Talk and listen to Karabakh Armenians

The map is still a mess. Fifteen years ago this week [on May 12, 1994] war ended in Nagorno-Karabakh with a cease-fire that ended full-scale fighting but has not grown into a full peace. The map of the South Caucasus was split in two by the “Line of Contact,” more than a hundred miles of trenches that snake across the landscape and divide tens of thousands of Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers. Everyone knows that one day this scar will have to heal, neighbors will have to live together again, and normal geography will be resumed. The only question is how and whether this could be done avoiding a new war.

Central to this conundrum are the people of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. The paradox is that they are both at the heart of the conflict and all but invisible, they are both the most vulnerable actors and the ones who hold the most cards. Not part of the formal peace process, the Karabakh Armenians are also very suspicious of it. As the prospect of some kind of provisional peace deal again raises its head, following reports of a constructive meeting between Presidents Aliyev and Sargsian in Prague last week, the question also arises – would Karabakh Armenians try to block a deal they are suspicious of, as they did in 1998?

I have visited Karabakh around 10 times in the last 13 years. My long engagement with this conflict began with the deep attachment I formed for the place itself, for its beauty and tough but likeable people. On my first trip in 1996, I was struck for the first time by the unfortunate geography of the conflict. I saw how open Stepanakert was to the plains of western Azerbaijan, how Armenians and Azerbaijanis had been stacked on top of one another. Back then the ravages of war were still visible, many buildings were in ruins, and the local president, Robert Kocharian, received me and my colleague without ceremony in a modest office. We experienced the famous Karabakhi generosity and stubbornness and I saw evidence of a work-ethic unusual for the region.

In 1996 Karabakh was a little Sparta with its own military strongman, Samvel Babayan, who controlled the local economy and crushed his rivals. But the Karabakhis got the better of him too and as I began coming back I saw this society began slowly to lift its shutters. The omnipresent Iranian trucks, with their gaudy red and yellow cabins, began to disappear from the road, which in turn was rebuilt into the most modern highway in the Caucasus. Cafés and shops opened, and an independent newspaper opened – but has since closed. Openness still has its limits here.

On my last visit earlier this year, the reconstruction of Stepanakert was complete. Only when I went up the hill to Shushi (which the Azerbaijanis call Shusha) were there still traces of war, but here too I was surprised to see construction work, a hotel, and many more signs of life than before. The friend who showed me round the town, a refugee from Baku, has rebuilt an old mansion at the bottom of the town overlooking the gorge and chided me for my gloom on the conflict. “You haven’t sufficiently appreciated our optimism,” he said.

He did have a point. Compared to other unrecognized territories, the Karabakh Armenians have done well. They have survived, rebuilt, and in many ways made Karabakh no different from parts of the South Caucasus that benefit from international legitimacy. The idea that this is a “black hole” of criminality or terrorism raises a smile when you stop at a red traffic light in Stepanakert and look at the modest urban life around you. The problems people complain of are the same as elsewhere in the region: corruption, high prices, unemployment.

And yet, an outsider like myself can also see the bigger picture more clearly. This is still a very closed spot. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the protector, Russia, is right next door. Here, the Karabakh Armenians still rely on a long serpentine road to Armenia on one side while looking down across the Line of Contact to the lights of Azerbaijani villages on the other.

In Stepanakert I talked to a round table on the conflict and ways to resolve it. It was an interesting event in the first place because, although this is ultimately the topic for Karabakhis, I had the impression it rarely gets debated properly here. A lot of the things I told the gathering were evidently not welcome, though they could not exactly be surprising.  I said that Azerbaijan believes it has a new role that gives it enhanced status in the world, that the younger generation of Azerbaijanis is more implacable than their Soviet-conditioned elders, that I saw a risk that Baku politicians will talk themselves into a war that nobody wants – if not tomorrow, then some years down the line. My conclusion: that Karabakh Armenians must be more flexible about giving up the territories around Karabakh in return for strong international guarantees on status and security, that they should not reject the “Madrid Principles” but join the debate on how to make them workable.

The response I got was generally negative, more or less, “We will only give up the territories if the world recognizes our independence.” I understand where the intransigence comes from, with the Karabakh Armenians shut out of the talks, threatening messages issuing out of Baku, and the international community far away and unfriendly.

But one day this will change – and hopefully not because of war. One day, the Karabakh Armenians will be invited to join the talks and at that point they need to have something to say more than just “recognize our independence.” They need to have answers to questions about the right of return of Azerbaijanis, about the legal status of property in their territory, about what their own aspirations for international legitimacy mean in practice. So let the debates continue and let as many Karabakhis as possible be part of them. It’s not just me who needs to be in dialogue with them: they need to join the debate with other far more important people, from Baku to Brussels to Washington.