Azerbaijan arrests ex-Karabakh leader as Armenian exodus escalates
Azerbaijan has arreded Ruben Vardanyan, the former head of the breakaway ethnic Armenian government in Nagorno-Karabakh, as he attempted to escape into Armenia amidst a mass exodus of tens of thousands of people. This exodus has swiftly transformed into a burgeoning humanitarian crisis, raising alarm among international observers.
Ruben Vardanyan, a prominent billionaire banker and philanthropist, had served as the head of Karabakh's separatist government from November 2022 until February 2023. His arrest came as a significant blow to the already fragile situation in the region.
The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is a longstanding and deeply rooted conflict. While the region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, it has been primarily populated by ethnic Armenians since the 1990s when they broke away during the turbulent aftermath of the Soviet Union's dissolution. This separation has resulted in two brutal wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Now, with Azerbaijan's recent reassertion of control over Nagorno-Karabakh, ethnic Armenians living in the region find themselves in a precarious and perilous situation. Fearing reprisals and persecution due to the historical enmity between the two sides, thousands are abandoning their homes and embarking on a harrowing journey to flee the region. They travel in a convoy of cars and trucks along a treacherous mountain road that leads to Armenia.
According to Karabakh authorities, a staggering 47,115 people have left Nagorno-Karabakh thus far, out of an estimated ethnic Armenian population of 120,000 individuals. The sheer scale of this exodus has shocked the international community, which now fears the emergence of a full-blown humanitarian disaster.
Western governments have been quick to respond, pressing Azerbaijan to permit the entry of international observers into Nagorno-Karabakh. Their aim is to monitor the treatment of the local population and ensure that their safety and well-being are upheld.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock expressed this sentiment, stating, "What is needed now is transparency, and the eyes and ears of the international community on the spot. It would be a sign of confidence that Azerbaijan is serious about its commitments to the security and well-being of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh if it allows international observers."
The reasons behind Ruben Vardanyan's arrest remain unclear, though Azerbaijan has signaled its intention to prosecute certain figures within the Karabakh leadership. President Ilham Aliyev remarked last week that "We have accused elements of the criminal regime and we will bring them to justice," without specifying individuals or crimes.
Vardanyan's wife, Veronika Zonabend, has issued a plea for support and prayers for her husband's safe release. Meanwhile, the mountain road leading out of Karabakh towards Armenia remains congested, with countless individuals forced to sleep in their vehicles or search for firewood to keep warm. The 77-kilometer journey to the border, which should typically take mere hours, now spans a grueling 30-hour ordeal, symbolizing the arduous challenges facing those fleeing the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh.