Later that day I met Salpi Ghazarian, who was born in Aleppo, Syria, and then lived in the US. Now she is the director of the Civilitas Foundation, which works to encourage the development of a liberal and democratic modern Armenia, as well as reconciliation with Turkey. Armenia’s transition to democracy has been harder than anyone expected, she said. But then, Armenians had no experience of democracy. Either they had lived in former Ottoman lands or under the tsars and then the Soviet empire. As for freedom of the press, hardly anyone reads newspapers anymore. But the government firmly controls the main television stations, from which most people get their news, though this, and thus political control of the media, is changing, since people increasingly get their news from the Internet. Things are far from perfect in Armenia, Ghazarian said, but still she was optimistic because the progress that has been made, she said, is “irreversible.”
Ghazarian’s office is full of educated and enthusiastic young people. But how many will stay in Armenia, where average salaries are $300 a month? (By contrast, in Russia monthly salaries are more than twice that amount.) As Ghazarian pointed out, in this globalized world, increasing numbers of Armenians either from Armenia or from the diaspora come and go, though no one could say how many. This includes many unskilled Armenians, who go to Russia as construction or seasonal workers. I saw some at the airport when I boarded a flight to Moscow. They were carrying local food, including jars of pickles in bulging bags. The lady who sat next to me on the plane told me that her uncle had left Armenia during the early 1990s. Now he had a successful private clinic in Moscow, although he could not afford to come home to work even if he wanted to. There are just not enough people with enough money to pay for his services in Armenia. Moscow alone has a population at least three times greater than Armenia’s, and there are more wealthy people in Moscow than in all of Armenia.
Armenia is primarily an agricultural country but also has minerals, including diamonds, and produces pig iron and some finished industrial goods. It exports fruit and vegetables, dairy products, and wine, and it is famous for its brandy. In 1988, the country was hit by an earthquake that claimed 25,000 lives. Then came the political turmoil at the end of the Soviet era and the war with Azerbaijan. Between 1988 and 1994, maybe a million or more Azeris fled from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and some 500,000 Armenians from Azerbaijan. It was then that the Turks sealed the frontier. The country was plunged into darkness as all of its main sources of energy were cut.
Today, Armenia is a long way from those years. It is poor, but its economy is five times bigger than it was a decade ago, thanks to remittances, a construction boom, and the emergence of private businesses. But it is also an economy that is highly vulnerable to what happens in the rest of the world. For most of the last decade it grew by double digits, only to contract by 14.4 percent in 2009, although this was followed by modest growth in 2010 and projected 4.6 percent growth for 2011. If Armenia could make peace with Azerbaijan it might even flourish—a big if.
Driving southeast from Yerevan to Nagorno-Karabakh, one passes the twin peaks of Mount Ararat. (“Nagorno” is Russian for “mountainous” and “Karabakh” means “black garden” in Turkish.) From the main road, the base of Ararat, hard on the Turkish frontier, is only a few miles away, yet today the mountain long revered by Armenians as their national symbol is in Turkey. In 1918, with the declaration of an independent Armenia, the mountain was placed in the middle of the country’s coat of arms. There it has remained ever since, although with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 the once again independent state added a tiny Noah’s Ark to the top of the mountain, in the center of the crest.
Turkey’s borders with what is now Armenia were fixed in 1921. Since the border is closed, today Armenians can only look at Ararat—unless they go around, through Georgia, to get there. Arev Samuelyan showed me a photo of a ruined Armenian church, which lies a stone’s throw away on the other side of the frontier, in Turkish territory, where there were once many Armenians; none live there now.
In 1923, after years of conflict between Azeris and Armenians, Stalin decided to turn the mostly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh into an autonomous part of Soviet Azerbaijan. Throughout the Soviet period there were protests about this from Armenians—they wanted the enclave to be officially part of Armenia—something described by Thomas de Waal in his excellent recent book, The Caucasus: An Introduction. Nevertheless, the area became “a backwater,” de Waal writes, and “rumblings of Armenian discontent were audible only to those listening very carefully”; in any case, such “resentments were more or less managed by the Soviet system.”
In 1988, as the USSR began to buckle, the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh began to dominate the politics of the region. Conflict broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and with the end of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself independent in 1991; the fighting turned into an international conflict. Soviet Karabakh was a region of 4,400 square kilometers but by the end of the war in 1994 the Armenians controlled 7,600 square kilometers more. Not a single Azeri, according to everyone I spoke to there, remains in Karabakh and the territories it now occupies around the old autonomous enclave. (According to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, 600,000 Azeris from the Nagorno-Karabakh region remain displaced within Azerbaijan.)
Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, is small but orderly. It is full of banners celebrating twenty years of independence. Yet no country recognizes it. Although it has all the trappings of statehood for its 140,000 people, an official from Armenia told me that his ministry regarded it as just another province of Armenia. His opposite number in the government in Stepanakert, he said, signed off on any decisions made in Yerevan. Economically, Nagorno-Karabakh is supported by Armenia and the diaspora. Hayk Khanumyan, a local journalist, told me that in this way the administration could give jobs to large numbers of people, even if they did not have much to do.
I went to Aghdam, a town that used to be populated mostly by Azeris. It sits outside the boundaries of the old autonomous region. After the Armenians captured the town in 1993, it was as good as leveled. No one lives there. The place looks like a sort of overgrown Caucasian Pompeii without frescoes or postcards. For the past few years, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been discussing a draft peace plan, by which much, but not all, of the region around the old autonomous area would be given back to Azerbaijan. In return, and for an indefinable period, Nagorno-Karabakh would have an interim status before a referendum decided its fate. In Nagorno-Karabakh no one seemed much interested in the talks. After all, they told me, no one was asking them, since the negotiations were between Armenia and Azerbaijan; and there had been many false dawns in the past few years.
All this should matter in the West. Azerbaijan is an increasingly important oil and gas supplier. In 2005 oil began flowing along a 1,768-kilometer pipeline from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, via Tbilisi, Georgia, to the port of Ceyhan, in Turkey, where it is shipped out. A major natural gas pipeline also runs along part of this route, and there is talk of future pipeline projects to carry gas from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan to the West (avoiding Russia). Since the existing oil pipeline to Ceyhan runs a mere thirteen kilometers from territory controlled by Nagorno-Karabakh, in the event of a new war, which today seems possible if not probable, the pipeline could be cut by the Armenians within hours. Azerbaijani oil platforms in the Caspian Sea could be hit by Armenian missiles.
The consequences of a new war in the region could be truly catastrophic. Israel has close military relations with Azerbaijan (in February it signed a deal to sell $1.6 billion in arms to Baku) and gets more than 30 percent of its oil via Ceyhan. If it goes to war with Iran over the nuclear issue, it would make sense to have Azerbaijan on its side. But conflicts tend to have unforeseen consequences, and both Azerbaijan and Iran must wonder how Iran’s millions of potentially restive Azeris might respond. (There are more Azeris in Iran than in Azerbaijan itself.) A senior Western diplomat told me that the fact that Azerbaijan is a secular Shiite state is a more important factor now in thinking about the region’s geopolitics than the fact that it is a major source of energy.
In 2009, amid much optimism, Turkey and Armenia came close to an agreement that would have led to a reopening of the border between them and a resumption of formal diplomatic relations. Then Azerbaijan protested and the deal was called off. The Turks linked any future deal to progress in negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia on Nagorno-Karabakh. There has been none, and it seems unlikely that progress will be made anytime soon. Azerbaijan’s energy resources partly explain why. In October, Azerbaijan and Turkey signed a major deal by which the Azeris will both supply natural gas to Turkey and use Turkish territory to export it to Europe. Such deals are making the Azeris, who have said that they will never formally surrender any territory to Armenians, increasingly self-confident.
Meanwhile, Armenia relies on Russia for its security and Russian troops continue to help guard the Armenian borders with Turkey and Iran. If there were a new war over Nagorno-Karabakh and Turkish troops moved across that border, they could cut the main road from Yerevan to Nagorno-Karabakh within hours. The likelihood of this happening with the Russians there is low; but if you understand that Armenians grew up listening to tales of the genocide and lost lands, you can also understand why their leaders are reluctant to trade the security they have now for open borders and a peace deal without firm guarantees.
Azerbaijan, for its part, poured over $3.3 billion into its military forces in 2011, more than Armenia’s entire state budget. No wonder Thomas de Waal calls Nagorno-Karabakh “a sleeping volcano.”
A Challenge to Armenia June 21, 2012