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Nagorno-Karabakh: A Limbo with No End

It could be viewed as a success. According to the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, 21 percent of refugees in Armenia have gained Armenian citizenship since 1995. That, says the UNHCR, is one of the highest rates of voluntary naturalization anywhere in the world in recent decades.

The total number of naturalizations–65,000–also indicates how huge a refugee problem Armenia faced just as the Soviet Union was collapsing and, with it, the Armenian economy. From 1988 to 1994, 360,000 ethnic Armenians flooded into Armenia first to avoid pogroms in Baku, Azerbaijan, and then, in a process mirrored in Azerbaijan, to flee fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region assigned to Azerbaijan by the Soviet authorities. Another 60,000 moved from regions bordering Azerbaijan that were heavily shelled during the war.

The strain on a country of 3 million people was huge. The country was still trying to come to terms with an earthquake in 1988 that killed 25,000 people and displaced 60,000. That time became known as the "dark years": the earthquake devastated the country's energy system and that, plus the strain of the Soviet Union's collapse and a blockade in Azerbaijan, left the country chronically short of electricity and other basics.

But how much of a success is it that 240,000 refugees remain and have not been naturalized? The Armenian authorities have little reason not to give the refugees passports. The refugees were ethnic kin, those from Nagorno-Karabakh came as the result of a war that partly reflected a desire for closer ties with Armenia, and most of the refugees, who came predominantly from cities in Karabakh and Azerbaijan, had skills to offer. And, while absorbing such a huge number might be a massive challenge, the pressure has been eased by the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Armenians over the past decade.

The refugees themselves have compelling reasons to get Armenian passports. Since 2000, they have not been able to use their old Soviet passports to travel outside Armenia. Moreover, citizenship could open the way to better housing.

Over the past 16 years, the hostels and community centers in which most refugees were placed have fallen into serious, sometimes disastrous disrepair. Almost a third of the refugees still remain in community centers and other refugee accommodations. The Armenian government and international organizations have been building new housing. The UNHCR, for example, has built 3,200 homes for refugees throughout Armenia, while the Norwegian Refugee Council is building 100 to 250 houses a year.

But they would have more freedom if they were to become naturalized Armenians. They could then take over ownership of their temporary accommodation from the state for free (provided they have lived there for three or more years).

Silva Ohanyan and her family are among those who have acquired citizenship. Ever since a pogrom of Armenians in the Azeri city of Sumgait in 1988, the family has relied heavily on humanitarian aid and subsidies, but they have managed to buy a small two-room apartment. For them, Armenia is now home.

A fast-growing number of refugees feel the same. Since the law allowing refugees to buy their homes was passed in 2000, the number of naturalizations has soared. In 1999, fewer than 8,000 refugees had Armenian passports. In 2000, that figure doubled. It is now eight times higher than it was in 1999.

Why, then, have other refugees refused to apply for citizenship? Does the 21 percent naturalization rate mean that 79 percent do not see their future in Armenia?

STRANDED IN LIMBO

For some, particularly the old, it makes no difference whether they have an Armenian passport or not. They lack the money either to travel or to buy their own flats.

In a refugee hostel in Yerevan dormitories, Asya and Robert Mkhitarov, from Baku, live off a combined monthly pension of about $30. After paying electricity, water, and telephone bills, they are left with only $15 to last the month. They, too, rely on handouts. "I was brought up to be proud of my Armenian heritage," Asya says. "And even if I had only a roof over my head, I would never think of leaving Armenia. This is my country." She now has a passport to prove it.

Anna Grigorova, 70, also has a passport. She arrived in Armenia after pogroms in Baku. Today, together with 25 other families, she lives in a former boardinghouse. A retired economist and widow, she receives an $8 monthly pension from the Armenian government, forcing her to rely on handouts from the state and small sums that her niece sends from Russia. There is no water in the hostel. She has to fetch it from neighboring buildings. Her room is dark and filthy, with bare walls and just a few household items. "I had such a beautiful house, quality furniture. Now look at me. Everything is gone," she said with a sad smile.

For other elderly refugees from Azerbaijan living, like Grigorova, on or below the breadline, the extremely remote hope of compensation from Azerbaijan is more important than an Armenian passport and taking over ownership (and maintenance and problems) of run-down rooms in boarding lodges. If they became Armenian citizens, they would have to give up all claims to compensation.

For young men, as well, an Armenian passport would bring with it the prospect of conscription. Others fear losing the humanitarian assistance that refugees are entitled to, which is significantly more generous than the welfare benefits that naturalized Armenians can claim.

Naturalization makes most sense for those of working age. But while some refugees have settled very well in Armenia, many others still find it difficult to feel at home in Armenia and to build a new life.

When refugees began to enter Armenia, the local population was sympathetic and did its best to ease their situation. As their own economic plight worsened and the locals found themselves in the same conditions as refugees, their ability to help considerably decreased. Nonetheless, there remains a strong sense of solidarity with the refugees. About 100 groups work to help the refugees to settle, find work, create a cultural life, and deal with welfare issues.

Even so, the refugees remain outsiders, in part because of language. In Karabakh, Armenians used a distinct dialect of Armenian. In Azerbaijan, Armenians mainly used Russian, even at home.

Asya Mkhitarova, a Russian teacher, has taught herself excellent Armenian. But for others, language or dialect remains a major barrier. "When some locals realize that I am not a local Armenian, their attitude toward me immediately changes, I can feel that," says Aram Asaturov with a hint of bitterness. "I am an Armenian of Karabakhi origin," the 65-year-old continues. "I am an Armenian even if I was born in Azerbaijan and do not speak very good Armenian."

The Armenian government has never produced a clear and coordinated policy to deal with the language problems of refugees. So language courses for refugees "never became commonly available and were not applied consistently," says political scientist Alina Topchyan. Where local government has tried to arrange courses, the drop-out rate has been high: frequently, there are too few teachers, the range of knowledge in one classroom is too wide, and the lessons themselves too unrelated to daily difficulties.

"When I pronounce Armenian words with an accent I feel embarrassed. So very often, I prefer to speak Russian rather than Armenian," said Yulia Khachatryan, who now lives in Echmiatsin. Partly for that reason, most refugees live in separate communities isolated from the wider population.

Nostalgia for the better life they had back in Baku and other cities is a factor for many, leaving them reluctant to adapt to Armenian culture, speak Armenian, and, most importantly, admit that Armenia is now their home.

But without the language, they have found it tough to find work. Some organizations, like Mission Armenia--which has provided about 10,000 refugees with health assistance, social services, legal counseling, and psychological support--has arranged business, computer, marketing, and language courses to make refugees competitive on the labor market. But in a country where the official unemployment rate is 20 percent and the unofficial rate, according to the UN Development Program, could be three times as high, they must be very competitive.

The refugees' problems of adaptation are not just because they have been transplanted to another country and a different language environment. Most refugees from Azerbaijan came from urban areas. In Armenia, most of them were forced to settle in rural areas and take up farming, a task for which they lack the skills and knowledge.

For all refugees, wherever they came from, there is a way out of such limbo—and it leads to Nagorno-Karabakh. The government of Nagorno-Karabakh has offered them large sums of money to return or settle: $300 per person and $600 to buy cattle and get ready for the farming season, as well as 3,500 square meters of land, electricity subsidies, free water, and exemption from military service for two years.

But relatively few have taken the offer. According to the Karabakh Department for Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, about 25,000 refugees have settled in Karabakh. The Armenian government's Department for Migration and Refugees (DMR), which is working closely with the self-declared independent Karabakh republic, says $350 million more in subsidies could enable it to resettle another 50,000 families in as little as three years. The Karabakh government sets aside some $600,000 a year to build houses for settlers in Karabakh.

But cash and incentives may not be enough. Though the Karabakhi economy is reviving, it remains weaker than Armenia's. Making a decent living is tough in Armenia and tougher still in Karabakh. Some villages have no water or electricity, and the schools are some distance away. And though the soil is arable and rich, many farmers cannot afford the equipment to cultivate it.

And for those who are not farmers, there is relatively little work.

That makes a move to Karabakh unappealing, particularly to the urbanite Armenians from Azerbaijan, a larger group than the number of Karabakh refugees. Tim Straight of the Norwegian Refugee Council reports some refugees are unhappy with the houses built for them in Armenia. "That happens mostly with Bakuians. They are nostalgic about the conditions they lived in, and naturally a cottage in the Armenian countryside loses in comparison with an apartment in a capital city." A cottage in the countryside of Nagorno-Karabakh has even less appeal.

Moreover, as DMR refugee department director Ara Haroutunyan points out, they are already having a hard time adapting to Armenia. A second resettlement could further aggravate their psychological dislocation.

And there is another major psychological obstacle: the lack of a peace settlement creates an uncertainty that may be too great for refugees to accept.

THE ROAD TO MOSCOW

In any case, there is another road that the refugees can take. Like many native Armenians, they prefer to take roads that lead abroad, mainly to Russia, a country where they speak the language and, in many cases, have relatives. According to DMR data, many of the 240,000 refugees registered in Armenia may not actually be living in Armenia. Most will have moved to Russia before 2000, when Soviet-era passports became invalid.

That should be no surprise. The Armenians have always had a sizable diaspora. An estimated 60 percent of the total 8 million Armenians worldwide live outside the country, with 1 million each in the United States and Russia. The exodus from Armenia has been particularly heavy since the country gained its independence in 1991.

So the naturalization rate--low in absolute terms, albeit high in relative terms--is distorted by a huge movement of refugees to Russia.

Larisa Alaverdyan, the state ombudsman for refugee affairs, put it simply: "Unless favorable conditions are set for working, the compensation issues are resolved, [and] reconstruction and development projects are funded, one can say with certainty that passports will be acquired only by those who are going to leave the country for making their living elsewhere."

But that is not entirely the case. Aram Asaturov, the 65-year-old Karabakhi, says he has decided to apply for citizenship and would have done so earlier if it weren't so difficult to live in Armenia. Now that he owns a room in a dormitory and is certain of a roof over his head, he feels more confident.

The others, too reluctant or too lacking in confidence to become citizens, will remain stuck in Armenia, waiting to see what happens next and hoping for the best. The question, "Where do your see yourself in 10 years?" generates a telling response from most refugees--vague answers or simply deeply puzzled looks.

Nagorno-Karabakh: A Limbo with No End

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