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STEPANAKERTThe most difficult capital city in the world to reach may be Stepanakert, and Baku is probably the worst place to start from. The Nagorno-Karabakh and Azeri capitals are only three or four hours apart by road, but that road has not been traveled by civilians for close to 10 years. I had to go the long way, via Tbilisi and Yerevan, armed with the necessary passports and visas.
There has been a cease-fire in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Karabakh for the past six yearsthe disputed region now considers itself a de facto independent state. Its 135,000 ethnic Armenian residents dream of "reuniting" with Armenia, comparing themselves to East and West Germany or North and South Korea. Azerbaijan, however, is never likely to permit this: Karabakh is surrounded by Azeri territory and was an autonomous region within Azerbaijan during the Soviet era. Now it is attempting to cope on its own. On 18 June, the region held elections for a 33-seat parliament. This time aroundunlike the last elections held five years agothe polling was considered free and fair.
Having lived in Baku for 11 months, I felt it was about time I visited the region that had been the cause of so much anguish and loss of life for both sides. After a nine-hour car journey from Baku to Tbilisiit would have been considerably quicker, were it not for the constant harassment by Georgian customs officers and police wanting bribesI bought a bus ticket to Yerevan for $7. The grimy bus struggled up the mountains, almost choking to death on its own fumes, but eventually lurched into the Armenian capital another nine hours or so later. The following morning, helped by contacts at the Armenian news agency Snark, I made my way to the Karabakh Representative Officea makeshift consulate. Despite having its own president and prime minister, Karabakh is not recognized as an independent state by any country in the world, not even by Armenia.
The woman who gave me a Karabakh visa for $25 also offered me a driver and guide, Albert, and a place to stay in Stepanakert, which I gladly accepted.
She asked if the Karabakh foreign minister's driver could cadge a lift with us, so that he could have a few days at home while the minister was away in Moscow. The driver, Grayr, also turned out to be the minister's bodyguard, which he proved by showing me his pistol. His brother is President Arkady Gukasyan's bodyguard, and was seriously wounded in the 22 March attempted assassination on the leader's life on one of Stepanakert's main streets.
On the road out of Yerevan we passed the twin peaks of Mount Ararat, another piece of land that Armenians consider their own, now part of Turkey. Then we turned toward the bare red mountains that line the first stage of the road to Karabakh. These are followed by more green baize blankets with chalk ellipses scooped out of them, like bunkers on a heavenly golf course, and then by higher, forested mountains. We drove on the winding mountain road for over eight hours. The entire road had recently been repaired with the help of funds raised by a telemarathon in Los Angeles, one of the centers of the Armenian diaspora in the United States. One small checkpoint marked the "border" between Armenia and the short humanitarian corridor through Azeri territory that provides a link to Karabakh. The first sign of the war was the sinister wire strung between two mountains, with vertical strands hanging down from it. "It's to stop low-flying aircraft, it cuts them up," Grayr said. "It's an air mine."
I asked Grayr if he fought in the war. "Yes, I fought. Or rather, I didn't fight, I defended my home. We all did," he said. None of the ethnic Armenians or Karabakh residents I met felt any remorse about the Azerbaijanis who had been killed or forced out of their homes. "They started it with the murders of Armenians in Sumgait [near Baku]," was the constant refrain. "What about the massacre of Azerbaijanis at Khodjaly?" I asked Gayane Movsessian, Snark's editor-in-chief. "That was during the war, that was completely different," she said. Archaeological finds prove that Armenians were the first people to settle in Karabakh, so it is their landthat is their argument. The Azerbaijanis arrived afterward, so it was not their land, however long they may have been living on it. The symbols of Karabakh, built on a hill just outside Stepanakert in the late 1960s, are the two giant stone heads of an Armenian grandmother and grandfather. The significance of the symbols, which the Armenians claim the Azerbaijanis don't understand, is that the couple's bodies are in the ground and cannot be uprooted.
We stopped at the ancient fortress town of Shushi, which is practically sacred to the Azerbaijanis, who call it Shusha. "In 1918 the population of Shushi was 98 percent Armenian and 2 percent Azeri," my guide Albert said. "In 1988 it was the other way around." Shushi has been mythologized by both sides and, as a result of the desperate struggle to control it, the town has been destroyed. Houses and shops are blackened shells, but the Armenians have built a brand-new church and restored a 19th-century one. Albert was keen for me to admire Shushi's churches first. The new one was built on top of a former Azeri ammunition depot, he said, from which Stepanakert was bombed month after month. I could see the crumbling turrets of a mosque down the road and asked him to drive me closer. There were two mosques close to each other, both in appalling condition. There was also a ruined Turkish bathhouse, which an Armenian camera crew was filming. The atmosphere of Stepanakert is like a village, with the odd cafe frequented by no more than a handful of people; ask for "juice" and you will be served a bottle of Turkish cola. When I got lost one evening, the friendly local women sitting on the pavement delegated a young man to accompany me to the house I was staying in.
Irina Sargsyan, a cheerful young woman who is studying English and German, showed me around Nagorno-Karabakh State University. In the university building, there are rows and rows of black-and-white framed photographs of students who were killed in the war. Sargsyan's father also died. But times have changed. Karabakh's Public Enemy No. 1 is war hero Samvel Babayan,
the general in charge of the Karabakh Defense Army and, subsequently, the defense minister. Babayan is now in prison charged with organizing the assassination attempt on President Gukasyan.
Public Enemy No. 2 is 35-year-old journalist Vagram Agadzhanyan, who wrote for 10th Province, a newspaper sponsored by Babayan. Just after the assassination attempt, Agadzhanyan was given a one-year prison sentence for allegedly violating the martial law regime by publishing false information about the prime minister.
The article that was used as the pretext for his arrest was an interview with migrants who had moved to Karabakh from Armenia. Those interviewed said the Karabakh prime minister had told them there wasn't enough money in the budget to pay them the benefits they had been promised. Agadzhanyan says that the real reason he was arrested was to stop him from writing pro-Babayan
articles (not something he necessarily would have done) after the assassination attempt. After intense pressure from Armenian journalists, some of whom reprinted Agadzhanyan's offending article in solidarity, the Karabakh Supreme Court reduced the punishment to a two-year suspended sentence.
Within weeks, Agadzhanyan's mother died. "Everything would be OK if it weren't for the death of my mother," Agadzhanyan told me. The 40-day mourning period was not yet over when we spoke and Agadzhanyan and his sister, Susanna, were in dressed in black. Agadzhanyan was wearing a baseball cap because his hair hadn't grown back after being shaved in prison, and dark glasses because of a problem with his eyes. Agadzhanyan's article was published last December, but the police responded only on 28 March, when they came to search the Agadzhanyans' flat for "drugs, weapons, gold, money, and valuables," according to Agadzhanyan. "They didn't find anything, but they frightened my mother, who had just finished a course of treatment for a minor heart attack. They checked all my audio and video tapes, and confiscated two newspapers with my articles in them, which had been published several months before."
Shortly afterward, Agadzhanyan was arrested and placed in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer. "On my fifth day in solitary confinement, two policemen came into my cell and said I'd been sentenced to 10 days' administrative arrest. In the early hours of the morning four men in
masks, carrying assault rifles, came in, handcuffed me and put a hood over my head. We drove somewhere and I could tell we were on our way to Shushi. I said to them, 'if you wanted to frighten me, you've done it, so you can take off the hood now,'" Agadzhanyan said. "Even in Karabakh they can't take you to prison from solitary confinement before your trial, but they did. They held me with terrorists; I was the 17th person there, although I soon realized they weren't terrorists either. They were Babayan's bodyguards. They were preparing to implicate me in the terrorist act. I spent 10 days there, then they brought me back to the solitary confinement cell."
Agadzhanyan and his sister are now appealing the suspended sentence on the grounds that by law a criminal investigation should be postponed if a member of the family is ill. Vagram is not allowed to leave the flat after 10 p.m., and has to report to the police station once a month to say that he hasn't committed a crime. "During the search they asked me if I had a weapon, and I took my pen out of my pocket and showed it to them. Karabakh's only plus is that it develops a strong sense of humor in people," he said.
My visit to Karabakh took place just before the parliamentary elections. Nearly 57 percent of the population turned out and overwhelmingly cast their ballots for pro-Gukasyan candidates in what most international observers called a "calm" electoral campaign. After the release of the results, Azerbaijan's Central Electoral Commission decried the elections as invalid and claimed that they excluded the Karabakh Azeri minority, comprising around 20 percent of the population.
I spoke to several candidates and officials, who were all adamant that the assassination attempt had "sped up the process of democratization." Sergei Davidyan, head of the Central Electoral Commission, said: "Since the assassination attempt there has been more democracy. Before, no one wanted to express their opinion, now they do. The president is promoting democracy. We are showing that everyone is subject to the law, from a driver to a mayor," referring to those implicated in the assassination attempt.
I wasn't convinced. The Caucasus is an undemocratic region, and Karabakh, far off in the mountainsunrecognized and battered by warhas little hope of political progress while it remains in solitary confinement.
However, a representative of an international organization in Stepanakert, who keeps a low profile so as not to damage the trust he has built up with the Karabakh, Armenian, and Azeri authorities, told me that the situation was not so bad. Karabakh is not ruled by warlords, it is not a violent society. There is more hope here than in Chechnya or Abkhazia, and the peace process is
continuing, albeit slowly. Peace deals are made by powerful leaders like Gukasyan, not by populations. When Karabakh's status is established, then the country can really start working on democracy.
Sarah Hurst has been writing about
the former Soviet Union for the past 10 years for publications
including: The Times, The European, The Sunday Telegraph,
New In Chess, The St. Petersburg Press, and the Azeri Times.
In 1997, she published her own book about Russia, A Shrimp
Learnt to Whistle, and in 1999-2000 she was working for BBC
Monitoring in Azerbaijan. She is now about to start a job
as editor of the Beijing Journal.