It’s Time to Recognize Nagorno-Karabakh’s Independence

 Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi

On September 27 the world awoke to the calls of yet another regional war, this time in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan had launched a full-scale attack on Nagorno-Karabakh. The call to battle was loudly heard around the world. And the lives of millions of people are now at stake.

Armenians have always mostly populated Nagorno-Karabakh, which they call Artsakh. They have resided there for millennia. Recent excavations of the ancient sophisticated city of Tigranakert, not to mention standing centuries-old Christian monasteries dating as far back as the fourth century, prove this to be true. There really is no debate. 


An excavation at Tigranakert, 2011

My personal impressions of the citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh have always been enthusiastic. They are a European society with a rich cultural legacy. They are soft-spoken yet jovial and cordial. They always hold their heads high with dignity and grace. They are renown for their national dish jingalov hats and floral, potent vodka distilled from mulberries.

In my own experience spending quality time with them and staying as a welcome guest in their homes, they are a peace-loving, sincere, hospitable, and confident people.

They are confident and resolute not only because its part of their inherent nature but also because they are the victors. They fought for their land and their self-determination, and nothing—no foreign powers competing for access to fossil fuel resources from the Caspian or invaders with militaristic intentions of imposing dominance over them—will ever break their will to exist as free world citizens living in a thriving democracy.

Nagorno-Karabakh was part of Armenia until Joseph Stalin essentially handed it over to the newly formed Azerbaijan SSR in 1921. Although Nagorno-Karabakh had autonomous status under Azerbaijani control tensions were simmering. In 1988 a movement was launched in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh calling for the oblast to be placed under Armenian control. That movement led to armed hostilities initiated by Azerbaijan. On December 10, 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself an independent state before Azerbaijan formally established its own independence from the Soviet Union. The subsequent war fought by Armenian and Azerbaijani forces claimed tens of thousand of lives and nearly one million people were displaced.

Since 1994, when a ceasefire brokered by Boris Yeltsin was declared, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh have worked tirelessly towards rebuilding their homes and communities—including the capital city Stepanakert, towns like Shushi and Askeran and countless villages—and intricately weaving a democratic society that upholds the values of human rights, human dignity, and a peaceful existence. 

But now that peaceful existence has completely been upended. Nagorno-Karabakh now faces a grave humanitarian crisis. Due to the merciless, sustained shelling of Stepanakert and Shushi by Azerbaijani forces nearly 75,000 people have been displaced from their homes. The shelling has damaged Stepanakert’s infrastructure as well as countless apartment buildings and houses.

Sundown service at Gandzasar monastery

The Republic of Artsakh, as it is formally called, embodies all the principles of a shining, properly functioning democracy, complete with an elected president and parliament. 

Nothing will break the resolve of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to live as a tranquil society that is in charge of its own affairs, as they have clearly proven to the world since the 1994 ceasefire. But they have been patronized by the world powers, which explains why this harmonious society is so cautious.

Nagorno-Karabakh is not without devoted friends. Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), founded by Baroness Carolyn Cox, who has visited Nagorno-Karabakh over 85 times since 1992, continues to provide vital humanitarian aid. 

Currently the US Congress is considering a resolution condemning Azerbaijan’s attack on Nagorno-Karabakh. For decades Congress has consistently shown its support for Nagorno-Karabakh through a number of resolutions. Since 1998 the US government has provided direct assistance to Nagorno-Karabakh. Over 100 members of Congress, including seven from Massachusetts, comprise the Congressional Armenian Caucus, the members of which have introduced legislation in support of Nagorno-Karabakh’s devotion to regional peace.

Ten US states, including Massachusetts and California, have passed bills recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as a republic.   

I believe that a peaceful coexistence, one of mutual respect and tolerance, is possible in the region. Perhaps that’s naïve, wishful thinking, but I want to believe it, because the people of Nagorno-Karabakh have nothing to hide. They don’t want to block out the world. That’s not who they are.

But Nagorno-Karabakh’s sovereignty as a democratic nation, and not a “breakaway region controlled by Armenian separatists,” must be finally recognized in order for that peaceful coexistence to happen. The reality simply cannot be ignored any longer.

A view of the mountains from Shushi

 All photos Copyright © Christian Garbis

This post was originally published on Medium.


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