Observations of Karabagh

I first visited Karabagh in the summer of 2001. For two days I was able to do some basic sight seeing and stay with a family. Although I had trouble understanding the dialect—and I still do—I was able in a short time period understand what makes the Armenians of Karabagh tick and what are their thoughts about life.

As I previously logged, during the weekend of July 24-25 I returned to Karabagh for a second time to attend a wedding. Stepanakert was for the most part the same as I remembered—exceptionally clean compared with Yerevan, plenty of green spaces, and active with business. People’s overall attitudes and outlook are different. They are more outgoing than people from Armenia and naturally, more self-dependent.

The wedding ceremony was held at the rebuilt Armenian church in Shushi, which was used during the war as an arms arsenal by the Azeri troops. The city is being rebuilt—some new buildings such as hotels and well-designed private homes alongside dilapidated or bombed-out apartment buildings. But the population is ever-dwindling—only about 5,000 people down from 30,000 up until the start of the war. Nearly the entire population of the town is unemployed, save for the few business owners and people that travel to Stepanakert—only 10 kilometers away—to work. The main avenue as well as the sidewalks have been repaved, and the projects are ongoing. The two roads leading into the city, however, one from the south and another to the northwest, are still in dire need of repair, as they haven’t been touched in I would guess nearly 20 years. According to one source, two factories, one of which was to be run by a diasporan Armenian, were supposed to have opened in Shushi to partially solve the unemployment issue, but the proposals never went through.

I also wanted to note that it seems Lachin is going through a kind of upswing. Four years ago the main road going through the village was lined with crumbing shack-like dwellings and bombed out buildings. They are being replaced with entirely new, private homes as well as some apartment buildings, from what I could see at a distance. The homes were certainly newly built as the windows and stucco on the outside walls looked fresh. They also have distinct red metal roofs, which seemed to number in the dozens. This is a good sign—Lachin is being repopulated, but I do not yet have information about economic development there. However, one photojournalist—Onnik Krikorian—has indicated in past articles and private conversations that the living conditions there were some of the worst he as seen anywhere in the Armenian-populated Caucasus, including parts of Javakhk. He also believes that in actuality, little has changed there.


I just wanted to make some comments here about the upcoming, supposed “peace deal” that may come to fruition by the end of this year. According to the unconfirmed, essentially gossip that is circulating in the Armenian press, five or six territories that are now under Armenian control are to be returned, in exchange, supposedly, for the self-determination of the Karabagh people. Supposedly, the citizens of Karabagh after 10-15 years will be able to decide in a referendum whether they want to be independent or join with Armenia. Even though the Armenians have been living independently and in self-sufficiency for more than 10 years now, and has been able to secure its borders with essentially no real Azeri military threat—up until now—the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and whoever else is involved feels that the Armenians need another 10 years to decide what they want to do. After all, it’s only fair, seeing that Karabagh is still, technically, part of Azerbaijan as no country in the world has recognized Karabagh as a free, independent republic, including Armenia.

The very idea that an immediate referendum would not be granted to the Armenian people by the forces above is totally against logic, as is the very notion that the Armenian side is actually conceding to its insistence of passing through a package deal, thus agreeing to a “step-by-step” process for peace. Supposedly, the Lachin district would remain Armenian controlled, while the northern and key, strategic region of Kelbajar may or may not be returned, as that step would be dealt with later. These steps are entirely in the Azeri favor and contradict everything that the Armenians have fought for during five grueling years. Karabagh Armenians would forfeit their independence—whether recognized internationally or not—and settle for undefined self-governance, if that will be acceptable to Aliyev and his people, who still after 10 years do not understand that they lost the war and that Karabagh will not again be under Azeri control anytime soon. Although the Armenians essentially won the war, they will be forced to relinquish what they won—their freedom.

This quote by Vazken Manoukian proves my point:

Some Armenian opposition leaders have already rejected that formula. One of them, Vazgen Manukian, called it “absolutely unacceptable” on Thursday. “We give away those territories and there will be a referendum in 10 or 15 years time,” he told RFE/RL. “What would we gain from that? I don’t know.”

“Karabakh’s status must be determined now, not after 10 or 15 years,” he said. “Armenia and Azerbaijan must declare that they want a referendum to be held in Karabakh now and will accept its results.”

--Mediators Say Karabakh Peace In Sight, July 14, RFE/RL

In my opinion, there are two things that cannot be compromised—the integrity of Karabagh as either an independent republic, as it is now, or as an integrated part of Armenia. Second, the redefined borders of Karabagh—as certainly several of the bargaining chip territories will need to be returned to Azerbaijan—must incorporate the regions of Kelbajar and Lachin; there should be no comprise by the Armenian side here. Lachin is a given, since the current lifeline connecting the two republics goes through there. Kelbajar, however, holds an equal importance to its neighboring territory to the south as an essential area that helps strengthen Armenia’s strategic positioning in the Caucasus region and closes up the gap between the two republics. It is bad enough that Western powers chose to totally bypass Armenia in its building of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, thereby further suppressing Armenia’s economic rise from its Soviet ashes. Armenia should not relinquish the essential territorial integrity it now holds and desperately needs, no matter what international pressures it endures.

It is interesting to note that the ARF-Dashnaktsutiun, which has advocated for 10 years the settlement of the Karabagh issue in a package deal and has been a hardliner in the refusal to return some if not all of the territories, does not seem to have a solid stance regarding this issue. There is this quote, which doesn't say much:

The idea is supported in principle by Armen Rustamian, a leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a nationalist party which is represented in Armenia’s government and favors a hard line on the Karabakh conflict.

“The main demand of the Armenian side is that the issue of Karabakh’s status be solved in accordance with the Artsakh people’s right to self-determination,” he told RFE/RL. “So we must achieve the realization of that right.”

“But we don’t have the remaining details,” he added. “As they say, the devil is in the details. A few concrete issues must be clarified. For example, the territory on which the referendum is to be held and the electorate that will take part in the vote.

“If we see that the details nullify the idea, that will mean we are again in an illusory situation and we of course will not agree to that.”

--Karabakh Leaders ‘Opposed To Phased Peace Deal’, July 12, 2005, RFE/RL

According to my source, Karabagh Armenians are well aware of the current plans for peace, but no one believes that they will be realized. Not even the army generals think so. The thing I’d like to know is if the people don’t believe the peace deal as it stands will happen and thus don’t want it to happen, what will they do if they are forced to accept it? Will they speak up and demand immediate internationally recognized independence or unification with Armenia, or will they shrug their shoulders, quietly curse their government, and then blurt out, “vochinch?” Only time, which seems to be pretty short, will tell.

To read recent press articles about recent Karabagh-related developments, see this month's press archive on ArmeniaLiberty.org.


Anonymous said…
Garo, the "unconfirmed gossip" that you refer to re. the details of the current push for peace is very definitely real. I know where the "gossip" came from but can't tell you. However, I will say that the details are very, very real.

That said, it's likely that if anything is going to derail the talks it's going to be the November parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan and possible political unrest in Armenia during the constitutional ammendments.

Even so, there is still a fair share of optimism about a possible deal. Nevertheless, it will all probably end in failure.

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