Conflict over Berg Karabakh
"It's Time to Forget This War"

In the Berg Karabakh region, where Armenians are a majority, the war has long been over. But the conflict continues to smolder. Armenians as well as Azerbaijanians are ready to wage war, if necessary. Andreas Brenner reports from Berg Karabakh

Man passing a wall with the flag of the self-declared Republic of Berg Karabakh (photo: AP)
The Berg Karabakh region - Still a bone of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan

​​"Gandzasar," Treasure Mountain– the English translation from Armenian – is the oldest monastery in Southern Caucasus. A magnificent thirteenth-century cathedral, framed by beautiful mountain scenery, rests on top of a hill.

Far below in the valley lies the village Vank. Sixteen civilians and thirty-six soldiers from this village lost their lives during the war over Berg Karabakh. They are buried here at a cemetery behind the monastery wall. Full-sized portraits of the soldiers in military uniform are engraved on the tombstones.

The Armenians won the three-year war. Back then, at the beginning of the 1990s, according to various accounts, between 25,000 and 50,000 persons died. Thus the name "Karabakh," which means "black garden," became a tragic omen for both sides.

Economic contrasts

In contrast to the surrounding buildings, the Gandzasar Cathedral – despite the shooting – was miraculously not destroyed. To restore the enclosure, Levon Airapetian, an Armenian businessman living in Russia, has donated a great deal of money for the enclosure’s restoration. He owns several companies in his native village Vank.

Map of the Berg Karabakh region, where Armenians are a majority

​​Only a few kilometers from Vank two hostile armies still stand facing each other, one from Azerbaijan and the other from the self-declared Republic of Berg Karabakh. But in Vank there is no trace of the conflict. Vank is a rich village, where extensive projects are being planned, such as the building of streets, a school, and a hospital.

In comparison, the inhabitants of Stepanakert – the capital of Berg Karabakh – have been less fortunate. Their town is 50 kilometers from Gandzasar. The large shoe factory in Stepanakert is closed, as there are currently no orders.

The situation in the nearby dairy plant is only a little better. In the Soviet period, from which the dairy facilities date, the dairy received 100 tons of milk a day for processing. Today director Arkadii Grigorian can only dream of such a quantity.

He has therefore tied his hopes to foreign investors. Soon – assures Grigorian – the factory will again be in the black. Perhaps his employees will then earn more than their current wages of 100 dollars a month.

Demining as a rewarding business

Anti-person mines (photo: AP)
Deminers still have much to do in Berg Karabakh

​​Deminers working for The Halo Trust earn three times as much. The British nongovernmental organization is committed to locating and removing mines worldwide. Since 2000 The Halo Trust has deployed nearly 200 workers in Berg Karabakh.

There is still much to do. "Last year we cleared five million square meters," explains Yurii Shakhramanian, officer for the organization’s operative deployments. "We have cleared approximately 1,500 landmines, including 148 anti-tank mines; the rest were anti-person mines."

Twelve civilians, including children, were injured last year by explosions from anti-person mines; two of them died, reports Shakhramanian. According to estimates from The Halo Trust, deminers will be busy in Berg Karabakh for another five to six years.

But this does not mean that there will no longer be any landmines. Large mine fields still exist in the area where the Azerbaijanian army and the army from Berg Karabakh face each other. Although the conflict is regarded as pacified, it has not yet been resolved.

"Unfortunately there are still many mines and not only in Berg Karabakh," reports Yurii Shakhramanian, who graduated as a philologist but is trained to work as a deminer.

Uncertainty factor for the economy

Old men sitting on a bench in Stepanakert (photo: DW)
Bonjour tristesse - street scene in Stepanakert, Berg Karabakh's capital

​​A few kilometers north of Berg Karabakh runs – from a geopolitical perspective – a strategic pipeline. It transports Caspian oil from Azerbaijan to the West via Georgia and Turkey.

An unresolved conflict in the immediate proximity of the pipeline, which was constructed with assistance from the United States and Great Britain, is an uncertainty factor – not only for the Southern Caucasus.

The Azerbaijanian Defense Ministry has a budget of one billion dollars. Armenia and Berg Karabakh do not have as much money.

Approximately 20,000 men are armed – a large number considering that no more than 150,000 people live in Berg Karabakh. But the fact is that every adult male is a reservist and is required to participate in military exercises several times a year.

Armenians as well as Azerbaijanians are ready to wage war again, if necessary. This is why rumors of military action from Baku, Stepanakert, and Yerevan should be taken very seriously. Nevertheless, there is hope for peace. After all, the hostile parties have maintained a ceasefire for almost thirteen years – without the help of U.N. troops.

At the end of 2006 the region once again became the focus of worldwide attention. On December 10 a referendum was held on the constitution of the self-declared republic. To the disappointment of leaders in Berg Karabakh, this action was vehemently criticized by European organizations.

Azerbaijan regarded the vote on a constitution in Berg Karabakh as a violation of international law. But politicians such as Deputy Foreign Minister Massis Mailian find it unfair that international organizations have also condemned the referendum.

Support for the young democracy

Arkadi Gukasian (photo: AP)
Arkadi Gukasian, president of the self-declared republic Berg Karabakh

​​In this respect, the government and the opposition, whose parliamentary representative is Gegam Bagdasarian, agree: "I don’t know what the international community wants," wonders Bagdasarian. "Should Berg Karabakh remain a military barrack? I don’t understand why the democratic efforts of one of the conflict parties could have negative effects on the peace negotiations."

The committee "Helsinki Initiative 92" is committed toward achieving more democracy and human rights in Berg Karabakh. Its chairman Karen Oganjanian has his own vision of how the conflict over Berg Karabakh can be resolved.

He believes that the international community should recognize the independence of Berg Karabakh for a period of five years. In return, terms for the return of Azerbaijanian refugees must be established and a joint government formed.

Furthermore, a representative of the Armenian majority should be president for one year, and a representative of the Azerbaijanian minority should assume the position of prime minister. After one year they should exchange posts.

Human rights activists believe the European Union should support the young democracy during these five years, especially with financial assistance. But if the Armenian side is responsible for a new outbreak of violence, then Berg Karabakh would return to Azerbaijan.

But if it turns out Armenians and Azerbaijanians can coexist peacefully in the republic, then Berg Karabakh will remain independent – according to Oganjanian’s proposal.

But such ideas find no support – neither in Stepanakert nor in Yerevan nor in Baku. Even the trip to Azerbaijan that Karen Oganjanian made a few years ago with the help of international organizations, has since been met with distrust, among Armenians as well as Azerbaijanians.

Andreas Brenner


Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

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