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

Tensions Grow in Stepanakert

For many of Nagorny Karabakh's erstwhile freedom-fighters, the fruits of victory are rapidly turning sour
By Anatoly Kuprianov

Once the trumpet-bearer of Karabakh separatism, Grigory Afanasian is convinced that the mutinous enclave is once again "rolling towards an abyss". And war, he warns ominously, is still lurking in the wings.


On February 13, 1988, the Karabakh State University lecturer became the first activist to stand up in public and call on the local Armenian population to break away from Azerbaijan. But now, more than a decade after the Karabakhi forces scored their humiliating victory over Baku, Afanasian is bitter and disillusioned.


"The authorities and the people live totally separate existences," he says. "Our leaders are a gang of adventurers who are literally stealing from the people, forcing them to live in astonishing poverty. Humanitarian aid is stolen, there are mass waves of emigration and no businessman in his right mind wants to invest in our economy.


"What is our leadership thinking of?" continues Afanasian. "Does it really not see that the country is rolling towards an abyss? We've lost all sense of morality and basic social justice. Such nations are fated to disappear. Such independence is just a captivating but empty chimera."


Much of Afanasian's bitterness stems from the events of the past eight months which have seen an atmosphere of suspicion and terror envelop Nagorny Karabakh.


The dramatic change in mood dates from March 22 this year when President Arkady Ghukasian was badly wounded by two masked gunmen who waylaid his Mercedes in downtown Stepanakert.


During the ensuing witch-hunt, local security forces rounded up more than 100 suspects including General Samvel Babayan, the former defence minister and Ghukasian's main political rival. Babayan was later charged with masterminding the assassination attempt and is currently standing trial in Stepanakert's Town Court.


Grigory Afanasian says the court case itself has done much to discredit the regime which is trying Babayan according to archaic Soviet and even Azerbaijani laws.


"I believe that Samvel Babayan will be acquitted," says Afanasian. "The best option for the authorities in this dead-end situation is to bring this shameful case to an end and punish those who are really guilty."


Meanwhile, as the regime concentrates on neutralising its enemies, the republic's economy is in freefall - and thousands have already been forced to emigrate in a bid to find work.


In an interview with the government newspaper Azat Artsakh (Free Karabakh), the minister for social support, Lenston Gulian, admitted that unemployment in the republic had skyrocketed over the past year.


Particularly hard hit were firms controlled by General Babayan. More than 800 people were made redundant in one company alone (Jupiter) -- a staggering figure for Stepanakert which has a population of just 30,000.


Manushak Danielian, a former Jupiter employee, said that salaries at the company were two or three times higher than in government organisations. Unable to find alternative work, Danielian has been forced to rely on money sent by relatives in Russia.


"If the situation in Karabakh does not change for the better, I'll have no option but to take my two daughters and go to live with my brother in Russia. It just isn't possible to stay on here," he says.


"How can you throw 800 people out into the street with a stroke of a pen - without even considering that they have families to support? Is this the "law and order" we hear so much about? It would be interesting to see how our leaders would react if the same was done to them, their wives and their children."


In state-run enterprises, wages are pitifully low -- somewhere between $20 and $50 a month. Essential products in Nagorny Karabakh, as a rule, cost twice as much as they do in Yerevan.


Despite its deep-rooted agricultural traditions, Karabakh imports large quantities of produce from Armenia and Iran.


Local specialists argue that the fertile enclave has the potential to feed a population four times that of Armenia. However, the deputy agriculture minister, Vladimir Zakiyan, admitted earlier this year that the state plan for planting winter crops had badly floundered and only 7,000 hectares of land were actually being cultivated -- instead of the planned 34,000 hectares.


Harsh social conditions have forced many unemployed Karabakhis to seek migratory work in Russia, Turkey or Iran. And many traders prefer to do business with the Azerbaijanis rather than their ethnic kin across the western border.


Susanna Atayan buys goods in Istanbul and Sadakhlo, in Georgia, then sells them at Stepanakert markets. She became her family's only bread-winner after her husband, Vladimir Ovsepian, was badly wounded during the war.


"Beyond the borders of Nagorny Karabakh, there are plenty of Azerbaijanis, Armenians and Turks who haven't got time for old hostilities," says Atayan. "Trade unites them and forces them to forget old problems."


But the prospects for small-time traders look bleak. Travel to Turkey has become increasingly hazardous since several Western countries officially recognised the 1915 genocide of the Armenians by Turkish troops. And higher taxes on the Georgian border mean that business trips to Sadakhlo are no longer economically viable.


Susanna Atayan says that she, like many Karabakh entrepreneurs, will be forced to try her luck in Iran, where there are no security problems and the tax rates are reasonable.


But the veterans of the Karabakh independence movement warn that the people's patience will eventually run out. Grigory Afanasian says the government must introduce far-ranging reforms in the very near future or face widespread civil unrest.


He warns, "The leadership of our republic shouldn't forget that the people of Karabakh have survived many years of fighting. They're still well armed, and anyway, the war isn't over yet."


Anatoly Kuprianov is a political observer and commentator who specialises in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict