This is where the first war set off by the Soviet collapse took place. And it may be where the next one breaks out.
Twenty years ago, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, unleashed from Soviet control, fought a bitter struggle for this mountainous region in the South Caucasus. A cease-fire was reached in 1994, after about 30,000 people had been killed, leaving Nagorno-Karabakh outside Azerbaijan's control, as an unrecognized, de facto republic in the hands of ethnic Armenians.
Since then, no one on either side has had the will to hammer out a settlement. Tension has been put to use by those in power — in Azerbaijan, in Armenia proper and here in separatist Nagorno-Karabakh. Democracy, human rights, an unfettered press, a genuine opposition: These are the sort of things that get put aside in times of crisis. And here, the crisis has been going on for two decades and shows little sign of letting up.
"The development of democracy has fallen hostage to the conflict," said Masis Mayilian, Nagorno-Karabakh's former foreign minister and a onetime candidate for president. "This is very handy for totalitarian regimes."
An actual renewal of the war, unless it were very quick, would be a disaster for all concerned. On this they agree. The two sides are much more heavily armed than they were in 1991, especially Azerbaijan. It might be very difficult for Iran, Turkey and Russia to remain uninvolved, and impossible to confine the fighting to Nagorno-Karabakh itself. A major supply route used by the United States to provision troops in Afghanistan would be disrupted.
But resistance to a peace settlement along the lines of a proposal sponsored by the United States, France and Russia has been stiff. "We share the wish that there be no war," said Robert Bradtke, the U.S. diplomat involved in the talks. "But do the parties have the political will?"
So far, they don't. Azerbaijan and Armenia, which negotiates on behalf of Nagorno-Karabakh, both say they support the international effort to find a way toward settling the first post-Soviet conflict. "It is high time to do it," Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Elmar Mamedyarov said recently in Moscow after meeting with his counterpart from Russia, which is especially intent on getting an agreement.
But Azerbaijan also says it will never formally surrender territory. And the people of Nagorno-Karabakh say they'll never give up the right of self-determination. For two decades, both sides have kept passions inflamed, which turns out to be good politics for those at the top.
But with snipers shooting at each other every day, and occasionally causing casualties, the chances of stumbling into a war of miscalculation, or a war of hotheadedness, are considerable.
Tevan Poghosyan, who in the 1990s represented Karabakh in the United States, and now runs a think tank in Yerevan, Armenia's capital, said war is inevitable. It will take another round of fighting, he said, to "steam" the poison out.
'We had nothing'
In the Soviet era, boundaries were often drawn with little regard for the huge mix of nationalities that populated the country. Some ethnic groups were split; others were paired with traditionally hostile neighbors. Much of this was done intentionally, as a way of assuring Moscow's control. As the U.S.S.R. was falling apart, people were quick to take up arms against one another. Difficulties and ill will linger: between Georgians and Abkhazians, between Georgians and Ossetians (who fought a brief renewed war in 2008), between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, who clashed violently a year ago.
The war here was the largest such conflict. Both sides put forward intricate historical claims to the region. Azerbaijan says a million Azerbaijanis fled their homes in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. As many as 500,000 Armenians reportedly fled from Azerbaijan. Neither side has fully tried to integrate those people into society, and the subject remains, from the politicians' point of view, a useful sore point.
Nagorno-Karabakh has a population that has been estimated at between 90,000 and 145,000. Seventeen years into its life as a de facto state, it harbors a prickly and zealous society.
"We had nothing, and out of nothing we created something," said Galya Arstamyan, whose son Grigory left the Soviet army so he could come back home to fight, and was killed. Today she runs a museum dedicated to those who died. "We will live and prove to the world that Karabakh is the heart of the Armenian nation and the spirit of the Armenian nation. The land on which we live has become sacred from the blood of our martyrs. We are not recognized, but we are still here. We ask nothing from the world."
Poghosyan has sponsored focus groups in Karabakh, Azerbaijan and Armenia. He said Azerbaijanis define "security" as the restoration of Azerbaijan's lawful rule over Karabakh. In Armenia proper, people believe security will come from an international settlement of the dispute, followed by diplomatic recognition of Karabakh. In Karabakh itself, he said, the attitude is: "Unrecognized? So what? My son is my best peacekeeper. What's mine is mine."
Karabakh is "holy for all Armenians," Poghosyan said. "For the first time in our long history, we feel pride. We got rid of this image of victim."
It's a rallying point for the large Armenian diaspora, which supports schools, runs summer camps for children, owns hotels and banks here. An annual worldwide telethon raises money for Karabakh. The unresolved status of the conflict keeps Karabakh front and center. Haytoug Chamlian, a lawyer from Montreal who comes every summer to the town known to Armenians as Shushi, where he sponsors a camp, says there can be no peace deal along the lines proposed by the big powers.
"That will never happen," he said. "It's unimaginable. Even a handful of soil cannot be returned."
The Armenian kingdom was the first to adopt Christianity, in 301, and Azerbaijanis are Muslims, though both sides like to downplay the religious divide. (Iran favors Armenia, for one thing.) Yet Armenians marked their tanks with white crosses. And at the mountaintop Gandzasar Monastery, where the St. John the Baptist Cathedral was consecrated in 1240, there is a regular liturgy for the "martyrs" killed in the war.
"The strongest thing that keeps us here is our faith," said Prime Minister Ara Harutyunan. Then, using the Armenian name for Karabakh — Artsakh — he invoked a prophet who is a major figure in both Christianity and Islam. "In Artsakh, we have 70,000 Abrahams. We fully realize our children can become sacrifices any day. But we still live here, still give birth to children. And we think this is the main guarantee of our security."
Today's teenagers, in fact, unlike their parents, never lived in the Soviet Union and have never lived among Azerbaijanis, whom they have been taught to see as two-dimensional villains. For the past few years, a handful of young people from both sides have gotten together for several days in neutral Georgia, in a program run by David Melkomyan of the YMCA here. It's a shock, he said, for them to discover how much they have in common.
"But nobody wants to work with us," Melkomyan said. "Not one donor."
The 'third rail'
Among older Karabakhis, who remember things the way they once were, the picture can be more complicated. Ashot Harutyumyan saw who benefited from the first war. He's a farmworker, in the fertile valley that leads northward from Stepanakert. He fought in the 1990s — points out a ridge that his partisan band held, just to the east — because he figured it was a question then of fighting or dying. Today he has a job on a privatized farm, with an absentee owner, that he said pays him about $8 a day. It's not enough to support a family.
"We're simple people. We leave politics to the politicians. If there's another war, the poor people of course will fight. The rich will fly away," he said.
He thinks back to 1987, and life in the Soviet Union, when Moscow still kept a tight grip and none of this conflict and upheaval had broken out. "Everyone had a job. There was enough money to survive. Of course it was better then."
There's more weariness in Yerevan, a few hours' drive to the west. Armenia supplies somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of Karabakh's budget, and a hoped-for reopening of relations with Turkey fell through because of the Karabakh issue. The 2008 financial collapse wasn't easy on Armenia, and people tended to blame Karabakh for their troubles.
Yet Karabakh remains the "third rail" of Armenian politics, said Richard Giragosyan, a former U.S. Senate staffer who now runs the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan. Careers have been wrecked when politicians weren't sufficiently fervent about Karabakh. In fact, Karabakhis have taken over Armenian politics: The past two Armenian presidents were previously Karabakh officials. During their years in office, corruption has flourished. The past election in Armenia was seriously flawed, though the opposition has been making gains recently. That's more than Azerbaijan can say.
Potential for escalation
Here in Stepanakert, officials say they are confident they have the military strength to keep Azerbaijan from attacking, and that that's a better way to keep the peace than by making concessions toward a settlement.
Yet this is a peace where the two sides have no communication with each other across the cease-fire line, where at one location they are entrenched within 30 yards of each other, and where they regularly take casualties. A blunder could escalate.
And at the same time there's a growing suspicion among some Armenians that a "military solution" might, after all, be possible, Giragosyan said.
"It may take another war to settle this, for both sides to exhaust this, and that's scary," Giragosyan said.
Armenia's foreign minister, Eduard Nalbandian, called the idea of going back to war "very dangerous." He said it will "bring no solution, but new casualties and devastations."
Farmworkers and their children are in fact still being killed and maimed — by land mines and cluster bombs left over from the first war. A nonprofit group called the Halo Trust has been at work for years clearing them out, but there's still more to be done. Every time the price of wheat goes up, casualties spike, as farmers venture into fallow fields to try to plant more crops, said Nick Smart, the program manager. More than 300 people have been wounded or killed since 1995.
Most of the money for the mine clearance comes from the U.S. government, with a $1 million contribution planned for 2012. The Karabakh government doesn't help because it has other priorities, said Georgy Petrosyan, the foreign minister. The mines and bombs were mostly left by Armenian forces, but Smart said that getting in touch with Armenian officers for help in mapping the minefields has been frustratingly difficult.
The other problem, he said, is that no one wants to spend money on the program if the whole area is about to go back to war.