Andranik Margaryan did not listen. Some stones are better left unturned. In 2000, Margaryan was appointed Prime Minister of Armenia in the wake of the 1999 parliament shooting that led to the murder of then Premier Vazgen Sargsyan.154
Sargsyan’s murky death, of course, had served to provide ground for a political coup that saw the nation fall completely under the grip of President Robert Kocharyan.
If anyone did not absorb this as a warning as to Kocharyan’s intentions, the murder of his Premier in order to solidify power, then they were not listening.
For Margaryan, his arrival in the job represented a shocking rise to prominence. While those around him, including Kocharyan, were kowtowing to Moscow, Margaryan had been a long-time critic of totalitarian Soviet rule.155 He spoke out on this taboo subject and envisioned an independent, democratic Armenia. For his temerity, he was repeatedly arrested and beaten and, eventually, spent several years in a gulag as punishment.156
When released, Margaryan would eventually go quietly into academia. As late as 1995 he continued to serve as a low level researcher at the State Architectural University.
Yet, five years later, he was almost plucked from obscurity when appointed Prime Minister. Most observers considered him a patsy, an empty shirt who would sit in that position and do as the President bid.
It seemed, perhaps, that Margaryan did not get the memo, however. It is difficult to believe that he could have been so naïve. The price for his tone deaf observation of the situation would be paid by one of his closest allies.
Gagik Poghosyan (on the photo, right) was a former Minister of State for Revenues and Chairman of the Governmental Control Service. He had been a constant irritant to the ruling elite as the nation’s wealth has been divided up between them. As Minister of State for Revenues, Poghosyan’s assessment had highlighted widespread corruption and cronyism in the exploitation of Armenia’s natural wealth.157
His appointment as Special Advisor and head of the Prime Minister’s Oversight Service had understandably raised eyebrows.
In 2001, Margaryan ordered Poghosyan to undertake a forensic audit of the Ministry of Nature Protection and of State Property Management, along with several other departments. Margaryan was looking at his country’s minerals and mining industry, with particular focus on mine ownership, tendering processes (or lack of) and exploitation.
This was an incredible challenge to the ruling elite.
Poghosyan’s task was to produce an official report, in the name of the Prime Minister’s Office, which provided systematic analysis of who owned Armenia’s national assets and how they obtained that ownership. Embarking upon this project would, ultimately, come with a price.
More than anyone, Kocharyan had seized upon this natural wealth. Ultimately he would have come into the crosshairs of any investigation, along with family members and his personal power circle.
The President had a problem though. To quote, and then paraphrase, Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’ For Kocharyan, to lose one Prime Minister would be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two would seem like more than carelessness.
Margaryan had to stay. Whatever.
Police said the device went off at around nine in the morning. When Poghosyan opened the door of his home, as he left for work, it triggered a grenade that was attached to the handle. After the blast Poghosyan was able to stumble down to the ground floor of his apartment building, before collapsing. He was pronounced dead at the scene.158
The same day State prosecutors opened an inquiry into what they described as a “premeditated murder”.159 A short official government statement offered condolences to Poghosyan’s family. Despite a senior official in the Prime Minister’s office being murdered with a grenade, the statement stopped short of describing Poghosyan’s “tragic death” as an assassination.
It could perhaps be considered fortuitous for those behind the killing of Gagik Poghosyan that they chose September 11th, 2001, to murder him. The world, of course, was fixed upon unfolding events in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.160 News of the brutal killing of an advisor to the Prime Minister of Armenia barely registered.
It did register, however, with Margaryan. If you play by the rules of the ‘Karabakh clan’ – Kocharyan and Sargsyan – and provide acquiescence and silence, you can indeed survive and even prosper. Margaryan’s son, Taron, became close to Sargsyan and served as a Mayor of Yerevan between 2011 and 2018.
Margaryan would serve as Prime Minister until 2007, when he died of a heart attack.161 During the remainder of his seven years as Premier, he would cause Kocharyan no further headaches.
One year on from Poghosyan’s death, in September 2002, the General Prosecutor’s Office of Armenia announced that it had ended its investigation into his murder. No suspects had been pinpointed.
Whomever had ordered, orchestrated and undertaken the execution of Poghosyan had silenced those who would have attempted to stop the process underway. Across Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh a veritable gold rush was now underway, unimpeded.
In 2016, the International Criminal Police Organisation and the United Nations Environment Programme issued a ‘Rapid Response Assessment’ titled ‘The Rise of Environmental Crime’. In a joint statement United Nations Under- Secretary-General Achim Steiner and INTERPOL Secretary-General Jur̈gen Stock wrote that: ...the scope and spectrum of this illegal trade has widened... The growth rate of these crimes is astonishing. The report that follows reveals for the first time that this new area of criminality has diversified and skyrocketed to become the world’s fourth largest crime sector in a few decades, growing at two to three times the pace of the global economy. INTERPOL and UNEP now estimate that natural resources worth as much as $91 billion to $258 billion annually are being stolen by criminals, depriving countries of future revenues and development opportunities. Environmental crime has impacts beyond those posed by regular criminality. It increases the fragility of an already brittle planet. The resulting vast losses to our planet rob future generations of wealth, health and well-being on an unprecedented scale. They also compromise our ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.162
The winding Vardenis-Mardakert Road rumbles constantly with the dull pain of old, worn trucks attempting to navigate their way towards Armenia. We know this only too well. Our small people carrier, our driver, and ourselves, find our way almost into a direct confrontation with the bonnets of several fellow travellers.
Once or twice we go a little too close to the edges of some tight mountain passes. Yet our hairiest moment of the trek into the heart of Nagorno-Karabakh came when a timber truck disgorged its huge cargo of logs, when failing to stop on a steep downwards stretch. A few minutes earlier and we may have been flattened. Tragically, the driver of the truck was.
The road into Nagorno-Karabakh is a triumph of engineering over nature. Think the Alpe d’Huez in the French Alps, famous for its 21 hairpin bends, or Lysevegen, famous for its 27, or the Trollstigen Road with its 11 characteristic curves.
The traveller leaves behind Lake Sevan and the flat plains of Armenia’s poverty-stricken agricultural heartlands and takes on the steep gradients of the imposing Lower Caucasus Mountains in order to get to Nagorno-Karabakh. Roads winding up mountains are formed into hairpin turns, a sharp bend in a road on a steep incline. Tight switchbacks take us down the other side and, then, onto what seems another, in an unceasing series of mountains to be traversed. Despite a new more modern road nowadays, paid for by Armenians living abroad,163 the stunning scenery of Nagorno-Karabakh is at odds with the treachery of the road.
A myriad of cows wander aimlessly along the tarmac. Boulders fall from badly trained rock faces above. Some of the cars and trucks are decidedly Soviet- era, along with some of the driving practices that guide them.
Drivers dart out along the sharpest of turns, slamming their cars back into their lanes at the first flash of oncoming disaster. Most of the time they make it. The lethality of the roadway stems from the unique mix of geography, the road itself and drivers’ disregard for the laws of physics. Under the circumstances, not least demanding topography and feather-weight road crash barriers that regularly allow cars and trucks over into the valleys below, you might imagine that those behind the wheel would proceed slowly, crawling and craning their necks to guard against oncoming traffic whipping round the next curve. Not really.
In September 2017, Armenian President Sargsyan and Nagorno-Karabakh leader Bako Sahakyan ceremonially opened the new highway connecting Armenia to the territory,164 cheered enthusiastically by a delegation of politicians, religious leaders and Armenian diaspora.
The 71.5-mile Vardenis-Mardakert highway better connects the breakaway state’s capital, Stepanakert, to Armenia’s eastern Gegharkunik province.165 The highway cost some $35 million dollars, with around half funded by Yerevan and Stepanakert.166 The balance came via telethon pledge drives, broadcast from Los Angeles by the Hayastan All-Armenian Foundation, a Yerevan-based non- governmental organisation.
Thousands from within the Armenian diaspora, especially in the United States, stumped up personal donations in order to further the dream of Artsakh.
In theory a boon for socio-economic development, Vardenis-Mardakert also has a clear strategic significance. During an April 2016 eruption of violence along the Nagorno-Karabakh-Azerbaijan line-of-contact, the then-partially completed road allowed soldiers to quickly move between Armenia and the zone of conflict.
But the sheer brilliance of the scheme was to have people from all over the world pay, for a piece of key infrastructure that provides most benefit to those in power.
On May 27th, 2017, President Bako Sahakyan attended a meeting of the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund Board of Trustees in Yerevan. He pointed to the strategic, political and socio-economic significance of the road, which would boost the movement of goods and minerals in and out of the territories and to markets and processing units in Armenia and other countries.167
Sahakyan’s view was mirrored by other statements that have appeared in various media outlets. According to Alexander Kananyan, a resident of Kalbajar whose comments were reported in Caucasus Knot on January 12th, 2012: The road bypasses all main villages and the district’s main town, Karvachar, by about 18 kilometres. That’s why the new road is being built primarily for freighting, rather than for the locals.168
Additionally Karen Shakhramanyan, who headed urban planning in the territory’s administration, says the road: ...has strategic and economic importance, as it is convenient for freighting and realisation of perspective programmes in the mining sphere – Drmbon gold mining factory and Maghavuz coal factory, which are both located in the Martakert region of Nagorno- Karabakh.169
The Hayastan All-Armenian Fund is, in itself, a brilliant concept, the creation of President Levon Ter-Petrosyan in 1992. Today the group says of itself: It is a unique institution whose mission is to unite Armenians in Armenia and overseas to overcome the country’s difficulties and to help establish sustainable development in Armenia and Artsakh. In addition to those problems associated with the break-up of the Soviet Union, the government had to find solutions to the aftermath of the 1988 Spitak earthquake, an economic blockade and the rehabilitation of areas that had suffered from the Artsakh conflict. The work of the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund is implemented with the active participation and support of its 21 affiliates and partner organisations in 19 countries.170
Under the Fund’s charter, the Armenian President – for two decades either Robert Kocharyan or Serzh Sargsyan – would serve as President of its Board of Trustees.
Although no one can question the merits of the fund’s work to improve schools and social services, and its roots to transform infrastructure such as the 1990s, Goris-Stepanakert Highway, the 169 kilometre North-South ‘Backbone’ road, has steadily emerged is a rat’s nest of graft.
While vigorously raising funds from Armenian diaspora all over the world, endemic maleficence had emerged over recent times, not least when the National Security Service arrested the organisation’s executive director for using money to fund an online gambling addiction.171
Over the last two decades, the diaspora has been systematically tapped for money to support a hard sold nationalist cause. All the while, the most dramatic beneficiaries of this largesse have been those aforementioned Board of Trustees heads.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s improving road system had supported their personal economic activities. And the asset stripping of the territory – and indeed Armenia itself. A worsening scenario prompted famed French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour, who served as Armenia’s ambassador to Switzerland and UNESCO, to condemn the situation. Speaking to Nouvelles d’Armenie newspaper in March 2017 he stated that: “Not 3.6 million, as the authorities claim, but 2.3 million people live in Armenia. And the daily deterioration of the situation in Armenia benefits the rich hooligans and members of the mafia... I know unbearable stories about the mafia of Armenia. Farmers are starving on their lands – mafia members and criminals do not let them live.”172
As we make our way through Nagorno-Karabakh, cows and the falling boulders are one thing. Another is the seemingly endless procession of timber trucks, lumbering along towards Armenia. Illegal logging on a vast scale has stripped huge areas of forests across Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia is itself one of the least forest-covered countries, covering less than 10% of the total area.173 Hence, continuing deforestation of already scarce trees presents a significant environmental threat, loss of habitat and biodiversity, and lost governmental revenue from the alternative benefits of the forest (e.g. tourism development). Using satellite image data – Landsat – which avoids unreliable governmental figures, experts have extrapolated that the annual deforestation rate for the period of 2000 to 2006 was about 2,400 hectares of the forestation cover.174 Accordingly, Armenia’s forest cover dropped from 300,000 hectares in 1993 to 232,000 hectares.
All evidence is that the situation has continued since this analysis, with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe stating in 2017 that: Armenian forests are among the most threatened ecosystems, with degradation accelerating, largely attributable to deforestation and overexploitation.175
The loss of tree cover has not come without a price. The European Union Action to Fight Environmental Crime, is a collaborative effort of 11 European universities and think tanks coordinated by the Ecologic Institute which stated in its 2015 report: Mining practices in Armenia have put considerable stress on the environment. Mining has contributed to rapid deforestation in the country. Between the 1990s and today, the area covered by forests has dropped from 20% to around 7%.
The World Bank calculates that at the current rate, Armenia might lose all of its forests by 2030. In turn, the loss of forests causes the extinction of endangered species and the loss of rare plants. It will also lead to landslides that pose a direct threat to peoples’ lives, taking into account that many mining sites and villages are located in close proximity to Armenia’s mountainous areas. Mining also leads to a loss of arable land, depriving many farmers of their means of subsistence. Mining therefore especially hurts the already impoverished population of Armenia’s rural areas.176
For agriculture especially, erosion has become a major problem, affecting some 60% of agricultural land. This is mainly attributed to logging and the uncontrolled overgrazing of pasturelands. Corruption and poor management has seen the Ararat valley, which stretches for 90 kilometres along the Armenian- Turkish border in the south-west, Armenia’s most important agricultural region, drying up and facing increasing desertification.177
Armenia gets by, however. Thanks to its illegal holdings to the east. According to the report ‘Illegal economic and other activities in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan’, published by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2016, out of 4.1 million hectares of agricultural lands across the country, some 1.2 million hectares, including 139,336 hectares of irrigated land and 34,600 hectares of vineyards and orchards, are within the 20% of territory held by Armenian forces.
According to the Seoul-based International Policy Digest’s Economic Impact of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict report, the land mass seizes would represent a grave economic loss for Azerbaijan, responsible for some 24% of grain revenues, 4% of liquor production, 46% of its potato crop, 18% of meat production and 34% of milk. International Policy Digest adds that: Armenia seized about 25% of the total forested area of Azerbaijan and various rich deposits of mineral resources such as gold, chromite and copper. Using these deposits Armenia claims that it has become one of the world’s leading exporters of precious metals.178
Quoting Russian independent analyst and researcher Alexey Baliev, Lragir.am notes that: ...more than 30 Armenian companies are extracting gold and other resources in Nagorno-Karabakh. One of the gold mining companies of Armenia, having started its activities in this region in 2001, has since extracted more than 16 tonnes of gold, in 2008 alone over four tonnes...
...just in Nagorno-Karabakh there are 155 explored natural resources deposits, mainly with industrial reserves, including five gold, six mercury, two copper, one lead, one zinc, 14 gemstones, nine gypsum, four marble, ten mineral water, seven therapeutic mud. And according to the 2008 Ministry of Industry of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, deposits of numerous types of metals, especially zinc, lead, copper, gold, pyrite, iron, have been discovered since ancient times. The region also has many deposits of marble and marble limestone with a variety of colours...
Agreed in 2011, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights179 apply to armed conflict and military occupation, and are principally drawn from the Hague Regulations of 1907180 and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.181
In addition to ensuring the protection of the territory’s population, these laws aim to preserve the status quo, prohibiting an occupier from amending the territory’s laws, altering its demographics, or using its natural resources except when strictly necessary for legitimate security needs. This also means that permanently taking resources such as land or reshaping the territory’s economy runs afoul of international law.
Article 55 of the 1907 Hague Regulations reads: The occupying State shall be regarded only as administrator and usufructuary of public buildings, real estate, forests, and agricultural estates belonging to the hostile State, and situated in the occupied country. It must safeguard the capital of these properties, and administer them in accordance with the rules of usufruct.182
Indicating Armenia’s attitude towards the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and Hague Regulations and Geneva Convention, the semi-official Artsakhtert.com news site stated on April 6th, 2012, that Zangilan and Jabrayil districts along the Aras River held particular importance to Yerevan as they possessed the potential, climate, water and other resources to represent “Armenia’s second Ararat plain”. According to the Tufenkian Foundation, another United States-based cash funnel: “the liberated territories of Artsakh possess abundant, fertile land, ideal for cultivation of fruits and grains.”
Baku has released statistics illustrating that 70% of Azerbaijan’s summer pastures are in Nagorno-Karabakh.183 Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, these territories were known for grape and wheat production especially,184 including more than a sixth of grain production in Azerbaijan.
The bounty provided by Nagorno-Karabakh had not gone unclaimed. A quarter of a century ago, vast tracts of the territory were simply abandoned, left behind by Azerbaijani farmers.
Whole swathes of farmlands in Zangilan, Gubadly and Jabrayil, along with occupied parts of the Fuzuli and Agdam districts, were appropriated not just by new settlers, but huge areas would eventually be incorporated under production companies owned by Kocharyan and Sargsyan. The administration in Stepanakert has invested in water and hydropower projects in order to develop its agricultural sector. Armenia has also helped, in July 2012 for example, supplying 85 combine harvesters.
Perhaps ironically, considering the role of Armenian arms dealers and the space afforded to the illegal arms industry by Nagorno-Karabakh’s status on the fringes of international law, in contemporary times ethnic-Armenian refugees from Syria have been encouraged to settle in Nagorno-Karabakh.
While providing an arms route that has helped weaponise the Syria crisis, the Armenian General Benevolent Union and others have enthusiastically sought to transplant refugees from the conflict. Despite this being illegal under international law as this remains an occupied territory, in January 2014, the Union stated that: In its first few months, the agricultural programme has served over two dozen families, among them experienced farmers... Now, many are resettling in Kovsakan, in Nagorno-Karabakh’s south-west. Their adopted town sits on the fertile banks of the Voghj River, where the farmers have already sowed wheat and barley. While those crops grow, they’re continuing to harvest something else: hope.185
By 2017, it was reported that about 20,000 Syrian refugees had settled in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011. The Artsakh Fund aids settlers in Nagorno-Karabakh by offering homes and low- interest loans for leasing land and agricultural equipment. An October 2017 report published by Eurasianet states that: Many of the settlers were farmers back in Syria and now live in houses newly built for them by the local government. Charity groups helped fund construction. Other newcomers have refurbished dwellings that were abandoned by their previous Azerbaijani owners.186
Whipped up with nationalist fervour by the likes of the Hayastan All- Armenian Fund and Tufenkian Foundation, the Armenian diaspora had helpfully provided improved road infrastructure for Nagorno-Karabakh. This supports illegal industries.
According to the World Bank, illegal logging is a term which applies to cuttings: outside a concession area, in excess of quota, in a protected area, without appropriate permits, without complying with bidding regulations, without submission of required management plans, in prohibited areas such as steep slopes, river banks, and water catchments.
The designation “illegal logging” is open to interpretation, but there is no official definition of this in Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh. Across Nagorno- Karabakh, amid the economic funk that afflicts most of the territory’s 170,000 residents, it is understood that households will collect wood for domestic use, heating and cooking for example. Household consumption is driven primarily by poverty.
The issue is far broader than poverty-driven use. It is a growing and wholesale decimation of protected areas, removal of trees from public forests, and over reporting of high volumes extracted from legitimate forest concessions in order to mask that part of this volume is from non-authorised areas.
For Nagorno-Karabakh and its political economic masters, timber is a high value product that is relatively easy to merge into legitimate market distribution channels. Official limits on legally permitted volumes of harvested timber provide an incentive for illegal logging.
Armenia has long since given up the pretence of achieving sustainable timber supply chains. Now it is the turn of Nagorno-Karabakh to supply the nation with deforestation far beyond operational lease boundaries.
Swept across the border into Armenia along the new road, the timber finds its way to sawmills. A few days later, on our return to Yerevan, we sit outside the premises of the likes of Arax-A, BSF, Danaya and Veks, and watch as multiple trucks with now-familiar Nagorno-Karabakh number plates roll in, laden with timber from the territory. Observing the premises of one manufacturer, Woodland, appropriately enough situated adjacent to a psychiatric hospital in Nubarashen, we see several such deliveries in a single morning.
Over the next few weeks, from all these companies and others, veneer, mouldings, particle board, fibre board, plywood, blockboard and engineered wood products will go into domestic markets or be exported. It is the same with value-added wooden products like furniture, parquet, barrels and boxes, doors, window frames, statues and ornaments.
One morning while in the Armenian capital our guide takes us by the Edem Funeral Home, just off Khachik Dashtents Street and, helpfully, close to Yerevan’s Toxmax cemetery. Edem advertises that its range of coffins are made from Artsakh wood. Taking such nationalist ardour to the grave seems a popular way to go. Although arguably it is a little supererogatory.
Armenia absorbs much of Nagorno-Karabakh’s natural bounty. However there is a thriving export market for goods. Since Karabakh is unrecognised and has no official ties with any state except Armenia, Stepanakert trades via Armenia. Products are stamped “Made in Armenia”.
When Armenia joined the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union in 2015 the doors of the trading bloc – encompassing Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, and currently with former Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan serving as chairman of the board – were effectively opened to Nagorno-Karabakhi products too. Nagorno-Karabakh exports mostly agricultural crops, much of its mineral wealth under Armenian ownership and therefore considered Armenian and traded as such officially.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s vicarious membership of the Eurasian Economic Union opened new markets and possibilities. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, Russian foreign direct investment increased in recent years. In 2014, Russian investments had grown to 58.6% of all foreign direct investment. It is largely Russian-Armenians that are the source of these funds and this covers a multitude of agricultural projects.
We sit at a Nagorno-Karabakh border post along Vardenis-Mardakert highway, sipping on our warm chai, and count.
In 30 minutes: eight private cars labour past us, two small vans branded by Base Metals (the territory’s largest tax payer, more of Base Metals later), along with an additional eight battered cars containing soldiers in fatigues. Most Artsakh Defense Army troop movements seem to be done using 1980s Ladas.
We also count three minibuses with blacked out windows. When the first of these passes, our guide types into Google Translate on his phone ‘Պոռնիկ ավտոբուս’. Having witnessed events in Stepanakert, I understand its meaning... Whore Bus. I also understand the fate of those inside.
But what we are really here to see are the trucks.
During that same half hour period, 19 trucks laden with agricultural products grind past us, heading into Armenia.
Another 24 ease across the border piled with timber, the territory’s sawmills slicing up prime forest tree-trunks. Demand for industrial timber is increasing. And it shows.
Each of these represent a small addition to the agricultural, socio-economic and environmental rape of the territory. All these vehicles head into Armenia bearing the fruits of Nagorno-Karabakh’s enthusiastic exploitation.
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