UNHCR publication for CIS Conference (Displacement in the CIS) - Conflicts in the Caucasus

The Caucasus has experienced five major conflicts, creating more than 2 million refugees and internally displaced people. While most of the conflicts are relatively quiescent, none of them appears close to finding a lasting solution. Hundreds of thousands continue to live in temporary shelter.

When the long-smoldering problem of Nagorno-Karabakh flared up in 1988, it provided a first indication of the many ethnic conflicts to come. This mountain enclave, mostly inhabited by people of Armenian language and origin, had been placed under Azerbaijan's jurisdiction in the 1920s, and was entirely surrounded by villages populated by Azeris. The ethnic strife that erupted there as the Soviet Union broke apart phased quickly into open warfare. Over a million people were forced to flee - from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia; from Armenia to Azerbaijan; and from Armenian-occupied sectors of Azerbaijan to other Azeri villages. The colossal scale, and wide-ranging implications, of the nationalities issues that had frozen into quiescence under Soviet rule were now made evident in the world's headlines, along with the suffering, loss and displacement they would cause.

Although the Soviet Union was populated with dozens of nationalities, it was in the Caucasus that the mosaic of intermingled ethnic groups has been most problematic. The first post-Soviet outbreak of ethnic violence to occur on the territory of the Russian Federation itself was in the North Caucasus. In late October 1992, tens of thousands of Ingush were driven out of the disputed Prigorodny district of North Ossetia by Ossetians. (Prior to their deportation by Stalin in 1944, the area had belonged to the Ingush.) The conflict in Chechnya that broke out in December 1994, and which continues to rage, has also placed great strain on neighbouring areas of the Russian Federation. In all, some 490,000 people have fled to Ingushetia, Daghestan, North Ossetia and Russia, as well as within Chechnya itself. Many returned during quieter periods, but may well have subsequently been displaced a second time.

But it is in the South Caucasus that the mosaic of peoples has shattered most decisively. In Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, up to 1.5 million people have fled from their homes as a result of ethnic fighting. In Georgia, conflict broke out in 1991 between South Ossetian secessionists and the central Georgian authorities. The following year more fighting erupted with Abkhaz secessionists. Overall, in a country that was once one of the most prosperous republics of the Soviet Union, some 300,000 people have by now been displaced. Another 120,000 people have left for the Russian Federation (though not all as a direct result of conflict).

The enormous scale of displacement, in a region reeling from war damage and the economic after-effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union, has hit the Caucasus hard. The region's slumping economies face declining output, rising unemployment, damaged infrastructure, currency depreciation, and the near-collapse of government social welfare programmes, along with a swelling population.

Armenia / Azerbaijan
Nagorno-Karabakh > Azerbaijan684,000
Armenia > Armenia72,000
Abkhazia > Georgia273,000
S. Ossetia > Georgia14,000
Russian Federation
Chechnya > Russian Federation487,000
N. Ossetia > Ingushetia25,000
Armenia > Azerbaijan185,000
Azerbaijan > Armenia299,000
Uzbekistan > Azerbaijan
Georgia > Armenia5,000
Georgia > Russian Fed.
(refugees / repatriants)
Russian Federation
Chechnya > Kazakstan6,000
Chechnya > Belarus5,000
Armenia > Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh)35,000
Azerbaijan > Azerbaijan (Fizuli)25,000

Problems of refugees and IDPs in the Caucasus are highly interconnected. The displacement of South Ossetian refugees from Georgia to North Ossetia has impacted on the Ingush-North Ossetian conflict, which drove people out to Ingushetia. Ingushetia has also been badly affected by the conflict in Chechnya (Russian Federation). Displacement from Chechnya also impacts on Daghestan, which has a border with Azerbaijan. One in eight people in Azerbaijan has been forcibly displaced, most as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. In addition, however, Azerbaijan shelters tens of thousands of Muslim Meskhetians, who were deported under Stalin from Georgia to Central Asia, and who have made their way to Azerbaijan, 46,000 of them as a result of ethnic fighting in Uzbekistan; many wish to return to Georgia, but have so far been unable to do so.

With the exception of Chechnya, the other Caucasian conflicts have recently been relatively quiet. However, solutions to the conflicts and displacement have been blocked on all fronts by a failure to make political progress. In the case of the 270,000 displaced people from Abkhazia, efforts to organize repatriation have stalled, after the first 311 returnees, who went back in October 1994, encountered extremely serious security problems, including murder. Despite UN-sponsored proximity talks, the Abkhaz situation remains tense, and there is no consensus on a meaningful timetable for repatriation. Discussions on a solution to the South Ossetia conflict, and a possible return of the refugees (who fled to North Ossetia) and IDPs (who fled elsewhere in Georgia) are also blocked. At the southern end of the Caucasus, some 25,000 Azeri IDPs have managed to return to their homes in the Fizuli area, and 35,000 inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh have returned there from Armenia. However, to date, there has been insufficient political progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute to allow a serious discussion of the question of refugees and return.