STEPANAKERT, NAGORNO-KARABAKH — It took my taxi driver and me an hour to get out of Yerevan. Most of it was spent waiting in line to fill up his gas tank. Not with gasoline.
No, it was the kind of fuel you’d pump into your gas powered BBQ. Ruslan, like most other Armenia’s living off gypsy cabbing, didn’t have a drop of petrol in his tank when I first got into his Volga. He’d modified it to run on natural gas stored in a large canister in the trunk of his car.
It wasn’t as if Ruslan was some tree-hugging, Prius-seeking hippie-of-the-Caucasus. It was all economics: and the way things work in Armenia today, if they work at all, is that gasoline is way too expensive to be profitable. If he were to use petrol, he’d have to hike his taxi prices so high that he’d be out of business.
Gasoline costs the same in Armenia as in, say, the United States, even though the Caspian oil reserves, among the world’s largest, are right off the coast of Baku just a few hundred miles away. Yet Armenia gets no benefit from that oil at all. In fact it’s one of the poorest countries in the northern hemisphere. Azerbaijan imposed a total economic blockade on Armenia ever since the two fought a bitter civil war over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region between 1988 and 1994. Nagorno-Karabakh was an ethnic-Armenian region within Azerbaijan that for years now has been essentially independent and run by the separatist Armenia’s.
So at $4 per gallon, it would have cost Ruslan at least $75 in normal automobile gasoline — his month’s salary — to drive me the 300 uphill miles from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, to Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. The same trip cost him about $12 on natural gas.
If internal combustion engines couldn’t be modified to run on natural gas, Armenia wouldn’t have much use for the western standard roads built with millions of dollars that the Armenian Diaspora, many of whom live in the US and Russia, shells out every year. Without that money, Armenia’s would be back to riding beasts of burden. These days, only the Iranian cargo truckers and the Armenian military get to use real gasoline. All other cars, buses and trucks run on natural gas.
In fact, natural gas not only powers the cars, but also the power plants. And Russia is Armenia’s sole supplier of natural gas, sold at a steep discount to world prices. Without the cheap Russian gas piped in via neighboring Georgia, Armenia would collapse. That means, of course, complete dependence on Russia.
There’s another minor downside to Armenia’s natural gas dependency. The containers used to house the liquefied gas have a tendency to turn into high-powered shrapnel bombs if over pressurized or overused. Every once in a while, they blow up and shred everything within a 500ft radius.
"Don’t worry. I have a good canister made in Italy. It doesn’t burst, it just rips," Ruslan told me. He noticed me looking at eight corroded and scarred canisters stacked under the belly of a 70’s Soviet truck about two feet away from my face. "But those, on the other hand, are old and very dangerous. If one of those canisters blows up, all of them will."
It’s a good thing that the truck was waiting to fill up. It was pushing 105 degrees out and the canisters were exposed to direct sunlight.
I hired Ruslan to drive me to the decade-old Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, the tiny Yosemite-sized chunk of land that sparked an all out ethnic turf war between Azeris and Armenia’s and made Armenia’s the victorious underdogs heroes of every Caucasian separatist movement.
In 1994 the Armenia’s won and forced Azerbaijan to a ceasefire. In the meantime Nagorno-Karabakh organized itself into a sovereign country with its own army, elected officials and parliament. But it still hasn’t been recognized by any country other than Armenia and is still classified as one of the "frozen conflicts" in the region, along with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.
But this "frozen conflict" may soon heat up, if you believe what Azerbaijan’s playboy/gambling addict/president, Ilham Aliyev, says. Not that Azerbaijanis should get too excited about another war: If Armenia’s are still the fighters they were ten years ago, then statistically, it’s the Azeris who’ll do most of the dying. While matched evenly in soldiers, the Azeris had double the amount of heavy artillery, armored vehicles, and tanks than the Armenia’s; but when it was over, the Azeri body count was three times higher then that of the Armenia’s. Azeri casualties stood at 17,000. The Armenia’s only lost 6,000. And that’s not even counting the remaining Azeri civilians the Armenia’s ethnically cleansed.
Since the strategically-important Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline opened up, pumping Caspian Sea oil to the West via Turkey, the Azeri president has been making open threats about reclaiming Nagorno-Karabakh by force. The $10 billion in oil revenues he expects to earn per year once the pipeline is fully operational is going to his head. $10 billion might not seem that much — but for Azerbaijan it constitutes a 30% spike in GDP. In every single interview, Aliyev can’t even mention the pipeline project without veering onto the subject of "resolving" the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Aliyev started spending the oil cash even before the oil started flowing and announced an immediate doubling of military spending. A little later he announced the doubling of all military salaries. Aliyev’s generals aren’t squeamish about bragging that by next year their military budget will be $1.2 billion, or about Armenia’s entire federal budget.
The Western press seems to think he’s bluffing to shore up domestic political support. But Azeris consider Nagorno-Karabakh their historic homeland and don’t consider the 10-year ceasefire as a final defeat. Azerbaijan has been keeping their Karabakh refugees in tents and boxcars to prove it. And if Georgia takes military action against Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Azeris may do the same.
There is a Bush Administration/War On Terror factor here that I won’t get into, and it is this: America has been a strong supporter, militarily and otherwise, of both Georgia and Azerbaijan, which has given both countries more confidence to solve their problems with armed force. Moreover, a big part of the neocon plan to attack Iran involves stirring up that axis of evil’s sizeable Azeri minority.
I went Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh to find what the Armenia’s, who seemed so lost and doomed in all of this, are saying–and the kind of trenches they were digging.
"Did you know that Azerbaijan is doubling its military budget and threatening to take back Karabakh by force?" I asked Ruslan.
He just shrugged his shoulders.
"So what if they spend more money on their military than we do, it doesn’t mean anything. Let them spend ten times more, it won’t matter. The Turks don’t have a mind for machinery. They don’t know how to operate it and when they break it, they don’t know how to fix it. They’re horrible mechanics and engineers. Right now, all of their machinery is rusting out," he said coolly.
"So you call Azeris Turks?" I asked.
He smiled. "No, not Turks. Defective Turks."
Ruslan was a scrawny 23-year-old bakinets , an ethnic Armenian from Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. He fled the city with his mother after a roving mob of Azeris tore his father to bits with their bare hands. That was in 1988, just when the Azeri pogroms against the Armenia’s were igniting in Sumgait and Baku. Ruslan and his mom got out through Georgia and bounced around Abkhazia and Ukraine before settling in a kamunalka apartment filled with Armenian refugees in Yerevan. The rest of his family settled in a village 30 miles from Yerevan.
Ruslan went to school and was drafted into the Armenian army at 18, and served in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh has its own constitution, president, parliament and army, but it’s a sovereign country only on paper. Without Armenia’s from Armenia-proper like Ruslan willing to pay and die for the cause, Karabakh would never hold its own against the Azeris next door.
"So, do you think the Turks are going to try to take Karabakh back? Do they have a chance?" I asked.
"I don’t know," Ruslan replied. The "cool road mix" CD that his friend handed off to him looked like it had been ground against asphalt and was skipping on every track, but he was intent on getting Shakira back on. Even when we went out drinking in Yerevan the night before, I had to drag his army stories out of him. He seemed bored as he told the story of how his army pal shot down a female Azeri sniper from a tree with a few blasts from his AK.
"If they were to attack, would you fight for it?" I asked.
"I don’t know," he repeated. "But if they do, I can tell you that we’re not going to stop at our borders of Karabakh, like we did last time. If they attack, this time, we’re marching to go all the way to Baku."
We took a detour to stop by Ruslan’s family’s village about an hour outside of Yerevan. They were also bakintsi and were smart enough to trade in their standalone house in Baku when they fled for a few acres of farmland and a couple mud brick shacks in what used to be an exclusively Azeri village within Armenia. After they arrived, Ruslan’s uncle went off to fight in Karabakh and never came back.
Ruslan’s grandmother gave me a skewed look when I asker her if any Azerbaijanis still lived in the village. "No, there are no more Turks living here. Everyone in the village are Armenia’s from Baku," she said. 600,000 Azeris from all over Armenia and Karabakh were booted or fled from Armenia following the Karabakh war. In return, 250,000 Armenia’s were sent packing back to their historic homeland.
In Azerbaijan, Ruslan’s family was made up carpenters, plumbers and housewives. But in Armenia they went native and took up farming. Just like Ruslan’s natural gas option, it wasn’t by choice.
While Ruslan’s grandmother laid the table, his grandfather showed me his samogon gear. He just began distilling a new batch from homegrown peaches.
"If you lived in the city, how did you learn to farm," I asked him.
"We had to, so we learned."
Ruslan’s grandmother set the table exclusively with homegrown produce. The bread, the apricot jam, the fresh pears, the kefir, the cheese, the eggplant spread and the vodka were all domashnye . They still raised chickens and when the grandfather had more energy, he used to have a few cows.
"Ah! Who needs that Karabakh," is all I got out of gramps on the subject. He lost his son there and so preferred to explain his samagon distillation techniques.
Gramps was a broken man. He’d never been to Karabakh and didn’t plan on going. In fact most mainland Armenia’s had never visited the place. Why waste the fuel? What’s there to see? Why did they even fight for it?
But that evening, after we were waved passed the Karabakh’s border control without having our documents checked, I finally saw why Nagorno-Karabakh was worth fighting for. The place is like a condensed version of the best scenery of Northern California and the Sierra Nevadas put together: 6,000 ft mountains, rolling golden-sunburned pastures, sandstone hills, steep limestone cliffs, and mountain streams. It’s easily the most beautiful region in Armenia. Even the women were better looking there than in Armenia proper: thinner, taller, and shapelier.
Ruslan promptly introduced me to two of his army buddies, Vadim and Veretan. Vadim rolled up to my hotel in his father’s 80’s 3 series BMW. He was clearly privileged: his father used to be the KGB director for one of Karabakh’s districts and as a result Vadim had a cushy job working as an ambulance driver. Veretan worked as a technician at Karabakh’s only TV station that broadcast its signal a few hours each day.
After I picked up the $45 tab for the four of us at the most expensive restaurant in Stepanakert, Vadim and Veretan agreed to show me around their country — provided that I pick foot the bill for the pricy petrol.
As we were climbing up to the Shushi, a town perched right above Stepanakert, Karabakh’s capital, Vadim said, "You could fire whatever you want from there and it will hit Stepanakert. Mortars, RPGs, Kalashnikovs, anything."
Shushi used to be Karabakh’s Azeri capital and the region’s second-largest town before the Karabakh war broke out. Although the Azeris had a military and strategic advantage, located up above the Armenian-controlled Stepanakert in Shushi’s insurmountable old fortress and prison, they made a fatal strategic mistake. The Azeris should have shelled Stepanakert into a heap of rubble before the Armenian resistance had a chance to build up its arms and attack. But the Azeris were so overconfident that they didn’t want to destroy a city that they were sure would soon be theirs.
The Armenia’s weren’t as soft. Under artillery cover, they launched a surprise attack by climbing a 90 degree slope to storm Shushi in 1992 by foot. It was the same slope from which Armenian girls jumped to their deaths to avoid being raped by Azeris. With that kind of motivation, the Armenia’s had no qualms about turning Shushi into a mini Sarajevo.
All the Azeris are gone now. And the few Armenia’s that remain live in squalor, even by Karabakh’s standards. There is no foot traffic, no car traffic and no stores — just a kiosk selling icons and a western-style hotel catering the Armenian Diaspora. A renovated church in which a few grossly overweight Americans snapped photos, a burned out early 20th century Soviet building, a prison, and two gutted mosques with minarets were all this town had to offer.
"When Armenia’s liberated Shushi this church was filled to the top ceiling with boxes of munitions. Fucking Turks. They have no respect for anything but their Islam." Vadim said. Veretan nodded in approval.
The apartment buildings that weren’t leveled were looted and picked clean of windows, pipes, sinks, toilets and anything else remotely valuable. The few functioning buildings are a disaster waiting to happen — a checkerboard of lopsided balconies, windowless rubble, rust, and peeling paint.
"It’s a good business. You buy an empty apartment for about $4,000 and sit on it. Slowly, water is being hooked up to them again and they are being restored. In a few years, you can make a good profit."
Not bad. Most of the apartment buildings were gutted out and ready for unlimited personalized remont possibilities. And what’s more, all of them had aerial views into the valley bellow. But the four grand was way out of these peoples’ league. By official statistics from the office of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, the country’s average monthly salary was $50, but that’s for those lucky enough to find jobs. Shushi’s residents can’t even afford gas for heating and cooking. Every balcony had a store of firewood that was sure enough to last the winter.
Stepanakert, wasn’t as depressing as the other half-abandoned towns and villages. It was the capital, after all, and the symbol of Armenian victory: the Armenian Diaspora wasn’t going to just let it decay. Despite the fact that Stepanakert has no industries to speak of, the city of 40,000 Armenia’s had all the trappings of a developing provincial capital.
Except for a few shrapnel-scarred buildings, you wouldn’t even guess that the city had once come under heavy shelling. There were hundreds of small fruit stands, restaurants, dozens of Internet cafes and taxis circling the city center. A couple of Western-style hotels built by and catering to the Armenian Diaspora popped up in the past few years, and a luxury apartment complex was being built right across from the government building.
"About 20% of the population lives in chocolate, the rest live in total shit. That 20% contains all the friends and relatives of government or army officials," Vadim said, pointing to the luxury building.
The Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army has about 20,000 active military personnel. But taking into account the region’s tiny population of 140,000, Karabakh tops even Israel and North Korea as among the most militarized countries in the world per capita. 1 out 7 people is actively serving in Karabakh’s army. North Korea, by comparison, has a ratio of only 1 out of 20.
Although you have to go outside the city side to see the surface-to-air missile batteries that dot the country, Stepanakert’s streets are teeming with men decked out in green camo uniforms, leisurely rolling around on their green UAZ army jeeps.
"You know, people in Karabakh say this joke when a baby is born. They say, ‘Is that a girl or a lieutenant?’" Ruslan explained to me on our drive into Stepanakert.
Vadim put it another way. "There’s not much else to do in Karabakh. There are no jobs and the army pays well… You have a choice, you can either farm or serve."
"People here are building castles, but we should be building underground! Cities, bomb shelters, schools… To wage war, you don’t need to invade with troops. It’s enough to send missiles. We need to build underground so that when they level our cities, we’ll survive and be able to fight," Murad Petrosyan, the founder of an independent Karabakh monthly newspaper called What is to be Done and a host on a Karabakh TV political talk show , told me.
We met in the patio of my western-style hotel in Stepanakert built by an Australian-Armenian. It was noon and already pushing 105 degrees. An obnoxious group of French-Armenian kids signing Armenian songs just set off for their day trip around the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. The threat from Azerbaijan just didn’t seem real.
"So you take Aliyev’s threat seriously? You think that Azerbaijan will try to take Karabakh back by force?" I asked him.
"It won’t happen now, but if the political situation won’t change in the next two or three years, yes, I think that he’ll invade"
"But won’t Russia object?" I asked.
Russia is Armenia’s only real military ally. Russia started moving military hardware to its 102nd military base in northern Armenia after the US-backed Georgian president, Saakashvili, started trying to boot the Russian military from his country. In 1997, Armenia’signed a friendship treaty with Russia that outlines mutual military assistance in the event of a military threat and allows Russian troops to patrol Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran. Today, about 5,000 Russian troops are stationed in northern Armenia.
But according to Petrosyan, the Russians are playing both sides and seek to undermine Western influence by destabilizing the region. "Local politicians are na?ve. They don’t realize that it’s profitable for Russia to have the Karabakh question unresolved. Russians come here, pat the politicians on the shoulder and say ‘Don’t worry, we will support you.’ They believe it and spread the propaganda that there will be no war, that it will be safe."
"The only thing that will stop the Turks is international recognition for Karabakh. We need to become more democratic, more transparent and less corrupt. That’s the only way. The problem is that no one cares about building a good society here. We’ve inherited corruption from the Soviet Union that needs to be dealt with."
Democracy as Armenia’s biggest resource is an idea that Armenian politicians parrot all the time. The idea that the West will naturally align and protect democratic counties like theirs is a dream everyone blindly believes. Armenia’s accept Russia’s military protection and at the same time take comfort in America’s oath to promote and protect democracy in the world.
But Petrosyan isn’t so much a democrat. He thinks that Karabakh should follow in the footsteps of Singapore’s and Hitler’s national-socialist programs.
"We need to follow their lead. I say this on my TV program all the time. There may be bad things about these countries and societies, but the important thing about them is that they had only the common national good in mind when it came to organizing their country’s social programs. That is something that Karabakh does not have."
Petrosyan, incidentally, was just appointed to head an ethics committee to oversee Karabakh’s elected officials.
Armenia’s occupied about 16% of Azerbaijan-proper’s land during the Karabakh war. And while the Armenia’s are holding onto most of it as a buffer zone to protect Nagorno-Karabakh, one area in particular, known as the Latchin corridor, is the main artery connecting Karabakh with mainland Armenia. The buffer zone may be open for negotiation, but the Latchin corridor is not.
"For most people in Karabakh, the Karabakh question is a non-issue," a journalist for British-funded Karabakh newspaper called Demo told me. "For us the war is over and we don’t want to fight. But there can also be no talk of negotiations to give Karabakh back."
"But will mainland Armenia’s stand behind you? Are they ready to die for it?" I asked.
"Armenia is behind us all the way. Just look at who is in the office."
Armenia’s previous president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, had to resign after he appeared ready to agree to return most of the Armenian-controlled Azerbaijani territories in Karabakh during negotiations. Robert Kocharyan, Karabakh’s first president and prime minister, replaced him and now rules Armenia. Kocharyan was born in Nagorno-Karabakh, fought in the war and was among the founding fathers of Karabakh’s military. He’s holding down fort in Armenia to make sure Karabakh gets what it wants.
"We fought once and we’re ready to do it again. We have no choice but to defend Karabakh. And anyway, our young ones are itching to prove themselves. But I don’t think that it is very likely that Azerbaijan will attack. They know too well that we have the capability to strike their refineries and oil distribution systems," the Demo journalist added smugly.
"Can that be the card that trumps Azeri hatred?"
The Demo guy didn’t answer. He just put his hands behind his head. Like so much of my time there, I couldn’t understand if this gesture expressed a kind of weary indifference or fatal overconfidence.
Whatever the case, one thing lacking here was a sense of urgency to resolve the conflict to both sides’ satisfaction. But as the region is rapidly changing due to the opening of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, and the effects of the War On Terror, neither indifference nor confidence seem to be very good strategies for the Armenia’s of Karabakh.