Prisoner of the Caucasus

Prisoner of the Caucasus

Nagorno-Karabakh: a clash of civilizations?


Policymakers in Yerevan told me they were prepared to deal with any potential duplicity on the part of Moscow, their alleged ally. They unironically cited their revival of ancient Armenian statecraft. Azerbaijan had oil; Armenia had influence. The three Minsk chair nations—France, Russia and the United States—held the world’s three largest Armenian diasporas, some three million people and billions of dollars in lobbying power. Yerevan leveraged financial aid from the West and defense pacts from the East. It played Shia Tehran against Sunni Ankara, the Sunni Turks of Kazakhstan against the Shia Turks of Azerbaijan. It was in the Eurasian Customs Union but still conducted the most trade with the EU, its primary investor. To appease Moscow, it offered a military base at Gyumri and refused to recognize Kosovo; to appease Washington, it let Peace Corps volunteers into the country and refused to recognize Abkhazia.

To see how well this worked, you only had to look at Azerbaijan: it had still never managed to achieve the unambiguous support of the United States, NATO or the EU, this despite decades of military-political agreements between Armenia and Russia. Better yet still, you could look at Armenia: apart from Belarus, which is nothing but a dependency of the Kremlin, it is the only nation of the Eastern Partnership with its territory fully intact. Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine: all had suffered dismemberment for their myopia.


Year after year, the screws of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict turn tighter without providing any corresponding clarity to its resolution. Its combatants, meanwhile, scour political developments from Mongolia to the Atlantic for whatever may bolster their case. For Armenia, Washington’s recognition of Albanian statehood in Kosovo in 2008 all but confirmed the Armenians’ right to Nagorno-Karabakh. Paradoxically for Azerbaijan, it was Russia’s refusal to acknowledge Kosovo that confirmed its stance on the region. For Azerbaijan, their ally Mikheil Saakashvili’s blitzkrieg attempt to take back South Ossetia in 2008 was an encouraging example of a mass offensive against a mountainous breakaway state. For Armenia, Saakashvili’s humiliation at the hands of Russia five days later was more encouraging still. For Armenia, Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 showed that its chief international backer also believed in reuniting an ethnic enclave with its motherland. For Azerbaijan, it all but confirmed that former Soviet republics ought to be restored to their pre-1920 nation-states. And so forth.


I ARRIVED to Nagorno-Karabakh expecting to find an impoverished Black Sea statelet where the endless prospect of invasion had eroded any semblance of civilian life. It was nothing like this. Nagorno-Karabakh wasn’t an Armenian protostate. It was almost everything Armenia itself aspired to be. One night, three Armenian Americans from Cleveland checked in to my hotel. They weren’t tourists; they’d come to make sure that diaspora funds weren’t lining local pockets. “Armenia is a finished project,” they said. But Nagorno-Karabakh was a chance to build an honest state uncrippled by post-Communist graft—“to get it right.”

And so it was. Highways were immaculately paved. A healthy civil service cleared the parks of trash each morning. Lining valleys were orderly, prefabricated towns donated by the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund. Row upon row of houses lay in wait for settlers from the west. Streets took the names of prominent diaspora Armenians of days gone by: Alexey Ekimyan, the Russian-based composer; Tigran Petrosian, the chess champion from Georgia. The local Artsakh Bank offered 9 percent interest rates. Business was good. The police, a symbol of relentless corruption in Armenia, were considered generally honest figures. “We don’t fight a war in order to live like them,” a Nagorno-Karabakhian mechanic called Ani told me. Like the Azeris? “No! Like the Armenians.” The fear wasn’t so much Baku making war as Yerevan making good on its promise to one day incorporate Nagorno-Karabakh into Armenia. It wouldn’t be long before the princeling generals and corruptocrats moved in.

Shushi, once the largest city in the Caucasus, still lay crushed to rubble. But new life was trickling in. Hayk, a former car salesman from Kuwait, had opened a wine bar. Arthur, a former hotelier from Paris, had opened a kickboxing studio. (“Every preparation counts.”) Ruben from Yerevan published accounts of Azerbaijani atrocities for NGOs in Brussels. Needless to say, all had immediately signed up for the volunteer battalions in April. They would caravan supplies out to the trenches—or man them—as required. A pair of minarets poked disjointedly out of the old town, but it was becoming possible to forget that three hundred thousand Azeris had once called Shushi home.

Down the mountain in Stepanakert, a four-story hospital had been financed by Samvel Karapetyan, an Armenian real estate mogul from Russia. A new elementary school came courtesy of Kirk Kerkorian, builder of the MGM Grand Hotels in Las Vegas. Here, too, a deep state was in control, but it had been stripped of all pretenses. I stopped one day at a new cathedral being built by Ruben Vardanyan, the Moscow-based entrepreneur. A lanky warrior-priest with a wild grey beard greeted me. Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan has a black belt in karate and frequently leads Armenians out to the front lines. “The Turks attempted a second genocide here,” he said, gesturing to the highlands. “Karabakh was the second baptizing of our people.”

Later, at the front lines, teenage soldiers were barbecuing snakes and spitting contempt for the Republicans. Why was it that Azerbaijan could attack, attack, attack and all Armenia could ever do was hold its line? It was obvious that the offensives wouldn’t stop until the stakes of the conflict had equaled out. How did they suggest doing that? Marching on Baku, of course. Aliyev wanted war; give him war. Out in the village of T’alish, a few soldiers showed me where an Azerbaijani reconnaissance drone had been brought down by Moscow-supplied rocket systems. One of the more curious aspects of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is that, for each and every offensive weapon it sells to Baku, Russia sells the corresponding defensive equipment to Yerevan. The only problem was that many of the new Azerbaijani drones weren’t Russian-made. They were Harop models—kamikaze drones, the first of their kind ever deployed on a battlefield—from Israel; last April, one dematerialized a bus transporting Armenian volunteers, killing seven. The Armenian soldiers pointed to their antique assault rifles and Soviet-era boots. Until now, the balance of war had more or less held. It was unclear how much longer it would.


NAGORNO-KARABAKH has become an increasingly fragile last prop for two regimes that have relentlessly stymied the democratic development of their respective nation-states. As those regimes begin to buckle, the prospect of all-out war increases. To those manning the front lines, the Soviet Union and the Russian language have disappeared as shared legacies. To the political elites who draft them, Nagorno-Karabakh has become a relentless instrument for mobilizing nationalism. When an Armenian minister was mentioned in the Panama Papers, he was nearly forced to resign from office—not for tax evasion, but for being mentioned in the same document as President Aliyev. When the Azeri writer Akram Aylisli addressed the 1980s pogroms of Azerbaijan’s ethnic Armenians in his fiction, the regime revoked his ability to travel to international literary festivals, burnt his books at state-sponsored bonfires and offered $13,000 to any Azeri who would slice off his ear. Not Bosnia, not Cyprus, not even Transnistria are faced by the prospect of the stances of both combatants become more and more extreme with the decades.

Still, the most intriguing aspect of Nagorno-Karabakh is its almost uncanny ability to assume the contours of successive conflict narratives. It began like the other wars of post-USSR succession—metonymy for the collapse of centralized power and the reemergence of local nationalisms. It lasted long enough to be consumed in the “ancient hatreds” narrative popularized by the wars of Yugoslav succession. In the 2000s, the conflict was still simmering, only now with European Union enlargement and Putinist expansion providing the backdrop: with Armenia emerging in the forefront of accession talks with Brussels, Nagorno-Karabakh became a front line between a supposedly Western democracy and a Eurasian authoritarian state.

Speaking to villagers in Nagorno-Karabakh, I noticed that the war had taken yet another shape in their minds. In the village of T’alish, Azerbaijani forces entered a house and mutilated the corpses of two elders. Photos surfaced on social media of an Armenian soldier who had been beheaded after capture. Human-rights observers in Yerevan were feverishly drafting reports to be sent to Brussels. Azerbaijan has a radicalization problem! Islamist cells were already working the Northern Caucasus. Wahhabis had now made their way into the Azerbaijani top brass. Those who had actually joined ISIS were given immunity if they went to Nagorno-Karabakh as vigilantes. Brussels, Moscow, Washington: none could afford to ignore this new front against radical Islam.

Alexander Clapp is a journalist based in Istanbul. He is working on a book about Romania.

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

​Editor's Note: This piece has been updated from its original version.