The breakaway government of Nagorno-Karabakh said on Thursday that it would cease to exist, formally ending more than 30 years of separatist rule, a week after a swift attack by Azerbaijan returned the mountainous enclave to Azerbaijani rule.
In a decree published by the official news service of the Republic of Artsakh — the official Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh — the territory’s leader, Samvel Shakhramanyan, said that all government entities there would be dissolved by the end of the year. Ethnic Armenian residents of the territory should make their own decisions about whether they wanted to live under Azerbaijani rule or leave, the decree said.
The announcement amounted to a formal surrender of the breakaway territory, a pivotal area at the crossroads of great power interests in the Caucasus, and put a formal end to a long and bloody conflict in which tens of thousands of people lost their lives in two full-scale wars, with around a million displaced.
On Thursday, Azerbaijani authorities said that its migration service would start the process of registering Armenian citizens of the country’s Karabakh region through a special website.
The government of Armenia said on Thursday that 76,000 “forcibly displaced” people had left the breakaway state to seek safety in Armenia, amounting to more half of the region’s entire population.
Many more are expected to follow in the coming days, with numerous refugees saying that they expected most ethnic Armenians to leave the enclave. The exodus has been shocking to many Armenians, who consider Nagorno-Karabakh their ancient ancestral homeland.
Since Sunday, Armenian villages and towns near the border with Nagorno-Karabakh have turned into makeshift refugee camps. While many refugees said they felt relieved once they passed the Azerbaijani checkpoint and entered the Armenian side, they were also traumatized and confused about what awaits.
Some had only minutes to pack. They used cars, buses, construction trucks, and even tractors to carry whatever personal possessions they could take — from duvets and clothes to refrigerators and chickens. A long caravan of minibuses, many laden with duffel bags roped on top, filled highways from the border all the way to the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
But for many people, material possessions were secondary.
“Our priority was to save our lives and the lives of our loved ones,” said Gayne Milonyan, 36, who fled Stepanakert, the capital, on Monday. “You can buy anything if you survive.”
Armenia was not necessarily the final destination either. Some refugees, fearing Azerbaijan might not stop at Karabakh and would move into Armenia proper, said they had relatives in Russia’s south and were moving there.
“If we had anything to defend ourselves with, we would,” said Armen Bagdasaryan, who had fought in the first Karabakh war in the 1990s and said he was now thinking about moving to Russia. “But we were sitting in a bottle. I still cannot believe that we have left our city.”
The desperate situation was underlined on Monday when an explosion at a fuel depot near the territory’s capital, Stepanakert, killed at least 68 people, according to the local ombudsman. Another 105 people are still missing following the blast, which occurred as a large number of people lined up to get fuel to help them flee. The cause of the disaster remained unclear on Thursday.
Russian peacekeepers stationed in the region used military helicopters to shuttle more than 200 of those severely wounded in the blast to Armenia, where they were transferred to hospitals.
As part of this activity, the first stage envisages initial registration of Armenian residents of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. The acceptance of applications and registration process will be conducted by the State Migration Service in an electronic form through the special portal created for this purpose in order to ensure the maximum ease for the applicants and information accessibility.
While the Azerbaijani authorities have allowed many ethnic Armenians to leave Nagorno-Karabakh, they have also arrested some of its leading figures. On Wednesday, the Azerbaijani security service detained Ruben Vardanyan, a former leader of the breakaway territory.
Mr. Vardanyan rose to prominence by cofounding a leading investment bank in Russia, and he has been involved in multiple major business and philanthropic projects. In 2022, he renounced his Russian citizenship and became the state minister of the Republic of Artsakh, the effective leader of the breakaway republic. He quit the post in February 2023.
The Azerbaijani State Security Service said in a statement on Thursday that Mr. Vardanyan was accused of financing terrorism, participating in illegal armed groups and crossing a state border illegally.
His detention raised concerns in the territory that the Azerbaijani authorities would arrest other leaders of the breakaway government.