Prisoner of the Caucasus

T-72 tank on a plinth in Nagorno-Karabakh. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Marcin Konsek

Nagorno-Karabakh: a clash of civilizations?

March-April 2017

THIS, AT any rate, is very much the argument pushed by the men who rule Armenia today, a collection of military figures known formerly as the Republicans, informally as the “Karabakh clan.” Most come from Nagorno-Karabakh or began public life there. They gained prominence in the war not as regulars but guerillas. Their leading members are Robert Kocharian, one-time leader of Nagorno-Karabakh, later president of Armenia, and Serzh Sargsyan, Kocharian’s defense chief and current president of Armenia. A veterans’ movement that seized on the precarious security situation of the 1990s, it entered into close cooperation with a chaebol of some two dozen oligarchs who lorded over Armenia’s privatization, rendering it into the most monopolized economy in the former USSR. What little wealth the country possesses—agricultural lands, cognac distilleries, mines—was compounded with diaspora funds, but mostly Russian arms deals that on paper consume 10 percent of the annual state budget, in practice several times more; Moscow provides Armenia with Russian loans to purchase Russian weaponry, a profit loop in which Sargsyan and his epigones skim enough kickbacks to have personally annexed some 40 percent of Armenia’s GDP. “And you still can’t take the peasants out of them!” runs a popular Armenian joke regarding the Republicans’ baggy three-piece suits.

In early 1998, after Ter-Petrossian proposed conceding parts of Nagorno-Karabakh to secure a lasting peace, the Republicans overthrew him. A string of dubious elections has preserved their power since. Travelling around Armenia, you see a makeshift mix of hard-fist rule and patronage politics. In Yerevan, there are the parades of black military-grade Humvees transporting the khmbapets, “chieftains,” and their entourages of armed bodyguards. Many towns have a “military-patriotic club” where members are updated on the state of Miatsyal Hayastan, “Greater Armenia.” In the countryside, Republican mayors secure their rule by distributing sacks of potatoes to pensioners and patching up roads in highlands otherwise marked by starvation wages and electricity still faltering from the disastrous 1990s, when nearly every national resource was diverted to Nagorno-Karabakh’s defense.

Azerbaijan is ostensibly a very different place from Armenia. Historically, it has been the state—the Muslim world’s first democracy, even—without any certain people, Azeris having been variously called Caucasian Tatars or Shia Turks; the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh shattered much of the Azeri national identity it initially aroused. Like Armenians, most Azeris actually live outside of their country—in Iran, a country nominally aligned with Armenia. Armenia’s population is 97.9 percent ethnically Armenian, making it one of the world’s least ethnically diverse nations. Azerbaijan, by contrast, is a virtual preservatory of minorities, with 115 different groups comprising a tenth of the population.

Power in post-Soviet Baku initially fell to the same group that currently rules in Yerevan—a deeply nationalist collection of Nagorno-Karabakh veterans—until it was destroyed by fear of military rule and a bloody 1993 civil war; in its place came a nomenklatura combining at once a recycled Communist vanguard and an historically Turkic regionalism based on allegiance to the hoj, or the blood-kin clan. Its leader was the head of the Nakhichevan clan, Heydar Aliyev, an intellectual who could trace his family’s roots back to Yerevan, the former head of the Azerbaijani KGB and first secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee.

To the degree that it gives Armenia an outsized sense of historical retribution, Nagorno-Karabakh has never ceased undermining the narrative of Azerbaijan’s success. It is the embarrassment hounding a regime capable of spending twice Armenia’s annual state budget on weapons alone, though to absolutely no effect; the relentlessly virile statements about Nagorno-Karabakh—Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov repeatedly claims that “the Karabakh land will burn under the feet of the Armenian invaders”—become more and more ridiculous the longer the status quo holds.