Tensions high in disputed Caucasus territory

Europe Uncategorized

In Greek mythology, the Caucasus was a pillar supporting the world, but today the developing region is a hotbed of discontent that threatens to erupt into conflict once more…

Anyone taking the road from Goris to Stepanakert has passed through Lachin, the strategic, main artery in the lifeline between Armenia and the self-declared Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. Few actually visit the town now of course, perhaps unsurprisingly given the destruction evident throughout. The only interest for many passing through is that Lachin lies not in Karabakh, but within what the international community considers sovereign Azerbaijani territory.

Conflict erupted over Nagorno Karabakh in 1988 after this tiny enclave, mainly inhabited by Christian Armenians but governed by Azerbaijan, demanded reunification with Armenia. Moslem Azerbaijan refused. At least 25,000 died during the following six years of fighting, and one million were forced to flee their homes. By the time a ceasefire agreement was signed in May 1994, Armenian forces controlled 14 per cent of Azerbaijan.
Most of the 700,000 Azeri refugees that ended up living in squalid camps in Azerbaijan come from territory outside of Karabakh proper, and for the international mediators charged with the task of finding a peaceful solution to the 13-year-old conflict; any settlement must include the return of refugees to their former homes. The reality at ground zero, however, is that those villages and towns have long since been razed.

For most Armenians, this bridge between Armenia and Karabakh is part of an ancient historical motherland usurped long ago from its rightful owners by nomadic Turkic interlopers and is now being resettled. For Azeris, this is their land, recognised internationally and seized illegitimately. Nearly eight years after the ceasefire, the issue still has the power to pull Azeris out onto the streets, demanding, as they have in recent weeks and months, that their government take military action to reclaim the territory.

Into the buffer zone

The daily van that departs for Lachin from Yerevan should make the trip in five hours, but, driving at a snail’s pace, it takes seven. The landscape is scenic but the journey arduous, and the road itself says much about the region’s recent history. After passing the border where Armenia theoretically ends, the road is immaculately asphalted, but rubble from the war still lies strewn across the landscape. Further on, wires strung across the valley, originally intended to prevent low-flying helicopters from evading radar detection, still remain.

On the outskirts of Lachin, a recently constructed church belies the fact that this town, now renamed Berdzor, was once inhabited by at least 20,000 Azeris and Kurds. During the war, both sides pursued tactics designed to prevent inhabitants from returning to their homes, and the destruction unleashed on Lachin was considerable. Houses are being rebuilt however, but this time for approximately 3,000 Armenians relocated in an effort to repopulate the region.

The aim is to increase the population of the unrecognised republic from under 150,000 in 1994 to 300,000 by 2010. Given the size of Karabakh, it is hard to imagine that the plan does not also include towns such as Lachin that lie outside Karabakh proper, in the buffer zone connecting the enclave to Armenia. Moreover, while the official line suggests that those relocating to Karabakh and elsewhere are Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan, the reality on the ground suggests otherwise.

New arrivals

Zoric Irkoyan, for one, is not a refugee. Arriving six years ago from Yerevan, he openly admits that most of those inhabiting the disputed territory are from Armenia and that few refugees have joined the resettlement program. "Not many came because they were used to their life in Baku and Sumgait [in Azerbaijan]," explains Irkoyan. "Many now feel safer in Armenia, and like a million other Armenians, some have left for Russia."

Not surprising, perhaps.

What Irkoyan, his wife and two young daughters have come to is a simple, virtually unfurnished shack. Chickens run free in the yard outside, while a hole in the ground serves as the toilet for the entire family. Cooking is on a simple electric stove that just about manages to boil oriental coffee in 15 minutes, and water collects every morning in the makeshift sink assembled outside.

An old, dilapidated television barely picks up Russian television, and Armenian TV broadcast from Yerevan is even worse. Homes like these are among the poorest to be found anywhere the Caucasus, and while life may be difficult throughout the region, things are even tougher in Lachin. Still, Irkoyan does have a good job now, working as the chief education specialist for the local department of education, youth affairs, and sports.

The flag of the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh flies over his offices, a municipal building serving as the administrative centre for most of the territory sandwiched between Armenia and Karabakh. Stretching from Lachin to the Iranian border, what has become known as the occupied territories is marked on Armenian maps as Kashatagh, while to the north; Kelbajar is part of the New Shahumian region. For the traveller, though, only the rather insignificant border crossing indicates that this is not Armenia.

Irkoyan’s 45-minute journey to work takes him along terrible roads that are, in some places, nonexistent. As we pass the remains of devastated and derelict buildings, Irkoyan admits that conditions are bad, but says that there are plenty more waiting to come.

Fifteen thousand Armenians already live in Kashatagh, and buses bring the new arrivals to Lachin every week to claim social benefits dispensed from the window of the building opposite.

It would seem that for many in Armenia, conditions can be even worse, but in Lachin virtually everyone has work. Schools and other social services have been established to cater to the needs of the settlers, and there is also the lure of other benefits. Anyone intending to relocate to Kashatagh receives financial incentives, cattle and livestock worth about $240, land, and a ruined Azeri home that they can call their own.

None of that influenced Irkoyan’s decision to resettle here, he says. Part of the military force that seized the town 10 years earlier, he considers it his duty. "It was our dream to liberate Lachin," he explains, "and when I heard that there were schools in the liberated territories that needed specialists, I decided to move. If we were occupying someone else’s land, I would never have come, but there are Armenian churches and monuments destroyed by the Azeris everywhere."

"While those who once lived here could say they that were fighting for their birthplace," he continues, "they could not say that they were fighting for their historical motherland.

If some Azeris wanted to return we might consider giving them homes, but they don’t." Irkoyan adds that he even keeps the photograph of the former occupants of the home he has since rebuilt. "They looked like normal people," he admits.

Future perfect?

The sound of construction work can be heard throughout Lachin and there are even two markets, dozens of small shops, and a café. The shops may carry the names of regions long since lost to Turkey, but on the shelves, somewhat ironically, there are dozens of boxes of Azeri tea (Azercay) imported via Georgia. Irkoyan says that he has "no problem with establishing cultural or economic contact with the Azeris."

In contrast, Calouste, a 39-year-old former computer programmer from the Bangladesh district of Yerevan who opened a grocery store in Lachin four years ago, says that if there were enough Armenian goods to sell, he wouldn’t stock a single imported item. That is his goal, and when that happens, everything will be perfect.

Life may not yet meet Calouste’s definition of perfection and there is much hardship here, but there is a sense that Lachin is developing into a community, although of course, nothing is ever that simple in the Caucasus. With salaries low throughout the region, many still buy goods on credit. One customer has come in that day to settle his account, handing 6,000 Armenian dram (about $12) over the counter while Calouste’s sister crosses his name off a list that stretches several pages.

Another waits in line to buy vodka and wine while Calouste encourages him to buy goods produced in Armenia from a selection largely made up of imported items. He already offers bottles of wine named after the disputed city of Shushi in Karabakh, along with Armenian cigarettes, vodka, light bulbs, chocolate, ice cream, and fruit juices. There is even talk of growing tobacco nearby to supply cigarette producers in Armenia.

"We don’t want help," he says, apologising that he’s a nationalist. "If Armenians living in the Diaspora just send us money, we’ll forget how to help ourselves."

Present imperfect

The next day, Irkoyan takes me northward in the direction of Herik, formerly the Azeri village of Ahmadlu. Until around 1918, when the Azeris came and displaced its Armenian population, it was the Armenian village of Hayri. Herik lies 50 kilometres along a road that passes the 5th Century Armenian monastery of Tsitsernavank, but it seems like more than 200. Meandering through a pastoral scene that contrasts sharply with the sight of towns and villages long since razed to the ground, cows brought over the border with Armenia now graze among the ruins.

In these parts, it is not always easy to talk, like Calouste, of self-sufficiency. In Melikashen, a little village not far from Lachin, one family invites us in for coffee. Amid the dirt and dilapidation of their new home, "repossessed" from its former owners, the new arrivals explain that the Armenian Diaspora must invest in these new communities while Irkoyan is more interested in validating Armenian claims to this land by taking me to see an old Armenian castle. An Azeri house has been built into its side.

Behind the remains of an Armenian stone cross now broken in two, pigs are being herded into an outhouse while an old woman skins the head of a slaughtered sheep on the balcony above. Her husband invites us in, insisting, as duty demands, that we have some tan, a drink similar to yogurt, before we leave. A passing car throws up a cloud of dust, momentarily obscuring the view.

The next stop on a road that takes us past the remains of Azeri villages, towns, cemeteries, and the occasional Armenian monastery perched high overhead is Moshatagh. The village head, another new arrival from Jermuk, once a popular tourist destination in Armenia, sits with his family of eight on the veranda of their new home. His four-wheel drive is needed to make the journey to Herik, high in the surrounding hills, but even then, the twisting, narrow road will be difficult.

Upon our arrival, children in threadbare clothing clamour to have their photographs taken outside the 16th Century church that the Azeris once used as a cattle shed. Conditions must have been significantly worse in Armenia for families to consider relocating to Herik. There are no telephones, and water has to be collected from a hosepipe that serves as the irrigation system for the entire village. Irkoyan says that 50 per cent of the villages now being resettled have no electricity.

And for some, the conditions are too hard. Another family invites us in. Their living conditions are the worst I have seen anywhere. They have decided enough is enough and have since moved their seven children to Lachin as the winter set in. Another family from the 13 who originally came here has also left.

Others, however, are more resilient and defiant. Feasting on barbecue and lamb stew, perhaps as many as 100 sit around plastic sheets that serve as makeshift tablecloths. The vodka flows as freely as the nearby river, and toasts made by former fighters still in uniform are simple and to the point. For them, this is Armenian land, and it will never be given back.

Future imperfect?

Their toasts may be defiant, but there is a fear that gnaws the villagers as they eat – that Armenian President Robert Kocharian might make concessions in order to bring much-needed stability and economic investment to the region. Reports from Key West, Florida, where the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) attempted to broker an agreement, worry them.

So too do reports suggesting that in order to restart the peace process after it stalled in June, Armenia would have to first withdraw its troops from the occupied territories and return the land to Azerbaijan. The aim may be peace, but such talk could bring the sides closer to war again. Nationalists in both Armenia and Azerbaijan have already said they would rather resume hostilities than concede any territory to the other, and when Vardan Oskanian, Armenia’s foreign minister, referred to Kashatagh as "occupied", political parties instead called for his resignation.

Echoing these sentiments, Irkoyan says he would refuse to leave. "Some might have moved here because of the social conditions in Armenia," he says, "but others did not. I can’t guarantee that I will always live in Lachin, but there is a connection with this land. It is our life, and if we lose that, there is nothing. While I am not saying that everybody will fight again, at least 30 per cent would. Nobody can tell us what to do, not even the Americans."

"There could be concessions from some parts of Fizuli and Aghdam," he continues, "but anyone who knows this territory understands that nothing else can be returned. In my opinion, not one centimetre should be given back. If we return anything, we will again be risking the security of Armenians living in Karabakh. The most effective peacekeeping force is our own."

Further south, Razmik Kurdian, an Armenian from Lebanon who heads the tiny village of Ditsmayri situated between Zangelan and the Iranian border, puts it more bluntly. "This land was paid for in blood, and will only be given back with blood," he says, in between impromptu renditions of old nationalist songs glorifying victories over the Turks. "If anyone ever thought of returning this land, they would be betraying the memory of those who died."

For Irkoyan, Kurdian, and many others, therefore, this land will always be Armenian but while they admit that small pockets of territory outside Nagorno-Karabakh proper, in particular Aghdam and Fizuli, could conceivably be given back, it is unlikely that Azerbaijan and the international mediators will ever consider any of this land as Armenian. For the peacemakers, then, conflicting claims to the land that lies between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh could prove as sensitive an issue as the status of Karabakh itself.