Nagorno-Karabakh, My thoughts and experiences

20 May 2015

An anonymous writer visited Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh independently in January 2015. Here, he shares his reflections.

We all crowded round the shanty minibus that morning as a man approached me slowly on account of my rucksack. It was a misty winter morning on the outskirts of Yerevan, the Armenian capital. Once discovering I was British he nodded passively and took the opportunity to practice his English, sharing a little about his little known country. “It’s tough you see. People here have little opportunity, little money. We think in ways it’s a lot like Kosovo, but we don’t know why nothing is done” he said.  His name was Nikolai.  Dressed in a black jacket and dark clothes, Nikolai looked like the typical man of the region with thick black hair, intense eyes and a cigarette in his hand. He told me his stories and opinions of Nagorno-Karabakh with a sad outlook on where things were headed.

With the fall of the USSR in 1991, the ethnically Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence from Azerbaijan following a bloody proxy war all neighbouring countries all had a stake in.   During the 1920s Stalin moved the region that historically had an Armenian majority population to be under Azeri administration as part of a divide and rule strategy (BBC, 2015). Under USSR control, the historical dispute over this region had mostly been silenced, with any heated dialogue passing through Moscow as a mediator. But following the southern Caucasus nations of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan’s independence, a sense of entitlement and bruises still raw from the 1915 genocide of over 1.5 million Armenians by the hands of neighbouring Turks led to no willingness to solve the question peacefully, and the people within this region have suffered as a consequence ever since. Now operating as the unrecognised independent state of Nagorno-Karabakh, its people live in an environment of war defensive activity propped up by Armenia in a loosely controlled 1994 ceasefire, conscious of a constant threat to its very existence by a mobilized Azerbaijan army waiting over the border. Occasional exchanges of fire with Azerbaijan are a regular occurrence. A helicopter was shot down in November 2014, and only that morning 3 front line soldiers had become the latest casualties in tensions that show no sign of cooling.

We all crammed into the minibus half full of home made seats and Armenian music blasting away to begin the 4 hour journey to the capital Stepanakart. All the while I milled over what Nikolai had just said. Just like Kosovo? It was true. People saw hope in Kosovo. Here they saw an example that the international community can possess the power to recognize regions such as this. Nagorno-Karabakh had not been forgotten out of its lack of importance. Nagorno-Karabakh had been forgotten out of convenience. The international community did not want to get involved with recognizing a state that Azerbaijan, a UN sovereign member, fiercely defends as its own land. But the same was not the case with Kosovo, and the impacts of this unwillingness to properly engage with the situation during my time there where clearly visible. Military vehicles patrolled the roads all riddled with pot holes. Vantage points looking down the shallow valleys had the large concrete ramps tanks could go up to elevate their position. The towns we passed through looked like the only real sustained investment over the past 20 years had been funneled into the armed forces. Local Government wasn’t able to give its attention to the kind of infrastructure projects and job making opportunities that in developed countries are taken for granted.

Recognition of states like these is the gateway to future development and prosperity for its citizens. I think what most people would be surprised about when visiting is that inside these regions exist all the working dimensions of a state. Different Ministerial buildings responsible for everything from tourism to agriculture operate in the centre of Stepanakert as they would in any other capital. There is rule of law, a flag, an ethos, a common language. In this light, recognition is not at all a radical step. Nagorno-Karabakh does not face any of the problems of nation building that places such as Afghanistan or Iraq have had in the past because the institutions needed for a state are already there. They are only waiting to be recognized. It seems that to move forward tough decisions must be made, and no doubt some countries will be unhappy. But the past 20 years have demonstrated that by simply pretending that states such as these do not exist, nothing productive is done to aid the rights of the people living there, as well as the people displaced and now living elsewhere since the war.

The kindness and hospitality shown to me by the people of Nagorno-Karabakh during my time there was never exhausted for a moment. Even when verbal communication was limited to the scope of about 10 words, nothing held them back from attempting conversation to share their interesting culture over their good cognac, toasting to virtually anything. It seems however that in order to move forward bridges must be built from either side. I got the impression that from the historical narratives taught, Armenian culture implied that true patriotism only existed within a frame of hatred for its neighbours. “Would you go there yourself?” is a question I’d frequently ask the locals when conversation moved to Turkey and Azerbaijan, and I always received the same response; “No”, on one occasion a young woman comparing them to dogs. Acknowledgement from the Turkish and Azeri governments of the 1915 Genocide would certainly be a step forward in rapprochement. The Azerbaijan government still acts hesitantly to fully integrate the over 500,000 Azeris displaced from their homes in a permanent settlement as this would imply the acceptance of defeat over a land they still consider theirs.

Nagorno-Karabakh was a great surprise in how well nations can do under these difficult circumstances. Recognition seems to be holding back the people in what is otherwise a functioning state that will need no additional support in the future. Kosovo has proven to these people that recognition is not impossible, and I only hope that the international community can be shown the contradictions of their actions in the same way at the bus stop Nikolai showed me that morning.



BBC, (2015). Nagorno- Karabakh profile – Overview.


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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