The reverberations of the solemn chants bounce off the barren rock-walled chamber, the smell of candle wax fills the air. A dim light filters from the tiny window in the apse. Soldiers in shabby uniforms and combat boots barely outnumber the priests in crimson and golden vestments, their singing timidly following that of the priests. Outside the Church of Mother Mary an eerie silence lingers – all of Talish’s 400-odd inhabitants fled on April 2 when heavy artillery from Azerbaijan rained down, leading to an exchange of fire that killed over 100 and sent shockwaves through the South Caucasus region.
For over two decades the Armenian-controlled self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) and Azerbaijan have been trapped in a war of slow motion. In 1988, as the Soviet Union was in its dying days, the Armenian majority of the then Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast that existed within the borders of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic appealed to join neighbouring Armenia. By 1991 the demand had morphed into a call for independence, endorsed by a referendum which sparked open warfare. A truce was signed three years later as Azerbaijani forces were defeated. The ebb and flow of the war redrew the region’s ethnic map as an estimated 30,000 people died and about a million were displaced – Azerbaijanis were pushed out of the region and of Armenia, as were the Armenians living in Azerbaijan.
Since 1994 the NKR, recognised by seven American states but no sovereign nation including Armenia, has lived in a state of no war, no peace, running its own affairs with Yerevan providing a vital economic, political and military lifeline. Pro-Stepanakert forces also control seven regions around Nagorno-Karabakh proper to provide a buffer zone. Baku considers the area occupied territory by Armenia. Perched on a mountainous, painfully beautiful plateau marooned in Azerbaijani territory, the NKR depends on the Lachin corridor for its connection to the outside world – an endless bendy road connecting it to Armenia as an umbilical cord. A state-of-the-art airport built outside Stepanakert lies empty, as Azerbaijan has threatened to down the first plane taking off from the runway.
The NKR is one of several frozen conflicts that are hangovers from the messy end to the Soviet Union. Yet life in Artsakh, as the NKR is called in Armenian, has been more about fire than ice, and international efforts led by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, which is co-chaired by France, Russia, and the US, have done little to cut through the Gordian knot.
Facing faceless enemies
Talish lies a stone’s throw from the Line of Contact that marks the front between opposing beliefs – on one side stand the Azerbaijanis pursuing the principle of territorial integrity, on the other Karabakhi Armenians defending the principle of self-determination. It also marks the border between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis, but Bishop Vitanes Abrahamyan hastens to stress that “this was never a conflict along religious lines”.
Forget high-tech warfare: just a few hundred metres apart, soldiers are cornered in a stagnant gut-wrenching, nerve-fraying waiting game, buried in WWI-like trenches – sandbags, barbed wire, lines of rusty tin cans to warn of intruders. A sign warning of mines is a stark reminder that the region has one of the world’s highest prevalence of landmines and unexploded devices, which have claimed hundreds of lives since the mid-1990s, according to the Halo Trust, a British not-for-profit organisation that specialises in removing war debris such as landmines.
Through a slit in the trench concrete, Major Rudika Akopyan briefly looks at an enemy he cannot see. At 28 he is one of the elders in the group; most conscripts are in their late teens, early 20s – younger than the conflict itself – and few, if any, have ever met an Azerbaijani. With only about 150,000 people (of which roughly 5,000 are working in Armenia or Russia), every citizen counts. No one knows how many serve in the army – numbers on soldiers and weapons are classified. “As many as needed” is the routine answer from officials. “Our army counts on 150,000 soldiers, as each of us is a fighter ready to defend our land”, is the other.
Volunteers abound, from inside the NKR, Armenia and beyond. Take Harutyun Agasarkisian. An Armenian-American who more recently called Atlanta, Georgia home, the 60-year-old jeweler lobbied for over a decade for the NKR and in March managed to get the US Georgia State House to recognize the region’s independence. When the violence escalated in April Agasarkisian took the first flight out to Stepanakert to help defend the region.
“We want peace and have learned to defend it with the gun,” remarks Karen Mirzoyan, the de-facto foreign minister of NKR.
Ceasing fire is not a ceasefire
Experts feared a violent escalation for months as the number of skirmishes had grown since late 2014. The truce brokered by Moscow on April 5 remains as shaky as ever. “Ceasing fire is not a ceasefire,” notes Richard Giragosian, founding director of the Yerevan-based Regional Centre. “The fragile but largely observed [one] that was in effect for some 21 years was the first notable casualty” he wrote, adding that “a series of sporadic exchanges of fire reaffirmed the volatility and the vulnerability of the situation”.
On May 17 Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisyan, who hails from Stepanakert, resumed face-to-face talks, where they agreed that there can be no military solution to the conflict and to strengthen the OSCE-led international monitoring mechanism along the frontline. The small step is potentially a big leap, not least because Baku has been reluctant to endorse it.
Neil Melvin, director of the armed conflict and conflict management programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), remain cautious. He notes that for decades Baku has opposed the institutionalization of the status quo of the 1994 ceasefire, while Yerevan tried to maintain it so that the gains of the war in the 1990s could become a de facto reality. “Monitoring is of course a way of reducing some of the causalities, but it also reinforces the status quo – on its own it is about conflict management not a peace process,” he explains to bne IntelliNews. Moreover, “while Azerbaijan suffered heavy losses for relatively minor territorial gains, this is nonetheless seen as a victory, after 25 years of a sense of having been defeated,” he adds.
Baku and Yerevan do share one belief: discontent with Moscow. As it sells arms to both sides and has one single military base in Armenia, the Kremlin is interested in maintaining the status quo.
The Vienna summit also highlighted one other crucial factor: the Stepanakert authorities were not there. The 1994 ceasefire was a tripartite agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, but since then the latter has been sidelined and not invited to the negotiating table. “[Baku] has tried to move to bilateral talks to convince the world this is a conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the land of Nagorno-Karabakh, that is a territorial war,” explains Ahot Gulyan, speaker of the 33-seat national assembly. “The main target is Nagorno-Karabakh, then it should be up [to it] to protect its own interests in the negotiation process.”
The déjà vu of war
Inevitably, it is the civilians who pay the highest price as they struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy. In Stepanakert, hotels host up to 4,000 displaced people from the evacuated villages. Outside the Nairi Hotel, founded by an Armenian-Australian entrepreneur, the small playground is empty, but the corridors and rooms resound to the noise of children playing.
Amida Kaghamanyan keeps her room anonymously tidy – a photo by the television, a few toys, a bowl of pumpkin seeds that David, aged 5, happily devours. “I want to go back home soon,” sighs the 29-year-old from Madaghis. On the night of April 2 she hid in the cellar with her three children and then joined hundreds of people fleeing from the mortars and rockets. This prompted a sense of déjà vu – as a child she still remembers her mother holding her hand as they ran from shooting during the first Karabakh war.
Amida’s husband stayed behind to repair one of the hydropower plants that provide the energy lifeline to the de-facto republic and count as one of its main economic resources. A “strong army” is one of the NKR’s slogan; “developing economy” is the other. “The lack of international recognition poses challenges to run an economy,” admits Prime Minister Arayik Harutyunyan. “Still, since 1994 we’ve recorded an average 10% annual growth and currently the GDP per capita stands at $3,000.”
The signs of Yerevan’s cash injections are everywhere, as are those from the Armenian diaspora. Armenian-Lebanese entrepreneur Pierre Fattouch, who founded Karabakh Telekom in 2002, and Switzerland-based businessman Vartan Sirmakes top the list of investors who look mainly at agriculture, mining and tourism as key sectors to support.
Back in Talish, the clerics wrap the chalice and the sacramentary to take them to Martakert; the parish does not operate in the deserted village. In the small garden outside the church a table offers kebabs, minced meat wrapped in lavash, the traditional wafer-thin Armenian bread, juicy tomatoes, and reinvigorating greens. The apricot vodka generously served in paper cups may as well be holy water. To life, they toast.
Editor’s note: bne IntelliNews travelled to Nagorno-Karabakh as part of a press trip sponsored by the European Friends of Armenia, a Brussels-based non-governmental organization. The content of this report is independent of the sponsor.