Despite Odds, Confident Mood in Karabakh
Filed Under: Politics, World | Posted: 03/27/2012 at 7:15AM
Comments | Region: Armenia
After 20 difficult years living in Azerbaijan’s shadow, Armenians in Nagorny Karabakh appear increasingly confident about the future.
Although the conflict remains unresolved and Karabakh has not won international recognition as a separate state, people there remain steadfast about holding onto their hard-won independence.
Progress on building a new state and establishing a political process continues regardless of the problems. In fact, Nagorny Karabakh’s electoral record suggests its democratic credentials are better than Armenia’s, let alone Azerbaijan’s.
Such developments tend to be ignored by outsiders, for whom Karabakh is either a focus for geopolitical competition or the subject of mediation by major powers like France, Russia and the United States.
On the ground, though, perspectives and priorities are quite different.
For most people in Karabakh, the most pressing concern is the state of the economy, rather than the dormant peace process. While proud of their republic, they struggle to make ends meet, and many rely on money sent back from relatives working abroad. And as the situation has deteriorated in recent years, some residents will admit – albeit reluctantly and in private – that they too are thinking of leaving in search of work. Young people, too, acknowledge that they worry about finding work once they graduate.
Take Anna, a 23-year old holding down a job in one of the better hotels in the local capital Stepanakert. Her sense of satisfaction with having a steady and reasonably well-paid job is tempered by frustration and regret.
“I like my work and I’m happy – but I am also ashamed,” she told me. “I am sad because I do have a job while my brothers and my father can’t find work. And my friends are jealous. I feel guilty sometimes, and sad too.”
The general lack of optimism about the economy and job prospects also applies to politics. Asked about the upcoming parliamentary election in neighbouring Armenia in May, very few people expressed much interest.
“Sure, the Armenian election is obviously important, but not so much for us,” Tevan, 21, a university student studying politics and international relations, said. “In any case, everyone knows the outcome – the Republican Party will win. But that doesn’t really affect us here in Karabakh. The real difference is that here in Karabakh, every election that we’ve ever had has been free and fair, whereas in Armenia, I can’t remember any free or fair election.”
This strong sense of pride in Karabakh’s democratic credentials – which many feel is not sufficiently appreciated elsewhere – is widespread.
As Anahit, a middle-aged housewife put it, “We are never going to leave our lands, and you must understand that we’ll never ever accept anyone trying to hand us back to the Azerbaijanis. After all, we are free, strong, and living in a democracy. Why we would we ever want to revert to Azerbaijan?”
As justification for this position, other residents noted that February 19 marked the eighth anniversary of the murder of an Armenian army officer by an Azerbaijani soldier while both were attending a NATO course in Hungary. Memories of the incident reinforce fears of Azerbaijan, especially as some officials there hailed the murderer as a true patriot.
The escalating tensions along the front line that separates Armenian-held territory from Azerbaijan, with sniper fire that is now almost routine, only seem to make Karabakh’s residents more determined to claim independence.
The threat of renewed conflict is never far from people’s minds. This underlying mood continues to permeate Karabakh. People living in border areas believe an Azerbaijani attack is increasingly likely, although they believe the Karabakh military would be able to fend off any assault.
In urban centres, the possibility of war in nearby Iran is also a preoccupation.
According to Hamlet, a father of four, “It isn’t like we are siding with the Iranians. But we don’t want war to return to this region. We can remember what war is really like, and no one deserves that again. We trade with the Iranians, and Iran has never betrayed us by supporting Azerbaijan as the Turks did. But I am worried.”
War with Iran would, Hamlet said, harm Karabakh’s already frail economy.
“If there is war, the [Iranian] trucks will stop coming and, God forbid, the Azeris may think they can attack us if there is a war going on nearby,” he said.
The danger of renewed hostilities with Azerbaijan is real enough. The divide between how Armenians and Azerbaijanis see Karabakh’s future remains insurmountable. And since the Karabakh Armenians are blocked from participating in the peace talks, which involve Yerevan and Baku only, the chances of progress seem remote.
For the people of Karabakh, the next two decades are likely to be full of challenges just as daunting as those they have weathered over the past twenty years.
Richard Giragosian is director of the Regional Studies Centre, an independent think tank in Yerevan, Armenia.
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