Another Flashpoint in the Caucasus

By Scott Taylor  
Embassy Magazine, Nov. 12, 2008



STEPANAKERT, Nagorno-Karabakh—The only way to enter this hotly disputed region in the Caucasus is to travel by road from Yerevan, Armenia.

During the Soviet era, Nagorno-Karabakh had been included within the administrative boundary of Azerbaijan. However, as the Soviet Union began to unravel in 1989, ethnic tensions erupted in the Caucasus.

After Azerbaijan’s declaration of independence from Moscow in 1991, the ethnic-Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh took it upon themselves to secede from Azerbaijan. Following a referendum in 1992, the ethnic Armenian majority in Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself independent and broke all ties with Azerbaijan. Full-out civil war ensued, with neighbouring Armenia entering the fray on the side of the ethnic Armenian rebels.

By the time a ceasefire was finally brokered in 1994, some 35,000 people had been killed, 100,000 wounded and more than one million ethnically cleansed from the territory on both sides of the conflict lines. Militarily, the Armenian forces had won a very lopsided victory, and in addition to Nagorno-Karabakh, they had gained control of seven Azeri-populated provinces in the process.

Azerbaijan has never relinquished its claim to this territory, and nearly one million displaced Azeris from the occupied lands remain housed in temporary camps to this day. Only a ceasefire agreement was signed between the belligerents in 1994, and as such, the front lines and bunkers surrounding the ethnic and Armenian occupied region have remained a fully-manned potential flashpoint for the past 14 years.

Although Nagorno-Karabakh is fully supported politically, economically, and militarily by Armenia, even the government in Yerevan has refused to recognize its declared independence. Nevertheless, Nagorno-Karabakh maintains an embassy in the Armenian capital, and one must first apply for and obtain a visa there before crossing the boundary with Armenia.

Criteria for the visa equates to a cash payment of about $37.

There is only one checkpoint at the border and it is manned by members of the Nagorno-Karabakh security forces. The highway to Stepanakert, the capital, runs through a corridor in the occupied province, which is still recognized by the United Nations as the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan.

As my driver, Nazo, carefully navigated his way down a steep switchback, we were flagged down by a pair of traffic police. Waving what appeared to be a toy radar gun, the senior officer claimed that we had been travelling 120 kilometres an hour in a 70-kilometre zone. As it was unlikely even a professional stunt driver could have exceeded or met the speed limit on that winding stretch of road, it was obvious that this Laurel and Hardy cop combo were trying to shake down Nazo because he had Armenian license plates.

They did suggest that a little cash might cause them to reconsider things, but Nazo decided to pull rank instead. “I will report you to the prime minister when we interview him tomorrow,” he barked at them, and they sheepishly trudged back to their tiny Lada empty-handed. What was incredible was that Nazo was not bluffing the cops. The following morning I was indeed scheduled to interview Prime Minister Arayik Harutyunyan and, following that, Foreign Affairs Minister Georgy Petrosyan as well as several top generals in the Nagorno-Karabakh army.

With a total population estimated to be around 200,000, the whole territory seems more like a small town in that everyone appears to know each other at all levels of government.

These individuals also expressed almost the exact same viewpoint in that the lands taken from the Azeris are not occupied, but rather are “liberated lands,” and they now constitute an essential security buffer zone that Nagorno-Karabakh will not contemplate conceding.

Up until now, Armenia has represented Nagorno-Karabakh at all formal discussions, as Azerbaijan refuses to negotiate directly with a territory which they still recognize as their own land.

Following the events of last August whereby Georgian troops attempted to forcibly enter South Ossetia only to be bloodily repulsed by Russian troops, there has been some dramatic shifting throughout the entire Caucasus. In fact, Russian intelligence sources actually believed Azerbaijan would attack Nagorno-Karabakh before Georgia moved on South Ossetia. In either circumstance, the Russians were prepared to intervene.

Now that it is obvious a military option is not viable, Azerbaijan and Armenia have stepped up diplomatic discussions towards settling the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute—with Russia and Turkey acting as the primary peace brokers. All of this has alarmed the Armenian nationalists in Nagorno-Karabakh, who fear any agreement will involve territorial concessions and a return of the long displaced Azeris to the occupied provinces.

One regional diplomat correctly pointed out that while Yerevan may be prepared to move forward, the incredibly powerful Armenian diaspora remains fully supportive of the Nagorno-Karabakh hardliners. The motto in Stepanakert remains: “No one will give away the land bought with our soldiers’ blood,” and that message is intended for the government officials in Yerevan who also depend heavily on diaspora donations to shore up Armenia’s economy.

The Caucasus is an extremely complex global flashpoint, rife with such frozen and not so frozen conflicts, all of which are inexorably linked to the others. It has been likened to a mob of rival gangsters in an elevator, each pointing a gun at the head of another—and Nagorno-Karabakh is right in the middle.

Any movement towards a peaceful resolution will only result from very cautious and delicate negotiations.

Esprit de Corps publisher Scott Taylor has just returned from a 15-day, seven-country tour of the volatile Caucusus region.

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