Securing a Way Forward in Karabakh: The sound of progress and the rumblings of war

To know Armenia is to know that there are nearly as many differences of opinion on almost any topic, as there are citizens. To know the Armenian Diaspora is to know that uniting them under the name “Diaspora” by no means makes this vast group “homogeneous”.

To know Nagorno Karabakh is to know this: While dividing a region, Karabakh unites a nation. When the first freedom fighters put their lives at risk in the Karabakh Liberation Movement their war cries rode on Armenian dialects that not only identified the Karabakhi or the Yerevantsi or the Gyumretsi, but also the “Hyphenated Hyes” of Lebanese-Armenians, the Syrian-Armenians, the American-Armenians . . .

Whether shouting “Ka-ra-bakh!” or “Gh-ra-pah!” or “Art-sakh!”; whether calling it “Mountainous Karabakh” or “Nagorno Karabakh” or “Nagorny Karabakh”, Armenians shed their diverse labels to speak one word on the matter: “Ours”.

To others, however, the diminutive self-declared republic is the lynchpin of a conflict that has global impact, with potential influence on lives in distant places where the word “Karabakh” has never been heard.

World diplomats know it too well. The expense incurred by internationals who have jetted here and there holding conferences, seminars, debates, conflict-resolution courses, etc. to ponder “The Karabakh Problem”, could perhaps by now have made millionaires of Karabakh’s population of just 140,000.

While to the Armenian side, Karabakh has been “liberated”, the Azerbaijan side insists that 20 percent of their country is under “occupation”. Standing in between the definitions have been dozens of third-party mediators who have spent more than 20 years chasing a solution that, of late, seems more elusive than at any time.

Over the years, and usually connected to the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), mediators (including presidents) representing Russia, Kazakhstan, the United States, Sweden, France, Finland, Belarus, Germany, Turkey, Italy have weighed in on peace talks.

Yet one country hardly connected to either side – Hungary – effectively silenced the already-fading voices of reasoning when in August it released a murderer who Azerbaijan turned into a national hero.

The “Safarov Affair”

Ramil Safarov was found guilty of premeditated murder and was sentenced to life in prison in April 2006, after confessing to brutally hacking to death 26-year-old Armenian Lieutenant Gurgen Margarian while the Armenian slept in his dormitory room in the Hungarian capital. The killer had gone to a Budapest hardware shop to buy an axe for that very purpose. He was intent on killing the other Armenian in the dorm, but the second soldier was sheltered by another foreigner when alerted to the attack. Margarian and Safarov were in Hungary for NATO-sponsored Partnership for Peace English language courses in February of 2004.

Throughout eight years while Safarov was imprisoned in Hungary, Azerbaijan had repeatedly tried to obtain his extradition. Each time, Hungary had refused.

Kinga Gonzc was Minister of Foreign Affairs of Hungary during a period when other attempts were made to extradite Safarov. In an interview with Armenia’s Mediamax news agency, Gonzc said that during her tenure, Azerbaijan’s requests were denied “because we didn't want to spark a conflict between the two countries whose relationship has been tense for decades because of Nagorno Karabakh.”

Safarov’s release on August 31 did exactly as Gonzc had feared.

Hungary had been given assurances by Azeri authorities that, should Hungary release him, Safarov would serve out his sentence under custody in Azerbaijan. Instead, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev pardoned Safarov even before his plane landed at the Baku airport, where Aliyev met Safarov, promoted the lieutenant to major, paid him 8.5 years of back salary, and gave him an apartment.

Documents released by the Hungarians show that they were lied to by the Azeris. Amidst international outcry came calls for negotiators of any peace plan to see the “Safarov Affair” (as the New York Times called it) as an example of why Christian Karabakh should never be under the rule of Muslim Azerbaijan.

Writing for the BBC, Thomas de Waal, a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment, said:

“If there is any silver lining to this dark episode it could be that the international community pays more attention to the dangers of a new Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno Karabakh. The conflict is not ‘frozen,’ as it is frequently described.

“The current format of quiet mediation by France, Russia and the US is not strong enough to move the two sides from their intransigent positions. The reception given Safarov suggests that the situation is moving closer to war than peace. This slide can be halted, but the time to start working harder on diplomacy is now.”

Fight over flight

Making the “slide” even more slippery is an issue over airspace.

In 2008 work began on rebuilding an airport about five miles outside Stepanakert. The airport was built in 1974 mainly to service flights from Yerevan and Baku. It was turned into a military airfield during the early stages of the war, and in fact has been idle since 1992.

The new airport, with its terminal designed by architect Tigran Barseghian to resemble an eagle with open wings, is to be the new air gate of Karabakh.

The $5 million project has created a facility that should be able to handle about 100 passengers per hour. “Air Artsakh” airline has been contracted to operate flights.

On September 28, Karabakh aviation officials received certification that the airport meets international standards.

In announcing that the airport is ready for operation, the NKR government-affiliated civil aviation department director Dmitry Adbashian said: “As an aviator, I think that if a country has no airport, then it cannot have a full-fledged state.”

Azerbaijan apparently thinks so, too, which may explain why Baku has threatened to shoot down any plane operating from the new airport. The official opening of the airport was supposed to take place still on May 9, 2011, but it was delayed several times over what officials explained were “purely technical reasons”. Many believe that there have always been political reasons behind the delay.

When, last year, the opening of the airport was announced, Armenian President Serge Sargsyan responded to Azerbaijan’s threats by saying that he would be the first passenger on the first flight. Still, there have been no passengers, and no flights. And, though not officially stated, the intensified tensions since Safarov’s extradition/pardon surely play a role in why the airport remains unused.

Whether viewed from airspace now under threat, or reached across the snaking highway connecting it to Armenia, Karabakh holds a significance in geopolitics that is not determined by size or population.

Look at a map of the extended region, as if you were an international statesperson. Syria: civil war. Turkey: Ill-at-ease with Syria. Iraq: war. Iran: Rumors of war with Israel; threats of conflict from America . . .

Bordering Iran is that Islamic republic’s friendliest neighbor, Armenia.

Contemplation of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh has to consider who would be drawn into, or affected by, any conflict. The United States needs strategically-placed Armenia’s friendship, but Azerbaijan’s oil. Armenia needs Iran’s friendship as one of only two neighbors that has not closed its borders. Russia already owns Armenia’s resources, and would like its part of Azerbaijan’s as well. Georgia adores America, hates Russia, has lately not treated its Armenian population with respect, and would not like to see its own “enclaves” -- Ossetia and Abkhazia -- get any ideas from renewed fighting in the region stirred by ethnic conflict.

Tiny Karabakh may be alone in its fight, but not in its fight’s impact. Nobody wins if war restarts. But Azerbaijan appears to be preparing for that scenario.

In 2011, Azerbaijan increased military spending by 88 percent which, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, was the largest increase in the world. During a June 25 address to a military academy in Azerbaijan, Aliyev bragged that what he spends on his military “is 50 percent more than Armenia’s total state expenditure”.

Military analyst Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan, says Azerbaijan has created “an undeclared arms race” in the region.

At the same time, the Azeri president has loudly and repeatedly declared his willingness to use those weapons.

Sabine Freizer, director of the International Crisis Group’s Europe program said: “This buildup is dangerous because it is accompanied by clear statements by the Azerbaijani leadership that Azerbaijan can retake its occupied territories by force.”

Such rhetoric has been met by the Armenian side with a reminder that Azerbaijan was “supposed” to have won the conflict soon after it began.

In a November interview with the Wall Street Journal, Sargsyan commented on current tensions:

"Unfortunately, I believe Azerbaijan is waiting for an occasion to start a conflict. I am confident such a mistake would harm the people of Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia but that most harm would come to the people of Azerbaijan….We won't stand aside when the population of Nagorno Karabakh is going to be destroyed."

Staying focused

With saber-rattling in their ears, the eyes of Karbakhis focus on building a republic.

Capital Stepanakert no longer bears the open wounds of war as it did not so long ago. Fresh, modern buildings awaiting future guests and occupants stand for hope, where broken and bullet-riddled ones were for too long a reminder of hatred.

A generation enjoying Wi-Fi in Stepanakert cafes, has inherited a lifestyle the previous generation paid for in sacrifice of lives, and with stubborn determination to emerge from the isolation of destruction.

In the first half of 2012 NKR’s domestic revenues came to about $30.5 million – more than a 12-percent increase from the same period in 2011. The amount of money flowing into the state coffers by taxes increased 14.5 percent to $20.5 million (67 percent of state revenue) during that period.

Average salaries have increased, the number of unemployed has decreased. Overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased about $43 million from 2010-2011, totaling about $335 million.

Arising from the need to make the economy stronger, has also arisen an idea to institutionalize the obvious need to establish an ongoing military character.

This autumn, construction began on a military academy in Stepanakert, funded by Karabakh native Levon Hairapetian, now a businessman in Russia.

“Our main goal is the adoption of international practices, for which a special group has been created,” said Major General Arkadi Ter-Tadevosian, a Karabakh war hero, better known as “Commandos”.

The academy will be model on similar “cadet schools” in France, Russia, and the United States.

While rebuilding, emphasis is also on repopulating.

The government continues to offer benefits to young families and newly-weds.

Last year the government spent a total of $3.36 million toward encouraging family life. Benefits totaling $666,000 went to 900 newly-weds, while a total of $1.7 million went to accounts set up for the country's 2,652 babies born in 2011

Also last year 169 families – totaling 580 members – re-settled in Karabakh. The numbers represent an increase of 39 families and 136 members over 2010.

Among newest arrivals are David Yeghiazarian, 22, and Tamara Grigorian, 24 – pioneers of sort who hope to be followed by other young couples.

David is from Yerevan, Tamara is from Vanadzor. They married in September and immediately moved to the town of Karvachar (formerly Kelbajar), adding two to its population of about 700. David teaches history and social studies at the local school, and Tamara is a journalist.

“I had a dream to live in the liberated lands of Armenia for several years,” Tamara says. “Since I first heard about such places and had an image of the situation, I realized that young people must go and resettle there. Young forces are needed here in every sphere. All of us aim to live in Yerevan, but there is no place for people in Yerevan any more. There is no free sphere of work in Yerevan, but Karvachar is waiting for specialists.”

The importance of strengthening those lands, idealized in the move of the young couple, has never seemed more urgent to Armenia’s interests.

The newly-weds say their parents were not happy that the couple left Armenia’s capital for life in “disputed territory”. But David says that, later: “They realized the importance of our step”.