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Nagorno-Karabakh: The contrast between dream and reality may result in a wind of change

Article by The Norwegian Helsinki Committee

September 26, 2019

Nagorno-Karabakh: The contrast between dream and reality may result in a wind of change

Nagorno-Karabakh is a territory of contrasts. There is an obvious pride among the population of the region based on its rich history, nature, green mountains and natural resources, including gold. There is a widespread perception amongst the local population that the recognition of statehood is a possibility in the future but an understanding, that recognition is likely to take a long time – tens of years or even centuries.

Meanwhile, owing to its unrecognised status, economic growth is hampered by limited investments and trade. And the military and political conflict with Azerbaijan over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding seven territories of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenian forces remains unsolved, resulting in a militarised society.

In this essay, we attempt to ascertain what is going on in Nagorno-Karabakh, how people live and how they understand their current situation and their future. Based on input from various sources, we sense that change is in the air.

Dignity in non-recognition

Both presidential and parliamentary elections in Nagorno-Karabakh are scheduled for the spring 2020. With a population of only around 146,000,[1] there are at least 18 registered political parties.[2] “The number seems impressive, but none of them actually represents real change”, a local activist told us. Activists along with ordinary people have been protesting in recent months, demanding a change of government and solutions to economic hardship. “The economy is growing, but not to the benefit of the people”, another activist explained, “Salaries are stagnant, and there is no investment in education or health care”.

In further explanations of the protests, we were told of corruption and clan-based privatisation, with construction businesses being used as vehicles for money-laundering and the lack of transparency in the gold mining industry.

The so-called ‘Velvet revolution’ in Armenia in 2018, has become an inspiring example for the civically active part of the population. The lack of recognition of statehood has not hindered protests or the putting forward of demands for change. But where will these demands bring the de facto state? Have any of the sides – the authorities or the protesters – solutions for the easy-to-see problems?

In dealing with the problems, there are three factors that seem to especially influence political processes:

  1. The Soviet heritage;
  2. The armed conflict with the Government of Azerbaijan and the resulting militarisation of society;
  3. The ‘Velvet revolution’ and transformational changes in Armenia.

The Soviet heritage

Ways of thinking and acting inherited from Soviet timesstill prevail in many countries in the region and in the de facto states. The de facto leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence from Azerbaijan in 1991 leading to conflict, internal displacement of large numbers of people and since 1994 an uneasy ceasefire.[3] Since that time there have been several attempts at system change in post-Soviet states, including the ‘colour’ revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and recently, in Armenia, though progress towards rule of law, an independent judiciary and media, tackling corruption and democratic values has been uneven.

Even though the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region is at the centre of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, its situation mirrors developments elsewhere in the wider region as the de facto authorities are balancing between authoritarian rule and demands from society for greater freedoms and economic reforms. There are elections, but without the people’s voice; and there are parliaments, courts and state ministries, but under an overwhelming bureaucratic mist. The institutions are not able to function properly and transparently. The central authorities remain willing to order law-enforcement and military units to use violence against its own population.

These effects of the Soviet heritage are an important factor in Nagorno-Karabakh as well. However, the unrecognised status of the region makes institutions even weaker than in recognised states in the wider neighbourhood. From the populations’ perspective there might be, somewhat paradoxically, both positive and negative consequences of this institutional weakness.

Among the positive factors that can be mentioned is more independent thinking about alternatives to the current ways of running the territory. This is especially true for a new generation of people, who have not experienced Soviet-style authoritarian rule and the internet. Social media opens new opportunities for participation and discussions on future developments.

At the same time, the lack of ideology and a clear vision for where the region should be heading ─ after almost 30 years of separation from the rest of the world, and resulting economic stagnation ─ leads to the gap between dreams and reality to grow wider. People are waiting for recognition, which they think will come one day, as they are confident in the de facto state’s economic and military viability. There are even those who dream of the forming of a Greater-Armenia of the 21st Century, which will include regions of Turkey, Iran and Nagorno-Karabakh.

The role of Russia, where according to various sources 2.5 to 3 million Armenians work and live, is not clear for the inhabitants, especially not for the younger generations.[4] Some perceive Russia as a multinational superpower confronting negative influences from the USA and President Donald Trump. Others realise that that Russia is not quite a democracy, and that it serves its own narrow interests by selling weapons both to Armenia and Azerbaijan, fuelling further militarisation of the region.

Militarisation

Since the 1990s, the society of Nagorno-Karabakh has been heavily influenced by armed conflict, with regular skirmishes and sniper fire along the line of contact. In April 2016, there was a four-day war, which seems to have left a patriotic feeling among the population. Although the conflict saw the Nagorno-Karabakh or Armenian forces for the first time lose a small amount of, territory to the Azerbaijani Army, it has added to a renewed sense of unity and nationalism, mobilising readiness at all times to defend the territory against an increasingly strong opponent. People in military uniform, military exercises and repeated instances of gunfire between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh soldiers, which steadily expand the number of wounded and killed soldiers, remains a visible part of life. According to Caucasian Knot, a news website covering the whole Caucasian region, the number of killed and wounded since 2016 amounts to around 80, including both combatants and a few civilians from both sides.[5]

Most of the male population over 18 years are bound to military service and remain ready to become active combatants if needed. “We do not want war”, our male interlocutors repeatedly confessed, “But if there is a war, our army will win”.

There are around 30,000 internally displaced persons in Nagorno-Karabakh.[6] 30 years after the conflict started, many of them still do not have a proper place to live. They have not received any compensation for their losses.

“What happens in Nagorno-Karabakh is a humanitarian catastrophe”, a local journalist underlined. “Politicians do not care about people’s lives and even less about their opinions. Those, who had opportunity and resources to travel, left the region”.

The displaced people have been supported by a few Armenian non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Some international missionary and humanitarian organisations have also helped. Otherwise, most international organisations are wary of operating in Nagorno-Karabakh and other de facto states. The overall policy of international donors is not to fund independent civil society organisations operating in such territories. This situation hinders progress on human rights. Lack of international support and contacts also makes the work of independent journalists, activists and lawyers more difficult. They lack the strength only cross-border, regional and international cooperation and solidarity between colleagues can give.

Peace and a final settlement of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan seems not to be possible in the near future. Among the population in Nagorno-Karabakh we sensed that there is both a constant expectation of the continuation of conflict and war, and an understanding that someday the peace must come.

A village called Talish, placed in the border zone with Azerbaijan, experienced heavy destruction during the four-day war in 2016 and still lies in ruins. All 600 people living in the village left, and so far, only two families have returned. One of them recently celebrated a wedding with 250 guests in Talish’ old church. The local authorities have built or renovated around 50 houses.

It is neither the absence of a proper road to the village, nor the lack of access to water or electricity that seems to prevent return. It is rather the continued risk of gunfire and the lack of prospects of conflict resolution that keeps people away. In their experience, while time is passing, the conflict may escalate or diminish, but will not go away. The air is filled with rumours, fake news and myths.

From Armenia with hope

When a society for decades lives with conflict and the mobilisation for war, national security often becomes the top priority and individual human rights a secondary importance. People get used to enduring hardships and become tolerant of violence. They adapt to a worsening social and political situation, malfunctioning institutions and widespread poverty.

However, we sense that there is a wind of change now blowing from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenians constitute a vast majority.

The 2018 ‘Velvet revolution’ in Armenia inspired local activists, civil society groups, journalists and many ordinary people, who have no choice but to stay and live in the territory. The society is indeed changing according to local activists. They claim that fear is not a strong factor anymore and that the armed forces would hardly attack peaceful protests, which have increased in numbers since the regime change in Armenia. Social media platforms are important providers of alternative information and places of discussions. Local activists and journalists are willing to refer to international norms of rule of law, freedom of expression, and bring cases to the Ombudsmen office and even international mechanisms when there is an opportunity.

If one forgets for a moment that the region is a de facto state, one could hardly find any difference between the society in Nagorno-Karabakh and other societies in transition. There are common features of fatigue and discontents with power elites, which are stuck in internal bargaining struggles for power, assets and corruption. They seem unable to solve social problems or fulfil basic needs of the population. Lack of real opposition with a vision and a concrete reform agenda is also a common issue.

However, the story of Nikol Pashinyan, the reforming Prime Minister of Armenia, who had a past as a prominent journalist and opposition politician, pulls out a new debate: could something similar happen in Nagorno-Karabakh? Some mention Samuel Babayan, a former Secretary of Defence, who after staying in power for 10 years joined the opposition. Would he be able to gain people’s trust and pursue a reform agenda?

Many locals assume that the revolution in Armenia was a result of the four-day war in April 2016, and popular dissatisfaction with failures of a corrupt and inefficient military and state apparatus. Pashinyan has so far been rather careful in talking about the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. He has, however, talked about the need for investigations into different aspects of the war, which represented the worst fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over Nagorno-Karabakh since a ceasefire was signed in 1994. In June 2019, the Armenian Parliament established a commission to investigate the circumstances of the war.[7]

Need for a people-centred approach

The political situation is not easy, given its duality. You may be pro-reform and –democracy internally, but at the same time you have to present a plausible strategy for sustaining a positive relationship with Russia as the security guarantor of Armenia and ─ in the long run ─ for negotiations with Azerbaijan. This duality creates a vulnerability, which neither Armenia nor Nagorno-Karabakh will be able to solve without more decisive involvement from the international community.

There is a need for careful steps, both to address internal human rights problems – such as expanding freedoms and fulfilling economic and social rights of an impoverished population – as well as moving ahead with peace talks.

An important part of such a shift in approach would be to place the situation of the people living there in focus. The fact that there has been no solution to the housing problems of about 30,000 internally displaced people living in Nagorno-Karabakh is telling of the need to re-orient focus.[8] Whether this situation is mainly due to inaction by the international society, as claimed by Nagorno-Karabakh Ombudsman Artak Beglaryan, with local authorities doing what they can, might be debatable.[9] Improving the situation of the still very large number of internally displaced people in Azerbaijan should of course also be part of such a people-centred approach. Both national authorities and the international society should step up efforts to remedy their situation.[10]

It is beyond doubt that there is a need for more engagement from international organisations to improve human rights and living standards in the region. Such a shift in approach will, we believe, in the longer run also make it easier to solve the conflicts.


Photo by Adam Jones, Tank Monument – Near Mayraberd (Askerani) – Nagorno-Karabakh, June 2015, https://www.flickr.com/photos/adam_jones/18582153944. No modifications to photo. Creative commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

[1] The last official population count in Nagorno-Karabakh was conducted in 2016. The number was 146 260 (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/280021/). However, this number might vary from what the Azerbaijan authorities have.

[2] The number of registered parties have been growing recently, see Caucasian Knot, Non-parliamentary opposition of Nagorno-Karabakh joins presidential campaign, https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/333391/

[3] According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the number of IDPs in Azerbaijan as of 31 December 2018, was 344 000. In addition, 301 000 IDPs had made partial progress towards a durable solution, http://www.internal-displacement.org/countries/azerbaijan According to Nagorno-Karabakh sources, there are more than 30 000 IDPs in Nagorno-Karabakh. https://www.osce.org/odihr/344716

[4] Russia-Armenia Info, Armenians in Russia, http://www.russia-armenia.info/node/16443

[5] Caucasian Knot, Nagorno-Karabakh after the truce: A two-year war, April 2018, https://www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/42824/

[6] As noted in footnote 3 there are a larger number of Azerbaijani IDPs from Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories in Azerbaijan.

[7] Ani Mejlumian, Armenia beings probe of 2016 war, June 2019, Eurasianet, https://eurasianet.org/armenia-begins-probe-of-2016-war

[8] Caucasian Knot, Refugees in Nagorno-Karabakh talked about housing problem (in Russian only), June 2019, https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/336960/

[9] Ibid.

[10] According to a recent report, “official figures shows that more than 313 thousands IDPs still live in unfit buildings in emergency state in Baku, Sumgait, Ganja and other cities and districts”. Human Rights Club, The Human Rights Situation of Internally Displaced People in Azerbaijan, November 2018, p. 10, available at: https://www.humanrightsclub.net/en/news/2019/human-rights-situation-of-internally-displaced-persons-in-azerbaijan/

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