Case Study in Ethnic Strife. (Nagorno-Karabakh)

Case Study in Ethnic Strife. (Nagorno-Karabakh)


Foreign Affairs v76, n2 1997):
Council on Foreign Relations

© 1997 David Rieff

     WITHOUT RULES OR PITY

     The Austere beauty of the mountains surrounding Stepanakert does
little to relieve the morose atmosphere. Long a provincial town with an
ethnic Armenian majority deep in western Azerbaijan, Stepanakert now
styles itself the capital of the independent Armenian Republic of
Nagorno- Karabakh. But not even Armenia, which urged Nagorno-Karabakh's
secession and supported it in the subsequent war with Azerbaijan,
recognizes the enclave as a state. After almost seven years of violence
and another two under a shaky cease-fire, the enclave's economy is
deteriorating and the population is declining. This has done little to
mitigate the sense of ethnic grievance and nationalism that prevails in
the mountain fastness of High Karabakh.

     Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenians had agitated for autonomy for decades
before declaring independence in July 1988 as the Kremlin's hold over
the Soviet Union slipped. (The 1989 Soviet census in the enclave showed
a population about three-quarters Armenian and one-quarter Azeri.) That
February, some 30 ethnic Armenians had been killed in a pogrom in
Sumgait, and more would die later that year in Baku, the capital, and
other towns in Azerbaijan outside Nagorno-Karabakh; the government of
Azerbaijan probably encouraged the massacres, and certainly did little
to prevent them. When the enclave seceded, Baku sent police commandos to
suppress the
Armenian militants. By 1991 Nagorno-Karabakh was at war. Three years
later, Karabakhi fighters, supported by Armenian regular troops and
Russian advisers, had routed Azerbaijani forces far superior in number.
Not only had the Karabakhis gained control of the enclave's 1,700 square
miles, but they had seized territory beyond its borders amounting to
approximately ten percent of the rest of Azerbaijan.

     Some 25,000 people died in the fighting, according to Human Rights
Watch/Helsinki, and indiscriminate shelling of civilians,
hostage-taking, and torture of prisoners were reported on both sides. A
December 1994 cease-fire has brought no peace agreement. The initial
massacres led about 400,000 ethnic Armenians to flee Azerbaijan proper.
The war also uprooted some 700,000 ethnic Azeris, Kurds, and others from
Armenia, captured areas of Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh; all 40,000
Azeris in the enclave, a quarter of the population, fled or were
expelled. Those refugees have since been living in camps in Azerbaijan.

Even though 20,000 Karabakhi Armenians are under arms, there is little
trace of fighting today in Stepanakert. Its apartment blocks and low
houses are dusty and rundown and water and electricity are scarce, but
such is the case in many other remote, impoverished corners of the
former Soviet Union, including most of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The
facades bearing shrapnel marks and the occasional building gutted by
rocket fire look as if they were damaged long ago. Neighboring Susa,
overwhelmingly Azeri before the war, is now a ghost town, the Armenian
church steeple rising over the ruined mosque. But in the nearby capital,
as throughout Nagorno-Karabakh, the overall impression is of
dilapidation, not war.

ENEMIES EVERYWHERE
     Rebuilding and refurbishing is going on in the would-be capital of
Stepanakert, at least among the grim official buildings around the main
square. In the Soviet era, these formed the backdrop for the annual May
Day rallies and the commemorations of World War II. Karabakhis, people
in
Stepanakert like to boast, served in that conflict in numbers far
exceeding their share of the population. "Armenians are natural
fighters," a Karabakhi government official told me. "When the call came,
we joined frontline units. Azeris don't like to fight. In the Great
Patriotic War [World War II], in the Red Army, in Afghanistan, it was
always the same-- you found them in construction battalions." 

     In Stepanakert today, the big annual celebration marks
NagornoKarabakh's independence and military victories over the Azeris.
To judge by the video of a recent parade, which Karabakhi officials
appear to enjoy playing for their infrequent visitors, the ceremony is a
miniature  version of the reviews vaunting Soviet military might that
used to be staged in Moscow's Red Square. Generals are driven by,
saluting, and the troops goose-step past, followed by tanks, armored
personnel carriers, and vehicles laden with rockets, while planes and
attack helicopters streak
overhead.

     As he watched the tape with me during my visit last summer, the
deputy foreign minister of the "republic," Valery Atajanian, could
barely contain his excitement. By his own admission he had seen the
video countless times, but from the medal-laden veterans of to the
children waving along the parade route, every detail seemed to thrill
him. Finally, as one particularly fierce-looking group of fighters
marched past, Atajanian could keep silent no longer. "Those are the
special forces," he blurted out. "They're the best--real beasts."
 
As in other small, embattled societies, conversations in Nagorno
Karabakh are punctuated by assertions of military invincibility. Like
the Turkish Cypriots, whose political discourse resembles that of these
Armenian Christians, Karabakhis start from the premise that whatever
they do will be misunderstood. They have no doubt that right is on their
side--the atrocities that accompanied their victory and their
negotiators' intransigence at the peace talks are the Azeris' fault--but
the world is against them. Foreigners they regard with suspicion. Only
the Armenian government, their friends in Moscow, and their brothers in
the Armenian diaspora can be trusted--and them not always. From their
mountain statelet, the Karabakhis glower down. At times they seem as
unmoved by the suffering they themselves have caused and as immovable in
their insistence on their right to the land as Nasi Gori ("Our
Mountains"), a statue on the outskirts of Stepanakert that has become
the enclave's emblem.

Nasi Gori is a squat concoction in reddish tuff fashioned for Soviet
officials in the 1960s by a local sculptor, Sergei Bagdissirian. In a
style reminiscent of nothing so much as a set for a 1950s Italian movie
about the labors of Hercules, the monument portrays the massive heads of
a pair of archetypal Karabakh grandparents. He is bearded, and she is
either wearing a babushka or is simply too tightly framed by the
improbable peaks of the mountains that form the top of the sculpture,
representing Karabakh's terrain. "It would make a nice bunker," said an
Armenian sculptor in Karabakh working on a piece celebrating Karabakhi
independence. When I went for a look at the sculpture, sheep were
grazing around it while their shepherd had a smoke. The base was deeply
scarred by the initials of lovers, and on it rested an empty bottle of
Armenian champagne and the remains of a chicken dinner being consumed by
a horde of  ants.

"That sculpture is strong, like Karabakh," a local politician told me.
"It shows us as we are in our essence. It is the perfect representation
of why the Armenian people here must be free on their own land." Asked
if he went to the monument often, he hesitated, then replied in
confident tones, "It's not necessary. Nasi Gori is in my soul. Of
course, I would not expect a foreigner to understand."

     THE ROAD TO ARMENIA
     It is difficult just to get to Nagorno-Karabakh, let alone
understand it. One must either come by helicopter or drive through the
Lachin corridor, a formerly Azeri area southwest of Karabakh proper that
was the heart of Red Kurdistan, a 1920s Soviet experiment in providing a
national
homeland for the region's Kurdish people. The Lachin corridor sits
astride what the Karabakhis call the "road of life." This 50-ile-long
route from  the border of Armenia proper to Stepanakert, which an army
of workers is now turning into a modern highway, is in many ways at the
center of
Karabakhi identity: for the Armenian separatists of Nagorno-Karabakh,
life means, above all, the connection to Armenia.
     And beyond Armenia are the three million members of the Armenian
diaspora. The substantial communities in the United States, France,
Argentina, and Lebanon are haunted by memories of the 1915-16 Ottoman
Turkish genocide that left one million Armenians dead. The prospect of a
Nagorno-Karabakh independent from Azeri rule (the Azeris are a Turkic
people) led some diaspora Armenians to drop everything to fight for
Nagorno-Karabakh. Such volunteers' efforts, though significant, were
less important than the diaspora's well-funded international lobbying on
Nagorno-Karabakh's behalf or its large financial contributions to the
statelet. A telethon in Los Angeles last year raised $11 million for
construction work on the "road of life"; diaspora Armenians were assured
that $250 would underwrite a meter of roadway.

     Whether one arrives in Nagorno-Karabakh by road or by air, one does
so from Armenia. And, when asked, the people along the way seem
deliberately vague about whether they live in Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh,
or what they call the "occupied territories." A "border post" just past
the town of Lachin, like so much of the official rhetoric of Karabakhi
independence, is largely a fiction. One can drive from the Armenian
capital of Yerevan to Stepanakert and never show an identity document
until the Karabakhi interior ministry checkpoint on the fringes of the
enclave's capital. The Armenian currency, the dram, is universally
accepted.

     Lachin, like other places in the occupied territories, has been
resettled largely by people from Armenia, particularly from areas
devastated by the 1988 earthquake. For these settlers, the partially
destroyed houses vacated by Azeris and Kurds are an improvement over the
camps and makeshift shelters they had lived in back home since the
disaster. "I had 40 square meters for myself and my family," a
schoolteacher in Lachin told me matter-of-factly. "Here I have 100
meters. Of course, it needs some work."

     Most Karabakhis are eager to see more Armenian settlement of the
occupied areas so as to render the distinction between the enclave and
Armenia even more meaningless, and the Armenian government seems eager
to facilitate this movement of people. In any case, nothing happens in
Nagorno-Karabakh without at least Armenia's tacit assent. The war was as
much an Armenian victory as a Karabakhi one. Although the Karabakhis
proved themselves fierce fighters during the three years of combat
against vastly superior Azeri forces, they could never have prevailed
without the troops, money, and advice from Armenia. (The Russians also
provided some military aid, but, true to form, they helped the Azeris as
well.) Nor would the Karabakhis have survived without Armenia, either
economically or militarily, in this period of uneasy peace. Karabakh's
flag is the Armenian tricolor with the crude addition of a jagged white
line two- thirds of the way across symbolizing the division of the two
Armenian states. Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian handpicked
Nagorno- Karabakh's president, Robert Kocharian, who went on to win
election. That the Ter-Petrossian government is running the show in
NagornoKarabakh is a fact that officials in Stepanakert, who privately
yearn for eventual union with Armenia, scarcely bother to deny.

     The oppressed Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are in turn a potent
symbol in the politics of Armenia proper. In the last years of the
Soviet Union, Ter-Petrossian headed the Karabakh Committee, an Armenian
organization that lobbied for autonomy for Karabakh, and he rode the
issue to the presidency of independent Armenia. Polls in Armenia show
that almost as overwhelming a majority favors absorption of the enclave
as in Nagorno-Karabakh itself. But for the time being, the Armenian
government hews to the fiction of Karabakhi independence, and, indeed,
technically does not have diplomatic relations with the enclave.

     THE LONG CEASE-FIRE
     For Yerevan at this point to openly declare its ties with
NagornoKarabakh would be economic suicide, as Azerbaijan would tighten
its trade and energy embargo against Armenia. It would also doubtless
put an end to the public negotiations on the future of the enclave,
which include not only the three contending parties but the Organization
for Security and Cooperation in Europe and separate representatives from
the United States and Russia as well (although the consensus is that
these talks have been getting nowhere). And it would almost certainly
sabotage promising back-channel negotiations between Armenia and
Azerbaijan. 

     The Azeris, for their part, are biding their time. They believe
that when, in 1998 or 1999, they begin receiving substantial revenues
>from the oil pipelines now being built through their country, they will
be able to negotiate the return of lost territory from a position of
strength. There is also much talk in Baku of rebuilding the army. The
Karabakhis fought brilliantly, but Baku's forces were less an army than
a collection of militias that cooperated only intermittently and were
not always paid by commanders whose venality was astonishing even by the
standards of the Caucasus. Today Azeris point to the example of Croatia
and its painstaking construction of a modern military in the years
1991-95. The more hard-line Azeris go further, promising that before the
end of the century they will launch their own version of Operation
Storm, the Croatian reconquest of the Krajina region. There is certainly
no desire for battle today among ordinary Azeris. Whether there will be
any taste for war a few years from now in Azerbaijan, a country with
neither a martial tradition nor an effective government, remains to be
seen. So does the question of whether Moscow would permit such an
offensive to get off the ground.

     From the Armenian perspective, however unsatisfactory the status
quo, any change is politically risky. It will be difficult enough for
TerPetrossian to agree to force the Karabakhis to hand back the occupied
territories. For him to acquiesce to even the most generous autonomy
arrangement that leaves Karabakh formally part of Azerbaijan is
unthinkable. The Armenian diaspora, more radical on the Karabakh
question than Armenians in the region--as diasporas usually are on such
matters— would be incensed, and even a partial withdrawal of its support
would be disastrous for Ter-Petrossian. Since independence, the Armenian
economy has depended heavily on diaspora contributions. More crucially,
diaspora Armenians' lobbying has won for Armenia levels of foreign aid
and of political backing for its position in an interstate conflict
greater than those enjoyed by any other country of so little economic or
strategic importance.

     CREATION OF A MONSTER
     The relationship between Yerevan and Stepanakert is more
complicated than it is sometimes made out to be. As President Slobodan
Milosevic of Serbia discovered with the Bosnian Serbs in 1995,
Frankensteins have a habit of losing control of their monsters. Like the
Bosnian Serbs' Republika Srpska, Karabakh has become a haven for the
most extreme variants of nationalism, in this case including the
Armenian nationalism of the Dashnak Party, which is banned in Armenia
but important in the diaspora. Both Armenian and Karabakhi officials
privately acknowledge that
Ter-Petrossian may not be able to impose a settlement unacceptable to
Stepanakert. That makes the status quo even more attractive, since risk
of unleashing the hard-liners.

     And there are plenty of them in Nagorno-Karabakh. Indeed, at fumes
one wonders about the sanity of some of the enclave's officials. Perhaps
egged on by a couple of glasses of mulberry vodka with dinner, deputy
foreign minister Atajanian sketched for me scenarios for Azerbaijan's
and even Turkey's dismemberment by a peculiar alliance including forces
>from Cyprus, Greece, Russia, and the United States. He cited the
predictions of Nostradamus.

Incredibly, many of the enclave's citizens think the government is far
too moderate. "President" Kocharian and his aides would at least
contemplate returning most of the captured territory outside Nagorno-
Karabakh for a peace treaty that recognized the enclave's independence
and
its sovereignty over the Lachin corridor. But opposition to a land-for-
peace deal is shared by many beyond Dashnak Party members and their
supporters in the Armenian diaspora. More moderate figures in Karabakh
take an equally truculent line.

     Garen Ogandjanian is a member of parliament and the representative
in Stepanakert of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly, a human rights group.
He outlined for me ambitious plans for the creation of an "open
society." "We have had enough of militarized ways of thinking here in
Nagorno-Karabakh," said Ogandjanian, a slight man with a gentle manner.
But from Karl Popper,
the conversation passed rapidly to the security situation. Asked if land
should be given back to the Azeris as part of a peace deal, Ogandjanian
replied, "In theory, yes, if the security guarantees for us were
absolute, if we could trust them--which . . . I doubt we could.
Personally, I don't see why we should give any land back. Historically,
Nagorno-Karabakh was even larger than all the territory our troops now
control. The Azeris have too much as it is." That the claims of the
enclave's principal human rights advocate and those of the hardest of
hard-line Dashnaks are all but  indistinguishable suggests how much the
extreme nationalist position has become the consensus in
Nagorno-Karabakh, as it has in Armenia proper and Azerbaijan.

     The Dashnaks, of course, are the ones who did the heavy lifting on
the ground. Their men, including a substantial number of volunteers from
the diaspora, did a great deal of the fighting and dying before the
cease- fire. The hero of the early period of combat, when the Karabakhis
seemed
on the verge of losing, was an Armenian-American from California, Monte
Melkonian. He was killed just before victory was secured, and busts of
him are now displayed in many government offices in Stepanakert.

     Dashnak loyalists and members of other extreme nationalist groups
have come from Armenia--although not, it appears, from the diaspora-to
settle in some of the occupied areas. In such places, talk of
territorial compromise is unacceptable. "The Azeris are lucky we didn't
take more," an Armenian settler in Lachin told me. "Let the Turks come
back!" a settler in Lachin town, once 80 percent Kurdish and Azeri,
declared. "We'll kill them all, whatever Kocharian says. This is our
land. Maybe there were Turks here in 1990, but [70 years ago] this was
Armenian land. And that is what it must be forever.

     "We are a hospitable, courageous people," he continued. "Our only
misfortune was to live among the Turks. And no Christian people can live
successfully in a sea of Muslims." A friend interrupted. "There's an old
saying: "There's no family without a monster.' Well, the Turks are the
monsters of the whole world."

     GRIEVANCES AS A WAY OF LIFE
     The insistence in Nagorno-Karabakh on referring to Azeris as Turks
reminds one that the Bosnian Serbs refer to Bosnian Muslims the same
way. In fact, the similarities between the Karabakhi Armenians and
Bosnian Serbs loyal to political demagogue Radovan Karadzic and military
commander Ratko Mladic strike anyone who has traveled in both the
Caucasus and the
Balkans. As in Pale, the Bosnian Serb capital, two years ago, the talk
among Karabakbi Armenians in Stepanakert today is exclusively about
their side's unique suffering. Only their losses and their refugees
matter. For the harm they themselves have done, the Karabakhis, like the
Bosnian Serbs, are unashamed. If Azeris suffered, they insist in
Stepanakert, the filthy Turks brought it on themselves. "You may be
sure," deputy minister Atajanian told me, "that anything bad we did, we
were forced to do."

     It was the Azeris, after all, Karabakhis say, who thwarted the
Armenian people's legitimate aspirations to self-determination.
Azerbaijan's violent 1988 crackdown on the separatists, they say,
started the war. If ethnic cleansing took place in NagornoKarabakh--and
it is difficult to deny that it did--it was the inevitable consequence
of Azeri massacres of Armenians. Atajanian waxed particularly indignant
over criticism of Karabakhi human rights violations during the war: "Why
do the Red Cross and certain foreign governments always demand that we
behave better than the Azeris? Why do they continue to remind us so
aggressively about international law? Let the Azeris obey international
law. Baku!  That's where they should direct their complaints."

     As among the inhabitants of the Balkans and other places around the
world, inflamed ethnic chauvinism combined with the memory of real
communal suffering breeds among the peoples of the Caucasus fantasies of
their original virtue and their enemies' original wickedness. Moral
judgments become simple in such circumstances--we are good, they are
bad; we tell the truth, they lie--and actions follow from there.

     From the Armenian perspective, given the Azeri crimes against
Armenians the Karabakbi leadership is generous in being willing to
resolve its differences with Azerbaijan peacefully, especially after its
triumph in the war. Atajanian insisted that unless the Azeris agree to
Stepanakert's minimal demands of independence for Karabakh and
recognition of Karabakbi sovereignty in the Lachin corridor, there would
be another war. "And next time," he said, "we won't stop where we did.
We'll go on to Yevlakh, and if they still won't agree to a settlement
we'll march to Baku." He paused. "That's what the army wants to do right
now."

     Even admitting, as seems probable, that the Azer's are to blame for
the outbreak of the war, neither the Karabakhi leaders nor the Armenian
authorities in Yerevan can claim the moral high ground. What began as a
struggle for self-determination soon degenerated into ethnic cleansing,
massacre, and war fought without rules or pity, and Nagorno-Karabakh was
cleansed of its non-Armenian population. As a result, 700,000 Azeri,
Kurdish, and other refugees are living today in camps in Azerbaijan in
conditions of unimaginable squalor. Neglected by the government, they
are
largely forgotten by the outside world.

     Exacerbating the situation is a U.S. law passed in 1992 at the
instigation of the Armenian lobby in America that prohibits
international relief agencies from using U.S. government funds to aid
the government of Azerbaijan. In a post-communist society like
Azerbaijan, in which the medical and educational sectors are state run,
the legislation effectively rules out projects to supply hospitals,
treat the tuberculosis endemic in the refugee camps, rehabilitate
schools, or even use local doctors to do medical assessments. In
private, Armenia's officials are unenthusiastic about the law, but
diaspora leaders have been adamant. In the end the legislation plays
into the hands of the Heydar Aliyev government in Baku, which uses the
lack of American aid to justify its own abject failure to ameliorate
conditions in the camps. And the more pathetic the refugees'
situation, the easier it is for Baku to divert attention from its
responsibility for provoking the crisis in NagornoKarabakh and paint
Azerbaijan the victim.

It is enough to make one yearn, against all better judgment, for the
Soviet Union and its rhetoric of inter-ethnic solidarity. In the
destroyed Azeri town of Susa, I passed a Soviet-era sign exhorting
friendship among peoples. It was cant when erected, no doubt, but Suren,
my elderly
Armenian driver from Yerevan, did not think the harmony between ethnic
groups had been a complete charade. "In the old days," he said, as we
drove into Nagorno-Karabakh through the ruins of Lachin, "it didn't
matter whether you were an Azeri, an Armenian, or a Karabakhi. We all
got along." He did not, however, wish for a return to the past. "It will
get better," he insisted, adding, "though not, of course, in my
lifetime." 
 
 THE HARD WORK OF STATE-BUILDING
     A foreign aid worker who has spent more than a year in Karabakh
observed, "When people here tell you of their wish to lead a normal
life- and I have people saying this to me all the time--they mean the
life they led in Soviet times, when the ruble was worth $1.40 [the
current value is
about 5,000 rubles to the dollar] and most of them had cars and could
afford vacations by the Caspian." But, he concluded gloomily, "those
days are never coming back."

     On both sides of the divide between Armenians and Azeris, when the
talk moves away from the Karabakh question it often focuses on the need
to replace the old Soviet state-controlled economic system with the free
market. While the Azeris look to Western companies to help them tap the
country's purportedly enormous oil and gas reserves, bringing in
dreamed- of hard currency, the Armenian and Karabakhi authorities
channel diaspora contributions into construction on the "road of life."
When completed, the highway will be the most modern in the Caucasus, up
to Western standards-- a monument to the diaspora's power and wealth, if
not strictly necessary from a practical point of view.

     The hope in the diaspora and in Stepanakert is that the
road-building and resettlement of the occupied territories will ensure
that the battlefield victories of the Karabakh Armenians are not lost at
the negotiating table. But two years after the war's end, for all the
bluster of Karabakh's officials and the influence of its friends in
Washington, the question is still whether it can survive as a statelet.
Armenia cannot do for it, economically or militarily, what Belgrade did
for the Serbs,
let alone what Ankara did for the Turkish Cypriots.

     Armenia's leaders may not be prepared to mortgage their country ‘s
economic future indefinitely for the sake of Nagorno Karabakh. The
Azerbaijani embargo continues to do harm, although Azerbaijan has eased
its sanctions and Armenia has developed other trade ties. Unemployment
in Armenia is above 50 percent, and it is clear that the price of
improvement in the economic situation is flexibility on Karabakh. The
diaspora, rich as it is, cannot subsidize the enclave, population
150,000, let alone Armenia, population three million.

     Over the long run, neither extreme nationalists nor any other brand
of ideologue can keep economic realities at bay. In spite of the sums
coming in from the diaspora, conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh are
deteriorating. Agriculture is the only viable sector, and most young men
remain in the military. As a high official in the enclave ruefully
admitted, "Many people are leaving, either for Armenia or for other
countries."

     Even more to the point, it is not clear that in Nagorno-Karabakh,
Armenia, or many of the other post-Soviet states--or in many African
countries, for that matter--the conception of the state reaches much
beyond ethnic identity. The founders of Israel, with whom present-day
Armenian nationalists often compare themselves, did not think that
creating a Jewish state was all they had to do. They aspired to create a
modern state, a new economics (among the Labor Zionists, a version of
socialism), and an idea of democracy as well. They would have scoffed at
the notion that the mystical virtues of ethnic solidarity would see them
through.

     But the Armenians of Karabakh, like many other peoples, have only
that mystical idea to hold on to. It served them well while the fighting
raged, but now it stands in the way of a solution. It mires Armenians
and Azeris alike in their grievances, their self-love, and their mutual
loathing. In such circumstances, talk of the past will always be more
potent than talk of the future. But the past is steeped in blood, and if
the future is to be different, compromises will have to be made.

     The signs, both on the ground among the belligerents and in the
wider region, are not encouraging. But without a compromise, sooner or
later war will break out again. And unlike in the early 1990S, it may
disturb great powers like the United States and Russia, whose interests
in the area have grown substantially, or regional powers like Turkey and
Iran, which would bear the brunt of refugee flows that would be the
first consequence of renewed fighting. This time the conflict might not
be so contained.

     DAVID RIEFF, a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute at the
New School for Social Research, is the author of Slaughterhouse: Bosnia
and the Failure of the West.

Source: Richard Kloian


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