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azerbaijan’s great return begins

Azerbaijan’s Great Return Begins

Author: James Sharp

May 10, 2024

Image source: James Sharp

Lachin is a pretty town spilling down the side of a mountain, reminiscent of Alpine villages in Europe. It is also one of the locations to which Azerbaijani internally displaced persons are returning now that Azerbaijan has reestablished its sovereignty over Nagorno Karabakh and the surrounding regions. I was able to visit in late April to see the progress being made.

This programme of resettlement - termed the Great Return in Azerbaijan - is a key plank of the government’s approach to overcoming the legacy of the 1990s conflict, when hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis were displaced. The programme began in July 2022 with almost 100 families moving to the newly-constructed Aghali settlement in the Zangilan district. Since then, families have also returned to Fuzuli, Talish (a village near the town of Terter), and Lachin, as well as to the neighbouring village of Zabukh. As of April 2024, over 6,500 people had returned, about half to Fuzuli and over 2,500 to Lachin/Zabukh. Stated Azerbaijani plans are for the return of 20,000 to five cities and 15 villages by end 2024, and - even more ambitiously - 140,000 by late 2026.

Needless to say, this programme has not been without its complications. 

First, the landmines. The main population centres - Fuzuli and Aghdam - were located on the intensively-mined Line of Contact and were totally destroyed - Aghdam is referred to as the Hiroshima of the Caucasus. As for areas further back, it was unclear whether retreating Armenian forces had laid mines in 2020 to slow down Azerbaijan’s military advance. So the government had to take a view on where to focus demining efforts and where to resettle first, bearing in mind the damage that could be done to the resettlement programme were returnees to be killed or injured by landmines. 

Second, the infrastructure. In short, there wasn’t any. Experienced deminers have been amazed at how quickly Azerbaijan has constructed roads, power lines, and airports in the territories. Fuzuli airport was operational less than one year after the 2020 ceasefire.  Since then, Zangilan airport has also opened, and Lachin airport is under construction. Aghali village was built from scratch, and housing - homes and apartment blocks - has been constructed in the other locations.

This is all still a work in progress. For example, the road we took from Zangilan airport to Lachin started as a smooth tarmaced dual carriageway, but after a while turned into a road under construction and then what was basically just a track, which for around five kilometres ran through a narrow valley alongside the Armenian border, with military posts looking down on it.

Third, who would want to return? The initial sense was that pensioners, who had left their homes in the early 1990s, would wish to do so. But younger people - with jobs and children in Baku and other towns - might have more reservations. Schools, medical facilities, and - crucially - jobs would be needed. Clearly, construction activity will provide plenty of jobs in the short to medium term. Beyond that, the government has encouraged companies to locate factories in the territory, as well as looking at tourism and agricultural opportunities, while bearing in mind the landmine threat. 

So far, so good. With the oil price reasonably high, Azerbaijan can afford to continue what is essentially a nation-building project. But the need for jobs will remain critical, and here the government will want to consider opportunities for remote working, or moving some government functions to towns in the region, perhaps in the way that the UK Foreign Office relocated its back office functions out of London to the town of Milton Keynes. These issues are important not only to encourage more people to return, but also to ensure that those who move to the new settlements do actually remain there.

Another issue to keep an eye on is the question of political sensitivities, and the potential impact on the peace process with Armenia. Currently, Talish is the only one of the “new” settlements that was located in the old Nagorno-Karabakh oblast. But clearly Shusha will be further settled, and then there is the question of towns like Khankandi/Stepanakert and Khojali which were reclaimed by Azerbaijan last September in a quick military operation that led to the mass exodus of Armenians and a refugee crisis for Armenia. Any settlement of these towns will require extremely careful handling, and would probably best be delayed as much as possible until there is greater clarity on a peace deal with Armenia and to what extent any Armenians want to return.


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