The self-proclaimed state of Nagorno-Karabakh will cease to exist from January 1 next year, its leader announced on Thursday, a week after Azerbaijan retook the region by force.
The ethnic Armenian enclave first claimed independence of the territory internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan in 1991 and styled itself as the Republic of Artsakh.
The breakaway government’s leaders surrendered after a 24-hour military operation that triggered the exodus of 120,000 of its ethnic Armenian residents.
The enclave’s unrecognised president, Samvel Shahramanyan — whose whereabouts are unknown — issued a decree on Thursday ordering all state institutions to disband by January 1, when “the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) shall cease to exist”.
The decree instructed the population to “familiarise themselves with the conditions of reintegration presented by the Republic of Azerbaijan in order to make an independent and individual decision on the possibility of staying in (or returning to) Nagorno-Karabakh”.
More than 66,000 people have fled the enclave since Sunday, leaving in a convoy of cars down the single road known as the Lachin corridor that leads into Armenia. They were met by aid workers and volunteers, who directed them to temporary accommodation.
Many are leaving the tiny enclave for the first time in 10 months. Late last year, Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin route and constructed a checkpoint at the border, imposing a blockade that created difficulties with supplies of food, energy and medicine.
There are indications that some of the breakaway enclave’s elite will be prevented from leaving. Ruben Vardanyan, a billionaire with close ties to Moscow, who moved to Nagorno-Karabakh last year and briefly became its first minister, was arrested on Wednesday by Azerbaijan as he made his way through the Lachin checkpoint.
A court in the Azerbaijan capital, Baku, on Thursday placed Vardanyan, a former banking executive who had given up his Russian citizenship, in pre-trial detention for four months while his case is heard.
Azerbaijan’s security service said he was accused of illegally entering Azerbaijan when he first travelled from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, of creating “illegal armed formations” there and of sponsoring terrorism.
His wife described him on Wednesday as a “philanthropist” who was being “held captive” by Azerbaijan. David Babayan, a former foreign minister of the breakaway republic, said he was travelling of his own accord to Azerbaijan to hand himself over.
“All of you know that I am included in Azerbaijan’s black list and the Azerbaijani side demanded my arrival in Baku for appropriate investigation. Today I decided to go,” he wrote on his social media page. “My failure to appear, or worse, my escape, will cause serious harm to our long-suffering nation.”
Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s prime minister, on Thursday repeated his description of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh as ethnic cleansing, something Azerbaijan denies. Pashinyan said that within the next few days, there would be no more ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh.