NAGORNO-KARABAKH: ‘There is no going back for us’
Thomas Cromwell

With the collapse of the Soviet Union the world became aware of the complexity of peoples and nations that made up the diversity of the USSR but that had long been submerged beneath the monolithic façade of communist rule. Especially under Stalin, many ethnic groups had been forced to leave their traditional lands or were incorporated into Soviet states where they didn’t belong. One of these was Nagorno Karabakh, which in 1921 Moscow had made part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, even though the majority of the population was Armenian.

On September 2, 1991, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic declared independence, in step with other former Soviet states. (A Soviet law passed in 1990 allowed for Soviet autonomous entities, such as Karabakh, to decide their own future if their ‘parent’ republic leaves the Soviet Union.) This in effect meant declaring independence from Azerbaijan, and soon a war was underway between Armenia-backed forces in Karabakh and Azerbaijan, whose territory completely surrounded the Soviet-era Karabakh enclave.

With the Karabakh population 73 percent ethnic Armenian at independence, resistance to Azerbaijan was successful, despite the heavy odds against them. By the time a ceasefire was agreed in 1994, Armenian forces controlled Karabakh proper (which as an autonomous oblast under the Soviets was just 1,699 square miles) and most of the territory between Armenia and Karabakh.

The modern era conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which began as a peaceful request in 1988, forced some 350,000 Armenians to flee Azerbaijan (including 30,000 from Karabakh), mostly to Armenia, and some 700,000 Azeris to flee Armenia and Karabakh (40,000 from the latter), as well as Karabakh-controlled areas of Azerbaijan. Other refugees or internally displaced persons were relatively small groups of Russians and Kurds. A decade on, the future for most of the displaced persons is still uncertain.

However, in a recent interview with DiplomaticTraffic.com, Nagorno-Karabakh’s representative to the United States, Vardan Barseghian, said that although not recognized formally by any government, Karabakh’s continued march to secure lasting independence is irreversible. “There is no going back for us,” he said. “Just because Stalin gave Karabakh to Azerbaijan does not mean that the international community has to reinforce what Stalin did.” He continued: “What [Stalin] did at the beginning of the last century was against the will of our people. And now we are at the beginning of the 21st Century.”

So far, negotiations among the key players since the 1994 ceasefire, notably through the OSCE’s Minsk Group, have produced a lot of statements and occasional glimmers of hope, but no concrete progress on a lasting political solution.

But, clearly, Karabakh is not waiting for others to decide its future. It has been working to shore up its defenses while steadily improving its economy and the lot of its 145,000 people. Barseghian noted that GDP doubled from 2001 to 2005 (increasing to $114 million from $53 million), and economic growth last year was 14 percent.

Investments have been in telecoms, gold mining, diamond polishing, jewelry and agriculture. During Soviet times, Karabakh was the biggest per-capita producer of grapes in the USSR. Karabakh is also known for its Mulberry brandy, called Tti Oghi locally. “It is a beautiful country,” Barseghian said, offering prospects for tourism development. Some 4,000 foreigners visited in 2005.

Although Karabakh is still a very poor country in a seemingly precarious political situation, its people are evidently working hard to improve their economy and prospects for the future.

Nevertheless, there are some major obstacles to overcome for economic development. The capital Stepanakert’s airport cannot receive large passenger planes, due to a lack of over-flight rights for the Azeri territory they would have to cross for safe landings and take-offs. Hence all international air travelers and freight have to pass through Yerevan, the Armenian capital that is 5-6 hours’ drive away. There is a good road connecting Karabakh to Yerevan, but there is still much need for infrastructure development within Karabakh itself.

Asked about possible recognition of their republic, Barseghian said “there are positive tendencies” in that direction. He said “governments recognize the fact that the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has been established and functioning as a country, and more and more contacts look like regular government-to-government contacts.” However, “the US government tries not to portray these as regular contacts, for obvious reasons.”

Nevertheless, “what’s interesting is that Washington tracks what’s going on in Nagorno-Karabakh, including economic progress and democratization. We have indications through third parties that they are happy with the progress, although they would not say that in public.”

Regarding relations with Azerbaijan, he said: “I don’t think we have illusions about being able to negotiate with Azerbaijan directly for our independence.” So there are two tracks that guide Karabakh’s diplomatic efforts. One is to seek an accommodation with Azerbaijan to be able to live peacefully side-by-side, the other is to secure recognition from the international community. “For instance, we have representations in Russia, France, Australia and Lebanon, as well as the US.” (These are not accredited diplomatic missions.)

Commenting on the work of the Minsk Group, he noted that, “The main purpose of the Minsk Group is to facilitate negotiations, and not to achieve a pre-determined outcome.”

Barseghian said that by fighting for independence, the people of Karabakh had “reaffirmed our right to live on the land of our ancestors in the way that we feel is good for us.”  He said, “It was a very heavy price,” with several thousand ethnic Armenians killed. In the summer of 1992, Azerbaijan controlled about half of Karabakh, but Karabakh Armenians then organized more formal resistance, including a regular army, and began to be successful. Some 30,000 people, Armenians and Azeries, were ultimately killed in the fighting.

He noted that de facto Azerbaijan has recognized Nagorno-Karabakh’s existence by recognizing the line of contact that separates the two sides under the ceasefire. “This is the de facto border between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Since 1997, Azerbaijan has not had direct negotiations with Karabakh. By Baku negotiating with Yerevan, it underlines its position that Karabakh is an issue between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But Barseghian said that he thinks a solution can only be found through direct negotiations.

“I believe the world recognizes that we deserve to be free, and as a minimum we should avoid another disaster. International recognition of Karabakh’s independence will discourage another attack by Azerbaijan. The ceasefire has held for 12 years, and we believe this is due to the natural balance of forces.” He noted that Azerbaijan’s oil revenue has been used in part to strengthen its armed forces, and Karabakh (and Armenia) stress to the US Congress and administration that a military balance should be maintained to prevent a new attack by Azerbaijan. 

Biography of Vardan Barseghian

Permanent Representative of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic in the USA

Vardan Barseghian was born in 1970 in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh.

In 1993 he graduated from Moscow Institute of Construction and Engineering.

After his return to Nagorno Karabakh in 1993 he worked for the international organization MSF — "Doctors Without Borders", where he was responsible for administrative and logistic issues for the mission in Stepanakert.

In 1996-1997 Mr. Barseghian served as Assistant to then NKR Foreign Minister Arkady Ghoukasian. He participated in OSCE-conducted monitoring of contact line between Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan armies and in meetings with OSCE Minsk Group negotiators.

In 1997-1999 Mr. Barseghian worked in Stepanakert Office of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He took active part in organization and distribution of food, shelter and hygiene supplies to the war-torn population of Karabakh's Jraberd, Khachen and Dizak provinces, as well as in pioneering several ICRC reconstruction and agro-programs in Nagorno Karabakh.

In August of 1999 by President Ghoukasian's decree Mr. Barseghian was appointed the Permanent Representative of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic in the United States. Since 1997 NKR maintains a representation office (a de-facto Embassy) in Washington, D.C. Mr. Barseghian is the chief executive officer of the Office of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic in the United States (NKR Office). The NKR Office is registered with U.S. Government under Foreign Agent Registration Act.

Vardan Barseghian is married to Ms. Lusine Antonian and they have a son, Robert.