Azerbaijan seeks “Great Return” of refugees to Armenia
Armenia says the plan amounts to a territorial claim, while domestic critics say it is meant as a nationalist distraction to the country’s real problems.
Azerbaijan has rolled out an official policy seeking to secure the return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis who once lived in the territory of present-day Armenia.
The backers of the campaign – starting from President Ilham Aliyev – insist that the idea is for a peaceful return of refugees and their descendants to their former homes. But in the context of an ascendant Azerbaijan pushing its advantage on several diplomatic and military fronts, Baku appears to be employing a deliberate ambiguity about its intentions.
The big rollout of the new campaign came in a December 24 speech by Aliyev, when he visited the headquarters of a new organization, the Western Azerbaijan Community. Western Azerbaijan, in this context, means the territories in today’s Armenia that used to be populated by Azerbaijanis.
“I am sure that there will come a time when our compatriots from Western Azerbaijan, their relatives, children and grandchildren will return to our historical land, to Western Azerbaijan,” he said.
He complained about criticism that this amounted to a territorial claim, without entirely denying that it was.
“Present-day Armenia is our land,” he said. “When I repeatedly said this before, they tried to object and allege that I have territorial claims. I am saying this as a historical fact. If someone can substantiate a different theory, let them come forward.”
Aliyev indeed has repeatedly said this before; at various points in the last several years Baku has toyed with irredentist claims on Armenian territory. Most recently, an attempt last year to claim an Azerbaijani state in eastern Armenia was briefly embraced by official Baku before being quickly disowned.
The current campaign appears to have a lot more backing and to be significantly more organized. Following Aliyev’s speech, the issue has been heavily discussed in official media and various related initiatives have been rolled out.
The Community announced that it is working on a census of the Azerbaijanis who fled Armenia and issued a demand to the government of Armenia to “create conditions for a safe and dignified return of Azerbaijanis exiled from geographical locations currently considered the territory of Armenia.”
The Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences set up a “Department for Toponymy of Western Azerbaijan” with the mission of the “restoration of indigenous toponyms of Western Azerbaijan and the onomastic landscape of liberated lands,” the Trend news agency reported. And Aliyev revisited the issue at length in a January 10 television interview.
The Western Azerbaijan Community has been quietly preparing for its new role for several months; it was formed in August 2022 by renaming a previous organization, the Azerbaijan Refugee Society. Its chair is a member of parliament, Aziz Alekberli, who also led the previous organization. A new spokesperson, Ulviyya Zulfikar, was appointed in November; she had been editor-in-chief of a pro-government website, news.az. The website now has a new rubric, “Western Azerbaijan,” where the first story dates from December 3.
“A tectonic shift in the perception of the refugee problem has occurred,” the website Caliber.az, connected with Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense, wrote in a January 12 analysis. “If previously our compatriots, expelled from Soviet Armenia, were perceived as refugees from a foreign country, now our vocabulary has firmly adopted the Western Azerbaijan toponym, and these people are not just refugees, but our compatriots, expelled from their historic homeland, even if it is located within the borders of another state.”
While Armenians and Azerbaijans lived side-by-side for centuries in the Caucasus, the last hundred years or so has seen a steady separation of the two populations. The final stage of this process started in 1988, as interethnic tension and violence in the then-Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan rose as a result of the brewing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Over the next three years nearly the entirety of both minority populations fled: the Azerbaijani government says that 200,000 Azerbaijanis left Armenia, and the Armenian government says 360,000 Armenians fled Azerbaijan.
As mutual distrust has only hardened since the first war in the 1990s, there have been few expectations for any of these refugees to return to their former homes. That is in contrast to the more than 600,000 Azerbaijanis who were displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh and the territories surrounding it that were occupied by Armenian forces following the first war between the two sides. With Azerbaijan’s victory in the second war in 2020, there is at least the theoretical possibility of those Azerbaijanis returning home.
While Azerbaijan is now pushing for the Azerbaijani refugee return to Armenia, movement in the other direction remains off the table.
“By the way, anticipating Armenia's objections regarding the need to ensure the return of Armenians to Azerbaijani cities (mostly to Baku) in this case, we note that such a symmetric step is incorrect,” Caliber wrote, “since most of the Armenian population does not have refugee status, since they were not expelled from Azerbaijan, but sold their flats and houses and moved safely ... to Russia and other states.” It’s a plainly false statement, given that the large-scale Armenian emigration was spurred by the pogroms in Sumgait and Baku; accounts of the refugee flight from that period in fact show a largely similar dynamic from both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijanis also have argued that their compatriots’ return to Armenia would be to now-abandoned villages, contrasting that to the fact that most Armenian refugees fled from cities, particularly Baku, which are now heavily developed and already overcrowded.
“Their [Azerbaijanis’] return there does not mean the expulsion of the Armenians living there,” Aliyev said in his January 10 interview. “Those villages are abandoned, and we will use all the opportunities available.”
Armenians have viewed the campaign with alarm. Aliyev’s December 24 speech shows that Azerbaijan “not only openly accepts the fact of the occupation of the sovereign territory of Armenia through the use of force but also makes new territorial demands and threats of force towards the Republic of Armenia,” the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement the same day.
For the campaign’s domestic critics, it appears more like a means of distracting Azerbaijanis with new nationalistic claims.
Aliyev has not been able to take full control of all of Karabakh, and reintroduced Russian soldiers (in the form of the peacekeeping mission there) decades after they were evicted, historian Jamil Hasanli wrote on Facebook in response to Aliyev’s speech. “He can’t get to Khankendi [the Azerbaijani name for Stepanakert, the main city of Karabakh], so he’s quarreling over Yerevan,” Hasanli wrote.
Aliyev has done little to allay the suspicions from either side. “Just as the Karabakh issue once united the entire Azerbaijani people and we achieved our wishes, we should apply the same approach here,” he said.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.
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