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Frankly, I would expect more hoopla. Five hours into our marathon journey across the poverty-stricken rural depths of Armenia, as we traversed rolling mountains, we crossed yet another mountain ridge and sped down into a gully. Amid the grey and brown expanses, a single road sign. The flag of the unrecognised Republic of Artsakh. Under it reads a sign. ‘You are entering Artsakh’. Each side there was an inverted car tire that has provided the base for a fire. All around are strewn cigarette butts, discarded plastic bottles, beer cans, food wrappers and other detritus.
It is all a little underwhelming. This was a territory that they fought six years for. Some 30,000 Azerbaijanis died for this.3 Some 6,000 Armenians died for this.4 Almost 100,000 were injured.5,6 In Azerbaijan, a quarter of a century on, almost a million Internally Displaced People remain in limbo,7 awaiting an opportunity to return home.
Despite all this suffering, one scruffy, unkempt road sign is all that marks the border of this hard-won and even harder-held territory.
A ramshackle tea shop sits a few yards away. A citizen of the unrecognised Artsakh sits impassively, hopeful that the foreigners who have arrived and, with some enthusiasm, are taking selfies in front of the sign, may choose to sample his chai and his zhingyalov hats,8 the latter with an appearance and taste of unleavened bread stuffed liberally with common, garden grass.
The road into Nagorno-Karabakh is new.9 Prominent signs along it hail this proper, tarmac road as the most important infrastructure project to hit the territory. It probably is. The same signs hail it as a gift from the people of Armenia. Construction was funded through subscriptions from Armenian diaspora all over the world.
There are only a few private cars labouring along the steep slopes when we are there. That said, the real beneficiaries of this largesse from ordinary, patriotic Armenians is easy to see. A nationalist drumbeat delivered by Yerevan feeds the pockets of those who are banging the drums. The elite in Yerevan and Stepanakert.
The only burgeoning forms of traffic we have seen across nearly a week in the territory are imponderable numbers of trucks filled with timber. A few vehicles bearing mining company logos drive by, complete with security escorts.
And, amid all the rickety Ladas and rust-bucket Japanese cars, an occasional minibus with blacked out windows. Only people like Christina really know the fate of the passengers in these.
In their nationalistic fervour, ordinary people pay for the road. The big beasts of Yerevan use it to improve their already lucrative businesses. Nagorno- Karabakh is being systematically asset stripped. For good measure, the road has made it easier for the territory to serve as a useful base from which to flood the world’s trouble spots with arms and hard drugs.
We also see Iranian-plated trucks, which convoy freely across the border stuffed with Afghani heroin, courtesy of the Revolutionary Guard, another player in the territory’s dubious economy.
One wonders if the good burghers of the United States town of Glendale, just a few miles away from downtown Los Angeles, with almost two-fifths of its 200,000 population being of Armenian descent,10 knew what they were donating towards with such gusto. In July 2018, the Los Angeles Times spoke of: ...scattered graveyards, where prayers and hymns echo over coffins of the fallen. America’s heroin and opioid scourge is intimate and distant, resounding and silent. It is a haunted landscape of slack-faces, failed recoveries and holding cells. More than 64,000 people died last year of drug overdoses, a cataclysm affecting our politics, healthcare and courts...11
The road, to which many of those in Glendale contributed, only served to improve the supply chain that stretches between the poppy fields of Afghanistan and this dark underbelly of American society.
And there are the geopolitical ramifications. Invade Afghanistan. Embark upon the longest war in United States history. As of July 27th, 2018, there were 2,372 reported United States military deaths there, along with 20,320 American service members wounded.12
No matter. Build a road to support the supply chain. Help finance the Taliban. And Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, for good measure.
Some consider that the foundations of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem came with Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika reforms in Eastern Europe, introduced to assuage Soviet control of its Republics. With alarming speed, and Russian military help, Armenia seized the opportunity to launch a campaign of such ferocity that continues to sit alongside the likes of Bosnia, Cambodia and Rwanda in the lexicon of genocide.
Yet while Gorbachev certainly offered the opportunity for this modern-day push towards a ‘Greater Armenia’, in fact the story of this region goes much deeper into history.
The name of Karabakh originates from Turkish, literally meaning black garden, and dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries. Nagorny comes from a Russian word, meaning mountainous.13
Historically Nagorno-Karabakh had been one of the ancient historical regions of Azerbaijan. In his 1847 book The History of Karabakh, Mirza Jamal Javanshir Garabaghli, the vizier of the Azerbaijani Karabakh Khanate, recorded in detail the history of the region, one backed by academic source material.14
It is a history that is deeply rooted in Azerbaijan. The region’s major conurbation was named Khankendi – Turkic for ‘the khan’s village’ – and was founded in the late 18th century as the private preserve for Khans of the Karabakh Khanate.15 Khankendi was charted on Tsarist era maps.
The source of increased Armenian connection in Nagorno-Karabakh came in the 18th century.
Immigration from Persia saw thousands of Christian Armenians settle alongside the majority Muslim population. After Russian occupation of the Khanate in 1805, the Tsar’s administration encouraged this further,16 settling thousands in Nakhchivan and Yerevan under the terms of the Turkmenchay Treaty in 1828. The demographics of the region altered, but noticeably for a time there was relative peace.
That changed when Armenian leaders began to pursue their dream of a ‘Greater Armenia’ extending ‘from sea to sea’,17 referring to the Caspian and Mediterranean.
In the 1920s, the Soviet Government established a Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region within Azerbaijan.18 Under Bolshevik rule, fighting between the two sides was kept in check but, as the Soviet Union began to collapse, so did its grip on Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In 1988, the Nagorno-Karabakh legislature illegally passed a resolution to join Armenia despite the fact that the region was within Azerbaijan’s borders.19 As the Soviet Union was dissolving in 1991, the region pushed for independence. War erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving roughly 30,000 casualties and hundreds of thousands of refugees.
According to Human Rights Watch: from the beginning of the Karabakh conflict, Armenia provided aid, weapons, and volunteers. Armenian involvement in Artsakh escalated after a December 1993 Azerbaijani offensive. The Republic of Armenia began sending conscripts and regular army and Interior Ministry troops to fight in Artsakh.20
By 1993, Armenia controlled Nagorno-Karabakh and, having occupied seven surrounding districts, now held 20% of total Azerbaijani territory.21 In 1994, Russia belatedly brokered a ceasefire.22
Nagorno-Karabakh became what is euphemistically termed a ‘frozen conflict’. The sound of gunfire and artillery, quite apparent during the weeks I was in Stepanakert, illustrating that the term is somewhat redundant. So does the body count of soldiers, claimed by both sides. As we neared the Armenian lines facing those of Azerbaijan, so alarmingly close that one could see the colours of the Azerbaijani horizontal tricolour, the crack of sniper fire was audible.
Tensions have remained high since a breakdown in talks that followed a surge of violence in April 2016, with repeated ceasefire violations.23
Negotiation and mediation efforts, primarily led by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Minsk Group, have failed to produce a permanent solution to the conflict. The somewhat limp-wristed Minsk Group was created in 1994 to address the dispute and is co-chaired by the United States, Russia and France.24 The three parties have their own geopolitical agendas. And it shows. The co-chairs organise periodic summits between the leaders of the two countries and hold individual meetings. The group has successfully negotiated ceasefires, but territorial issues remain as intractable as ever.
Nagorno-Karabakh – and the border region claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan – is increasingly at risk of renewed hostilities due to the failure of mediation efforts, escalating militarisation and frequent ceasefire violations. Over the past several years, artillery shelling and minor skirmishes between Azerbaijani and Armenian troops have caused hundreds of deaths. Early April 2016 witnessed the most intense fighting since 1994, killing dozens and producing more than three hundred casualties.25 After four days, the two sides announced that they had agreed on yet another fragile ceasefire.
In October 2017, an Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe-led mediation group, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Geneva to discuss a possible settlement.
Sitting around that table; one President who was making a personal fortune26 out of the ongoing rape of Nagorno-Karabakh, his ties into the territory’s commercial life widely known. And at least one OSCE delegate whose nation continues to gain from continued instability in the Caucasus region and remaining keen to sow discord along its borders.27 Perhaps not the most honest of brokers.
Without successful – or even scrupulous – mediation efforts, ceasefire violations and renewed tensions consistently threaten to reignite a military conflict between the countries and destabilise the South Caucasus region.
This could also disrupt oil and gas exports from the region, since Azerbaijan, which produces some 800,000 barrels of oil per day,28 is a significant exporter to Europe.
Russia has promised to defend Armenia.29 Turkey has pledged to support Azerbaijan.30 Iran, with its large Azerbaijani minority,31 states that it would like to see peace, although for the Revolutionary Guard and its Commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari – personally sanctioned by the European Union32 and the United States33 for his criminality – Nagorno-Karabakh represents big business.
Yet amid all the international attention paid to solving the issue, faux as some of it is, the region remains an irreconcilable mess. Falling through the cracks of international law, Nagorno-Karabakh has been afforded the scope to become a hotbed of unrestrained crime.
Calling itself the ‘Republic of Artsakh’, in 2012 Nagorno-Karabakh’s population was estimated at 143,600.34 Through ethnic cleansing and what amounts to genocide of the Azerbaijani population, along with immigration from Armenia to the territory, today it is almost entirely Armenian.
While Armenia’s leaders, and Nagorno-Karabakh’s rump government, have projected a ‘Greater Armenia’ cause and the emergence of the illegal ‘Republic of Artsakh’ as something of a divine cause, the dark underbelly of Nagorno- Karabakh has become increasingly apparent.
Along the ceasefire line, this issue bears all the hallmarks of a ‘frozen conflict’. Sometimes thawing. Always a source of international tension. Yet away from the front lines and what are euphemistically described as peace negotiations, and well away from international purview, maintaining Nagorno-Karabakh’s isolation has become a matter of ‘business’ for the political elite.
The likes of Russia’s Bratva, Armenia’s akhperutyuns, bodies like the Revolutionary Guard, and individuals like ‘Prince of Marbella’ Monzer al-Kassar and the now-incarcerated Viktor Bout, have all been granted free rein to use the territory as a base.
While global powers and foreign media may consider Nagorno-Karabakh a ‘frozen conflict’, beyond the law and order oversight that is a norm for all established nations, the territory today functions as ground zero for another form of war, the festering global epidemic of opiates, human trafficking and the sex trade, and an illegal arms industry that fuels conflict in every doomed region of the world.
On February 17th, 2018, months before he was turfed out of power during a people’s revolution in Armenia, then President Serzh Sargsyan told the Munich Security Conference that “...the people of Karabakh want to live freely, too. They want to live in their historical land.”35
President Sargsyan spoke the truth. Yet no one asked to live under kleptocracy, nor a nation that shares its DNA with dark days of Panama under Manuel Noriega, or indeed a land whose biggest export is the opiates that decimate entire societies across the world...
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