Azerbaijan Asserts Control Over Nagorno-Karabakh, Detains Former Separatist Leader

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In a definitive display of their reestablished control over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijani authorities have detained Ruben Vardanyan, the ex-head of this enclave’s separatist government. Vardanyan’s arrest took place on Wednesday as he endeavored to cross the border to Armenia, amidst the mass exodus of thousands who have been fleeing the region following a 24-hour military blitz by Azerbaijan last week.

Vardanyan, a Russian billionaire businessman and former owner of a significant investment bank, turned political, relocating to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2022. His stint as the head of the regional government was brief, however, as he stepped down later in that same year. Following his arrest, he was subsequently delivered to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, where the nation’s authorities will determine his subsequent fate.

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The Azerbaijani effort to assert control over Nagorno-Karabakh has resulted not only in a noteworthy shift of power but also in a tragic toll of human life. The Azerbaijani Health Ministry reports that a total of 192 Azerbaijani troops were sacrificed and another 511 were injured during their offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh. Reports from Nagorno-Karabakh indicate a similar portrait of loss, with at least 200 people, including 10 civilians, killed and over 400 wounded.

While a ceasefire has prompted the commencement of talks regarding the “reintegration” of Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population into the largely Muslim country, the specifics and likelihood of this proposed plan remain uncertain. Despite Azerbaijani assurances about respecting the rights of the region’s inhabitants, the local populace has largely fled en masse, fearful of potential reprisals.

Approximately 47,000 individuals, or nearly 40% of the Nagorno-Karabakh population, had departed for Armenia by Wednesday afternoon, according to Armenian authorities. Prior residents who had yet to secure transportation in their flight waited patiently in the heart of a deserted Stepanakert for buses promised by the authorities.

Evacuation efforts have not been without their hardships. A lethal explosion at a gas station in Stepanakert resulted in the tragic loss of 68 lives and injuries to 290 others, according to reports from Nagorno-Karabakh’s human rights ombudsman, Gegham Stepanyan.

This surge in escape efforts comes in the aftermath of Azerbaijan’s successful recapture of significant disputed territory in a six-week war with Armenia in 2020. As part of the peace agreement mediated by Moscow, 2000 Russian peacekeepers were sent to monitor the conflict-ridden area. However, Russia’s influence in the region has faded due to increasing reliance on Azerbaijan’s primary ally, Turkey, and diverted resources towards expending geopolitical effort on Ukraine.

Vardanyan’s arrest not only accentuates the culmination of a fraught regional conflict but also marks a significant chapter in the destabilizing discord in the region. The future remains uncertain as thousands flee their homes and await an uncertain fate, tethered to the whims of political negotiations and shifting alliances.