Vol. 2, No. 17 (September 01, 2009)

The politics of relocation and resettlement: The case of IDPs and Nagorno-Karabakh

Morgan R. Beach
School of Public Policy
Pepperdine University

The long-term displacement of internal populations is one of the most politically complex and intricate complications of protracted conflicts today.  Internally displaced persons (IDPs) share most of the same legal troubles and logistical difficulties as refugee populations but are overlooked in many aspects of aid.  IDPs suffer, particularly in longer-term situations, because it falls upon the already-troubled home state to care for a now almost entirely dependent sector of the public.  IDPs, even though they never cross any international borders, often live as outsiders in local communities.  
Some analysts suggest that it is often politically advantageous to keep these populations displaced: victims attract donors.  But the longer a conflict continues, the more aid wanes and the captive population is more likely to suffer as political battles often wage on.  But where does one draw the line and decide to resettle a population?  
The case of Nagorno-Karabakh presents precisely this sort of paradoxical conflict.  The Azerbaijani population that formerly inhabited the region of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent regions now occupied by Armenians is currently scattered into various states of relocation and resettlement throughout Azerbaijan.  I visited one such settlement in Mingachavir.  Here, the residents live in long rows of corrugated steel-covered houses.  These are set on a dirt lot with small ditches of water running down the side of each street.  There are a total of four toilets and two showers to be shared by the entire settlement, and the only source of water is a set of nozzles sticking out of the ground.  Across the main road from the camp, there are well built, if not well maintained, Soviet-style housing structures where local Mingachavir families live.  There, the markets and shopping centers are busy, and the roads are paved.  The contrast is striking. 
One IDP woman named S., 47, and her friend V., 65, told me about their lives in the camp.  S. has been here for 15 years, since she was forced out of her home in Aghdam in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.  After her husband was recruited by the Azerbaijani government to defend his hometown against the Armenian army, he was captured and beaten to death by the invading forces.  Then on July 23, 1993, she and her three children left Aghdam and moved into this camp in Mingachavir.  There are 88 other families here, mostly from the same region as Aghdam, cities like Shusha and Fizuli.  She lives in a two-room unit, divided by curtains to create the closest possible thing to a living/dining area, and room for her son, and a shared room for her and her daughter that still lives in the house.  Her eldest daughter is now married, lives in an apartment in Mingachavir and is a teacher at the local IDP school.  
The settlement, S. said, was built by the Azerbaijani government with aid from several international organizations.  “You have nothing, no money – you have no choice but to live outside,” S. said of why she has never resettled into another residence.  Until last year, she was living on support from an international organization, until the organization decided to end its work in Azerbaijan.  Now she lives on the AZN 100 (USD 120) monthly pension from the Azerbaijani government paid on behalf of her husband’s service to the country and whatever help she can get from friends in Mingachavir.   
But despite these problems, she says, her life as an IDP has not been all bad.  Both her daughters were able to graduate from university free of charge (the government subsidizes free education for IDPs), and the eldest is happily married.  Her younger daughter, who studied journalism, now 25, however, has developed a “nervous” disorder and lives here because it has kept her from being able to maintain a job and support herself.  Her 23-year-old son chose not to attend university and does whatever temporary work around Mingachavir he can find.  But jobs here are scarce and wages low, and most boys who grow up in the camps only have the army as an alternative.  Her own heart condition and fulfilling her role as the household caretaker prevent S. from finding employment outside the home.  Moving away from the IDP settlement would mean giving up the small advantages of government subsidizing she does have.  
Speaking of the times before the war, S. says that “Life was good.  Everyone had jobs and was happy.  We lived side by side with Armenians and some Azerbaijanis and Armenians even married each other in our town.  When I think of home, I think of family.  But I will never have that back.  It has all been destroyed.”  Now all she wants is clean housing – roofs that don’t leak, and conditions that don’t cause people to get sick.  “Look at the houses,” she says, “What can the health situation be like here?”    

S. and V. are both pessimistic about the conflict being resolved in their lifetime.  At present, they note, Armenians and Azerbaijanis cannot even sit down together to talk about a solution and larger countries seem to prefer keeping them apart. 
Even though the IDPs remain an open wound for Azerbaijanis, there have been few serious analyses of their plight, a shortcoming especially troubling given that the coverage of the OSCE Minsk Group meetings and the declarations about other aspects of the Karabakh conflict by major powers, including the Russian Federation and the United States, suggest that there will not be a resolution of the conflict or of the IDP problem anytime soon.  Indeed, as one report put it, the “lack of security prevents [the IDPs] from going home; [and] indecision prevents them from resettling” (Bacon & Lynch 2002/2003, p. 69). 
In the years since the 1994 ceasefire, international attention and aid to the IDPs have declined, with assistance falling by more than half between 1993 and 2002 alone (Bacon & Lynch 2002/2003, p. 68).  Given that violent conflicts, like the one between Georgia and Russia last year, attract so much attention, Azerbaijani IDPs not surprisingly think, as one put it, “Our situation does not attract attention because we wait for a peaceful solution and do not engage in violent acts.  It just doesn’t seem right” (Bacon & Lynch 2002/2003, p. 67).  
While protracted conflicts are nothing new, IDP populations like those produced by the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute are a major contributor to the erosion of stability in the developing world.  And the longer the IDPs remain displaced, the more seriously they add to the problems faced by the broader society of which they are a part.    
Despite the lack of a political settlement, Azerbaijan has taken some promising steps to assist the IDPs.  SOFAZ, the State Oil Fund of the Republic of Azerbaijan, has implemented large-scale social work projects to benefit the IDPs, something all the more important given the decline in assistance from abroad.  In addition, working with the State Committee for Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, the oil fund has funnelled more than half a billion dollars into improving the infrastructure of refugee/IDP settlements.  And the committee has overseen the construction of thousands of houses, health care facilities, schools, cultural and athletic centers, and other infrastructure (SOFAZ 2009).  
These programs highlight Azerbaijan’s commitment to its population, a commitment it has been able to undertake because of its unprecedented economic growth.  Although conditions are improving, the living situation is still dramatically substandard and most IDPs still live as outsiders around the country.  But Azerbaijan seems to be funnelling its resources in the right direction, and the lives of IDPs are largely improving.    
However, even having the best IDP infrastructure in the world still implicates a certain degree of volatility and insecurity, and so, Azerbaijan remains stuck between a rock and a hard place.  If it resettles IDPs permanently, that could be viewed as a weakening of its resolve to retake Nagorno-Karabakh.  Simultaneously, Baku should carefully evaluate how long having almost an eighth of its population displaced can go on without imposing more serious long term damage to Azerbaijan’s development.  How long will these people remain in limbo, unsettled and unstable?  Where and when should Azerbaijan finally draw the line?


Bacon, Kenneth H. and Maureen Lynch (2002/2003) “Lost in Purgatory: The Plight of Displaced Persons in the Caucasus”, World Policy Journal, winter, pp. 66-71. 

Nuttall, Clare (2009) “Slow progress in latest Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations”, BusinessNewEurope, 27 July, available at: http://businessneweurope.eu/story1712/Slow_progress_in_latest_NagornoKarabakh_negotiations (accessed 28 July 2009). 

Shaffer, Brenda (2009) “Permanent Factors in Azerbaijan’s Foreign Policy”, in Ismailzade, Fariz and Alexandros Petersen. Azerbaijan in Global Politics: Crafting Foreign Policy (Baku, Azerbaijan: Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy), pp. 67-84. 

SOFAZ (2009) “Settlement of the problems of refugees and internally displaced persons who were forced to flee their native lands as a result of Armenian-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict”, 30 June, available at: http://www.oilfund.az/en/content/10/87 (accessed 10 August 2009).