STEPANAKERT, Nagorno-Karabakh — This is where the first war set off by the Soviet collapse took place. And it may be where the next one breaks out.
Twenty years ago, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, unleashed from Soviet control, waged a bitter struggle for this mountainous region in the South Caucasus. A cease-fire was reached in 1994, after about 30,000 people had been killed, leaving Nagorno-Karabakh outside Azerbaijan’s control, as an unrecognized, de facto republic in the hands of ethnic Armenians.
Since then, no one on either side has had the will to hammer out a settlement. Tension has been put to use by those in power — in Azerbaijan, in Armenia proper and here in separatist Nagorno-Karabakh. Democracy, human rights, an unfettered press, a genuine opposition — these are the sorts of things that get put aside in times of crisis. And here, the crisis has been going on for two decades and shows little sign of letting up.
“The development of democracy has fallen hostage to the conflict,” said Masis Mayilian, Nagorno-Karabakh’s former foreign minister and a onetime candidate for president. “This is very handy for totalitarian regimes.”
A renewal of the war would be a disaster for all concerned, unless it were very quick. On this they agree. The two sides are much more heavily armed than they were in 1991, especially Azerbaijan. It might be very difficult for Iran, Turkey and Russia to remain uninvolved — and impossible to confine the fighting to Nagorno-Karabakh itself. A major supply route used by the United States to provision troops in Afghanistan would be disrupted.
But resistance to a peace settlement along the lines of a proposal sponsored by the United States, France and Russia has been stiff. “We share the wish that there be no war,” said Robert Bradtke, the U.S. diplomat involved in the talks. “But do the parties have the political will?”
So far, they don’t. Azerbaijan and Armenia, which negotiates on behalf of Nagorno-Karabakh, say they support the international effort to find a way toward settling the first post-Soviet conflict. “It is high time to do it,” Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mamedyarov said recently in Moscow after meeting with his counterpart from Russia, which is especially intent on getting an agreement.
But Azerbaijan also says that it will never formally surrender territory. And the people of Nagorno-Karabakh say they will never give up the right of self-determination. For two decades, both sides have kept passions inflamed, which turns out to be good politics for those at the top.
But with snipers on both sides shooting at one another every day, occasionally causing casualties, and plenty of saber-rattling rhetoric, the chances of stumbling into a war of miscalculation, or a war of hotheadedness, are considerable.
Tevan Poghosyan, who in the 1990s represented Karabakh in the United States and now runs a think tank in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, said war is inevitable. It will take another round of fighting, he said, to “steam” the poison out.
‘We had nothing’
In the Soviet era, boundaries were often drawn with little regard for the huge mix of nationalities that populated the U.S.S.R. Some ethnic groups were split; others were paired with traditionally hostile neighbors. Much of this was done intentionally, as a way of assuring Moscow’s control. As the country was falling apart, people were quick to take up arms against one another. Difficulties and ill will linger: between Georgians and Abkhazians; between Georgians and Ossetians, who fought a brief renewed war in 2008; and between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, who clashed violently a year ago.
The war here was the largest such conflict. Both sides put forward intricate historical claims to the region. Azerbaijan says a million Azerbaijanis fled their homes in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. As many as 500,000 Armenians reportedly fled from Azerbaijan. Neither side has fully tried to integrate those people into society, and the subject remains, from politicians’ point of view, a useful sore point.
Nagorno-Karabakh has a population that has been variously estimated at between 90,000 and 145,000. Seventeen years into its life as a de facto state, it harbors a prickly and zealous society.
“We had nothing, and out of nothing we created something,” said Galya Arstamyan, whose son Grigory left the Soviet army so he could return home to fight. He was killed. Today she runs a museum dedicated to those who died. “We will live and prove to the world that Karabakh is the heart of the Armenian nation and the spirit of the Armenian nation. The land on which we live has become sacred from the blood of our martyrs. We are not recognized, but we are still here. We ask nothing from the world.”