Nagorny Karabakh’s Fearful Calm

Residents of the South Caucasus region feel subject to political maneuvering beyond their control.

Nagorny Karabakh’s Fearful Calm

Residents of the South Caucasus region feel subject to political maneuvering beyond their control.

A microdistrict with more than 10 three-story buildings is being built in the village of Ivanyan, close to next to the base of Russian peacekeepers. Construction is ongoing to house thousands who have been displaced from the territories that Azerbaijan's armed forces regained control of as a result of the 2020 war.
A microdistrict with more than 10 three-story buildings is being built in the village of Ivanyan, close to next to the base of Russian peacekeepers. Construction is ongoing to house thousands who have been displaced from the territories that Azerbaijan's armed forces regained control of as a result of the 2020 war. © Arshaluis Mghdesyan
A new village is being built about 30 minutes from Stepanakert to re-house displaced residents from Kalbajar, a village which came under the control of Azerbaijan as a result of the 2020 war.
A new village is being built about 30 minutes from Stepanakert to re-house displaced residents from Kalbajar, a village which came under the control of Azerbaijan as a result of the 2020 war. © Arshaluis Mghdesyan
A military vehicles' depot of the Russian peacekeeping force in the outskirts of Stepanakert. Approximately 2,000 Russian soldiers were deployed for a mandate of at least five years to guarantee the security in the region after the ceasefire signed on November 10, 2020.
A military vehicles' depot of the Russian peacekeeping force in the outskirts of Stepanakert. Approximately 2,000 Russian soldiers were deployed for a mandate of at least five years to guarantee the security in the region after the ceasefire signed on November 10, 2020. © Arshaluis Mghdesyan

At first glance, life in Stepanakert is quiet: cafes are open, children play in parks, clothes flap in the wind on Monday, the region’s traditional laundry day. The calm seems to have returned to Nagorny Karabakh’s de facto capital since the 2020 war scarred the region, killing thousands and displacing tens of thousands in 44 days of fighting.

The peace however is a façade: behind it, over 100,000 people life in fear.

“Human beings can get used to everything,” said Gennady Petrosyan, a taxi driver from Stepanakert. “And we are getting used to this uncertainty and anxiety.

“We are getting used to the fact that Azerbaijanis are in Shushi, which was simply unimaginable before the war,” he continued, referring to the strategic mountain town, called Susha in Azerbaijani, that Baku has controlled since November 2020.

“We have actually turned off our minds and live like zombies. Otherwise you can go crazy,” he concluded.

The war ended with a Moscow-brokered ceasefire on November 10, 2020, leaving the balance of power between Armenia and Azerbaijan altered, with the former defeated and the latter regaining control over territories it had lost in the early 1990s. Russia deployed peacekeepers who acted as security guarantors.

But uncertainty still lingers over the mountain region. The mainly Armenian-populated territory, which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, now faces a new challenge in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine is thousands of miles away, but locals fear that if Moscow fails, their future will be at risk.

Karabakh is one of three un-recognised statelets in the South Caucasus, alongside Georgia’s breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that is living under Russian military patronage. This is particularly obvious in the Lachin corridor, where Russian peacekeepers guard ten checkpoints on the five kilometre section of the road connecting Armenia with Karabakh, checking documents and inspecting cars.

"Peace doesn't seem realistic to me.”

Significant reconstruction is underway, with new neighbourhoods being built around Stepanakert where the authorities intend to resettle refugees from Shushi and Hadrut, now under Azerbaijani control. The new infrastructure comes equipped with mandatory bomb shelters, which were so badly needed in 2020.

The de-facto authorities promise to provide 3,700 families with houses by the end of 2023, but this is unlikely to be enough.

“As a result of the war, about 9,000 families need new homes, these are either displaced persons or the relatives of the deceased,” Aram Sargsyan, the de-facto minister of urban development told IWPR, adding that Armenia allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for housing construction in Karabakh annually.

POST-WAR REALITY

The Armenian authorities have shifted their tune since the 2020 war. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his team, who repeatedly stated before the conflict that Karabakh was unquestionably part of Armenia, have dramatically changed their rhetoric in the post-war reality.

Instead of publicly declaring that Karabakh will not become part of Azerbaijan, as the opposition demands, they emphasise the importance of protecting the rights of the its population.

Petrosyan, like many others in Karabakh, has his doubts over Yerevan’s new approach.

“After all, it was only yesterday when we fought against them [Azerbaijanis]. I can’t imagine how it is possible to live peacefully with them after these war wounds. It doesn't seem realistic to me,” he said.

Meanwhile he lives in uncertainty, like many others.

Before the 2020 war, Petrosyan installed drip irrigation systems for intensive fruit cultivation, a sector which blossomed in Karabakh’s rich soil and mild climate.

“My [irrigation] business was developing fast; the number of intensive gardens grew at high speed. I was planning to buy a house, but then, the war broke out and everything went downhill. Now I drive a taxi, and those gardens are left on lands that came under the control of Azerbaijan,” he recalled, adding that no one was willing to make even small investments in Karabakh.

Several Stepanakert residents told IWPR that people were waiting for government assistance, avoiding long-term investments amid the unpredictability.

“Before building something, an ordinary citizen thinks 1,000 times whether it is worth doing it or not, whether it will be possible to complete it or not,” said Gegham Stepanyan, Karabakh’s human rights ombudsman. “Meanwhile, the residents of Artsakh [the Armenian name for Karabakh] are desperately clinging to their land.”

LIFE IN LIMBO

Armen Arzumanyan, like many residents of Karabakh, is grateful to Russia. Severely wounded in the war, in February he and his family moved to a new house in one of the new settlements near the peacekeepers’ base, close to the airport.

“I have everything, I have nothing to complain about,” he said. “Only my wounds hurt at night. I am going to have another operation soon.”

He and his fellow soldiers were injured when their car ran over a land mine on November 7, 2020, two days before the end of the war. He was in a coma for 27 days, followed by seven months of treatment in clinics in Armenia.

“We cannot keep on fighting Azerbaijan."

The father-of-three said that he has been given a second chance at life. He receives a monthly allowance of 250,000 drams (600 US dollars) from the government and military insurance fund. He and his wife grow vegetables on their land.

“Russian peacekeepers are here, they are providing our security. This is good, of course,” he continued, “but these are the troops of another state. We must ensure our own safety in the first place and only after that rely on someone else’s help.”

Grigory Poghosyan, a resident of the town of Askeran, agreed.

“Russia is in a state of war, which can weaken it and then, of course, Azerbaijan will take advantage and seize Karabakh. Baku is already making such attempts,” he said, referring to events in the borderline village of Parukh which Azerbaijani forces captured in March 2022, contrary to the November ceasefire.

Yerevan and Stepanakert explained the actions of the Azerbaijani armed forces as Baku's desire to take advantage of the situation in Ukraine, which has led to the weakening of Russia's influence in the South Caucasus. The Russian ministry of defence has repeatedly reproached Azerbaijan for violating agreements on Karabakh, a charge that Baku has denied.

“If at one moment, God forbid, Russia becomes so weak that it has no time for Karabakh, what then?” Poghosyan asked.

“If Russia weakens, this will only make one country in the region stronger – Turkey, which fully supports Azerbaijan in its desire to seize Karabakh,” argued David Babayan, the region’s de-facto foreign minister. “In the current circumstances, if Russia weakens, there will be neither Artsakh nor Armenia.”

For Armenian analyst and writer Tatul Hakobyan, there is no alternative to negotiations.

“We need a constant and direct dialogue with Baku and Ankara. We must understand our capacities and establish direct contacts with Turkey and Azerbaijan, which will not be easy in the current circumstances, but we have no other option,” he told IWPR.

“We cannot keep on fighting Azerbaijan, a country of ten million, and Turkey, a country of 80 million which strongly supports Azerbaijan. Neither can we relocate our country to another place on earth. So, we need dialogue and the will to achieve peace, which will have its price.”

Karabakh’s human rights ombudsman Stepanyan said that even the possibility of being within Azerbaijan was unacceptable.

 “In the current circumstances the population of Artsakh would rather live in uncertainty than be a part of Azerbaijan,” he concluded.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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