In the 1990s, the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia generated one of the world’s largest populations of internally displaced persons, or IDPs, when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris fled their homes in the face of Armenian forces. Lawrence Scott Sheets, Crisis Group's South Caucasus Project Director, discusses how IDPs have fared and the prospects for a deal that could permit their return. 6:38
Welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group. I’m Ben Dalton, Communications & IT officer, here in Crisis Group’s Tbilisi office.
In the 1990s, the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia generated one of the world’s largest populations of internally displaced persons, or IDPs, when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris fled their homes in the face of Armenian forces. I’m speaking today with Lawrence Sheets, Crisis Group’s South Caucasus Project Director, about how those IDPs have fared in the nearly 20 years since the war. Crisis Group has a new report out on Azerbaijan’s IDPs, available on crisisgroup.org.
Lawrence, what was the Azeri government’s initial response to dealing with this massive influx of displaced people in the 1990s?
Before the ceasefire took effect in 1994, there were roughly 600,000 people who became IDPs, from Nagorno-Karabakh, but most of them coming from the seven occupied districts around Nagorno-Karabakh. Hundreds of thousands of people who literally--some of them overnight--were forced to flee. At that time, Azerbaijan was in complete chaos, both in terms of its military and in terms of its political leadership, and was a country which did not have any money, despite the fact that, today, it’s become a much richer country because all of this oil has been discovered and is being exploited, and the government coffers are filling up.
There was no government response initially, because there simply was no institutional capacity to deal with this problem. It was also viewed as a temporary problem, and the government did not want to do anything to make it appear that it was acquiescing to the conquest, or occupation, by ethnic Armenian forces and Armenian forces of the seven occupied districts. There was a combination of institutional incapacity, a lack of resources, and lack of political will. And many of these people lived for years and years in tents, in abandoned railway cars, sometimes very close to the front line areas, before the government started to take the problem more seriously.
So, over time, did the government develop a strategy for assisting IDPs?
There was a change, partially due to international pressure, but also due to the fact that the government realized that it was dealing with a long term problem.
In the early 2000s, the government started to devise a strategy about how to deal with this extraordinarily large group, roughly 600,000 officially now, of Internally Displaced Persons, or IDPs. It started making laws about the rights of IDPs. It started allocating much more money. That was also possible because of the country’s growing oil wealth. By 2007, we started to see a major improvement.
The tent camps, which were notorious in Azerbaijan, where many people had lived for years, were closed--keeping a government pledge to close those camps by the end of 2007. There was much more progress between 2008 and 2011, when the government started to actually confront the existence of IDPs and their needs much more seriously. If you look at 10 years ago, the poverty rate among IDPs was close to 75%. Today, it is, depending on which figures you want to use, somewhere between 11% and 25%, which is not that much higher than in the overall population in Azerbaijan and which is obviously several times lower than it was a few years ago.
The government especially focused its efforts on new housing for IDPs. There were 108,000 units constructed between 2008 and 2011, with additional plans to build 115,000 spaces for IDPs between 2012 -2015. It’s expending a tremendous amount of its own money on IDP needs. Azerbaijan now spends 3% of the state budget per year on IDP needs, which is also one of the highest percentages, if not the highest percentage, in the world. So there has been remarkable progress.
Unfortunately, there are still a lot of concerns. Obviously, there are 400,000 people, according to the government’s estimates, who are living in substandard housing. And the main thing is that people still cannot go home.
What is the status of negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the return of Azeri IDPs?
Unfortunately, negotiations are at a complete standstill. There is hostile rhetoric continuing from both sides. There is the tremendous arms buildup. There’s the absence of any organized negotiations format, in the sense of activity. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, continues to host the Minsk Group peace talks format, but this has been reduced to a sort of shuttle diplomacy where the two presidents have met only once during the last eight months and we don’t see any progress.
If an agreement were magically signed tomorrow, these people also would have very little to go back to because their homes and their towns, some of them as large as 60,000 people, were systematically dismantled by Armenian forces. You had whole towns basically carted away for scrap. Building materials, telephone poles, electricity cables, any sort of metal which could be exploited, telephone wires, any sort of household item were looted systematically, and methodically these towns were turned into nothing. It will take years, even if something were agreed to today, to rebuild these places and make them habitable for IDPs to come back.
Edited for print