I have just got back from a visit to the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh. I am certain many of you wonder where or what that is or why you have never heard of such a place. I assure you, however, that it does exist. In order to get to Nagorno Karabakh, one has to go via Armenia. So I flew to Yerevan from Tallinn and a minibus took me to Nagorno Karabakh along a mountainous road steeped in thick fog. I shall write more about Yerevan next time.
Nagorno Karabakh, or Artsakh as it is known locally, declared independence in 1991, yet no other countries have recognised its independence, so it remains a de facto state to this day while it is de jure part of Azerbaijan. It functions as an independent country, though. They collect taxes, have their own postal service and ministries. In fact, they just held parliamentary elections, which were deemed fair by OSCE observers (according to Armenian media), but were not recognised by the US, EU, Azerbaijan and Turkey.
When Azerbaijani SSR was created, Nagorno Karabakh was incorporated into the Azerbaijani SSR as an autonomous oblast. When the USSR dissolved in 1991, Nagorno Karabakh declared independence and have been fighting with the neighbouring Azerbaijan ever since. A ceasefire was brokered by Russia in 1994, yet there is constant shooting at the front line and a number of soldiers die daily. The OSCE Minsk group was also established in 1994, consisting of Russia, France and the US, with an aim to resolve the conflict through negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Peace and war now co-exist in the country: while everything seems to be OK in the capital Stepanakert, there is constant fighting going on at the front line.
What is the problem, I hear you say?
Nagorno Karabakh, or Artsakh as it is called in Armenian, is inhabited by Armenians, who claim that Artsakh has always been a part of the Greater Armenia, which used to stretch from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea. They hold Armenian passports, use Armenian Dram, speak Armenian and share the same culture, values and feelings towards their neighbours. The commemoration of the centenary of the Armenian genocide had just passed and so posters displaying it and the alleged cultural genocide in Azerbaijan were visible.
However, prior to 1991, Azeris and Armenians lived together in the territory of Nagorno Karabakh and a number of Armenians lived in Azerbaijan. Once the war broke out, both returned to their homelands, leaving only a handful of Armenians in Azerbaijan and vice versa. People who had so far lived friendly, had intermarried and got on very well suddenly started to hate each other.
As I only visited Nagorno Karabakh, I got a very one-sided view of the conflict. I got shown a number of historical maps and documents stating that the land has always been Armenian and the Azeri claim to Nagorno Karabakh is unfounded. Yet, when I asked the locals how they feel about Azeris, the answer was never hostile towards the people of Azerbaijan. But when an official tells the story of the history of Artsakh, it seems as if they believe Azeris like killing Armenians and as soon as an Armenian steps over the Azerbaijan border they will be murdered by an angry mob. So I never really found out the true feelings towards Azerbaijanis. I found the Karabakhians extremely friendly and happy people in general, but the blind hatred towards their Eastern neighbour is so prevalent at times, that it is sometimes hard to believe all that I was told about the history of the place.
Neither side is a 100% angelic or villainous in this case. It is a very complicated conflict and I personally cannot see any way of reconciling it peacefully. Nagorno Krabakh makes up about 20% of Azeri territory, but this number is contested by Armenians, who claim is to be much smaller. Azerbaijan is extremely unlikely to just give its territory away, so it cannot be united with Armenia unless they annexed the territory. Nagorno Karabakh seems to be OK with the status quo and unfortunately the current state of affairs is their best chance of maintaining some autonomy, despite being largely dependent on Armenia.
The culture of Nagorno Karabakh is a mixture of Armenian, Middle Eastern, Russian and Soviet cultures. I felt very nostalgic on many occasions. The place is very isolated as its only open border is with Armenia. The remnants of Soviet Union are visible not only in the architecture, fashion and bureaucracy, but also in ubiquitous Ladas still labelled as SU. Lada is the car of choice locally, mixed with some Moskvich, Chinese and Western cars. Lada boys with very unappealing, yet somehow special haircuts drive Lada taxis. The lingua franca is Russian, so I got very good practice and managed quite OK, especially after having had some local mulberry vodka – tutovka. The local food was outstanding. Barbequed meat, fresh salads, pickles and limitless supply of bread make the cuisine very Middle Eastern, but breakfast consisting of sour cream, watery ham and black tea speak more of the wonders of the USSR. My favourite part was the semi sweet homemade wine served everywhere. Traders at the local market sell homemade wine and moonshine (yes, I did get some after sampling it with the guy who sold it), dried fruit, pickles and a lot else. I tried the local speciality – zhingalovkhats – chopped herbs between thin layers of dough cooked on a hot plate. Very delicious, as expected.
Nagorno Krabakh has very tight ties with Russia and so the 9th of May victory parade posters were still all over town when I was there. Russian flags and ribbons of Saint George were visible. Heroes of the USSR are venerated in the local museums. However, Russia is not considered an ally, because it sells weapons to Azerbaijan. I found it slightly controversial when a local lady said she didn’t understand why the Baltic States would want to break off from the USSR as she thought we were all such similar people. I would have thought that a person from a country looking to be autonomous would have more sympathy towards our independence movement.
The roles of men and women are rather strict as well. The majority of boys expect to spend some time as soldiers protecting their country from Azerbaijan. They are very proud of their country and being a soldier is a matter of pride. Mothers raise their boys with the idea that one day they will have to send their child to the front line and cannot be sure whether or not he will come back. I even had a few dances with local soldiers, who had come to town for a night out in the local diskoteka.
I noticed a lot of pregnant women – more children means more citizens and a stronger country. There was a mass wedding of 700 couples sponsored by Armenian diaspora in order to increase the population. The style of clothing is rather conservative and I saw nearly no public displays of affection. A local girl, who spoke very good English, asked me if it would be OK for her to study IR, because she is a girl. I made sure she knows that she can become a soldier, president, nurse or whatever else she wants to be despite her sex. When visiting Artsakh state university I noticed that both the history and English classes were attended by girls only, so I asked my guide why that is. Her answer was that boys are not interested in such things and they would rather study to be lawyers and statesmen. I would like to hope that this type of answer would be unimaginable in Estonia.
The war is constantly on people’s minds. They must live with the thought that a full on war can break out any day and hence the mood is very strange and hard to describe. There are tanks around towns, soldiers and police all over the place and posters honouring war heroes decorate walls. Yet I felt extremely safe.
When I told people I was from Estonia I was met with smiles and some people had even been to Riga, Vilnius or Tallinn – all capitals of Estonia according to some.
Stepanakert is the capital of Nagorno Karabakh. It is a relatively small place with some very impressive buildings and war memorials and a lot of remnants of Soviet architecture.
The state of the infrastructure is generally very bad. The roads turned into rivers after a downpour and were not so great to start with.However, there is a lot of construction going on, again sponsored by diaspora. Stepanakert is in a valley, so the views all around are beautiful once the fog disappears.
I visited a couple of museums in the capital. The purpose of the museum of history seemed to be to convince its visitors that the territory of Nagorno Karabakh is Armenian and Azeris brought nothing but bad traditions and are now waging a war for nothing.
The museums of missing solders and perished soldiers were extremely eerie with photos of the lost or perished soldiers on the walls with some of their personal belongings. I didn’t see any other tourists in Stepanakert and only a couple of other hotel guests. This, combined with my hair colour made me very famous as I walked along in the city. Lots of people asked where I was from and all wanted to tell me about Nagorno Karabakh and their war and history.
Shusha is a town, which left me with the most emotions from the whole trip. It used to be a town, which was compared to Tbilisi for its culture and intellectuals. It used to be inhabited by both Azeris and Armenians, who lived as neighbours without problems or tensions. Once the war broke out the Azeris got hold of Shusha and all Armenians were driven out. On 9th of May 1992 Armenian forces ‘liberated’ Shusha and drove out the Azeris. The first tank to enter the town now stands proudly at the edge of town.
The words ‘liberated’, ‘occupied’, ‘motherland’, ‘victims’ are used a lot, which inevitably left me the impression of propaganda. It was hard to determine whether or not people really believed the words they said or whether they didn’t know any other narrative of the history or whether they felt obliged to use the official narrative. The town was extremely important in the war as from it the whole of Stepanakert is visible and therefore bombing it and even targeting civilians was made possible.
As I was heading towards the mountains at the sound of a Spanish lullaby, a number of carcasses of old Soviet cars were lying in the poppy fields. The Shusha fort, built by Persians, was the first sight I saw followed by a monument of a war hero covered in flowers.
There was little left of Shusha’s former glory. Houses had been bombed and were in derelict condition.
Roads were even more awful than in the capital. Mosques built by Azeris were still standing, but slowly degenerating. I asked a local lady how she found life there and she just said that life was hard. That was probably one of the truest things I heard in Nagorno Karabakh. The natural beauty surrounding Shusha contrasted the devastation of war perfectly. I got the sense that it is not a people’s war, but a political war and if they ever reached an agreement Armenians and Azeris could live together again. The houses of Azeris, however, are now taken over by Armenians.
I didn’t see that many people on the streets in Shusha, but the ones I did see were eager to talk and find out who I was. This guy gave me 100 Rubles from Russian Empire in 1905 as a present. For the first time in my life carrying around Zimbabwean dollars came in handy – I could return the gift with a 5 billion Zimbabwe dollar note.
Ganzasar, Tigranakert and Agdam
Ganzasar is a monastery located about an hour away from the capital and is high up in the mountains. A beautiful spot again, known as ‘the pearl of Nagorno Krabakh’. Armenians were the first to adopt Christianity as a state religion and are very proud of this fact, yet I was surprised how few churches I saw around. I was under the impression that it would be quite similar to Orthodox church, but is actually very different, at least visibly. On the way there I drove past this very interesting hotel built by a diaspora businessman. This mountain lion. And this. It is a fence made of Azeri number plates. A local guy said that when the Azeris left, they left their number plates behind, which I find very strange. I found this fence very offensive and similar to putting your enemy’s severed head on a stick outside of your castle. Disturbing.
Tigranakert was a small village close to the line of fire. A picnic had been organised and I had a chance to speak to locals again. A lady from Yerevan asked me if I am also going to Azerbaijan to hear their side of the story as well. She was the first one to even suggest that I should go to the enemy’s side. A very healthy attitude, I thought.As I sat on the ground by a little stream stuffing my face with grilled meat, pickles and bread, another local lady with quite a powerful voice sang patriotic songs. I didn’t understand what they were about, but the word ‘Artsakh’ sounded in all of them. I spoke to her afterwards and found out she was an orphan, both her parents had died in the war. She also sings in the local church and was in general really lovely. There was also a string quartet concert later on, but I never understood if it was just a concert or if it was a celebration or commemoration of some kind. In any case, it was another chance to drink tea with locals, chat and find out that they don’t actually hate their neighbours despite what they say at times.
This conflict very rarely gets broadcast in Western media, while Azerbaijani and Armenian media constantly report their sides of the story and their take of the events. There is a serious lack of impartial reporting of the conflict and a huge lack of awareness on this issue. People who live in Nagorno Karabakh are one of the warmest people I’ve met. I don’t believe that they hate their neighbours and I certainly don’t believe that they cannot get over their victim rhetoric if only they were given a chance to forget and move on. Every single university student I spoke to expressed a wish to travel abroad and every single one said they would come back and use their knowledge to build their country. Yet their university certificates are invalid, they suffer economically due to lack of trade relations with other countries and are generally quite cut off. I had never been to an unrecognised state and never would have imagined how much a status of country can change its fortune. A very sad reality, but life goes on for them. I just hope that the current reality doesn’t become too convenient and both sides will come to their senses and the killing of young soldiers can stop.