be very influential in French power circles, a position echoed by several pro-Azerbaijan figures interviewed by FRANCE 24 and the Forbidden Stories consortium.

The September 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, which resulted in Azerbaijan reclaiming a third of the disputed enclave, marked the beginning of the bilateral break. Two years later, in an interview with France 2 TV station, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that France “will never abandon the Armenians”.

The French president’s avowal was viewed as a diplomatic slap by Baku. “It was very frustrating for Ilham Aliyev, who wants to be able to impose his demands on a weak Armenia, which is not the case if Yerevan thinks it can count on French support,” noted Goyushov.

This French support began to take shape after French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna’s October 2023 visit to Armenia when she announced that “France has given its agreement to the conclusion of future contracts with Armenia which will enable the delivery of military equipment to Armenia so that it can ensure its defence”. The announcement sparked disapproval from Aliyev, who accused France of “preparing the ground [for] new wars”.

Azerbaijan then began a diplomatic shift that increasingly resembled a 180-degree turn.

The tone was first set by a song performed on public television and soberly titled, “Emmanuel”. Broadcast a week after Macron’s France 2 interview, the lyrics featured criticisms levelled at the French president – accusing him of “betraying his promises”, for instance – while children punctuated each verse, singing “Emmanuel” in chorus.

It was a very public display of Azerbaijan’s new disaffection for France. Official accusations – such as the one frequently adopted by  Elchin Amirbayov, the Azerbaijani president’s special representative for the normalisation of relations with Armenia, accusing France of “undermining the peace efforts” with Armenia – represent just the tip of the iceberg of Baku’s new diplomatic turn. The submerged component includes a number of initiatives aimed at denigrating France.

Outrage over ‘French colonialism’ by the Azerbaijani state

In November 2023, a video highly critical of the organisation of the 2024 Paris Olympics emerged, sparking a media stir in France. According to VIGINUM, the French government agency for the defence against foreign digital interference, it was an influence campaign linked to “an actor close to Azerbaijan”.

In its technical report, seen by FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories, VIGINUM concluded that the operation, amplified by fake sites and accounts on social media, is “likely to harm the fundamental interests of the nation”.

On another, parallel track, Azerbaijan is promoting the claims of a new structure called the “Baku Initiative Group”. Its members, independence fighters from French overseas territories and regions such as French Guiana, Martinique, New Caledonia and Guadeloupe, have been denouncing France’s “colonisation” and “neocolonialism”, and have been calling for “decolonisation”.

Watch moreThe Baku Connection in Azerbaijan: ‘They won’t stop our investigations by arresting us’

“At the last Non-Aligned Movement conference [chaired by Azerbaijan] in July 2023 in Baku, we wanted to take stock of the situation in the territories still under French domination, and decided to form the Baku Initiative Group,” explained Jean-Jacob Bicep, president of the People’s Union for the Liberation of Guadeloupe, a far-left political party in the French overseas region. “The aim is to make the world aware of France’s colonial policy,” added another representative who asked to remain anonymous.

These pro-independence activists have already been able to make their case against what they call “French colonialism” before the UN on two occasions: first at a conference in September at the UN’s New York headquarters, then at its Geneva office in December. Both events were organised by the Baku Initiative Group.

What does this have to do with Azerbaijan? It’s not just a coincidence that Azerbaijan held the rotating presidency of the Non-Aligned Group at just the right time. The executive director of these “anti-French colonialism” gatherings is Azerbaijani Abbas Abbassov, who has long worked for Azerbaijan’s State Oil Fund. 

In addition, a July 2023 roundtable in Baku titled, “Towards the Complete Elimination of Colonialism” was organised by the AIR Center, one of Azerbaijan’s leading think tanks, whose chairman, Farid Shafiyev, is Azerbaijan’s former ambassador to the Czech Republic.

The Baku roundtable ended with an agreement on the establishment of “the Baku Initiative Group against French colonialism”, according to an AIR Center statement. When contacted, the think tank did not respond to questions from FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories.

Denouncing the ‘Macron Dictatorship’

The group of French nationals who have attended the Baku Initiative Group meetings includes well-known figures in the pro-Azerbaijani camp, such as journalist Yannick Urrien. “It was Hikmet Hajiyev who asked me to come to a conference of the group in Baku in October 2023,” explained Urrien.

Hikmet Hajiyev is a well-known figure in Azerbaijan power circles: he is the foreign policy advisor to Azerbaijan’s president and a close associate of President Aliyev. “He is the mastermind behind the smear campaigns against other countries, including France,” explained Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institute for Prospective and Security in Europe (IPSE) and a former advisor to Azerbaijan for around six years.

Aliyev himself used a speech at a decolonisation conference in Baku in November to deliver a scathing broadside against France. In his address, the Azerbaijani president referred to France more than 20 times, accusing Paris of “inflicting conflict” in the Caucasus and committing “most of the bloody crimes in the colonial history of humanity”.

Some of the French participants in Baku’s decolonisation conferences deny being instrumentalised or prefer to ignore the issue. “It’s none of my business. We seize every opportunity to achieve our goal, and all France has to do is settle its own problems with Azerbaijan,” said Bicep, the leader of the far-left People’s Union for the Liberation of Guadeloupe.

Another participant, who asked to remain anonymous, admits that the creation of the Baku Initiative Group came at the best possible time for Azerbaijan, which “doesn’t really have any chemistry with France at the moment”. It’s probably a way of asking the French government “to put its own house in order before criticising what others are doing [in Nagorno-Karabakh]”, he added.

Azerbaijan has also proved to be creative in increasing the resonance of these pro-independence demands on social media. On Twitter, they are relayed by anonymous Azerbaijanis and influential personalities, such as AIR Center director Farid Shafiyev.

Since October, the Azerbaijani parliament has even hosted a support group for the people of Corsica, the French Mediterranean island which has had a tumultuous relationship with mainland France since it became French in the 18th century. A communiqué published in early February by the people of Corsica support group set up by Azerbaijan’s parliament denounced “the Macron Dictatorship”. ().

In December, Azerbaijan was accused of sending journalists “known for their proximity to Azerbaijani intelligence services” to cover French Defence Minister Sébastien Lecornu’s trip to New Caledonia, a French archipelago in the Pacific. Their mission was to write articles “with an anti-France angle”, said radio station Europe 1, which broke the story.

A leaf from the Russian playbook

The creation of the Baku Initiative Group and the media hype surrounding the issue of anti-colonialism are “a monumental mistake”, according to Dupuy. The former advisor to Azerbaijan asserted that this strategy has “no chance” of moving France one iota on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, while scuttling relations between the two countries. It’s an opinion he says he shares with his contacts in Azerbaijan.

But it’s not surprising that Baku is resorting to this kind of tactic, explained Goyushov of the Baku Research Institute. With its internet disinformation operations and anti-West rhetoric harking back to the colonial era, Azerbaijan is taking a leaf out of the Kremlin playbook for winning friends and gaining influence in Africa.

“You have to take into account one thing: Azerbaijan was a part of the Soviet Union,” said Goyushov. Aliyev’s father, Heydar Aliyev, who was Azerbaijan’s president for a decade before his son took over the office, was a former KGB official – like Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Of course they are still almost the same,” added the political scientist. “They are copying each other in many ways. Their rhetoric against the West uses the same methods against their opponents, employs the same tactics on social media.”

But Goyushov doesn’t expect the Azerbaijani offensive to succeed. Firstly, because Azerbaijan does not have the same resources as Russia to deploy large-scale operations, such as Russia’s Doppelgänger disinformation campaign, which has been spreading false information in several European countries since 2022.

Secondly, Azerbaijan “is much more economically dependent on Western countries than Russia”, noted Goyushov. Aliyev, he believes, does not have the luxury of getting permanently upset with a power like France.

“It’s quite similar to what happened in 2013 with Germany,” explained Goyushov. Back then, Germany criticised the infringements of religious freedom in Azerbaijan, a country with a Muslim majority. In the lead-up to a presidential election in Azerbaijan, “there were numerous attacks on Germany for about two years”, noted Goyushov.

But then the anti-German attacks abruptly stopped. The reason, according to Goyushov, is that these smear campaigns serve mainly internal political purposes. “In an authoritarian regime, you sometimes need to find a common enemy that allows the country to unite around the leader,” he explained. Perhaps COP 29, the 2024 climate conference to be held in Azerbaijan in November, will be an opportunity for the authorities to redress the diplomatic balance with the West, and France in particular.

Eloïse Layan from Forbidden Stories contributed to this report.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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In Azerbaijan, UK-based gold mine accused of pollution

Six journalists from the independent Azerbaijani investigative website Abzas Media have been under arrest since November 2023. They had previously transmitted elements of their investigations to the Paris-based Forbidden Stories collective, which took over their work in collaboration with 14 European news organisations in the “The Baku Connection” project, including FRANCE 24 and RFI. This article focuses on the tensions surrounding a mine in the west of the country, whose gold ends up in the products of major high-tech brands. 

The anger was visible on their faces as they faced off against squadrons of riot police sent to silence them. On June 20, 2023, residents of the village of Söyüdlü, in western Azerbaijan, demonstrated to reject the construction of a new reservoir to store toxic waste from a gold mine that has been operating in the area since 2012. An initial reservoir had been installed by Anglo Asian Mining, the British company that operates the mine, but it was close to capacity. The villagers believe it had led to soil and river water pollution, and that the fumes escaping from it were causing an increase in respiratory illnesses.

Video of tensions at the Gedabek mine in Azerbaijan published on Facebook by the account Azərbaycan Respublikası on june 21, 2023.


The first reservoir, with a capacity of 6 million cubic metres, is located a few hundred meters from Söyüdlü. To separate the gold from the rock, Anglo Asian Mining uses cyanide, and dumps the sludge generated by the process, which contains toxic products including cyanide and arsenic, into the reservoir, known as a tailings pond.  The company says that the quantities of waste do not threaten the environment or the health of local residents. 

That is not how the residents feel. But their efforts to show their frustration in June 2023 were cut short: images posted on social media show police in riot gear spraying tear gas in the faces of demonstrators, particularly elderly women, and using rubber bullets to disperse the protesters.


‘The police set up roadblocks and turned back journalists who were not under government control’

Interviewed by the Forbidden Stories consortium, freelance journalist Elmaddin Shamilzade recounts: 


There were about 300 policemen. It was far too many. The local administrator came to talk to the people. Then he wanted to take them to some kind of government building. He wanted to have a conversation without journalists and activists. The villagers refused, and got permission for the media to follow the discussions.  

The next day, the police set up roadblocks and turned back journalists who weren’t under government control. They wouldn’t let them into the village. They checked passports, even those of the villagers.


On Shamilzade’s return to Baku, he was arrested for posting on Facebook a photo of two policemen in Söyüdlü. He recounts being beaten, tortured and threatened with rape, which prompted him to give the police his password so that they could delete the photo. He has since left the country.

At least four journalists were arrested on June 22, 2023 for reporting on the Söyüdlü protests. Three were arrested on the spot, including Nargiz Absalamova of Abzas Media. She accuses the police officers who arrested them of violence against her and her colleagues. According to the police, the three people arrested were not wearing “any distinctive signs” identifying them as journalists. The fourth journalist was arrested in Baku on June 23: the director of Abzas Media, Ülvi Hasanli, was detained for distributing photos of the two police officers accused by the journalists of arresting them. He was released after four hours.  

Facebook post by Sevinç Vaqifqizi, editor-in-chief of Abzas Media, for which the site’s director, Ülvi Hasanli, was detained by police for four hours on June 23, 2023.. © FACEBOOK

On-site samples and questions  

In a video filmed by Abzas Media in Söyüdlü, Gadabay district administrator Orkhan Mursalov is seen telling protesters: “The reservoir has been there for more than 11 years. Have there been any complaints about the reservoir in all those years? No! Why did the inhabitants conclude in one day that the lake endangered their lives? It’s likely that people are being misinformed. Who’s misinforming them? Unfortunately, social networks.” 



Read more“Don’t think that they can stop these investigations by arresting us one by one.”

Azerbaijani state media accused first the West, and then Russia, of organizing the protests. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, in power since 2003, finally reacted to the events on July 11, 2023. He said the demonstrations were the work of “provocateurs… some of whom are hiding in Azerbaijan, others abroad”. He defended the right of the local residents to demonstrate (a way of polishing his image with his people, one activist told us). He accused the country’s minister of ecology of being  “negligent,” adding: “As a result, a foreign investor is poisoning our nature.” The Azerbaijani government had granted the right to operate the mine to Anglo Asian Mining, whose CEO and main shareholder, Iranian-American Reza Vaziri, is said by the company’s CFO Bill Morgan to be a “personal friend of the president”. The Azerbaijani government also shares profits from the mine with the company. (The company lists its second-biggest shareholder as former US governor John Sununu, who did not respond to requests for comment for this report.)


Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Anglo Asian Mining CEO Mohammad Reza Vaziri at the inauguration of a treatment centre in 2013.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Anglo Asian Mining CEO Mohammad Reza Vaziri at the inauguration of a treatment centre in 2013. © Official website of the Azerbaijan presidency

In mid-July, the Azerbaijani authorities ordered tests to be carried out on the site, and the mine suspended operations while the investigation was carried out. 

On September 28, 2023, Anglo Asian Mining announced the findings in a press release. The statement said that analyses carried out by the British laboratory Micon and the Azerbaijani laboratory Iqlim indicated there was no reason to worry about pollution at the site. “Radiation levels at Gedabek are aligned with natural background conditions for the area,” the statement says. It also states that “no issues of concern were identified with air quality”, that “no cyanide was found in any soil sample above the limits of analytical detection (

On November 7, 2023, the company announced that it had signed an “action plan” with the Azerbaijani government to restart the mine’s operations. The plan called on the company to “improve environmental monitoring of the site” and “establish a community relations department”, without giving further detail.  The company announced that rather than building a new waste reservoir, it would raise the height of the existing reservoir’s dam so that it could continue to receive waste. 

We asked Anglo Asian Mining to provide detailed results of the analyses for this report, as well as details of the dam-raising project. The company referred us to its public press releases, and sent this statement from its CEO, Reza Vaziri: 


Statement from Anglo Asian Mining provided to the Forbidden Stories consortium.  © Anglo Asian Mining
Statement from Anglo Asian Mining provided to the Forbidden Stories consortium. © Anglo Asian Mining © Anglo Asian Mining

‘This toxic water is seeping through the rocks’

Without precise data from the analyses, and without samples to analyse independently, it is impossible to assess the risk of pollution at the Gedabek mine. A member of the Azerbaijani NGO Ecofront had taken water and soil samples around the lake during the June 2023 protests, but he was arrested and his samples were confiscated. The NGO remains convinced that the lake is a source of pollution, and that its contaminated water is seeping into the soil. One of its members, Javid Gara, explains:

In recent years, the lake has been enlarged. Not by structural engineering: it’s trucks digging up the soil to make it bigger. As they dig, they cause more vibrations, more cracks and more leaks. The toxic water seeps through the rocks to the river and springs below the reservoir. The village of Soyüdlü is above the reservoir and therefore not directly affected, but it does have an agricultural life. The villagers take their livestock, cows and sheep, below the reservoir, but they never use the water downstream from the reservoir. That’s because they think it’s contaminated.

Dust, odours, soil infiltration  

Two geologists contacted by our consortium confirm these concerns, noting that the reservoir was dug directly into the rock, raising the possibility that its contents could seep into the soil and groundwater. They sent us this analysis: “You can see from the satellite images that the company dug into the valley floor. This makes it easier to bring the tailings stored in the lake into contact with the deeper layers of soil, and therefore increases the chances of disrupting underground and surface flows.”

This satellite image from 2012 show the location where a waste-containment reservoir known as a tailings pond will later be built at the Gedabek mine in Azerbaijan.
This satellite image from 2012 show the location where a waste-containment reservoir known as a tailings pond will later be built at the Gedabek mine in Azerbaijan. © Satellite image ©2024 Maxar Technologies.

Images taken by Ecofront show that below the tailings dam that contains the reservoir a small complex has been set up to alleviate any potential leaks. “Between the retaining structure and the natural topography, you have heterogeneities, so there’s bound to be leakage,” the geologists told us. Anglo Asian Mining says the filtration complex consists of a “reed bed”, artificially planted reeds that biologically filter potentially polluted water before releasing it back into the river.  

In the absence of data about the reed bed, the geologists said they could not evaluate its effectiveness. But they caution: “A reed bed won’t recover everything, but it will absorb some of the elements. Such systems can at best reduce the concentration of metals in the water, but cannot necessarily produce a drastic reduction that would allow the safe release of the water back into the river”. Ecofront, for its part, is convinced that the complex does not filter the lake water sufficiently, and pollutes the river. 

Video filmed by the NGO Ecofront below the tailings dam at the Gedabek mine in Azerbaijan. The NGO believes the facility does not sufficiently filter water from the dam before it flows into the local river.

Residents also complain about odours emitted by the reservoir, says Ecofront’s Gara.

When it’s hot, all this liquid starts to evaporate. This vapour on hot summer days is unbearable. Humans shouldn’t live in these conditions. This kind of reservoir should not be near a residential area.


In videos filmed by Abzas Media and other independent media in June, residents complain of respiratory illnesses. Some report an increase in cancer cases since the reservoir was built. But the repression of the protests in June has apparently had an effect: no resident of Söyüdlü dared to speak directly to our consortium, and we were unable to obtain any medical reports from local doctors and hospitals. 

The same applies to the nearby town of Gadabay, which adjoins the mine site. Geologists and toxicologists we consulted all told us the town’s immediate proximity to the mine without any doubt exposes its inhabitants to dust from the mine, carried by wind or rainwater.  

Map showing the Gedabek mine, the town of Gadabay, the village of Söyüdlü and the mine's tailing pond.
Map showing the Gedabek mine, the town of Gadabay, the village of Söyüdlü and the mine’s tailing pond. © Upian

From Swiss refineries to cell phones

Where does Gedabek’s gold end up? According to Anglo Asian Mining’s 2022 annual report, two Swiss refineries buy from the company. The first, Argor-Heraeus, told us it had terminated its relationship with Anglo Asian: “As part of our Know Your Customer update process started in 2022, Anglo Asian Mining did not provide all the required information” explains the refinery, which states that it “blocked the company in May 2023”, before the crackdown on protests. 

The other refinery, MKS Pamp, told us that on the basis of the analyses carried out in the summer of 2023 they would “continue to engage with Anglo Asian Mining.” Among the refinery’s customers are the major hi-tech brands: Apple, Samsung, Tesla, HP… none of whom responded to our questions. Microsoft was the only major brand to respond, stating that it “requires its suppliers (…) to comply with all applicable laws and regulations regarding labor, ethics, occupational health and safety and environmental protection”, without commenting on its gold purchases from this refinery.

‘Refineries are not asked to carry out scientific analyses of water quality and air pollution near mines’

Marc Ummel, head of the raw materials sector at the NGO Swissaid, says there’s a problem with the “due diligence” Swiss refineries are required to conduct before entering into a contract with a mining company:



The problem with refineries’ due diligence is that it is still based far too often on simply requesting documents from their suppliers or mining groups, but not on any real control or inspection of mining sites.

They carry out on-site inspections, but often don’t realize what the problem is, because they don’t talk to the local communities suffering the negative effects of the mine. In the end, the requirement for refineries’ due diligence are quite basic. They are not asked to carry out scientific analyses of water quality or air pollution at the mines they source from. They are simply asked to carry out checks to identify risks, prevent them and mitigate their negative impact. 

When a government shuts down a mine because of pollution problems or human rights violations, the situation is very concerning. A state has no interest in suspending the activities of a mine, as it will generally lose revenue. 

The six Abzas Media journalists face up to eight years’ imprisonment. As well as investigating the Gedabek mine, they had been looking into the corruption and torture used by the Azerbaijani government. The six face charges of “foreign currency trafficking”.

Producing around 1,200 kilos of gold a year, the Gedabek mine remains a relatively modest operation compared with other gold mines around the world. But in this remote region of Azerbaijan, it had raised hopes. A decade after it opened, hope has given way to fear and suspicion, fueled by the violent repression of 100 protesters in June 2023 and the effective blocking of journalists’ efforts to investigate allegations of pollution. The site is now cordoned off by Azerbaijani police, inaccessible to journalists or activists. While it is not possible to say for sure whether the pollution is real, the case seems to make the Azerbaijani authorities uncomfortable, to say the least, and raises questions in a country that claims to make the environment a priority – and will host the COP 29 climate change conference in December 2024. 

Article written in collaboration with Léa Perruchon, Leyla Mustafayeva, Lamiya Adilgizi, Sofía Alvarez Jurado (Forbidden Stories), Virginie Pironon (Radio France) and François Rüchti (RTS).

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Israeli right-wing extremists intimidate Armenian protesters in Jerusalem

Israeli right-wing extremists have been harassing members of Jerusalem’s Armenian community protesting the razing of an important historic site. An Australian businessman purchased the area, called Cows’ Garden, back in 2021 to build a hotel there but there has been fierce opposition from the Armenian community. In recent weeks, the businessman has also participated in intimidating protesters.

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A car park in Jerusalem has become the centre of a heated debate over the past few months. The car park is part of a historic area known as the Cows’ Garden. Located in the city’s Armenian quarter, this site has cultural and historic significance to that community and includes a wall built during the Ottoman Empire.

However, back in 2021, Jerusalem’s Armenian Patriarchate – the religious authorities in the Armenian community – decided to sell the parking lot and several nearby buildings. They signed a 99-year lease with Australian businessman Danny Rubinstein (known as Danny “Rothman”), who owns the company Xana Garden.

He wants to demolish the site and build a luxury hotel. However, when news broke about the sale in October 2021, there was immediate outcry from Jerusalem’s Armenian community.

This is an image from Google Earth Pro showing the Cows’ Garden parking lot. © Observers

The Armenian Patriarchate granted a 99-year lease agreement to a private company called Xana Capital, according to a statement from SaveTheArQ, an Armenian collective that contests the legality of the sale. 

People opposed to the sale have been gathering in this parking lot, which is part of the Cows' Garden area, a site with significance for the Armenian community.
People opposed to the sale have been gathering in this parking lot, which is part of the Cows’ Garden area, a site with significance for the Armenian community. Observers

On October 26, 2023, the Armenian Patriarchate published a statement saying that they now considered the sale illegal, apparently backing out of the agreement they themselves signed and leaving the site in a state of legal flux.

‘There’s talk of construction, but what we’ve actually seen are attempts at intimidation’

Ever since the Patriarchate announced that they no longer considered the sale valid, there has been uncertainty about who actually owns the land. Our team contacted Jerusalem’s city government, but they said that they didn’t want to comment on the land and that it was a “private affair.”

We also reached out to the Patriarchate as well as Danny Rubinstein but neither of them wanted to speak about the contract either.

On November 6, Israeli settlers threatened protesters from the Armenian community opposed to construction on the historic site.
On November 6, Israeli settlers threatened protesters from the Armenian community opposed to construction on the historic site. Observers

However, the confusion around the site was immediately apparent. Just a few days after the Patriarchate’s announcement that they no longer viewed the sale as legal, demolition crews arrived on the site and began tearing up the parking lot, according to Setrag Balian, a member of SaveTheArQ.

There is talk about construction, but what we’ve actually seen are attempts at intimidation. They came with machines and armed settlers. We made a human chain and peacefully stopped the bulldozers. I was personally threatened by the director of the company [Rubinstein]. Since April, the settlers have banned a number of members of our community from parking in the lot. 

Bulldozers were brought in to demolish some of the lot.

Things became even more tense on November 6 when Rubinstein himself showed up alongside settlers armed with assault rifles. Skirmishes broke out between Armenian protesters and the armed men.

Arrival of Israeli settlers who faced off with Armenian protesters.

Many said that these armed men are radical activists from the Israeli far-right. Thanks to the online facial recognition software PimEyes, it’s possible to identify Saadia Hershkop, an American citizen known to have links to settler movements in the West Bank. On Instagram, Hershkop promotes organised trips to colonies in Hebron in the West Bank and poses for photos with weapons.

The image at the right was taken on November 6 in the Cows' Garden area in Jerusalem. The image on the left shows Saadia Herkshop posing with the Israeli Minister for Defense Ben-Gvir.
The image at the right was taken on November 6 in the Cows’ Garden area in Jerusalem. The image on the left shows Saadia Herkshop posing with the Israeli Minister for Defense Ben-Gvir. Observers

According to the Qatari newspaper The New Arab, Saada Hershkop is known to have links to a man named Eden Natan-Zada. On August 4, 2005, Natan-Zada killed four Israeli citizens as a sign of protest against the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. Israeli law enforcement reportedly put out a warrant for Hershkop’s arrest in connection with the crime.

This video shows Saadia Hershkop (at left) and Danny Rubinstein (at right, in white), the owner of Xana Capital.
This video shows Saadia Hershkop (at left) and Danny Rubinstein (at right, in white), the owner of Xana Capital. Observers

An increase in attacks on the Armenian community

It’s not just the conflict around the Cows’ Garden. Some members of the Armenian community are reporting a rise in insecurity all round. Liana Margaryan, a member of the Armenian community who lives in Jerusalem, said the community began to feel intimidation after the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020. During the war, Azerbaijan reinforced its ties with Israel:

These attacks are carried out by Jewish extremists […] Most often, these are psychological attacks and threats. However, it has all become more intense since the conflict in the Cows’ Garden […] they even attacked an Armenian restaurant.

Setrag Balian says that the Israeli government holds some responsibility for the rise in the violence towards Jerusalem’s Armenian community.

Since 2022, when Binyamin Netanyahu’s government took office, including ministers from the far right, there has been an increase in attacks against Christians. This includes everything from spitting to harassment to assault. Since the current government took office, extremists have the feeling they can act in complete impunity. 

The people who live in the Jewish quarter have been our neighbours for the past 40 years and we haven’t had any problems with them. 

Of course, it’s common that people who don’t like to see churches or crosses spit at us or shout insults… but it was nothing big, we felt like those were isolated incidents. But recently, we’ve felt directly targeted. 

Despite the intimidations, members of the Armenian community say that they will continue to fight against the construction of the hotel with sit-ins and protests.

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The history and latest developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia | Explained

The Armenian flag hangs from a lamp post as Azeri police patrol a road leading into the city of Stepanakert, retaken last week, during an Azeri government organized media trip, in Azerbaijan’s controlled region of Nagorno-Karabakh, on October 2, 2023.
| Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: On September 20, Azerbaijan claimed full control over the contentious Nagorno-Karabakh region after local forces, mostly Armenians, agreed to be disarmed and disbanded. Hundreds of local Armenians fled the area overnight, fearing ethnic cleansing by Azerbaijan.

The disputed region, called Artsakh in Armenian, has been a major ethnic conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. While it is home to a majority population of ethnic Armenians and an Azeri minority, it is internationally recognised as a part of Azerbaijan.

What is the history of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh?

Nagorno-Karabakh is located within the international borders of Azerbaijan. It is in the South Caucasus region between eastern Europe and western Asia, spanning the southern part of the Caucasus mountains that roughly includes modern-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

The conflict between Azeris and Armenians goes back to almost a century, when the Ottomans attacked the South Caucasus during World War I with the help of the Azeris. They targeted ethnic Armenians during this attack, and the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia descended into a full-blown war in 1920. This war especially affected the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, as the region had been incorporated into the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.

Azerbaijan and Armenia became part of the Soviet Republic soon after, and Nagorno-Karabakh was made an autonomous Oblast (administrative region) in Azerbaijan’s territory, while its population was majorly Armenian. In the final days of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh’s majority Armenian-Christian population held a referendum to break away from the Shia-majority Azerbaijan.

As the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent countries, and Armenian rebels declared Nagorno-Karabakh an independent territory (although not recognised internationally). By 1993, most of Nagorno-Karabakh was under Armenian control. The war between the two parties lasted till 1994 and killed around 30,000 people.

In 1994, Azerbaijan and Armenia entered a ceasefire brokered by Russia, but international borders for the countries were not demarcated. The Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, the U.S., and France, was created by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in early 1990 to arrive at a peaceful resolution for Nagorno-Karabakh. None of the three suggested peace proposals could last.

The Madrid Principles of 2007, modified in 2009, proposed giving control of seven Karabakh districts to Azerbaijan, self-governance to the region, a corridor link with Armenia, an opportunity to the region’s inhabitants to express their will, return of refugees, and setting up of a peacekeeping operation. They weren’t accepted, even after another modification in 2011.

A four-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia broke out in 2016. The Minsk Group met again in 2017 in Geneva but failed to arrive at a resolution.

In 2020, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev launched an offensive to take Nagorno-Karabakh back, leading the country into a fierce war with Armenia that lasted six weeks and killed more than 2,000 people. The Azeri forces attacked Armenian defences and took back 40% of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan was backed by Turkey, and while Armenia’s ally Russia did little to support it, , it helped broker a ceasefire. Stepanakert, the region’s biggest city, remained within local control.

Despite the ceasefire, Azerbaijan did not give up attempts to capture Nagorno-Karabakh. In December 2022, it blockaded Lachin Corridor, the main road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and the rest of the world, adding to the economic misery of the 1,20,000 people of the region. The road was blocked under the pretext of environmental concerns. “Prior to that blockade, around 90% of all consumed food was imported from Armenia. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh no longer receive 400 tonnes of essential goods daily,” Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ararat Mirzoyan said in a U.N. press release published on August 16, 2023.

Nagorno-Karabakh region

Nagorno-Karabakh region

Azerbaijan faced international criticism and promised to lift the blockade but added a checkpoint to contain the flow of goods. Russian peacekeepers deployed in the area were responsible for ensuring supplies to the region since 2020, but experts believe that the country’s war in Ukraine diverted its attention and resources from the area.

Latest developments

A fresh round of violence broke out in the area in September 2023 when Azerbaijan launched an attack against ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. The fighting lasted one day, and a ceasefire was announced a day later.

In a statement, U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and expressed “deep concern for the ethnic Armenian population” in the disputed region.

Why was Azerbaijan able to accomplish the accession now?

Experts believe Turkey has a big role to play in the latest developments in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijanis/Azeris are a Turkic ethnic group of mixed heritage and speak a language belonging to a branch of the Turkic family. Reuters reported that Turkey, however, denied any direct involvement in Azerbaijan’s offensive, although it is a political and military supporter of Azerbaijan.

“Turkey’s cooperation with Azerbaijan in military training and army modernisation has been underway for a long time. The Azerbaijani army’s success in the latest operation clearly shows the level they achieved,” a Turkish defence ministry official was quoted as saying.

Russia’s absence in the Caucasus is owing to its war in Ukraine. As retaliation to Russia’s lack of help over the last few years, Armenia on Tuesday voted to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) despite Russia’s warnings. Russian President Vladimir Putin can be arrested for war crimes if he enters countries that have signed and ratified the Rome Statute that created the ICC. Armenian officials, however, argued that the move has nothing to do with Russia.

Over 100,000 ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, which is almost the entire population of the disputed region, have fled to neighbouring Armenia in the last ten days, World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates. The exodus has triggered a massive humanitarian crisis.

(With inputs from agencies)

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Morning Digest | Army officer injured in ‘grenade accident’ at a post in J&K’s Rajouri; supply copy of FIR to NewsClick founder, court tells Delhi Police, and more

Army says officer injured in ‘grenade accident’ at a post in J&K’s Rajouri

The Army on October 5 evening said one officer has been injured in a likely grenade accident at a post in Jammu and Kashmir’s Rajouri sector. “The officer was evacuated and stable post initial treatment. Further investigation of the incident in progress,” the Army said in an official statement. 

Sikkim flash floods death toll mounts to 18; searches on for 98 missing people

The toll in the flash flood in Sikkim mounted to 18 on Thursday as Army and NDRF teams worked their way through slushy earth and fast flowing water in the Teesta river basin and downstream north Bengal for the second day in search of those who were swept away and are still missing, officials said. Ninety eight people, including 22 army personnel, remained missing after a cloudburst over Lhonak Lake in North Sikkim in the early hours of Wednesday triggered the flash flood, Chief Secretary V.B. Pathak said.

Supply copy of FIR to NewsClick founder, court tells Delhi Police

The Patiala House Court on Thursday allowed news portal NewsClick founder Prabir Purkayastha and its human resource head Amit Chakraborty to get a copy of the First Information Report (FIR) in the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) case filed against them by the Delhi Police. The police had opposed the application earlier in the day. Additional sessions judge Hardeep Kaur passed the order after hearing the counsel of the accused, Arshdeep Singh, and Additional Public Prosecutor Atul Srivastava.

Amit Shah suggests uniform anti-terrorism structure under NIA for all States 

Union Home Minister Amit Shah said on Thursday that along with a ruthless approach, an uniform anti-terrorism structure should be established under the purview of National Investigation Agency (NIA) in all the States. Mr. Shah made the remarks at the inauguration of the two-day anti-terror conference organised by the NIA.

INDIA parties speak up for arrested AAP MP Sanjay Singh; Congress gives qualified support

The Congress has extended qualified support to Aam Aadmi Party leader and Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh, who was arrested on Wednesday by the Enforcement Directorate in connection with its money laundering probe linked to the Delhi excise policy case. Equating Mr. Singh’s arrest with that of Congress MLA Sukhpal Singh Khaira in Punjab, the party’s general secretary (organisation) K.C. Venugopal said, “We cannot become those we oppose”. The remark was also a swipe at the AAP government in Punjab over the arrest of Mr. Khaira. 

IIT-Bombay ‘veg. table’ row | Dean says policy made by elected body, calls protest ‘provocative, insensitive’

As voices against the policy of a hostel canteen of the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B), segregating certain tables for vegetarian food begin to grow louder within the campus, the Dean of Student Affairs (SA) on October 5 sent an email to all students and staff on the issue, the first from the administration on the controversy.

India, Canada in conversation on parity of diplomatic staff: MEA

India and Canada are in conversation about attaining “parity” in the diplomatic staff posted in each other’s missions, the Ministry of External Affairs said on Thursday. During his weekly press briefing, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi reiterated India’s charge of Canadian “interference” in India’s internal affairs and indicated that India expects Canada to reduce the total number of its diplomats stationed here. 

India conveys concerns to U.S. over American envoy to Pakistan’s visit to Gilgit-Baltistan

India on Thursday said it raised its concerns with the U.S. over American envoy to Islamabad Donald Blome’s recent visit to Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and called on the world community to respect the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi asserted that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India.

Reports say dozens have been killed and wounded as drone strikes hit a Syrian military ceremony

A drone attack struck a packed graduation ceremony for military officers in the Syrian city of Homs on Thursday, killing and wounding dozens, including civilians and military personnel, reports said. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack and the reports could not be independently confirmed.

EU Parliament decries ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Nagorno-Karabakh

EU lawmakers on Thursday accused Azerbaijan of carrying out “ethnic cleansing” against the Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, and urged the bloc to impose sanctions on Baku. Almost all of the 120,000-strong ethnic Armenia population has fled the breakaway region since Azerbaijan seized it back in a lightning offensive last month.

Chinese firm sold satellites for intelligence to Russia’s Wagner: contract

Russian mercenary group Wagner in 2022 signed a contract with a Chinese firm to acquire two satellites and use their images, aiding its intelligence work as the organisation sought to push Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to a document seen by AFP. The contract was signed in November 2022, over half a year into Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in which the Wagner group under its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin was playing a key role on the battlefield.

Musk’s X strips headlines from news links

Elon Musk’s social media platform X has stripped headlines from news articles shared by users, in a move likely to further worsen relations with media groups. The tycoon has long railed against the “legacy media” and claims X, formerly Twitter, is a better source of information. However, he said the latest change was for “aesthetic” reasons — news and other links now appear only as pictures with no accompanying text.

Political stability, policy consistency needed to ensure Indian economy’s growth to world’s third-largest: FM

Taking on critics who argue that India will become the world’s third largest economy in a few years with or without government intervention, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that political stability and policy consistency was essential for the prospect to turn into a reality, especially in a world marred by unprecedented volatility. 

Lower prices for tomatoes, chillis and LPG may have pulled food inflation down last month

Retail food inflation may have eased in September, thanks to cooling tomato prices and a reduction in LPG cylinder prices, even as onion prices rose further during the month, a CRISIL study on food plate costs suggested. Retail inflation had eased to 6.83% in August from a 15-month high of 7.44% in July, but food price inflation stood at about 10%.

SEBI to tell court Adani inquiry began 2014, but hit dead end: sources

Markets regulator SEBI will tell the Supreme Court why it paused, then restarted investigations into the Adani Group after a tip in 2014 amid questions around regulatory delays, according to two people with direct knowledge of the matter. SEBI will say for the first time that India’s customs authority alerted it to an alleged misuse of offshore funds by Adani Group companies in 2014 but that the initial investigation did not yield anything and was paused in 2017, the sources said.

Asian Games | Indian compound archery teams’ domination complete

With the scores tied at 200 each, Indian archers needed to hit three perfect 10s in a row to stay alive in the compound women’s team final at the Fuyang Arena. First, Parneet Kaur hit a 10 before Aditi Swami and Jyothi Surekha followed suit with 10s to put the pressure back on Chinese Taipei. Taipei slipped up with the first arrow which assured India’s gold medal and it won 230-229 Later, the trio of Abhishek Verma, Ojas Pravin Deotale and Prathamaesh Jawkar won the men’s team gold by beating South Korea 235-230 in the final.

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Nagorno-Karabakh: Azerbaijan reaffirms control amid Armenian exodus

The last bus carrying ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh left the region Monday, completing a gruelling weeklong exodus of more than 100,000 people – more than 80 per cent of its residents – after Azerbaijan reclaimed the area in a lightning military operation.


The bus that entered Armenia carried 15 passengers with serious illnesses and mobility problems, said Gegham Stepanyan, a human rights ombudsman for the former breakaway region that Azerbaijan calls Karabakh. He called for information about any other residents who want to leave but have had trouble doing so.

In a 24-hour military campaign that began on 19 September, the Azerbaijani army routed the region’s undermanned and outgunned Armenian forces, forcing them to capitulate. The separatist government then agreed to disband itself by the end of this year, but Azerbaijani authorities are already in charge of the region.

Azerbaijan Interior Ministry spokesman Elshad Hajiyev told The Associated Press on Monday that the country’s police have established control over the entire region.

“Work is conducted to enforce law and order in the entire Karabakh region,” he said, adding that Azerbaijani police have moved to “protect the rights and ensure the security of the Armenian population in accordance with Azerbaijan’s law.”

While Baku has pledged to respect the rights of ethnic Armenians, most of them hastily fled the region, fearing reprisals or losing the freedom to use their language and practice their religion and customs.

The Armenian government said Monday that 100,514 of the region’s estimated 120,000 residents have crossed into Armenia.

Armenian Health Minister Anahit Avanesyan said some people had died during the exhausting and slow journey over the single mountain road into Armenia that took as long as 40 hours. The exodus followed a nine-month Azerbaijani blockade of the region that left many suffering from malnutrition and lack of medicines.

Armenia alleged the closure denied basic food and fuel supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh, but Azerbaijan rejected the accusation, saying the Armenian government was using it for weapons shipments and argued the region could receive supplies through the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam – a solution long resisted by Nagorno-Karabakh authorities.

Sergey Astsetryan, 40, one of the last Nagorno-Karabakh residents to leave in his own vehicle Sunday, said some elderly people have decided to stay, adding that others might return if they see it’s safe for ethnic Armenians under Azerbaijani rule.

“My father told me that he will return when he has the opportunity,” Astsetryan told reporters at a checkpoint on the Armenian border.

Azerbaijani authorities moved quickly to reaffirm control of the region, arresting several former members of its separatist government and encouraging ethnic Azerbaijani residents who fled the area amid a separatist war three decades ago to start moving back.

The streets of the regional capital, which is called Khankendi by Azerbaijan and Stepanakert by the Armenians, appeared empty and littered with trash, with doors of deserted businesses flung open.

The sign with the city’s Azerbaijani name was placed at one entrance and Azerbaijani police checkpoints were set up on the city’s edges, with officers checking the trunks of cars.

Just outside the city, a herd of cows grazed in an abandoned private orchard, and a small dog, which appeared to have been left behind by its owners, stood silently looking at passing vehicles.

Russian peacekeeping troops could be seen on a balcony of one building in the city, and others were at their base outside it, where their vehicles were parked.

On Sunday, Azerbaijan prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for former Nagorno-Karabakh leader Arayik Harutyunyan, who led the region before stepping down at the beginning of September. Azerbaijani police arrested one of Harutyunyan’s former prime ministers, Ruben Vardanyan, on Wednesday as he tried to cross into Armenia.

“We put an end to the conflict,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said in a speech Monday. “We protected our dignity, we restored justice and international law.”

He added that “our agenda is peace in the Caucasus, peace in the region, cooperation, shared benefits, and today, we demonstrate that.”


After six years of separatist fighting ended in 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by Armenia, turning about 1 million of its Azerbaijani residents into refugees. After a six-week war in 2020, Azerbaijan took back parts of the region in the south Caucasus Mountains, along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had captured earlier.

Armenian authorities have accused the Russian peacekeepers, who were deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh after the 2020 war, of standing idle and failing to stop the Azerbaijani onslaught. The accusations were rejected by Moscow, which argued that its troops didn’t have a mandate to intervene.

The mutual accusations have further strained the relations between Armenia and its longtime ally Russia, which has accused the Armenian government of a pro-Western tilt.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan alleged Thursday that the exodus of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh amounted to “a direct act of ethnic cleansing and depriving people of their motherland.”

Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry strongly rejected Pashinyan’s accusations, arguing their departure was “their personal and individual decision and has nothing to do with forced relocation.”


Speaking to the AP in Lachin, the Azerbaijani town that had been controlled by separatists for nearly three decades until Baku’s forces reclaimed it in 2020, Solmaz Abbasova, 67, said returning home was a dream that sustained her family since the earlier exodus.

“It was a boundless happiness to come back home after 31 years and see the things which were so dear — the land, the river, the forest and the lake,” Abbasova said, adding that her husband and son were with her but their daughter died before she could return.

She said the Armenians are leaving the region safely by their own choice, unlike her family and other Azerbaijani refugees, adding that many were killed as they tried to leave.

“I feel sorry for simple Armenians leaving Karabakh now, but there is a big difference: They and their children aren’t being hunted and killed as they killed our refugees,” she said. “They have a choice whether to stay or leave calmly.”

Azerbaijan’s presidential office said in a statement that the country has presented a plan for the “reintegration” of ethnic Armenians in the region, noting that “the equality of rights and freedoms, including security, is guaranteed to everyone regardless of their ethnic, religious or linguistic affiliation.”


It said that the plan envisages improving infrastructure to bring it line with the rest of the country and offers tax exemptions, subsidies, low-interest loans and other incentives. The statement noted that Azerbaijani authorities have held three rounds of talks with representatives of the region’s ethnic Armenian population and will continue the discussions.

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Nagorno-Karabakh: Half of population flees, separatist govt dissolves

The separatist government of Nagorno-Karabakh said Thursday it will dissolve itself and the unrecognised republic will cease to exist by year’s end after a three-decade bid for independence, while Armenian officials said more than half of the region’s population has already fled.


The moves came after Azerbaijan carried out a lightning offensive last week to reclaim full control over the breakaway region and demanded that Armenian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh disarm and the separatist government disband.

A decree signed by the region’s separatist President Samvel Shakhramanyan cited a 20 September agreement to end the fighting under which Azerbaijan will allow the “free, voluntary and unhindered movement” of Nagorno-Karabakh residents to Armenia.

Some of those who fled the regional capital, known as Stepanakert to Armenians and Khankendi to Azerbaijan, said they had no hope for the future.

“I left Stepanakert having a slight hope that maybe something will change and I will come back soon, and these hopes are ruined after reading about the dissolution of our government,” 21-year-old student Ani Abaghyan told The Associated Press.

Lawyer Anush Shahramanyan, 30, lamented that “we can never go back to our homes without having an independent government in Artaskh,” referring to Nagorno-Karabakh by its Armenian name.

The mass exodus of ethnic Armenians from the mountainous region inside Azerbaijan began Sunday. By Thursday morning, 74,400 people – more than 60 per cent of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population of 120,000 – had fled to Armenia, and the influx continued unabated, according to Armenian officials.

In three decades of conflict between the two countries, each has accused the other of targeted attacks, massacres and other atrocities, leaving people on both sides deeply suspicious and fearful of the other.

While Azerbaijan has pledged to respect the rights of ethnic Armenians in the region, they do not trust the authorities to treat them fairly and humanely or to grant them their language, religion and culture.

After six years of separatist fighting ended in 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by Armenia. Then, during a six-week war in 2020, Azerbaijan took back parts of the region in the South Caucasus Mountains along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed earlier.

Nagorno-Karabakh was internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory.

In December, Azerbaijan blockaded the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, alleging the Armenian government was using it for illicit weapons shipments to the region’s separatist forces.

Armenia alleged the closure denied basic food and fuel supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan rejected the accusation, arguing that the region could receive supplies through the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam – a solution long resisted by Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, who called it a strategy for Azerbaijan to gain control of the region.

Weakened by the blockade and with Armenia’s leadership distancing itself from the conflict, ethnic Armenian forces in the region agreed to lay down arms less than 24 hours after Azerbaijan began its offensive last week. Talks have begun between officials in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku and Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist authorities on “reintegrating” the region into Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijani authorities have pledged to respect the rights of ethnic Armenians in the region and restore supplies, but tens of thousands of Nagorno-Karabakh’s residents have fled to Armenia, fearing reprisals. The only road to Armenia quickly filled with cars, creating a massive traffic jam on the winding mountain road.

It took Abaghyan, the student, three days to get to Armenia from the regional captial, a distance of about 80 kilometres.

Shahramanyan spent 30 hours on the road and still had half the journey ahead of her on Thursday.

She said that for her and her family, living in Nagorno-Karabakh will be impossible under Azerbaijan rule because she believes their basic rights will be violated.

“No power in the world is willing to stop the atrocities of Azerbaijan. What can any Armenian hope for under the control of that genocidal state?” she said.


Azerbaijan’s military last week accused Nagorno-Karabakh residents of burning down their homes in Martakert, a town in the north of the region that until the last week’s offensive remained under the control of ethnic Armenian forces. Their claims could not be independently verified. But that is something that also happened in 2020 when people fled territories taken over by Azerbaijan.

On Monday night, a fuel reservoir exploded at a gas station where people lined up for gas to fill their cars to flee to Armenia. At least 68 people were killed and nearly 300 injured, with over 100 others still considered missing after the blast that exacerbated fuel shortages that were already dire after the blockade.

It’s unclear how many ethnic Armenians will remain in the region. Nagorno-Karabakh authorities previously predicted that most of the population will leave.

In Yerevan, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that “in the coming days, there will be no Armenians left in Nagorno-Karabakh.”

“This is a direct act of an ethnic cleansing and depriving people of their motherland, exactly what we’ve told the international community about,” he said.


Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry strongly rejected Pashinyan’s accusations, accusing him of “seeking to disrupt Azerbaijan’s efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and the reintegration process” and undermining prospects for negotiating a peace treaty between the two countries.

“Pashinyan knows well enough that the current departure of Armenians from Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region is their personal and individual decision and has nothing to do with forced relocation,” the ministry said.

It urged the Armenian population of the region “not to leave their places of residence and become part of the multinational Azerbaijan.”

Azerbaijani authorities said they were sending 30 buses to Stepanakert/Khankendi at the request of “the Armenian residents” for those who don’t have cars but want to go to Armenia.

Armenia has set up two main centres in the cities of Goris and Vayk to register and assess the needs of those fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh. The government is offering accommodations to anyone who doesn’t have a place to stay, although only about 14,000 of the 70,500 people who have crossed into the country – under 20 per cent – applied for it.


“The accommodation suggested by the government is mostly in the border villages, where people face serious security issues due to the periodic shootings by Azerbaijan. Besides, finding a job is difficult,” said Tatevik Khachatrian, who arrived Thursday. She said she and her family would stay with relatives in Yerevan before trying to rent an apartment.

On Thursday, Azerbaijani authorities charged Ruben Vardanyan, the former head of Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist government, with financing terrorism, creating illegal armed formations and illegally crossing a state border. A day earlier, he was detained by Azerbaijani border guards as he was trying to leave Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia along with tens of thousands of others.

Vardanyan, a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia, was placed in pretrial detention for at least four months and faces up to 14 years in prison. His arrest appeared to indicate Azerbaijan’s intent to quickly enforce its grip on the region.

Another top separatist figure, Nagorno-Karabakh’s former foreign minister and now presidential adviser David Babayan, said Thursday he will surrender to Azerbaijani authorities who ordered him to face a probe in Baku.

“My failure to appear, or worse, my escape, will cause serious harm to our long-suffering people, to many people, and I, as an honest person, hard worker, patriot and a Christian, cannot allow this,” Babayan said.

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Nagorno-Karabakh evacuations begin as Armenia warns of ‘ethnic cleansing’

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KORNIDZOR, Armenia — The first convoys of civilians have left Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia following an Azerbaijani military offensive amid growing warnings that a mass exodus could be on the cards.

On Sunday, humanitarian organizations and the Armenian government said that dozens of people had been evacuated after Azerbaijan agreed to open the Lachin Corridor that links the breakaway territory to the country. According to the Ministry of Health, the Red Cross escorted 23 ambulances carrying “seriously and very seriously wounded citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Meanwhile, other civilians say they had begged the Russian peacekeepers to take them across, after Karabakh Armenian leaders on Tuesday accepted a surrender agreement following just 24 hours of fierce fighting and shelling.

At a checkpoint near the village of Kornidzor, on the border with Azerbaijan, a steady stream of civilian cars is now crossing over — many laden down with bags or filled with loose bedding and other possessions.

At the border, POLITICO spoke to Artur, a Karabakh Armenian who had been stranded by the 9-month-long effective blockade of the region. Awaiting news of his relatives after Azerbaijani forces launched their offensive, he received a call from his sister to say she had been evacuated with the Russian peacekeepers.

After an hour of waiting anxiously, he was reunited with 27-year-old Rima. Sitting in the back of an SUV, she cried as her two children — aged three and one — unwrapped bars of chocolate, a luxury they have done without amid severe shortages of food and other essentials. “We’ve arrived,” she said.

Marut Vanyan, a local blogger, said many others were planning to follow suit. “People right now say everyone is leaving. In Stepanakert, there is no second opinion, everyone is trying to find a few liters of petrol and be ready any time, any second, for when we are going,” Vanyan said, speaking after being able to charge his telephone at a Red Cross station in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto capital.

At a Red Cross emergency aid point, one elderly man asked the camera crews and journalists why they had only taken an interest once the situation reached crisis point. “Where were you when we were in Karabakh? You want to film? Here are my legs,” he said angrily, raising the ends of his trousers to reveal bandaged, bruised shins.

At a Red Cross emergency aid point, one elderly man asked the camera crews and journalists why they had only taken an interest once the situation reached crisis point | Gabriel Gavin/POLITICO

Meanwhile, Armenia’s prime minister warned that, despite assurances from Russia, “the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh still face the danger of ethnic cleansing.”

“If the needs of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are not met [so that they are able to stay] in their homes, and effective mechanisms of protection against ethnic cleansing not put in place, then the likelihood is increasing that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will see expulsion from their homeland as the only way out,” Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan predicted.

At the same time, Pashinyan said Armenia would welcome its “brothers” from the exclave — inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders but held by Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population since a war that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.

The prime minister’s stark warning comes just two days after Pashinyan said he “assumed” Russia had taken responsibility for the fate of the population, after Karabakh Armenian leaders accepted a Moscow-brokered surrender agreement following almost 24 hours of fierce fighting with Azerbaijani forces. The embattled prime minister, however, said he believed there was a genuine hope that locals would be able to continue living in Nagorno-Karabakh.

A steady stream of civilian cars is now crossing over — many laden down with bags or filled with loose bedding and other possessions | Gabriel Gavin/POLITICO

Shortly after Pashinyan’s address, the official information center for the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic issued a statement saying “the families of those left homeless as a result of recent military action and who expressed a desire to leave the republic will be transferred to Armenia accompanied by Russian peacekeepers.” Officials will provide information “about the relocation of other population groups in the near future,” according to the statement.

According to Azerbaijan’s foreign policy adviser, Hikmet Hajiyev, the government will “also respect the individual choices of residents.”

“It once again shows that allegations as if Azerbaijan blocked the roads for passage are not true,” Hajiyev told POLITICO. “They are enabled to use their private vehicles.”

Dozens of trucks carrying 150 tons of humanitarian aid, organized by the The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Russian Red Cross, gained rare access to the region via a road controlled by Azerbaijani troops on Saturday. Speaking to POLITICO, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s foreign policy adviser, Hikmet Hajiyev, said the guarantee for humanitarian aid access “once again shows the good intentions and seriousness of the Azerbaijan government to meet the needs and requirements of Armenian residents and also to ensure a safe and decent reintegration process.”

“People right now say everyone is leaving. In Stepanakert, there is no second opinion, everyone is trying to find a few liters of petrol and be ready any time, any second, for when we are going” | Gabriel Gavin/POLITICO

Azerbaijan has said the Karabakh Armenians can continue to live in the region if they lay down their weapons and accept being governed as part of the country.

However, in an interview with Reuters on Sunday, David Babayan, an adviser to the Karabakh Armenian leadership, said that “our people do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan. 99.9% [would] prefer to leave our historic lands.”

Accusing the international community of abandoning the estimated 100,000 residents of the besieged territory, Babayan declared that “the fate of our poor people will go down in history as a disgrace and a shame for the Armenian people and for the whole civilized world. Those responsible for our fate will one day have to answer before God for their sins,” he said.

Pashinyan has accused citizens with close ties to the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership of fomenting unrest in the country, with protesters clashing with police in the capital of Yerevan as criticism of his handling of the crisis grows.

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Aid shipments and evacuations as Azerbaijan reasserts control over breakaway province

More badly needed humanitarian aid was on its way to the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh via both Azerbaijan and Armenia on Saturday. The development comes days after Baku reclaimed control of the province and began talks with representatives of its ethnic Armenian population on reintegrating the area, prompting some residents to flee their homes for fear of reprisals.

The aid shipments and evacuations followed Azerbaijan’s months-long road blockade of the region led to food and fuel shortages. Baku followed with a lightning military offensive this week.

Nagorno-Karabakh came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, in separatist fighting that ended in 1994. Armenian forces also took control of substantial territory around the Azerbaijani region.

Azerbaijan regained control of the surrounding territory in a six-week war with Armenia in 2020. A Russia-brokered armistice ended the war, and a contingent of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers was sent to the region to monitor it.

On Tuesday, Azerbaijan launched heavy artillery fire against ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. A cease-fire was announced a day later, toning down fears of a third full-scale war over the region.

Under the agreement mediated by Russian peacekeeping forces, Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist authorities made sizable concessions: disbanding the region’s defense forces and withdrawing Armenia’s military contingent. But the question of Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status remains open, and at the center of talks between the sides that began Thursday in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlakh.

Russia’s RIA Novosti on Saturday published photos of tanks, air defense systems, and other weapons reportedly surrendered by the province’s separatist forces to the Azerbaijani army.

Hundreds of ethnic Armenians evacuated by Russian peacekeepers from Nagorno-Karabakh in the wake of the Azerbaijani offensive — which Baku termed an “anti-terrorist operation” — were filmed Saturday camping outside an airport near the Russian peacekeepers’ base.

Elena Yeremyan, from the village of Askeran, told Nagorno-Karabakh-based broadcaster Artsakh TV that she and her family “had no intention of leaving” the area, as they “didn’t feel safe anywhere” after Azerbaijani troops moved into the region.

Valeri Hayrapetyan from Haterk said that he and his neighbors scrambled to leave after Azerbaijani forces entered the village earlier that day.

“People left as they could. Someone even left without any clothes. They couldn’t take anything. There are people who haven’t eaten anything. Someone lost consciousness yesterday because of starvation,” he said.

A third evacuee, also from Haterk, claimed that Azerbaijani troops were not allowing young men to leave. Romela Avanesyan also referenced rumors that they might be imprisoned, but did not provide specifics.

The evacuees’ claims could not be independently verified.

Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan called Saturday for the United Nations to send representatives of various agencies to Nagorno-Karabakh immediately to monitor and assess the human rights, humanitarian and security situation there. A message seeking comment on his request, made at the U.N. General Assembly’s annual meeting of world leaders, was sent to a U.N. spokesperson.

Mirzoyan complained that the international community had left the region’s residents in peril and deprivation since the road blockade began in December. It was no coincidence, he said, that Azerbaijan went on to make its military move in the midst of the U.N.’s biggest gathering of the year.

“The message is clear: ‘You can talk about peace, and we can go to war, and you will not be able to change anything,’” he said hours after Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov stood at the same rostrum.

Azerbaijan also feels that the international community has fallen short — by not making “real steps and targeted public messages to persuade Armenia to honor its commitments,” Bayramov said.

He said Baku that was working “to address the immediate needs” of people in Nagorno-Karabakh and intends to “reintegrate” them as “equal citizens.” Azerbaijan has said it will guarantee Nagorno-Karabakh residents “all rights and freedoms” in line with the country’s constitution and international human rights obligations, including safeguards for ethnic minorities.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement Saturday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and expressed “deep concern for the ethnic Armenian population” in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Blinken underscored that the U.S. “is calling on Azerbaijan to protect civilians and uphold its obligations to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh and to ensure its forces comply with international humanitarian law,” Miller said.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s office said Saturday that Baku had set up a “working group” to provide Nagorno-Karabakh’s residents with medical care, food and other staples.

Azerbaijani authorities reported Saturday that they shipped over 60 tons of fuel that same day through the South Caucasus country’s territory, through a road leading from the city of Aghdam with Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional capital, Stepanakert.

The International Committee of the Red Cross also said Saturday that it had dispatched 70 tons of humanitarian aid, mostly flour, to Nagorno-Karabakh via the road connection known as the Lachin corridor. Russian peacekeepers were supposed to ensure free movement along the route, but Baku imposed a blockade in December, alleging that Yerevan was using the road for mineral extraction and illicit weapons shipments to the province’s separatist forces.

Armenia charged that the closure denied basic food and fuel supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh’s approximately 120,000 people. Azerbaijan rejected the accusation, arguing that the region could receive supplies through Aghdam — a solution long resisted by Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, who called it a strategy for Baku to take control of the region.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said earlier this week that it has enabled aid deliveries along the Lachin corridor.

Moscow has also sent over 50 tons of food aid and other “basic necessities” to Nagorno-Karabakh, the state-run RIA Novosti agency reported on Saturday. The Russian Defense Ministry that same day published a video showing Russian peacekeepers unloading the cargo.

Aliyev said through his press office that “better opportunities” had emerged to seek a peace agreement with Armenia after 30 years of conflict, largely centered on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status.

His foreign minister told the General Assembly that the path forward is for Yerevan to take “tangible steps” to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty in the province.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the gathering that it was time “for mutual trust-building” between the adversaries, and that Russian troops “will certainly help.”

Meanwhile, protesters rallied again Saturday in Armenia’s major cities, demanding that authorities defend ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and calling for Pashinyan to resign. Armenia’s Investigative Committee said it had opened 49 criminal cases against demonstrators accused of calling for mass disorder, vandalism and carrying unlicensed weapons.

The Armenian police also told Russia’s Interfax agency on Friday that it had arrested 98 protesters at a rally in Yerevan.

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Armenians find themselves pushed aside yet again

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

Last week, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world is “inching ever closer to a great fracture in economic and financial systems and trade relations.”

That may be so, but not when it comes to Azerbaijan.

A country a third of the size of Britain and with a population of about 10 million, Azerbaijan has faced few problems in bridging geopolitical divisions. And recently, Baku has been offering a masterclass in how to exploit geography and geology to considerable advantage.

From Washington to Brussels, Moscow to Beijing, seemingly no one wants to fall out with Azerbaijan; everyone wants to be a friend. Even now, as Armenia has turned to the world for help, accusing Baku of attempted ethnic cleansing in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh — the land-locked and long-contested Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

Warning signs had been mounting in recent weeks that Baku might be planning a major offensive, which it dubbed an “anti-terrorist operation,” and Armenia had been sending up distress flares. But not only were these largely overlooked, Baku has since faced muted criticism for its assault as well.

Western reaction could change, though, if Azerbaijan were to now engage in mass ethnic cleansing — but Baku is canny enough to know that.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Azerbaijan has been courted by all sides, becoming one of the war’s beneficiaries.

On a visit to Baku last year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had only warm words for the country’s autocratic leader Ilham Aliyev, saying she saw him as a reliable and trustworthy energy partner for the European Union.

Then, just a few weeks later, Alexander Lukashenko — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s satrap in Belarus — had no hesitation in describing Aliyev as “absolutely our man.”

Is there any other national leader who can be a pal of von der Leyen and Lukashenko at the same time?

Aliyev is also a friend of Turkey; Baku and Beijing count each other as strategic partners, with Azerbaijan participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative; and the country has been working on expanding military cooperation with Israel as well. In 2020 — during the last big flare-up in this intractable conflict — Israel had supplied Azerbaijan with drones, alongside Turkey.

That’s an impressive list of mutually exclusive friends and suitors — and location and energy explain much.

Upon her arrival in Azerbaijan’s capital last year, von der Leyen wasn’t shy about highlighting Europe’s need to “diversify away from Russia” for its energy needs, announcing a deal with Baku to increase supplies from the southern gas corridor — the 3,500-kilometer pipeline bringing gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe.

She also noted that Azerbaijan “has a tremendous potential in renewable energy” in offshore wind and green hydrogen, enthusing that “gradually, Azerbaijan will evolve from being a fossil fuel supplier to becoming a very reliable and prominent renewable energy partner to the European Union.”

There was no mention of Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record, rampant corruption or any call for the scores of political prisoners to be released.

Azerbaijan uses oil and gas “to silence the EU on fundamental rights issues,” Philippe Dam of Human Rights Watch complained at the time. “The EU should not say a country is reliable when it is restricting the activities of civil society groups and crushing political dissent,” he added.

Eve Geddie, director of Amnesty International’s Brussels office, warned: “Ukraine serves as a reminder that repressive and unaccountable regimes are rarely reliable partners and that privileging short-term objectives at the expense of human rights is a recipe for disaster.”

But von der Leyen isn’t the first top EU official to speak of Azerbaijan as such a partner. In 2019, then EU Council President Donald Tusk also praised Azerbaijan for its reliability.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, however, the EU’s courting has become even more determined — and, of course, the bloc isn’t alone. Rich in oil and gas and located between Russia, Iran, Armenia, Georgia and the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is a strategic prize, sitting “on the crossroads of former major empires, civilizations and regional and global powerhouses,” according to Fariz Ismailzade of ADA University in Baku.

And Azerbaijan’s growing importance in the latest great game in Central Asia is reflected in the increase in foreign diplomatic missions located in its capital — in 2005 there were just two dozen, now there are 85.

For Ankara, and Beijing — eager to expand their influence across Central Asia — Azerbaijan is a key player in regional energy projects, as well as the development of new regional railways and planned infrastructure and connectivity projects.

Thanks to strong linguistic, religious and cultural ties, Turkey has been Azerbaijan’s main regional ally since it gained independence. But Baku has been adept at making sure it keeps in with all its suitors. It realizes they all offer opportunities but could also be dangerous, should relations take a dive.

And this holds for all the key players in the region, whether it be the EU, Turkey, China or Russia. The reason Baku can get on with a highly diverse set of nations — and why there likely won’t be many serious repercussions for Baku with this latest military foray — is that no one wants to give geopolitical rivals an edge and upset the fragile equilibrium in Central Asia. That includes its traditional foe Iran – Baku and Tehran have in recent months been trying to build a détente after years of hostility.

For the Armenians, so often finding themselves wronged by history, this is highly unfortunate. They might have been better advised to follow Azerbaijan’s example and try to be everyone’s friend, instead of initially depending on Russia, then pivoting West — a pirouette that’s lost them any sympathy in Moscow.

But then again, Armenia hasn’t been blessed with proven reserves of oil or natural gas like its neighbor.

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