A great part of Armenia’s international issues are connected to the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), a de facto independent republic (which is not recognized internationally) numbering 140.000 inhabitants. The conflict between Armenians and the Azerbaijani took a violent turn in 1988 and lasted until 1994. Both sides committed many atrocities; the aftermath: 30.000 people lost their lives. Almost 600.000 Azerbaijani in Karabakh fled the region for Azerbaijan and even today they fall in the category of ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDPs). Each side claims abuse from its rival. The fact is that misinformation, challenges, conspiracy theories and the involvement of the Soviet Secret Services at first and of the newly established Azeri and Armenian ones subsequently prevailed throughout the entire conflict. Internal fights for power in the new states of Armenia and Azerbaijan at the beginning of the ‘90s also influenced the evolution of the conflict.
The wars over NKR territory control have been going on for several years now. The interethnic conflict was reinforced when the Soviets established control over the area, providing every newly set up Soviet Republic with an autonomous region: Nakhchivan for Armenia and Karabakh for Azerbaijan. Add to this the Soviets’ habit of strategic displacements of large parts of the population.
In the last conflict, Azerbaijan was vanquished and the Azeri people had to flee the region. At present, the NKR is financially supported by Armenia and the Diaspora and is under Russia’s political protection. The borders with Azerbaijan aren’t very clearly defined; there is a rather large buffer area unmarked on the map. The only way into the NKR is in the South, via the Armenian town of Goris.
A coloured placard I barely make out after I pass it interrupts the monotony of winding turns on a high plateau. I realize we have entered NKR territory. The sudden improvement of road quality is explained by placards announcing ‘the highway’ we’re driving on was built with the help of ‘the Armenian people’. Other plates bear the name of businessmen who participated at the reconstruction of certain parts of the road. There are neither customs points, nor soldiers, nor barriers. When we enter Berdzor a policeman beckons me to pull over. He marks our passports and the car number on a register and bids us safe journey.
The NKR visa is necessary only when leaving the territory. We get it the following day, in ten minutes from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Stepanakert, the capital of the Republic. We fill in a form on the spot and pay around 10 $ a person. As entering this territory is considered illegal by the Azerbaijani government, we request they do not stick the visa to our passports. They give it separately. Along with the visa we are given a written permission comprising the towns we’re allowed to visit. ‘If you take pictures of military objectives, you will be punished’ the official handing out the visas warns us.
The entrance into the Republic and the drive to Stepanakert don’t reveal a region which was subject to a prolonged war and intense bombardment. This region has been rebuilt almost completely and the fields have undergone mine clearance operations. Moreover, downtown Stepanakert - a town of 50.000 people - has seen several serious investments. The renovation of a central square is very close to completion, an esplanade flanked by a glass wall and connected to a brand new stadium through a long staircase. That is the new Parliament Building and, glued to it, the Armenia luxury hotel.
Let’s get one thing straight. Stepanakert doesn’t look like a new town, but Communist buildings are still standing. Most of them were completely destroyed by Azerbaijani artillery. They were rebuilt with materials taken from houses abandoned by the refugees. A remarkable architectural detail: on every floor, every crammed apartment has massive metal latticework fixed on the external part of its windows. There are as many grids on the façades of buildings as there are paraboloid antennas in a neighbourhood with no cable.
The Western part of the NKR is coming back to life. Only the tanks, displayed as monuments, and the profusion of military uniforms keep alive the memory of the frozen conflict. Our race in the renovated side of town, on the ‘North-South highway’ (also built by the Armenian Diaspora) ends in Vank, 45 km from Stepanakert. For the greatest part of the drive, it rained cats and dogs. We escape the flood near a hill peak when a ship appears in front of us. This is the Eclectica complex comprising a restaurant and a hotel. The owner is an eccentric Armenian businessman from Moscow who was born here. The building is supposed to be a replica of the Titanic, and the interior is a mixture of Greek statues and Impressionist replicas: Van Gogh’s heads, modelled in strident colours, hang on the walls of the dining hall. The owner had another eccentric initiative: he sponsored a mass wedding for almost 700 couples on the Stepanakert stadium in order to encourage birth rate. To everyone’s surprise, the NKR experienced a baby boom for which, however, the local maternity hospital wasn’t at all prepared.
A bus full of students arrives and the students photograph themselves around the Titanic which seems to be as popular as the Gandzasar monastery close by. Not long ago, the main attraction of Eclectica was the Chinese restaurant. Two chefs were brought from China and lodged in the village. Nevertheless, the business is shaky. The Chinese restaurant has been reduced to a photocopied menu on which the waitress circles the only food available: boiled rice.