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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Karabakh: The Agony of a Stagnant Peace

For MTTwo women and a child walking past a bombed-out building in the ancient city of Shusha. Armenians' success in ousting Azeri forces from this strategic mountain fortress in May 1992 played a decisive role in the Karabakh war.
STEPANAKERT, Nagorny Karabakh -- Last summer, Gamlet Asriyan opened the first private hotel in Stepanakert: 10 rooms, hot water, satellite television and imported furniture.

"I was building a house for my son, where he was supposed to live with his wife and children. ... But things do not always turn out as we expect," he said by way of explanation.

Asriyan, a former education minister of the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorny Karabakh, said that during his first season in business the hotel was fully booked, with Western businessmen, itinerant journalists and travelers from the Armenian capital of Yerevan.

With its mild winter, clean sidewalks and unobtrusive billboards, Stepanakert strikes the first-time visitor as a provincial southern town, relatively cozy and convenient. The roads have neatly painted lines and fresh asphalt; newcomers find it easy to get around.

But venturing just a few kilometers outside city limits reveals that Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorny Karabakh, is an oasis -- a small clutch of land that has managed to cover up the traces of a devastating six-year war over the status of this ethnically Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan that ended in a fretful cease-fire in 1994 and has yet to yield a compromise between the warring sides.

The road leading northeast to the Azeri town of Agdam is an excursion along abandoned, overgrown Muslim cemeteries, razed villages and minefields interspersed with warning signs from the Halo Trust.

The village of Karamort, about 5 kilometers off the main road, is half destroyed. On the bits of land that have been cleared of bombs and mines, its few residents sow grain and corn.

"Only old folks, children and cripples have stayed here," said Artur Khachatryan, 40, who fought in the Karabakh war and now lives with his family in one of the remaining houses. "Those who are strong and healthy enough go to Stepanakert or, more often, leave Nagorny Karabakh altogether. They go where they can earn something. Although people feel safe here, life among the ruins gradually dies away."

From the hills above Karamort, one can look down on Agdam. The city, which once boasted a population of 50,000 and one of the Soviet Union's most famous brandy distilleries, now resembles a giant dump for construction materials and concrete blocks, where local authorities are not enthusiastic about uninvited guests.

Just beyond Agdam, one sees the former front lines: trenches, snipers' posts, minefields and military hardware entrenched in the soft earth.

A Seven-Year Rut

Despite three rounds of meetings between Azeri President Heidar Aliyev and Karabakh's former leader, Armenian President Robert Kocharyan, the past year has not yielded any progress in overcoming the Karabakh stalemate.

Baku has been critical of international mediators from the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- which includes representatives from Russia, the United States and France -- for not being tough enough on the separatists.

Azeri authorities insist on their country's territorial integrity and want access to the Azeri enclave of Nakhichevan. Baku categorically refuses to conduct negotiations with the leaders of Nagorny Karabakh, who demand recognition of their independence.

"What agreement can we possibly reach with the Armenians who occupied our lands and do not want to leave them?" Aliyev told reporters last fall.

At the time, Aliyev publicly entertained the possibility that the Karabakh problem may have to be resolved by force.

Officials in the separatist enclave have taken the comments in stride: "Azerbaijan is ripe for a change in leadership and that, most likely, is the cause of this patriotic rhetoric," Karabakh President Arkady Gukasyan said in a recent interview.

The ailing 78-year-old Aliyev, who has spent the past three decades as Azerbaijan's leader, plans to run for a third presidential term in 2003, and his allies in the country's parliament appealed last week to extend the president's term from five years to seven.

Gukasyan said he was not worried about Aliyev's threats of military action.

"This sounds to me like a brazen scare tactic," he said. "They don't have a chance of starting a war and winning it."

How Much Sovereignty Is Enough?

Mumin Shakirov / For MT

Arkady Gukasyan, president of Karabakh

Since 1994, Karabakh has become de facto a part of Armenia. The overwhelming majority of its residents hold Armenian passports, and Yerevan supplies about half of the enclave's budget -- which is also supplemented by important support from the world's Armenian diaspora.

Karabakh demands that Baku recognize its independence and treat Stepanakert as an equal.

Nagorny Karabakh, handed to Soviet Azerbaijan by Josef Stalin in 1921, "was never part of an independent Azerbaijan because such an Azerbaijan never existed -- it was a republic within the Soviet Union," insists Gukasyan. "Azerbaijan calls Armenia an aggressor. But we believe the conflict is between Stepanakert and Baku, and Yerevan supported us. It could not have been otherwise."

Baku, in turn, wants to regain control over Azeri territories outside the enclave that are held by Karabakh's Armenians and says it is willing to give Karabakh extensive autonomy as long as it remains part of Azerbaijan.

Eldar Namazov, a former aide to Aliyev who now heads the Karabakh Charter lobby group, articulated Baku's position on the extent of autonomy.

"The flag, coat of arms, national anthem, power structures [i.e. military, law enforcement and other security agencies] and foreign policy fall under the jurisdiction of the center," meaning Baku. "All the other issues," he continued, "can be agreed upon with the opposite side."

Moscow has been careful in navigating the conflict between its Transcaucasian neighbors.

On one hand, Armenia has long been Russia's most reliable partner in the region, a geopolitical ally whom Russia has been hesitant to rile. At the same time, oil interests in and around Azerbaijan are also shaping Moscow's position.

"There is no doubt that the problem of Nagorny Karabakh greatly depends on Aliyev's willingness to strike a deal," said Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, a Polish journalist who has focused on the Caucasus.

"The Kremlin is prepared to put pressure on Yerevan, but Baku must first give Russian oligarchs access to the Apsheron peninsula," he said, referring to the important Azeri outpost for offshore drilling, as well as the site of Aliyev's walled seaside compound. "Today, Russian companies, including LUKoil, are still weak on Azerbaijan's Caspian coast because Baku gives preference to Western oil consortiums that work to develop new oil fields."

The Apple of Karabakh's Eye

It has long been said that he who controls Shusha controls Nagorny Karabakh.

This ancient city stands atop a rough plateau. On one side, steep cliffs loom over the Gyunot gorge. On the other, stone buildings and ruins rise in a giant half-circle high above the flatlands.

Two centuries ago, the Russian and Persian empires battled for control of this unassailable fortress until Russia finally came out victorious in 1828.

The ancient houses in Shusha resemble miniature fortresses. Their stories are separated by stone "belts," their wooden balconies adorned with carved railing. The smoking metal chimneys of primitive wood-burning stoves -- a relic of wartime -- protrude from the arch-shaped windows.

Nearby, the drab exteriors of Soviet-era five-story apartment buildings clearly clash with the ancient landscape, especially against the backdrop of church domes and minarets.

The city remains half destroyed after a devastating one-day artillery raid by Armenian militiamen, launched to oust Azeri forces in May 1992. Over the 10 years since then, local authorities have rebuilt several administrative buildings, schools, hospitals and churches, but have been unable to rebuild the town's main streets.

The former commander of Karabakh's self-defense force, now Armenia's defense minister, Serzh Sarkisyan, believes the raid on Shusha was justified.

"Stepanakert was under fire from these heights for an entire year," he said. "For us, capturing this fortress became a matter of principle and survival. People were able to come out from their cellars and bomb shelters. Shusha was taken in 24 hours."

The war destroyed the city and transformed its population: From a thriving, multiethnic town on the much-traveled route to Lachin, Shusha became a bombed-out village of some 5,000 Armenians.

The remaining residents are forced to live without heating and with constant interruptions in the supply of water and electricity.

Margarita Osipyan, a refugee from Baku, fled to Karabakh in 1990 when anti-Armenian pogroms swept through her native city. Osipyan, 40, and her two young daughters managed to board a passing train where an Azeri conductor hid them from violent extremists. Now they live in Shusha in an abandoned apartment once occupied by an Azeri family.

"The local authorities allowed me to move into a five-story building where there were many empty apartments. My home in Baku probably became home to Azeri refugees," said Osipyan, who works as a cleaning woman in a maternity hospital with a monthly wage of about $30, which is barely enough to feed her family.

One of the first buildings in Shusha to be restored, at least partially, was Karabakh's largest church -- Christ the Savior, or, in Armenian, Kazanchetsots. During the war, the Azeris used the church to store arms and munitions in the misguided hope that the Armenians would not dare fire on their own sacred places. But this was not the case: All buildings were fair game, and the church was badly damaged by artillery fire.

Shusha's mosque and madraseh, the Muslim school, are still in ruins, but officials say they intend to restore these ancient architectural landmarks.

"Right now we do not have the funds for restoration work," said my guide, Ashot Arutyunyan, director of the local history and folk museum.

While the Muslim landmarks may eventually be rebuilt, it is not clear who would make up their congregations and student bodies.

Before the war, Shusha was predominantly populated by Azeris, but scholars argue about the city's historical demographic patterns.

Arutyunyan says his calculations show that in 1920 Shusha had 40,000 Armenians and 5,000 Azeris. But over the 70 years of Soviet rule -- when Azerbaijan's socioeconomic policies often favored Azeris at the expense of Karabakh's Armenian population -- the scales tipped and, by the late 1980s, Shusha's ethnic composition had changed to 12,000 Azeris and only 3,000 Armenians.

Shusha is one of the most emotionally charged places in the region. Local Armenians will often say: "Shusha is the heart of Karabakh, and Nagorny Karabakh for any Armenian is the land of his ancestors, it is a part of our people's bloody history, it is the memory of the genocide," a reference to the massacre of Armenians by the Turks in the 1910s.

The residents of Shush say that Armenians have lost to many lives for this land to simply hand it over to someone else -- and that passion has translated into politics.

Shifting the Blame

Mumin Shakirov / For MT

A refugee living in an abandoned freight car in Saatli, Azerbaijan.

"In the Caucasus, wars are not started by national leaders, as in the East, nor by colonels, as in Latin America. They are started by scholarly historians. And since the peoples of the Caucasus were once saddled with an 'antiquity complex' and they tend to measure their history in millennia rather than centuries, points of contention abound."
This quote from Moscow historian Daura Dzantariya has direct bearing on the Karabakh conflict.

While Armenians and Azeris had intermingled to a great extent over the centuries they had lived as neighbors, these ties were unable to withstand the waves of ethnic self-determinism unleashed by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s. Furthermore, to support their cause, both sides cited their own versions of ancient history to prove that one people had a more legitimate claim to these lands than its foe.

Azeri scholars insisted that Armenians were not the ages-old Christian culture they pretended to be, but had co-opted the attributes of the ancient Caucasus Albanians (unrelated to the modern-day Albanians of the Balkans). Armenian historians, meanwhile, brushed aside Azeri claims of antiquity, saying that all of their Muslim holy sites were left over from the Persian empire.

This impassioned polemic flared with unprecedented intensity in 1988 -- when the air of freedom inspired by glasnost and perestroika combined with promises of greater autonomy for each of the 15 Soviet republics -- and, on Feb. 20 of that year, the legislature of Azerbaijan's Autonomous Region of Nagorny Karabakh petitioned Baku and Yerevan to transfer the enclave to Armenia.

Gukasyan's spokesman, Alexander Grigoryan, believes the move was prompted by Baku's anti-Armenian policies.

"In Soviet times, the bulk of the factories built in Karabakh relied on women's labor: textile and silk factories," he said. "Men had to leave in search of work, and they took their families with them. Azeris came to fill their place."

Azeris have similar complaints of discrimination by local authorities.

"The top positions in the region and almost all the executive power were concentrated in the hands of the Armenian majority," said Farida Mamedova, a Baku-based historian and native of Shusha. "Azeris were not appointed to top posts and did not have the opportunity to receive schooling in their native language. Qualified personnel from Baku was denied housing and social guarantees."

When Karabakh asked to be united with Armenia, Baku categorically opposed the measure and got Moscow's backing.

The following week saw pro-Armenian rallies in Stepanakert and anti-Karabakh protests in Baku. Demonstrators were split along ethnic lines, and bloody, sometimes lethal, fights between Armenians and Azeris broke out in places where the two peoples lived side by side.

The first instance of large-scale violence is yet another point on which Armenians and Azeris disagree.

Armenians cite the Sumgait massacre -- the first case of deadly ethnic violence mentioned in the perestroika-era Soviet press -- when, from Feb. 27 to 29, Azeri extremists in this tiny town 30 kilometers from Baku attacked and beat Armenian residents, leaving more than 30 dead.

Soon thereafter, Karabakh was blockaded for what turned out to be four years.

However, Aliyev's former aide Namazov interprets the tragedy in Sumgait as retaliation for Yerevan's discriminatory policies against Azeri communities, saying that in the late 1980s some 300,000 Azeris were forced out of Armenia.

Two years after Sumgait, Baku was hit by days of anti-Armenian violence that claimed dozens of lives. Azeri authorities are not eager to discuss those events and admit that they mishandled the situation. But they are always prepared to offer their own explanation.

"The pogroms against Armenians in Baku were provoked by the Soviet special services in order to use this as an excuse to send troops into the city," said Ali Gasanov, Azerbaijan's deputy prime minister and chairman of the committee on refugees.

Moscow interfered to put an end to the atrocities in Baku, but offered no constructive options for a lasting solution. Tens of thousands of Armenians left the Azeri capital, and many Russian speakers joined them. Baku's previous image as one of the Soviet Union's most cosmopolitan, hospitable and tolerant cities evaporated. The violence there set the scene for three years of intense warfare in Karabakh in 1991 to 1994.

Occupied Land or Safety Zone?

In 1992, the war reached a pinnacle for the Armenians: They captured Shusha and the critical Lachin corridor that links Karabakh with Armenia, putting an end to the four-year blockade of the enclave.

This victory involved some of the war's bloodiest episodes, including the February 1992 bloodbath at Khojali, in which scores of Azeri men, women and children were killed as they walked over the mountains to safety ahead of advancing Armenian forces.

The victorious Armenian troops spilled over from Karabakh and took control of several nearby districts of Azerbaijan. According to different estimates, these lands make up between 10 percent and 20 percent of the country's territory -- a no-man's land and an insurmountable obstacle in negotiations between Baku and Yerevan.

Baku calls this state of affairs "occupation" by Stepanakert, but Sarkisyan, Armenia's defense minister, calls the territory a "safety zone."

"The additional territories were not captured at random," he said. "This was the result of cool-headed calculation. If you look at a map, you will see that we advanced as far as it was necessary to ensure that Azerbaijan's armed forces would not be able to fire on Nagorny Karabakh."

The official position in Stepanakert and Yerevan is that the people of Karabakh won their independence on their own despite Azerbaijan's advantage in manpower and weaponry. But Baku contends that the separatists in Karabakh had the backing of both Armenia and Russia, which helped arm the fighters.

<2h>No Road Home?

More than seven years after the end of hostilities, Azerbaijan continues to struggle with its million or so refugees and internally displaced persons.

Hundreds of families have been living since 1993 in abandoned freight cars at the railway junction in Saatli, hundreds of thousands more are scattered throughout the country in dormitories and abandoned apartments, administrative buildings and tent camps. They live with no work, chronic power outages and shortages of medicine and food. The government doles out about $5 per person per month, and foreign aid has dwindled to a trickle.

Yerevan has accused Baku, whose economy has been growing, of intentionally dragging its feet on solving the refugee crisis in order to have extra leverage in negotiations, but Azeri officials have brushed away such allegations.

"We lost time when the United Nations Security Council ordered Armenian troops out of the occupied territories and Stepanakert failed to fulfill these terms," said Deputy Prime Minister Gasanov. "Then we were waiting for results from the OSCE Minsk Group [formed in 1993]. And so nine years passed. The government does not have the money to take care of tens of thousands of refugees."

Neither side is ready to meet the other halfway in terms of the territorial dispute.

"The only possible compromise is this: Ancient Shusha is our city," said Gasanov. "Karabakh can have maximum self-government and guarantees of international observers. We are even willing to give them the Lachin corridor ... but in return the Armenians must grant us the corridor along the Iranian-Armenian border to the Azeri enclave of Nakhichevan," now accessible only via Iran.

But Armenia has made it clear that such terms are unacceptable.

"To open such a southern corridor would mean losing Iran, where we have important trade and economic ties," said Gasanov, adding that the deal could cut off Armenia's access to the world by making it dependent on its unstable neighbor Georgia. "That would be tantamount to suicide."

Some influential Azeri officials perceive the conflict in a slightly different light. Aliyev's main opponent, Isa Gambarov, head of the Mussavat party, believes separatism in Karabakh destroyed Armenians' chances for prosperity in post-Soviet Azerbaijan. Nearly 300,000 Armenians left Baku, he said, many of whom could have become part of the city's economic and political elite.

"The separatists ... sacrificed people who never wanted to leave Baku and other Azeri cities," Gambarov said.

Baku's future remains murky, but the past 10 years have certainly brought a world of change to the city. There are no reliable official figures about its population, although some estimates say it has doubled to 3 million people, among them some 500,000 refugees.

Old-timers recall Soviet times with nostalgia, when ethnicity had little meaning.

"Common people are ready to live side by side with those Baku Armenians ... who were forced to leave after those tragic pogroms in January [1990]," said Zeki Gasan-zade, a native son of Baku who works in the tourism business. "Few people now recall this, but many Azeris risked their lives to hide Armenians from rampaging nationalists and embittered refugees from Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh."