Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Karabakh's Despair

Nagorny Karabakh won the war against Azerbaijan but is now losing the peace
By Vahram Aghajanian

Over a decade after he went to war to liberate Nagorny Karabakh from Azerbaijan, Vyacheslav Amirbarian's dream of an independent homeland has soured.


A fragile peace treaty has been in force now for six years, yet the Karabakh government is no nearer resolving the conflict nor overcoming the enclave's chronic economic problems.


"We've been struggling for independence for 12 years and now all the Azeris offer us is autonomy, " said Vyacheslav


Disappointment and bitterness are widespread - and understandable. Karabakhis paid a heavy price for their freedom. There's hardly anyone who didn't lose a bother, a husband, a son or a father in the conflict.


Vyacheslav lost his son, Armen, a bright, ambitious boy who cut short his studies in Yerevan to fight for his homeland. He impressed Karabakhi army commanders and was about to take charge of tank squadron when he was killed. Vyacheslav's other son, Arthur, fought in numerous battles and was wounded several times.


Laura Amirbarian is still struggling to come to terms with the loss of her son. "Armen's death hit me very hard, " she said. "He left no son or daughter for his parents to keep his memory alive."


"Our other son hasn't married either. He jokes that won't take a wife until Karabakh properly divorces from Azerbaijan. My only consolation is my daughter and her two children. I nurse them and shed tears - tears for my Armen."


Peace has provided little relief from the suffering of the war years. Economic reforms have largely failed, leaving factories idle and thousands unemployed.


Laura, her daughter and son-in-law have all lost their jobs. "The family survives on Vyacheslav's salary, " said Laura. "Arthur helps out as much as he can. But the money is not enough. We don't get any help from the authorities. They gave our son a posthumous medal but they've forgotten his family."


Notwithstanding their problems, the Amirbarians are a lot better off than many families. They have a two-storey house, a car and small farm. But with the economy showing no signs of improvement, they fear things will only get worse.


"We've had six years of peace yet the government has restored little of our industrial capacity," said Vyacheslav. "They could if they wanted to because there's enough will and resources in Karabakh."


Vyacheslav believes that the authorities should at least increase agricultural production. Even in Soviet times, he says, Karabakh regularly surpassed production targets for meat, milk, wheat and grapes. Now the enclave has to import many basic commodities.


Karabakhis have sacrificed much in recent years in order to achieve their goal of independence. But that dream is increasingly under threat. Peace talks between the enclave, Armenia and Azerbaijan remain deadlocked, with neither side prepared to make concessions. Vyacheslav is adamant that Karabakh must accept nothing less than full sovereignty - even if the demand precipitates another war.


"Both sides need to make concessions - but the Azerbaijanis aren't serious, " he said. "They're always singing the same boring tune."


"I lost a son in the struggle for freedom. I cannot backtrack on independence. What will I tell my son when I join him in heaven? 'Forgive me, Armen, your father was frightened - he's unworthy of you.' I can barely imagine doing such a thing. The shame of it would be too great."


Despite his anxieties over peace talks, Vyacheslav is confident that the enclave's leaders will eventually break the deadlock, "We passed the test of war with dignity, now I am sure we'll pass the test of peace. There is no alternative."


Vahram Aghajanian is a journalist based in Stepanakert