Armenia’s Illegal Settlement Policy in the Karabakh and Formerly Seven Occupied Districts of Azerbaijan


During the first Karabakh war of the early 1990s, Armenian forces not only won control over the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) but also occupied seven surrounding regions of Azerbaijan, forcing up to 700,000 inhabitants to flee. The occupation of Azerbaijani lands prevented the establishment of diplomatic relations between Türkiye and Armenia, and after the occupation of Kalbajar in 1993, Türkiye closed its land borders with Armenia.

In 1993, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed four resolutions – 822, 853, 874, and 884 – demanding the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the occupying forces, but for 27 years these calls fell on deaf ears while U.S., French, and Russian diplomats attempted to find a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

Though the seven regions were expected to be returned in most of peace proposals put on the table before the sides, a policy to settle Armenians from Armenia and its Diaspora in those territories instead raised many doubts that that they would. Even in 2008, a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on “The situation in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan”  emphasized the breach of international humanitarian law and the “the situation resulting from the occupation of the territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan.”

Between 30 January and 5 February 2005, a fact-finding mission conducted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) undertook a visit to the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. The mission’s primary achievement was the publication of a report that meticulously assessed the situation on the ground. The report’s significant finding was the identification of illegal Armenian settlers in the occupied territories, substantiated by concrete evidence gathered during the mission’s visit.

It should be remembered that the 6th paragraph of Article 49 of the Geneva Convention, also ratified by Armenia, clearly forbids an occupying power from deporting or transferring its own civilian population to the occupied territories.

Evidence of Illegal Settlement in the Occupied Territories

A 2016 report by Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry presents ample evidence of Armenia’s extensive alterations in the occupied territories. These changes encompassed various sectors such as energy, agriculture, social welfare, residential areas, and transportation infrastructure.[1]

Prioritizing infrastructure development in the occupied territories was explicitly aimed at attracting and retaining illegal Armenian settlers in those areas. Economic activities initiated by these settlers led to the encroachment upon land, natural resources, as well as public and private assets belonging to Azerbaijan and those Azerbaijanis forced to flee.

Regardless of its own demographic problems, the Armenian authorities encouraged people from the villages and cities of Armenia to live in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Technical, material and financial support for settlement projects in formerly occupied regions of Azerbaijan were financed from the budgets of various ministries of Armenia, including the then Ministry of Diaspora.

The main purpose of this policy was to preserve the status quo and create a fait accompli for the future negotiations, create a new demographic situation in the occupied lands, erase the historical and cultural heritage of Azerbaijan, and ultimately prevent Azerbaijan’s efforts to liberate the occupied territories and  return the Azerbaijani internally- displaced persons (IDPs)  to their homes. One example of this was the erasure of traces of Azerbaijanis in the occupied territories by changing their geographical names. According to the Institute of Geography of the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences in 2013, 277 geographical names were changed.

Exploiting Nationalism and Social Vulnerability to Attract Settlers

In an attempt to appeal to nationalist emotions and thus attempt to encourage more Armenians to move to the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, Armenia resorted to tactics such as replacing Azerbaijani toponyms with those possessing historical connotations for nationalist Armenians. For example, the name of the village of Jahangirbeyli in the Zangilan district of Azerbaijan was changed to Van after the occupation.

In November 2001, the separatist regime in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan decided to establish the Department of Migration and Settlement, the main work of which was the implementation of the settlement policy. A ten-year program for 2001-2011 was developed. Under this program, it was planned to increase the population to 300,000 in the formerly occupied territories of Azerbaijan and former NKAO during the mentioned period.

Those who migrated from the cities and villages of Armenia to the occupied lands of Azerbaijan were mainly people in a poor financial situation. They were given land for agriculture and animals for farming, but it was also not easy for some of the people from the cities of Armenia to adapt to these conditions. Most had lived in urban centers all their lives and were not familiar or experienced with agriculture and animal husbandry.

The Serobyan family moved from Charentsavan, an Armenian town, to Kalbajar, the formerly occupied region of Azerbaijan, in 1999.  Their decision to move to Kalbajar was because of the difficult social conditions they faced in Armenia. During an interview in 2007, Roza Serobyan described the conditions they moved to, mentioning that conditions in Kelbajar, which Armenians had renamed Karvachar, were particularly difficult.[2]

While the Armenian government claimed its policy was to resettle Armenian refugees from Baku, Sumgait and other regions of Azerbaijan to the occupied regions of Azerbaijan, very few joined this settlement program.

“Not many came because they were used to their life in Baku and Sumgait. Many now feel safer in Armenia, and like a million other Armenians, some have left for Russia,” said Zoric Irkoyan who moved from Yerevan to Lachin in 1995 where he worked as a senior education specialist.[3]

Armenia and diaspora groups instead encouraged Armenians from Syria and Lebanon to settle in the occupied lands. Armenian parliamentarians for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation – Dashnaktsutyun, Vahan Hovhannesyan and Lilit Galstyan, launched an initiative called ‘Help Your Brother ‘ to raise funds for the settlement of Syrian Armenians in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan.

False Promises

Few, however, came to populate the occupied territories and those that did were not prepared for the difficult environment of destroyed villages and towns that they would discover. For example, the first illegal settlers from the Middle East to the occupied territories had already come from Lebanon and Syria in 1999. Numbering around 30 people, they were members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation  – Dashnakstutyun and settled them in the village of Meşediismayilli in the occupied Zangilan region. The name of the village was changed to Ditsmayri.

Even though the Armenian government and the separatist regime of Karabakh promised free electricity before the settlement, this did not happen. The electricity of these settlers, whose debts accumulated because of difficulty in paying, was cut off. One of those who settled in the village of Meshediismayilli was Nazareth Libaridian, a relative of Gerard Libaridian, the adviser to the former president of Armenia, Levon Ter Petrosyan.

Nazareth Libaridian moved to the village from Beirut in 1999 where he began to engage in grape growing and winemaking. In an interview with the Armenian media he spoke about how one night  the separatist regime officials cut off electricity in the village. The head of the village, Razmik Kurdian, had moved to Meshediismayilli from Lebanon.

This land was paid for in blood, and will only be given back with blood. If anyone ever thought of returning this land, they would be betraying the memory of those who died,” he said during one interview[4] in the early 2000s, but conditions became so unbearable in Meshediismayilli  that he left soon after. Due to accumulated debts and problems with roads and transport to and from the village, many illegal settlers from Lebanon and Syria also left.[5]

Exploiting Refugees

Armenia saw an opportunity for the settlement of Syrian Armenians, particularly in the  Lachin, Gubadli, Zangilan, Jabrail districts of Azerbaijan, due to their experience in agriculture. Armenia hoped that their expertise will play an important role for the successful colonization of these territories. In 2013, for example, there were 29 Syrian Armenian families in addition to many more settlers from Armenia living in the occupied Lachin and Zangilan regions of Azerbaijan and another 40 families were on a waiting list.[6]

In August 2020 the head of separatist regime of Karabakh, Arayik Harutyunyan, said that 11 Armenian families from Lebanon moved to the occupied regions of Azerbaijan. He also stated that this issue was discussed with the Office of the High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs  which was established on June 11, 2019, by the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia.

Some of these families were given homes in Shusha.

This behavior by the Republic of Armenia and the separatist regime received a harsh reaction from political circles in Azerbaijan. Hikmet Hajiyev, the adviser to the President of Azerbaijan, described this action of Armenian government, which took place after the July 2020 border clashes, as a provocation by Armenia, adding that Armenia’s illegal settlement policy across Azerbaijan’s occupied territories was a military crime.

The groups that Armenia and the separatist regime in Karabakh used to settle the occupied areas were not only Syrian and Lebanese Armenians. In 2014, the so-called presidential spokesman of the separatist regime, Davit Babayan, said that Karabakh is ready to accept Iraqi Yazidis fleeing from ISIS:

“If there are such requests, we will see to what extent we are able grant them,” said Davit Babayan in an interview with Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s Armenia Service.[7] It does not appear that any took up the offer.

Faced with failure to sufficiently populate the seven formerly occupied regions, organizations in the Armenian diaspora also supported the illegal settlement. Although many villages in Armenia have been depopulated because of the adverse socio-economic conditions there, the Armenian authorities invested in the occupied regions of Azerbaijan. Such initiatives demonstrated how insincere Armenia had been during negotiations that assumed the return of those lands.

Diaspora Involvement In Illegal Settlement

Azerbaijan’s concerns were further heightened when more diaspora organizations engaged in such activities. The Hayastan All Armenian Fund, founded in 1992 in Yerevan, is perhaps the most well known of these organizations. Though comprising a Board of Trustees including the heads of the Armenian Church and the leadership of Armenia and the separatist regime in Karabakh[8], it sought to raise funds from the diaspora for projects in both in an annual telethon. Its activities in Karabakh and the occupied territories, however, were the most controversial.

In 1995, for example it had already funded the construction of what has become known as the Lachin Corridor connecting Armenia to Karabakh at the cost of over $72 million. The highway was completed in 1999 and two years later, in 2001, it started construction on another connecting occupied Aghdara through occupied Kalbajar to Vardenis in Armenia. The total cost of the project completed in 2017 was $35.4 million of which around half was provided from official sources. Then President Serzh Sargsyan attended the opening ceremony in Karabakh.[9]The total cost of the project was approximately $35.4 million, of which $15.6 million were provided by the Armenian government and about $4.1 million by the separatist regime in Karabakh. The North-South highway, which stretched from Aghdara to Hadrut and passed through Aghdam, clearly outside the boundaries of the NKAO, as was Kalbajar and Lachin, was built from 2000 to 2009 for $28.5 million.

The Hayastan All Armenian Fund also introduced water supply systems into areas such as Kalbajar in order to support the settlement of Armenians there. Naturally, when Azerbaijan took back its territories in the 2020 war, the Hayastan All Armenian Fund lost projects worth at least $100 million according to Armenian sources.[10] Others were to also lose their investments.

The Tufenkian foundation, founded in 1999 by American-Armenian buisnessman James Tufenkian, constructed houses in the occupied regions of Azerbaijan such as Lachin, Zangilan, and Jabrail from 2003, also attempting to settle people from Armenia, Syria, Lebanon there. It also funded local media and journalists in Armenia, sometimes clandestinely, to promote their activities in this area. In 2004, the Tufenkian Foundation started construction of a “model village” in the Jabrail region of Azerbaijan, investing $1.4 million  to build what they named Arajamugh.

The Armenian Youth Federation, the youth wing of the ARF-Dashnaktsutyun, also contributed financially to this project. AYF members from the U.S. visited the village and promoted it on through various diaspora media. In 2008, a conference was even held in Lachin sponsored by the separatist regime of Karabakh and the Tufenkian Foundation to develop a plan to populate the Lachin, Qubadli and Zangilan regions of Azerbaijan given unsuccessful efforts up until that point.

In 2019, James Tufenkian met with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan who welcomed his activities in Karabakh and the seven surrounding regions, clearly identifying that such efforts were not confined only to the previous regimes headed by Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan.

There were other organizations in the Diaspora too. Artsakh Roots Investment (ARI) was registered in Cyprus in 2010 and founded by Lebanese–Armenian businessmen, some of which were also members of ARF-Dashnakstutyun. ARI started to build new houses in the Zabukh village of Lachin in 2014. The opening ceremony of the village took place in September 2016 and Armenian families from Syria and Lebanon as well as Armenia moved to Zabukh, now renamed Aghavno.

One of those settlers was Andranik Chavushyan who moved from Syria to Armenia but then decided to live in Lachin in 2014. However, because of the difficult conditions there, he moved to the newly constructed Zabukh village in 2016. Chavushyan later became the ‘mayor of the Aghavno’  and partcipiated in the April 2016 War and the Second Karabakh War in 2020.

‘Our goal is to secure investments from the Diaspora to Nagorno Karabakh Republic for the purpose of economic development and resettlement,’ ARI’s Benyamin Bichakjian said.[11]

The second major project of ARI was the construction of the Sydney settlement in formerly occupied Kalbajar. Fifteen houses were built with the $500,000 investment of Lebanese-Armenians and Australian-Armenians in Kalbajar. The Armenian government invested $300,000 dollars to construct infrastructure. Zabukh was finally returned to Azerbaijan in August 2022 when the existing Lachin Corridor was re-routed as agreed in the November 2020 trilateral ceasefire statement.

Lessons not Learned

Despite that ceasefire statement, however, Armenian claims on territories won back or returned because of the 2020 war continue. Though Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan might be ready to recognize the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, it does not appear as though the separatist regime in Karabakh is. On February 18, 2022, its parliament approved a bill that recognized all regions liberated during the Second Karabakh war were ‘occupied’ by Azerbaijan.

There also seems to be no recognition among the population of Armenia, nor in statements made by the Armenian government since 2020, that the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan was not only occupied and destroyed, but also illegally settled despite four UNSC resolutions. Failure to both acknowledge this or sign a peace agreement would only lead to even more concerns that Armenia had no intention of returning these lands.

The systematic destruction, illegal economic activities and illegal settlement policy carried out by Armenia in the occupied Azerbaijani territories for 30 years highlights how Armenia ignored international law by referring to the seven regions surrounding the former NKAO as ‘liberated.’ Moreover, this apparent policy of destruction and later settlement by Armenians after 1994 highlights how fears that the negotiation process prior to 2020 was imitation and simply a stalling process by Armenia only were not without substance.


[2]  Возвращение в Арцах

[3] Life In No Man’s Land

[4] Life In No Man’s Land

[5]Illusions and Reality: The vision of Ditsmayri

[6] Kashatagh Governor: 29 Syrian Armenian families live here and another 40 are on wait list

[7]Karabakh ‘Ready’ Accept Yazidi Refugees

[8] [8] Hayastan All Armenian Fund


[10]Armenians Invested Millions in Artsakh; Much Is Now in Azerbaijani Hands

[11] Artsakh Roots Investment-ը ներդրումներ է ապահովվում ԼՂՀ-ի տնտեսական զարգացման համա

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