In Karabakh, the first post-Soviet war


Children play on a tank that now is a memorial to the 1992 assault on the town of Shushi, considered a signal Armenian victory in the war against Azerbaijan. Image by Will Englund. Karabakh, 2011.

Nothing blindsided Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s more than the outbreak of intense national feeling among minority populations in the Soviet Union, much of it laced with religious antagonism.

In Dagestan, Muslims angry about restrictions on the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, stormed a government building. In Ukraine, Eastern Catholics demanded independence. But nowhere was the tension more acute than in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous redoubt in the South Caucasus, famous for mulberries, honey, ancient monasteries, precipitous gorges and centuries of warfare.

It is populated overwhelmingly by Armenians but was assigned, by Joseph Stalin, to the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921. Stalin was, at the time, the commissar for nationalities, and in a divide-and-rule strategy, he frequently drew borders to divide ethnic groups. Those borders, in the Caucasus and Central Asia, still bedevil current efforts to maintain peaceful relations.

Armenians, for instance, have been Christians for nearly 1,700 years, and Azerbaijanis are Muslims, closely related to the Turks. Harsh Soviet rule suppressed their mutual hostility and distrust, but when Gorbachev’s reforms relaxed the constraints, the old hatreds reemerged.

In 1988, Karabakh’s leaders said they wanted to be joined to Armenia proper, just to the west. Moscow never really answered, but in Azerbaijan, pogroms were launched against ethnic Armenians in response, with dozens killed. The Soviet army sent in troops, Azerbaijanis fled Karabakh, and Azerbaijan deported more than 5,000 Armenians. By 1991, nearly 1,000 people had been killed in sporadic fighting.

A state of emergency helped to keep the lid on. But in July, Gorbachev decided to pull Soviet troops out. Gun battles erupted almost immediately. On July 7, 1991, reports reached Moscow that Armenian villages along Karabakh’s border were under attack and at least three people were dead.

The president of the Armenian republic, Levon Ter-Petrossian, accused Gorbachev of trying to blackmail Armenia into joining a new Soviet treaty of union, thus forgoing independence, by showing that it was helpless without the protection of the central government.

This new treaty was scheduled for signing on Aug. 20, but by early July, only nine of the Soviet Union’s 15 republics had shown any interest in it, and Gorbachev’s hard-line critics said he was risking the dissolution of the country. He desperately wanted more republics to sign on.

Armenia wasn’t to be one of them, nor was Azerbaijan. Both went on to declare independence, as had Nagorno-Karabakh itself, and by 1992, they were engaged in a full-scale war — the first war connected to the Soviet collapse. When it ended in a cease-fire in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh had broken free.

But no nation has ever recognized it. It is a de facto republic, with close ties to neighboring Armenia but a firm sense of independence. Karabakh today is a prickly place, immensely proud of its victory over Azerbaijan, confident in the face of continuing Azerbaijani threats of renewed war, and irritated that it hasn’t been given a place at the negotiating table, where its interests are represented by the nation of Armenia — and where little progress has been made over the years.

The latest attempt to hammer out a framework peace deal, under the sponsorship of Russia, France and the United States, came to nothing at a meeting in the Russian city of Kazan on June 24.

Sidelined, Karabakhis would appreciate international recognition, but they’re not about to beg for it. “Unrecognized? So what. We’re used to it by now,” says Tevan Poghosyan, formerly Karabakh’s representative in the United States. People here are convinced that if the international community had refused to recognize what they view as Azerbaijan’s artificial Soviet-era borders back when the U.S.S.R. broke up, Azerbaijan wouldn’t have been emboldened to attack and their history would have been very different.

Instead, thousands died under bombardment, Stepanakert was half-destroyed, and the legends of the “martyrs” of Artsakh, the traditional name for Karabakh, took hold. There’s still plenty of shooting across the line of contact: 43 incidents in one recent 24-hour period. Seven people on the Karabakh side were reported killed in 2010, and, says Defense Minister Movses Hakobyan, “We always shoot back.”

Karabakhis aren’t inclined to make concessions for peace, of territory or anything else. “We liberated those lands. They are historic Armenian lands. We shed the blood of our sons for those lands,” said Robert Baghryan, who today heads the Union of Freedom Fighters of the Artsakh War.

Now a lieutenant colonel in the Karabakh reserves, Baghryan got his military training in the Soviet army, where he served as a sergeant. The biggest difference in outlook between the two armies? Combat readiness, he says. The Soviets never paid much attention to it.