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Karabakh: A Tale of Two Cities

On the eve of crucial peace talks over Nagorny Karabakh, Armenian refugees from Baku say it is too early to allow Azerbaijanis to come back.
By Ashot Beglarian
Sarasar Saryan, a middle-aged Armenian man with large, expressive and slightly sad eyes, looks back wistfully on Baku, the great city on the Caspian Sea which he grew up in – and then lost.



“Yes, we lived in Baku, we studied there, fell in love, devoted our ideas and plans and if I can put it like that, our large and small triumphs to the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic,” says Saryan. “We were possessed by the idea of socialism and we pushed for its advancement as much as we could.”



Saryan now lives in the hills of Nagorny Karabakh, in the town of Shushi– which the Azerbaijanis call Shusha - large parts of which are still in ruins from the war of 1991-94.



Shushi is a legendary town in Caucasus, sitting on a plateau at the top of a steep cliff. You can look out and see the surrounding landscape as if it were in the palm of your hand. The city is famous for its culture and architecture and also for its tragic history. It has been burned three times in the 20th century - in 1905, 1918 and 1992.



The town has been called the “Jerusalem of Karabakh” because both sides in the conflict claim it.



On June 9, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliev, meet in St Petersburg for talks on the Karabakh conflict, unresolved since the end of hostilities in 1994 left the Armenians in control of Nagorny Karabakh itself and large swathes of Azerbaijani territory around it.



Some mediators are already talking up the possibility of a breakthrough declaration by the two leaders.



“It is a very favourable moment now for settling the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorny Karabakh conflict, and the parties have never been so close to agreement,” the OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said earlier this week.



However, the two groups of people with most to gain or lose from a peace deal - the Armenian inhabitants of Karabakh itself, many of whom are refugees from Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijani refugees who fled from Karabakh as a result of the conflict – remain sceptical and fearful of what a solution would mean for them.



Saryan heads the Public Organisation of Refugees of Nagorny Karabakh, which represents Armenians who like him originally come from Baku and other parts of Azerbaijan.



He says his group is involved in peace-building activities with the Azerbaijanis. But it is also demanding compensation from that country’s government for losses suffered by refugees.



He argues that it is unfair that when the Karabakh dispute is discussed, much of the emphasis is on the Azerbaijanis who were displaced and lost their homes, Yet hundreds of thousands of Armenians in Azerbaijan were also forced to flee.



Like many former residents of Baku, Saryan looks back fondly on the “international” city of his youth, where many different ethnic groups lived alongside one another.



That idyll began to change even in Soviet times, he said, when Azerbaijani nationalism was on the rise. “Lots of young Baku Armenians did not return to the city after serving in the Soviet army; they tried to settle elsewhere instead,” he said.



Now Baku’s Armenians are scattered all over the world, with many in Shushi. Saryan noted that Shushi is also home to Armenians who lost their homes in Mardakert and Hadrut, areas close to Karabakh.



“According to my lists, there are 174 refugee families from Azerbaijan living in Shushi, a total of 483 people,” said Saryan.



He lives in an old stone house on the edge of the town which he has been restoring to liveability in recent years, but without changing its old façade. He even corresponds with the house’s former owner in Baku.



Because Nagorny Karabakh is an unrecognised republic, refugees living there do not enjoy the same rights as those in Azerbaijan, he said, adding,

“The main problem for [Armenian] refugees from Azerbaijan can be described as their lack of international status.”



The refugees have problems finding work and adapting to the Armenian-speaking environment – many grew up speaking Russian.



“The problem of education is very acute for refugees,” said Mikhail Sarkisian, who comes from Baku where he and his wife spoke only Russian, not Armenian. “There are no Russian schools here. We had to send our children to an Armenian school when they were already quite grown up, even though neither they nor we parents had a grounding in the language.



“As a result the children are finishing school with a handicap - they don’t have either proper Armenian or Russian, and they have no prospect of going on to higher education. I have five children, and soon they will have to work and feed their own families.”



Areg Hovannisian, who is 82 and a veteran of the Second World War, sighs that lack of work is the main problem for the younger generation.



“I left my home and everything I’d earned there, and came here in the clothes I stood up in,” said Hovannisian who fled the city of Sumgait in 1988 after pogroms against the Armenians there.



“My son volunteered for the [Karabakh] war, he was wounded twice and now he has gone to live in Russia. I have to say I am not optimistic about the future. There is no work and no assistance. We have to create decent living conditions, otherwise young people won’t stay here. Why did my son go to Russia? If there had been work here, he wouldn’t have gone.”



Stella Babakhanian is more optimistic about the future of the town. She came to Shushi from Baku with her four-year-old son after her husband died.



Before the conflict, she said, she never imagined that relations between Armenians and Azerbaijanis could descend into war.



“I don’t like the word ‘refugee’,” she said. “I’ve never thought of myself as a refugee. Right from the start, I was against accepting any kind of assistance, and I consider it demeaning to expect to get aid from somewhere. If people manage to work and don’t depend on others then they won’t leave.”



A 2004 law on refugees passed in Nagorny Karabakh allocated small sums of money to compensate to those who had fled from Azerbaijan, but not to “internal refugees” forced to move Karabakh – a distinction which has caused some tensions.



The Karabakh government is building houses for refugees in Stepanakert and other places. Last year, 22 homes were built and this year there will be 23 more.



One major demand Azerbaijani officials are making in the negotiations is that Azerbaijani refugees should be allowed to return.



But Karabakh Armenians take the view that this issue cannot be separated from that of the general security of Karabakh. Most believe that if the Azerbaijanis came back, the situation would deteriorate.



Zhanna Krikorova, who is chief secretary at Karabakh’s foreign ministry, said, “Azerbaijan’s politicisation of the refugee issue unbalances it. The Azerbaijani side is trying to use the return of refugees as an instrument for expansion into Nagorny Karabakh.”



According to Saryan, “It is a complex, one might say global issue, which gives rise to strong emotional reactions here. For reasons of pure logic, it cannot be on the agenda.”



He explained, “First, lots of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan have found shelter within Nagorny Karabakh. Secondly, the societies in Nagorny Karabakh and Azerbaijan have only recently gone through a true modern war, and it is impossible to talk about returning refugees as long as the issue of Karabakh’s status has not been resolved de jure.”



“Only after the status issue is resolved… will it be possible to prepare these societies to make mutual compromises on the refugee return issue. It is a process for the future.”



Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist and IWPR contributor in Nagorny Karabakh. He is part of IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network project, funded by the European Union and other donors. Editor’s note: the terminology used in this article to describe the Nagorny Karabakh conflict was chosen by IWPR and not by the author.