Life in limbo: past, present, and future in Nagorno-Karabakh | HART Prize for Human Rights

22 April 2015

This entry, by Gillian Wong Miswardi, received Second Prize in the HART Prize for Human Rights. View more entries here

When describing the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, one often hears the term ‘frozen conflict’ being used. On some level, the conflict is indeed ‘frozen’. Starting with Nagorno-Karabakh’s declaration of merger with Armenia in 1988, the situation has been difficult. The ensuing Nagorno-Karabakh war that started in the same year was concluded with a ceasefire in 1994. More than twenty years on, Nagorno-Karabakh is still locked in a stalemate. As state leaders convene to resolve the situation, ideological battles are being waged on home soil and thereby threatening the fragility of the situation. While analysis of the Nagorno-Karabakh situation often focuses on state actors, it is equally important to understand the lived experiences of those in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

Education is seen as a panacea to all problems, from conflict to poverty. Indeed, it is unsurprising that the United Nations describes it as a fundamental human right. While the positive effects of increased education need no mentioning, we must also consider the effects of conflict on education. In particular, what is the effect of conflict on what students learn and how does that in turn affect how they view others? Bakhtiyar Aslanov describes his experience of speaking to Azeri and Armenian students, eventually concluding that education is a “conflict promoter” (2013). As with other conflicts, history is written in such a way to legitimate particular claims over contested territories. The Ministry of Education of Azerbaijan included details on the Nagorno-Karabakh war in student diaries portraying Armenians as their sworn enemies, as Aslanov notes (2013). On the other side, the Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan was recorded as having said the same thing about Azerbaijan. The ramifications of these discourses was clear when Aslanov interviewed Armenian and Azerbaijan students, all of whom associated the other side with being ‘the enemy’, ‘cruel’, and ‘evil’ (2013). Such accounts do not bode well for the future of Nagorno-Karabakh, whose future hangs in a precarious balance. While Aslanov did not speak to students within Nagorno-Karabakh, the consequences of these practices are dismal. Education has been hailed as the key to the future, shaping young minds and training future leaders. With such ideas grounded through education and future of Nagorno-Karabakh lying in the hands of these students, there seems to be no way out of this conflict.

Even with such ideological stances present in Azerbaijan and Armenian education systems, some residents of Nagorno-Karabakh are hopeful for a better future through education. However, this is where they experience first-hand the effects of Nagorno-Karabakh’s unrecognised status. While the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh hold Armenian passports, they are specially marked out by a code indicating that they live in the region (Yamskov 1991). However as Yamskov notes, their different citizenship status means that they are not eligible for the same benefits (1991). Thus for those who aspire to pursue higher education outside of Armenia, the citizenship and residence requirement of various scholarships are difficult to fulfil. With a GDP per capita of 318 US dollars, it is clear that young Nagorno-Karabakhis are in need of external funding (Office of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic in the USA, n.d.). Thus, while the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh may speak Armenian and feel Armenian, the unrecognised status of their region separates them from those living in Armenia. For many scholarships designated for international students, students in Nagorno-Karabakh who possess Armenian passports are ineligible on the basis of their residency (Matevosyan 2011). With a view to the wider world, students from Nagorno-Karabakh should be no short of praise. Yet in their way stands the problem of an unrecognised state that they live in.

Living in an unrecognised state means that for many residents expected provisions of the state are few and far between. In trying to attain recognition, the Nagorno-Karabakh government has spent money on military concerns instead of key areas of education and healthcare. Thus, healthcare provision is difficult in Nagorno-Karabakh. In addition to the diversion of government spending for security purposes, the fragmentation of kinship networks has had its toll on the healthcare system (Thompson, Dorian, and Harutyunyan 2010). Furthermore, without any resolution to the conflict, the attrition of young people has led to severe shortages in human capital. While the conflict means that more medical help is needed, it is also the cause of migration of medical professionals. Thompson et al. observed that medical education has suffered since the ceasefire, with the health system suffering increasing financial and infrastructural burdens (2010). Healthcare is increasingly important for Nagorno-Karabakh since approximately 25% of the residents are beyond retirement age, indicating that elderly illnesses are likely to become more common in the coming years (Kolstø and Blakkisrud 2008). This also suggests that the healthcare professionals themselves are becoming older and possibly going into retirement, further increasing the burden on the Nagorno-Karabakh health system.

Speaking to those who were involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh war as young soldiers, Shahnazarian and Ziemer observed several identity narratives that emerged from the conflict. The final narrative that they identify is one of ‘being a killer’ (2012). Apart from justifying their killing on the basis of self-preservation, the soldiers detached their ideas of the enemy as human in order to survive. The people of Azerbaijan are only known on the battlefield, and not even as humans. Thus, more than twenty years on from the ceasefire, a resolution is difficult to imagine. Far from being frozen, the lives of Nagorno-Karabakh residents are fraught with difficulty. The actions of the leaders of the various countries involved in this conflict trickle down to the everyday experiences of those living in Nagorno- Karabakh. More than that, the discourse that has emerged out of this conflict has shaped visions of the other (Armenian/Azeri). These visions of the past and experiences of the present converge to mould a future that is quietly simmering underneath the icy surface of this conflict.


Aslanov, Bakhtiyar. 2013. “Caucasus Edition – Education As a Conflict Promoter: The Nagorno- Karabakh Example.” April 1. promoter-the-nagorno-karabakh-example/.

Kolstø, Pål, and Helge Blakkisrud. 2008. “Living with Non-Recognition: State- and Nation-Building in South Caucasian Quasi-States.” Europe-Asia Studies 60 (3): 483–509. doi:10.1080/09668130801948158.

Matevosyan, Ani. 2011. “The Bologna Educational System in Nagorno-Karabakh.” The Neutral Zone. April 15.

Office of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic in the USA. n.d. “Economic Reforms.” Office of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic in the USA.

http://www Shahnazarian, Nona, and Ulrike Ziemer. 2012. “Young Soldiers’ Tales of War in Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Europe-Asia Studies 64 (9): 1667–83. doi:10.1080/09668136.2012.718423. Thompson, Michael E., Alina H. Dorian, and Tsovinar L. Harutyunyan. 2010. “Identifying Priority

Healthcare Trainings in Frozen Conflict Situations: The Case of Nagorno Karabagh.” Conflict and Health 4 (1): 21. doi:10.1186/1752-1505-4-21.

Yamskov, A. N. 1991. “Ethnic Conflict in the Transcausasus: The Case of Nagorno-Karabakh.” Theory and Society 20 (5): 631–60.

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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