Nagorno-Karabakh: between peace and war

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How does a state function when no other country has recognised its existence?

The unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) has been living in a state of neither peace, nor war for the past 20 years. In 1988, the Armenians of Karabakh took to the streets to demand that Karabakh be reunited with Armenia. After the declaration of independence in 1991, the Azerbaijani-Karabakh war began, and only ended in 1994. However, Karabakh’s independence has not yet been recognised by any state, not even Armenia.

A sign on the road from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh reads: “A free and independent Artsakh welcomes you”. Artsakh is Karabakh’s historical name. The next stop on the road is the checkpoint on the border of Karabakh and Armenia where passports are checked. Foreign nationals (including ethnic Armenians who are citizens of other countries) are required to register, and then, before reaching the capital Stepanakert, are obliged to apply to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a visa.

The visa application process is simple and quick. On request, the visa stamp can be put on a separate piece of paper, as having it in the passport means the bearer would be unable to return to Azerbaijan. Thousands of people who have visited Karabakh are on Baku’s blacklist, including world-famous artists, politicians, diplomats, and journalists.

Walking in the capital Stepanakert – where nearly half the population lives – and seeing brand new buildings and newly renovated schools and parks, it is hard to imagine that, after being heavily bombed in the early 1990s, the city was almost destroyed. If you look closely you can still see traces of shrapnel and bullets in the walls of some houses.

The youth of a young country

The white marble building that occupies one of the central streets of Stepanakert is the Artsakh State University. About 3,000 students are registered at the university, not only from Karabakh, but also from different regions of Armenia. There are four other state-accredited universities and two colleges. Most students prefer the State University as it is more prestigious. There are various scholarships, and students have the opportunity to study at the best universities of Armenia, Europe, and America, provided that they come back and work here, at least for a while.

Before becoming press secretary to the prime minister, 27-year-old Artak Beglaryan studied first in Armenia and then in Greece, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Over the past two years Artak has come to know the government building so well that he no longer needs to use his cane. Artak was blinded at the age of six after stepping on a mine. Since Karabakh had no special school for the blind, he was forced to move to Yerevan. After high school, he chose to return to Karabakh to, as he says, use his knowledge for the benefit of his people and homeland. Not all students return to their homeland as he did, because many believe that career prospects in Karabakh are limited.

However, the Iranian-Armenian Armond and Australian-Armenian Artemis are sure that Karabakh is the right place for them to raise a family. The couple first met in Karabakh in the 1990s – Artemis first arrived during the war as a volunteer while Armond came later on. They have been running a gift shop for over ten years. Trade is seasonal, but Armond does not complain; he has another business on the side, making jewellery to order.

Armond’s souvenir shop is a sort of time machine. Stepping inside, you get the feeling that you have gone back to the Middle Ages. There are various antiques, clay utensils, old carpets, and other things lying around that most of us have only seen in our school history books.

The handmade dolls, paintings, and postcards of Karabakh’s famous sites are more recent. In the half-lit space behind the counter stands Armond, a thin greying man of about 50. He is always busy with something. Either he is speaking with clients in the shop, or he can be found in his workshop next door. As he says, they make enough to get by and the main thing is that they do not need to worry about their children’s future growing up here in the motherland.

Ever since arriving in Karabakh, the couple have been unableto buy their own house. They rent a flat above their souvenir shop. Although they have lived here many years, they continue to speak the eastern Armenian dialect. Armond smiles when he says that his children use the Karabakh dialect, because this means that they are true Karabakhis.

When asked what hopes he has for his children, Armond jokingly replies: “In fact, we are training them to be diplomats. And today or tomorrow, whenever Karabakh’s independence is recognised, our children will be able to become ambassadors. But seriously, we see the future of our children in Karabakh; they travel a lot now, but the most important things for them are in Karabakh. We found our piece of heaven here and I think they too will stay here”.

Frontline tensions continue

For many years, the tension on the frontline has seen its ups and downs. Local analysts say that last August (2014) was the worst it has been since the war. It was equally tense in 2015. There have been heavy losses on both sides.

The village of Talysh, in Martakert region, is just three kilometres away from the frontline. Today, just beyond the right side of the road stretches the Karabakh-Azerbaijani border.And, on the other side, Azerbaijani villages are visible to the naked eye. During the war, villagers dropped everything and fled, and only started coming back in 1994. Today, Talysh has just 544 inhabitants. You can still see the dilapidated houses of those who never came back.Walking along the edge of the village fields, the head of the village, Vilen Petrosyan, says that they have not been irrigated for more than 20 years. Only last year were they able to fix the irrigation and so this year’s harvest was good. But the problem with drinking water remains.

Despitethese problems, most young people stay in the village. Many of them study at the State University in Stepanakert.Those families who can afford it send their child to study in Armenia or abroad. After graduation, those who have not found work in the city come back to their village. Some work at the pumping station, teach at the local school, or serve in the army. But people’s main occupation is agriculture, although the poor state of the roads means that it’s increasingly difficult to get one’s goods to market. Petrosyan says it’s not a problem to be near the border, but rather to be on the outskirts.

In late September, nine shells exploded near the village. Fortunately, there were no casualties. Fifty-year-old resident Nikolai Abelyan told me that even in August last year it was not so bad. “The safety of the children is the most important thing. If they start bombing us again, I’m going to send the kids away and go to the frontline myself”, he says. Petrosyan expressed his fears: “They had a military target, but next time the rocket may land on the village”. But even the rockets could not disrupt daily life in Talysh. The very next day, the children were outside playing football. The Ministry of Defence announced that it was the first time since the war that Azerbaijan had used large-calibre weapons: grenades, artillery, and multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS).

The OSCE Minsk Group has been dealing with conflict settlement since the early 1990s. This is the only format in which mediation between Armenia and Azerbaijan can take place. Prior to 1998, Karabakh also participated in the talks, but for the past 17 years Azerbaijan has refused to negotiate directly with Karabakh, and so Armenia has had to step in to represent the interests of the region’s people. Today, the mediators are trying to preserve the ceasefire and the format of regular meetings. Recently, they proposed starting a discussion to exchange information on people who went missing during the war, as a confidence-building measure.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been working on the issue of missing people in Karabakh. In June this year, it resumed the process of taking DNA samples from relatives of missing people. Martina Balayan, the wife of a missing soldier from the village of Artashen, Alexander Balayan, hopes that this will help to break the silence that has endured for more than two decades. “For 20 years we have lived with the hope that one day he might show up, or at least that we might get some information on his whereabouts”, she says.

After her husband went missing, Martina and her three children went to live with her in-laws. Her mother-in-law, Seda Balayan, says that she more than once suggested to Martina that she remarry and that she would gladly raise the children herself. But Martina chose to stay and raise her children herself. Now she is a grandmother. She herself says that she would have been unable to get by on her meagre salary as secretary to the village council if it were not for her in-laws helping her out: “It’s thanks to them that I was able to send all three children to university. And today, despite their age, they keep helping us out”.

The economy

Since Karabakh is de facto independent, but unrecognised, it depends on Armenia in many ways. Having an Armenian passport allows Karabakhis to travel freely. Armenia also provides financial support in the form of interstate loans. The budget of Karabakh is based on taxes and interstate loans, and the currency used is the Armenian dram.

The main sectors of the economy are mining, agriculture, light industry, and energy. Karabakh produces 100 percent of its electricity thanks to its water resources, although the local energy system is integrated into that of Armenia.

In spite of the global financial crisis, in recent years GDP has grown by 10 percent annually, according to official figures. Last year, the government gave a pay rise to civil servants, and raised pensions and social benefits. However, this year it was forced to make a number of structural and personnel changes, including selling off state property and some government cars.

Although pensions have increased, life is difficult for the elderly. Seventy-five-year-old pensioner Gurgen Arakelyan says that the increase in pensions is not significant because “the next day either gas or electricity prices have gone up as well, not to mention food prices. If not for other people helping me out, it would be very difficult to live off this pension”.

There are a number of charitable programmes, some of which are implemented by the government and others by NGOs. The most highly-paid professionals are civil servants, doctors, teachers, and military personnel. The private sector also pays well. However, in general, low wages and unemployment have forced a number of Karabakhis to go and work abroad, mostly in Russia.

Mihran Gabrielyan, who lives in the village of Sos, is the father of a young family. In order to save up for his own house, he went to work in Russia for two years. For now, he is forced to live with his parents and his brother’s family. “I have a vineyard, and if it’s a good year I will collect at least two tonnes of grapes. Besides that, I keep some livestock. It is possible to live on this, but how many years do I have to carry on like this to save up for my own house”, he asks.

Baby boom: the Karabakhis are optimists

In 2008, Russia-based Armenian diaspora representatives Levon Hayrapetyan and Ruben Vardanyan funded a mass wedding in Karabakh where 700 couples got married in one day. This led to a real baby boom. The birth rate has risen significantly in recent years. Despite the many challenges, it seems that Karabakhis are optimistic about their country’s future.

Their only desire is peace, but they are always ready to go to war if necessary. In the evenings after work, Stepanakert residents like to walk in the central park and listen to the local brass band. Others sit around with a few beers in the local cafes after a long day and discuss the latest news. And, at the same time, only a few kilometres away, soldiers are risking their lives to protect the border, in a state of neither peace, nor war.

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