Thursday, September 14, 2006

Europe's Forgotten Conflict

During the early 90's many of the world's headlines were being taken up by the breakup of Yugoslavia and the resulting ethnic violence, whilst at the same time two other European* countries were slugging it out backstage. For over 5 years Azerbaijani troops fought Armenian separatists over Nagorny Karabagh. The region lies entirely within Azerbaijan but had an Armenian majority, which, as the USSR was itself disintegrating into its constituent republics, was a recipe for disaster. (In fact most ex-Soviet countries, borders of which were often drawn by our friend Stalin, have ongoing border disputes and ethnic unrest. It is believed that this was a deliberate policy of "divide and rule".) As ever more strident Karabakhi demands for independence were met by greater obduracy from Azerbaijan the whole situation quickly spiralled into a conflict in which two communities that had lived side by side in relative peace for centuries became enemies overnight. Neighbours became foes and families split apart (one anecdote tells of a mixed town which was split down the middle to such an extent that one mixed-marriage family was cleaved in two with the father taking 3 children to one side of town and the mother taking the other 3 to the other side). Eventually, with the Armenians having the upper hand, a ceasefire was agreed. Most of Karabakh was under their control as well as Azerbaijani lands to the south and west that connected it to Armenia. But the human cost was great. Although the direct casualties were relatively low, numbering around 30,000, some 300,000 Armenians were expelled from Azerbaijan and 750,000 Azerbaijanis went the other way, mostly from occupied territories. Many of these Azerbaijanis still live in makeshift refugee camps more than 10 years after the fighting has stopped and are a huge burden on the country. Armenia has also suffered. Although their side ostensibly 'won' Armenia took some economic battering with its eastern and western borders (with Azerbaijan and Turkey respectively) closed, so that it is only connected to the outside world via Georgia to the north and a thin sliver of Iran to the south. And despite the ceasefire there is no official peace, despite many summits and negotiations, and so the situation could possibly flare up at any moment.

There is still resentment on both sides about the war and it is not uncommon to talk to people who fought in it or lost family members. And although the war seems to have ended on the battlefield (apart from a few pot-shots across the ceasefire line every now and again) it has carried on in the media and history textbooks. Armenians claim that Karabakh belonged to greater Armenia, wistfully remembering the halcyon days of Tigranes the Great (95-66BC) and pointing to maps where Armenia borders the Mediterranean, Black and Caspian seas, and pointing out the great many old Armenian churches in Karabakh. And though factually true they neglect to mention that for the past 500 years the region has been under the control of Azerbaijan under its various incarnations: under Muslim khans, as part of the Russian empire or as a Soviet republic. In reply to this dubious historical justification the Azerbaijanis have invented their own, even more fantastical, version of history in which the Armenians only arrived after the Russian conquest of 1828 and that the old churches were built by the mysterious Albanians who were in fact ethnic Azerbaijanis but just happened to write in Armenian script. They also gleefully point out the fact that Yerevan was an Azerbaijani city because it used to be called Erevan, somehow not noticing not only that the difference in spelling and pronunciation is so small as to be immaterial but also both versions are spelt exactly the same way in Armenian script. But this battle for the past misses the point entirely that ancient, historical borders are no basis for land disputes today. Otherwise the Mongolians could claim most of Asia and a good chunk of eastern Europe, or the Greeks everything east up to the borders of India.

Either way the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), which, incidentally, is not recognised by any country, including Armenia, is a place that I have wanted to visit for some time now (and not just because I am a (passport) stamp collector as my father seems to think) ever since seeing it in a world atlas, surrounded by Azerbaijan but with an arrow pointing to Armenia, when I thought to myself "there must be an interesting story behind that". So here I am to see what a country that isn't a country looks like. My first thoughts are that it is slightly more like Azerbaijan in character. There is a greater penchant for moustaches and ridiculously elongated shoes amongst men and gold teeth amongst women, whilst many older people prefer to speak Azeri rather than Armenian or Russian. In fact whilst hitching a ride with a Karabakhi truck driver he started babbling at me; I was about to explain that I don't speak Armenian when I realised he was speaking Azeri instead.

*Pedants might argue that the Caucasian countries are geographically not a part of Europe and instead belong in Asia (for those of you who are interested the following web page goes into the technical details of what constitutes a continent and where the boundaries are drawn, fantastic if, like me, you have spent countless nights awake pondering the "Continent Conundrum"). Indeed, one of my favourite questions I ask people in the region is whether they feel more affinity towards Europe of Asia (the results are pretty much 50/50 among all three countries). The governments, however, would all like to see themselves as European and use some subtle, and not so subtle in the case of Georgia, means of doing so. For example the new Azerbaijani bank notes look remarkably like Euros and even have a map of Europe on them (which, of course, contains the Caucasus), whereas in Georgia the blue EU flag often flies in tandem with the Georgian one from ministry buildings. But, for me, the final arbiter in the debate is FIFA which has put all three countries under the jurisdiction of UEFA for footballing purposes.

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