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A year on from the Second Karabakh War, Armenians are uncertain of the future

With concern over borders and tentative hope for new infrastructure, Armenia is trying to find its place after a war that shook the country to its core

Knar Khudoyan
27 September 2021, 11.42am
Independence celebrations in Yerevan, September 2021
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Image: Eliza Mkhitaryan

It has been a year since the Second Karabakh War – a 44-day conflict that started with Azerbaijani missile strikes rising up over Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and ceased only when Russia brokered a ceasefire in November 2020.

This caused public panic to rise in Armenia, with delayed official announcements about new border demarcations and demilitarisation activities, and an attempted coup. Azerbaijani troops are now stationed deep in the heart of what was once Armenian Karabakh, as well as the ‘buffer zone’ (the territories surrounding it) and are visible on Armenia’s official borders.

In the aftermath of this existential defeat for the country, public support appeared to waver for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power on the back of Armenia’s 2018 revolution. However, in June, he was resoundingly re-elected during snap elections and received, what he calls, a popular mandate to bring “an era of peace in the region”.

Pashinyan has since called on the Armenian public to have “strong nerves”' and persist with an agenda of peace, despite armed incursions by Azerbaijani forces along the country’s border. For those grieving loved ones or recovering from the trauma of the conflict, strong nerves are not easy to come by. Fears are still palpable that the war with Azerbaijan could resume, with military planes flying low over towns, military exercises growing larger, and warnings in the media growing more alarming.

One of the solutions appears to lie in a new transport infrastructure that would make Armenia – whose borders to the east and west are cut off due to conflict – a new regional hub for transporting goods, and perhaps people. Yet the fate of these new efforts lies not only in ongoing and secretive diplomatic negotiations, but in Armenian citizens’ willingness to go ahead with this potentially radical transformation mere months after a conflict that killed thousands.

To gain an insight into the public’s thoughts, I travelled to two towns likely to be affected by the potential changes, one in northern Armenia, and the other in the south.

War’s legacy

When war broke out on 27 September 2020, it was a quiet Sunday in the mountain town of Berd, nestled between Azerbaijan and Georgia in northeast Armenia. The local community had been planning an agricultural event, the annual Honey and Berry Festival, which is a main event in the calendar of this town that is cut off from Armenia’s north-south highway.

Berd has experienced military skirmishes on a regular basis since the 1994 ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, including fighting in July last year, which is now considered to be the prelude to the 44-day war. And so when the news came of Azerbaijan military forces attacking Karabakh, the farmers who had gathered for the expo didn’t panic immediately.

With the constant risk of war hanging over it, Berd has always had a significant military presence. For locals, this provided a feeling of security, as well as jobs. Yet military employment contracts have not been enough to stop people from moving to safer places.

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Armenian soldiers in Berd | Image: Eliza Mkhitaryan

Since 2015, the Armenian government has tried to curb migration from this area to Russia, providing tax relief for businesses that invest in Berd’s 24 border communities. This move encouraged textile workshops to set up near the town. Olya, a resident of the village of Chinari, told me that she had been offered a sewing job, but that “the machine had to run uninterrupted for 12 hours a day”.

“The job would have left me no time to tend to my garden,” she says, noting her patch of tomatoes and figs, which she sells locally. Instead, along with five other women, Olya started a cooperative and used a United Nations Development Programme grant to build a greenhouse instead.

Despite the state’s attempts to diversify, the Armenian military remained the biggest and most well-paying employer in this town – until the war.

“My son was in the war. He returned very shocked and saddened by what he saw,” Anahit, a local resident, told me. “He could no longer work in the military, but is now trying to start some business with friends. Although he had already built a career. Anyway, I support whatever decision he makes.” Others in the town, mostly women contractors, have been fired and replaced by new staff, as the Armenian army is being reformed.

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Image: Eliza Mkhitaryan

Since the Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement last November, the guns have been surprisingly silent in Berd. But it’s not enough for residents to feel secure. Many families in this town lost their sons in the war. Their photos decorate the walls of the schools they attended and the hallway of the city museum. Aspram, a cook at the town’s military base, told me that her nephew died in the war. “He and all the other kids who died were special in a way,” she said. “War takes the best.”

Some families, however, cannot even grieve: their sons are still listed among the missing.

Despite the November 2020 agreement’s provisions for exchanging prisoners of war (POWs), hostages and other detainees, the number of Armenians kept in Azerbaijani custody or reported missing has remained unknown – only prior to the anniversary did the Armenian government report that 231 combatants and 22 civilians are missing. A few rounds of detainees held by Azerbaijan have been returned – 103 in total, in exchange for 15 Azerbaijanis held by Armenia, as well as maps showing the location of landmines in territory now under Azerbaijani control. But as the full list of POWs is unknown, many families whose sons’ bodies have yet to be found nurture hope that their loved ones are alive, even in Azerbaijani captivity.

“Every day in this uncertain time counts as ten in terms of our agony,” says a mother whose son, a soldier, is still missing. She says she attends weekly pilgrimages to several churches in Berd for the traditional matagh, a lamb sacrifice ritual.

“I am haunted by thoughts of anxiety, imagining what exactly might be happening with my son,” she said. “If he is alive, is he being treated humanely? Can he eat? Can he use the bathroom? Is he being tortured? I pray that God keeps my mind away from such thoughts.”

The parents of prisoners of war and missing soldiers are in a difficult place, and are cautious of not being used in local politics. Still, a prominent opposition figure, Artur Vanetsyan, promised earlier in the year to bring back prisoners of war “within two or three days” if he came to power. Pashinyan himself later suggested that he was ready to send his own son to Baku in exchange for all Armenian detainees.

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Berd | Image: Eliza Mkhitaryan

Small-scale fighting continues along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, but no longer near Berd. The skirmishes now take place in the Ararat region, on Armenia’s western border with the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, and in the Gegharkunik and Syunik regions to the east and south. In these areas, tension remains over Armenia and Azerbaijan disagreements on the demarcation of borders. This eventually caused the breakdown of the fragile tri-party negotiations with Russia, on “unblocking the routes”. To follow on from the November 2020 agreement, Pashinyan met Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, in Moscow in January, where they agreed to set up a working group on “unblocking all economic and transport links in the region”. Since the 1990s war, many Soviet-era transport connections were frozen, and the January statement promised to prioritise rail and road connections, while encouraging the pitching of other projects to the three countries’ leaderships for approval too.

“Cities located on the highway to Georgia or Iran are better off. There is more movement there. Here life becomes harder and harder but nobody notices it. When I go to Yerevan, I see the gap between wealthy and poor people. Here, everyone is poor”

Anahit Esayan, a wild blueberry gatherer in Berd, said that the community there was “totally cut off from all interstate roads”.

She added: “Cities located on the highway to Georgia or Iran are better off. There is more movement there. Here life becomes harder and harder but nobody notices it. When I go to Yerevan, I see the gap between wealthy and poor people. Here, everyone is poor.”

For others in Berd, though, there are concerns about nearby Azerbaijani enclaves inside Armenia. The Armenian authorities have not ruled out that the three Azerbaijani enclaves inside Armenia will be exchanged with Artvashen, an Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan.

Anahit Badalian, who heads a women’s resource centre in the town, said that the “uncertainty” over Voskepar and Barkhudarly, two Azerbaijani enclaves situated on the main road to Berd, was the “biggest problem” for the town.

Armenia’s silk road

Unlike Berd, Meghri, which is Armenia’s southernmost town, was well connected during the Soviet era.

Meghri, which is on the border with Iran, used to benefit from a direct rail route through Azerbaijani Nakhchivan to Yerevan, along the Araxes river. That rail line was blocked in 1993 due to the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, which subsequently separated Meghri residents from Yerevan by a meandering and mountainous eight-hour drive, resulting in expensive transport costs for everyday products.

The end of the war, it seems, could speed up Meghri’s transport connections. While the construction of a 556-kilometre north-south highway started in 2012 under Serzh Sargsyan, the country’s kleptocrat leader ousted in 2018, it was not finished, despite outstretching its initial budget of $962m.

The former president had once claimed that the highway would allow Armenians to reach ports at the Black and Caspian seas, shortening the ride from Meghri to Armenia’s northern border with Georgia from ten hours to five. Since Sargsyan’s removal from power, however, 29 people have been charged with corruption offences relating to the highway, including the former president’s brother.

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Image: Eliza Mkhitaryan

Armenia is now in a rush to build the as-yet undeveloped parts of the road, including the 60-kilometre section linking the Syunik towns of Sisian and Kajaran, including five kilometres of bridges and 12 kilometres of tunnels, which will cut through the hills and valleys that separate them. With this modified north-south highway, the Armenian government wants to avoid incidents with Azerbaijan, such as that on 25 August, when the Azerbaijani military closed a section of the M2 highway, which zig-zags into territory now under their control, effectively blocking travel between Armenia’s north and south.

Aside from these direct security concerns, this infrastructure could also benefit the region’s businesses. Ishkhan Aslanyan, an entrepreneur from Meghri who produces dried fruit in a Soviet-era wine factory, says reaching the foreign market is complicated, though doable, and is looking forward to the opening of the north-south highway.

“The highway will be a boost for Meghri’s agriculture exports,” Aslanyan tells me, noting that freezer trucks currently take 2.5 days to transport his figs, which ripen quickly, to Moscow’s markets. Indeed, there may be more reason to export from Meghri, he says, as the town’s success in agriculture has motivated younger people to cultivate the land and plant new fig trees.

“The Meghri issue is above our agency. It’s a question of world powers: Iran, West and East. The issue is, can we actually benefit from it?”

The infrastructure topic, however, is sensitive. Though Meghri could also benefit from the reconstruction of rail routes, the “transport corridor”, as Azerbaijani officials call it, has led to speculation in the press and by the opposition, in particular former president Robert Kocharyan, that Pashinyan plans to ‘concede’ Meghri to Azerbaijan. In turn, Pashinyan claims that it was Kocharyan himself who negotiated compromising over Meghri in previous rounds of talks on Nagorno-Karabakh. Indeed, the Armenian prime minister refuses to use the ‘corridor’ term, as it suggests a level of Azerbaijani sovereignty over the route.

Before the war, Meghri residents liked to think of their town as a spot along the Silk Road – the ancient trade route that linked the East and the West. Now when possible north-south or east-west connections are in sight and central to the aftermath of the war, Meghri residents tend to be diplomatic in interviews.

“The Meghri issue is above our agency. It’s a question of world powers: Iran, West and East,” said Vardan, a hotel owner in Meghri. When asked about unblocking transport from Azerbaijan, he said: “The issue is, can we actually benefit from it?”

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Image: Eliza Mkhitaryan

Clarity in policy

The Armenian government believes it can benefit from greater connectivity. At least economically, it wants to end the three-decade transport blockade that arose in the first Karabakh conflict. Armenia’s prime minister says he is ready to work towards normalising relations with Turkey, including opening the border and reopening rail connections.

But this commitment to becoming a crossroad of East and West is not the only clarity that the new government has articulated. Armenia also seems to have a more defined economic policy now – or perhaps a more defined debate. For instance, Khachatur Sukiasyan, the first businessman in Armenia to be called an oligarch in the early 1990s, promoted an ‘Armenia-first’ narrative in his first speech as MP in the summer.

“We have always liked to listen to foreigners, but here’s what’s important. We don’t use any protection mechanism to defend local producers,” he said, calling for a policy to protect Armenian business.

To argue his point, Sukiasyan criticised the 2004 privatisation of the country’s biggest mining company, the Zangezur Copper and Molybdenum Combine in Syunik. Under this scheme, a 60% interest in the mine was sold abroad to a German mining company, Cronimet.

“With the efforts of Armenian citizens, the mine developed and brought revenue,” he noted, but still castigated the sale of the mine to an outside party with “no institutional connection to the country’s mining industry in the past”.

Whether Pashinyan's plans for transformation is successful depends not only on how strong Armenians’ nerves are, but whether the plan is viable in the eyes of citizens

This, Sukiasyan alleged, led to potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in lost taxes and royalties. Though confirmation of Sukiasyan’s figures has yet to emerge, Armenia’s mining sector has long had a reputation for moving profits abroad in a less than transparent manner.

“At least if the money stays within Armenia, some new buildings would be built,” he said.

In July, the Armenian parliament voted to approve new legislation that would be the first attempt to raise taxes on foreign companies. Royalty fees for three non-ferrous metals (copper concentrate, molybdenum concentrate and ferromolybdenum) were raised from 15 to 30%. This law is expected to increase the revenue of the state budget by 30 billion drams ($627m) by the end of 2021, to benefit from a windfall of rising copper prices globally.

Armenia’s new minister of high-tech industry, Vahagn Khachatryan, has since declared a policy to favour Armenian producers, and particularly those who commit to produce military technology. The defeat of Armenian forces in last year’s war is often attributed to the superior unmanned aerial systems Azerbaijan used: Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones and Israeli loitering munitions, also known as ‘kamikaze drones’.

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Yerablur cemetery / Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan | Image: Eliza Mkhitaryan

The one-year anniversary of the Second Karabakh War coincided with the 30th anniversary of Armenian independence from the Soviet Union, marked on 21 September. The contrast between these two events was felt keenly on Tuesday night, when televisions across the country simultaneously broadcast two events – a candlelight vigil of mothers marching to the Yerablur military cemetery in Yerevan, and the city’s independence celebration on Republic Square.

The latter was a high-tech, multi-media production, with projections of the national flag, cultural and historic symbols, and the phrase ‘I stand with the homeland’ flashed on the government building’s facade, a drone show flickering in the night sky.

Prime minister Pashinyan restated his wish to “transform our defeat into victory”, as if trying to unify these disparate anniversaries. His transformation plan entails making peace with a reformed Armenian military, a liberalised economy with state regulation, and cross-border transit for goods, not yet for civilians. If Armenians are to rethink their nationhood and its foundation, these new ideological premises merit wider political discussion, even if local politics is saturated with fights between opposition and ruling parties, and warnings of imminent war in the media.

More pressingly, whether Pashinyan's plans for transformation is successful depends not only on how strong Armenians’ nerves are, but whether the plan is viable in the eyes of citizens, burned out after a year of grief and uncertainty.

All photographs by Eliza Mkhitaryan.

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