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Samizdat 2000

Nagorno Karabakh: a Paradise under Threat
Christine Stone


Text-only printable version of this article

Christine Stone practised at the English Bar as a lawyer specializing in crime and civil liberties before setting up the British Helsinki Human Rights Group with a number of academic and journalist colleagues in 1992. She has written for a number of publications including The Spectator and Wall Street Journal on Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. Her column now appears Thursdays on

Archived articles by Christine Stone

Nagorno Karabakh: a Paradise under Threat

The Legacy of Clinton's Foreign Policy

What Peru Tells Us About International Election Observers

The American Beat-Up on Peru and Venezuela

Sierra Leone and the Dogs of War

Is Britain Heading for Fraudulent Elections?

Last Year in Belgrade: Memories From a Visit

Hate – Speech and the New World Order

Slovakia: Mr. Meciar's Dawn Raid

A New Croatian Spring

The New World Order Turns Against an Old Friend

Kosovo's Borderlands

Georgia is on Everyone's Mind

McCain Rocks the Vote

The Sad Tale of Croatian Independence

Christmas in Kosovo

Macedonia: the Next Balkan Flashpoint

Some Thoughts on the Killings in Armenia – Who did it and Why?

It is dusk and the residents of Nagorno Karabakh are washing their cars in the river that runs beneath the small capital city of Stepanakert; cows are being driven downhill from the surrounding pastures for the night. It is an idyllic scene but one that belies the simmering tensions that still beleaguer the small country eight years after a ceasefire ended its war with neighbouring Azerbaijan.

On 18th June Karabakh held elections for its 33 seat parliament. The event was ignored by the international community which has refused to recognize the country's independence. Only a handful of foreign observers made the grueling journey to Stepanakert from Armenia, including four representatives from Abkhazia and Transnistria, the other breakaway enclaves in the former Soviet Union. Getting to Karabakh involves a mountainous, six hour drive from Yerevan through war-torn Lachan.

It is nearly 12 years since Nagorno Karabakh was news. In 1988 this predominantly Armenian-inhabited enclave then part of Azerbaijan asked to be transferred to the jurisdiction of Armenia. After declaring independence in 1991 it was attacked by the Azeri army. After four years of war during which one side then the other gained the upper hand large numbers of refugees were displaced from both communities. Karabakh won the war with help from Armenia and, allegedly, Russia itself. But, despite the ceasefire and an OSCE-sponsored peace process, the Minsk process, the country's status still lies unresolved and in limbo.

However, there has been a growing urgency over the past few years for the situation to be sorted out, particularly by those Western countries with significant investments in the Caspian region. Nagorno Karabakh has no enticing natural resources to offer Western businessmen. It is a stumbling block situated in the middle of what many hope will be a region full of economic riches.

Karabakh is a remarkable place for a variety of reasons. Compared with most parts of the former Soviet Union it is clean and well-ordered – the car washing is just one small example. Stepanakert, now largely reconstructed after the war, is spotless. Financed partly by Yerevan and the Armenian Diaspora, the country has remained outside the remit of the international community which has, so far, saved it from the worst excesses of Western sponsored "reform." There are no strange banks and little sign of the clubs, casinos and garish, expensive shops that have sprung up even in neighbouring Armenia. There are few food imports – the people grow and eat their own produce.

And the countryside is spectacular: eagles circle above the wooded hills and hoopoes flit in and out of the meadows which are filled in summer with wild flowers and the bright, red blossom of pomegranate bushes. It is in its own way a small part of paradise. No wonder it was fought over with such viciousness.

The evidence for that war is everywhere – in the devastated town of Shushi in the hills above Stepanakert and along the plain that separates Karabakh from Azeri territory. There, the mangled remains of tanks, missile launchers and other abandoned military hardware litter the scarred countryside. Most evidence of human habitation has been destroyed or damaged. The aftermath of war here, including the omnipresence of war-wounded, makes Kosovo look like a small squabble. At least 300,000 Azeris were driven into Iran and then on to Azerbaijan itself where they have since lived in squalid conditions. But it is to be hoped that if refugees are to return it will not be according to the Kosovo method of repatriation which has resulted in the mayhem of reverse ethnic cleansing.

Although the initial euphoria for the Karabakh cause gradually wore off many of the original members of the Karabakh Committee continued to play a leading part in Armenian political life. Those who had fought in the war were also active in the politics of both Armenia and Karabakh. It is the curious interweaving of these personalities that helps to explain the situation today.

In 1997 the president of Karabakh, Robert Kocharian, defected to Yerevan to become Armenia's prime minister. In March 1998 he was elected the country's president. Last year parliamentary elections were won by a coalition calling itself Unity (Miasnutiun) composed of the People's Party led by the former Communist boss of Armenia, Karen Demirchian, and the Republican Party led by Karabakh war veteran, Vazgen Sarkissian. Sarkissian who became prime minister was also the head of the Karabakh veterans association, Yerkrapah, which gave him, superficially at least, the appearance of a hard-liner on questions of Karabakh's independence.

However, as the October 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul approached Sarkissian indicated that he might be more flexible than expected over the terms of a future settlement. Therefore, it must have been horrifying for the US, in particular, when Sarkissian, Demirchian and six other Armenian politicians were assassinated in the chamber of the country's parliament on 27th October last year. [See C. Stone: "Some Thoughts on the killings in Armenia," Antiwar 1/11/1999] Despite the arrest of several suspects, including two who were close to the president, the crime has not been solved.

Over the past year, Kocharian has maintained an outwardly correct, but uneasy, relationship with the parliament where several attempts have been made to trigger impeachment proceedings against him. It is an open secret that the US did not want him to succeed to the presidency in 1998. However, with presidential elections looming in the US itself this November the administration in Washington has toned down its criticisms for fear, no doubt, of alienating the large American Armenian Diaspora prior to the poll. There are over one million Armenians and their relatives in California alone, a state whose delegates the Democrats urgently need if Al Gore is to win. American Armenians made clear their displeasure with the Clinton administration's heavy-handed criticism of Kocharian's election.

While the president and parliament in Yerevan sparred and bickered last year discord was also afoot in Nagorno Karabakh. A power struggle had developed between the country's president, Arkadi Ghukasian, and its minister of defence, the 34-year-old Samvel Babayan, another hero of the Karabakh war. In June 1999 matters came to a head when the prime minister, Zhirair Poghossian, was dismissed and later charged with illegal possession of weapons. Many Karabakhis maintain that the powerful defence minister was behind the intrigues.

Today, residents of Karabakh point to the buccaneering lifestyle of Babayan and his cronies. The defence minister and his family built themselves large houses in Stepanakert, even adding the Hemingwayesque appurtenance of a small zoo. The family's tentacles were widely spread – Samvel's brother Karen Babayan's was also mayor of Stepanakert.

At midnight on 22nd March this year gunmen attempted to assassinate Arkadii Ghukasian as he left the presidential headquarters for home. However, unlike the killings in the Armenian parliament, the plot failed. Ghukasian crouched backwards in his official car and the bullets failed to enter his vital organs only wounding him (admittedly seriously) in the legs. After two and a half months in a Yerevan hospital he is now back at work.

The assassins were apprehended at the scene of the crime. However, the law enforcement agencies in Stepanakert laid the blame for organizing the attack squarely at the door of Babayan. Since the end of March he has been in custody (with others allegedly involved in the incident ) awaiting trial.

What would have happened if Ghukasian had been killed? More than likely Babayan and his supporters would have taken over the government either by a straightforward coup d'etat or by railroading elections through the parliament. And, despite the rhetoric and the reputation as a ‘hard-liner' it is possible that a Babayan-led administration would have been more compromising over the future fate of Karabakh itself. After all, as pointed out, that other "hard line" former war hero, Vazgen Sarkissian was preparing to negotiate a settlement of the conflict before his murder last October.

Was the attempt on Ghukasian's life just the result of a local power struggle or did it, like the earlier (successful) assassinations in Yerevan point to outside involvement? No one seems to know. However, Babayan's supporters also tend to be the enemies and critics of Kocharian in Yerevan – some of them appeared in Stepanakert on election night looking for evidence of malpractice at the polls. Those who would benefit from removing Ghukasian from the scene are politicians in Yerevan and their Western backers who urgently need to remove the independently-minded government in Karabakh.

But the vultures are gathering around Karabakh from other quarters. The Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels – the only begetters of the Balkan Stability Pact – recently produced a plan to finally quash the fires of nationalism in the Caucasus, the Caucasus Stability Pact? Its co-authors are a motley crew. There is Romania's "roaming ambassador," Sergiu Celac, who honed his skills as English-language interpreter to Nicolae Ceausescu before becoming ambassador to Great Britain and Michael Emerson, a former EU ambassador to Russia. Emerson left the job somewhat under a cloud after he had allegedly removed icons via the diplomatic bag.

The Caucasus Stability Pact is a document filled with that strange langue de bois only Brussels can produce. The talk is of "competences" and "dimensions" and "tool-kits on the distribution of competences." The plan claims that notions such as "sovereignty," "independence" "federation" and "confederation" "bedevil the search for solutions" in the area and the authors point to Northern Ireland, South Tyrol and the Aland Islands as having the kind of governance that they would recommend. The aim is to break up all the nations of the South Caucasus into regional structures. If successful, the project could lead to the region becoming a member of (to quote) "virtual Europe." Not quite members of the EU but shadowy, pretend participants in the world according to Brussels. Recognizing the ultimate meaningless of this proposal the authors agree that it is a "post-modernist" solution.

As the author Suzanne Goldenberg noted in her 1994 book Pride of Small Nations the Karabakh war "revived concepts that seem unfamiliar in our era: betrayal, revenge, Christendom, honour." Karabakh still sustains itself with these concepts which are as alive in a broken-down village hall as they are in the offices of state. They are alas, the ideas of yesteryear. While Karabakhi history can sometimes seems a bit farfetched – particularly to people from countries like France and Great Britain with a rich, well-documented past – it is also alien to a world that seeks to reduce the powers of the nation-state and impose blurred regionalized structures.

However, I would rather live in Nagorno Karabakh than Northern Ireland which the Good Friday Agreement (lauded by the authors of the Stability Pact) promises to reduce to ungovernability. The social cohesion and sense of pride that Karabakhis have in their institutions has produced a place where there are some genuine economic benefits for all in a setting of good governance. Of course, Nagorno Karabakh is very small and ultimately needs to rely (for the moment, at least) on some measure of protection from outside including the power structures in Moscow. Let us hope that this good fairy watches over it for some time to come.

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