A Place to Live For

The ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan obscures the needs of workers in both countries.

Around this time of year in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, it’s difficult to travel even half a block without being reminded of the horrific events of 1915. On every street, a billboard or bumper sticker with a melancholic but moving message casts a long, dark shadow over the city.

One sign reads, “1915: 1.5 million Armenians were massacred. 2015: 10 million Armenians live.” Some images are more macabre: one uses a rifle, a noose, a sickle, and a machete to make “1915,” lest Armenians forget which weapons were used to butcher their grandparents.

Another draws parallels between the 1915 and 1939 genocides, placing a faceless figure sporting a red fez and Turkish mustache next to another with a mop of patchy black hair and a Hitler mustache. The caption reads, “By condemning the previous, we could have prevented the following.”

This year, the clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan from April 1 to 5 — which killed one hundred Armenian soldiers and an unknown number of Azerbaijanis — has only made the remembrances feel heavier.

In Armenia and its breakaway sister-republic, Nagorno-Karabakh (NKR), which lies inside Azerbaijani territory, the April conflict is already being called the “four-day war” and cited as proof that the threat of genocide still persists.

For Armenia’s three million citizens — who face an unemployment rate of 18 percent and a poverty rate of 33 percent even as the government spends 30 percent of the budget on the military — the clash comes at an enormous cost.

As the Armenian journalist Maria Titizian notes,

There is not a single person in Armenia who doesn’t know somebody who lost someone in early April. This is a tiny country. There is no such thing as six degrees of separation. A family on my street lost their son. Three of my students have boyfriends serving on the front.

While it surprised many people in the region, the four-day battle fit into a pattern of recent escalation in the supposedly “frozen conflict” for Karabakh. In July and August of 2014, dozens of soldiers on both sides were killed.

The following January, just a couple months after the Azeris shot down an Armenian helicopter, Karabakh defense forces performed preemptive raids into Azerbaijan territory. Each was but a taste of what would come this April.

The four-day war occurred as both countries’ leaders were visiting the United States: the president of Armenia was in Boston touring Armenian cultural sites, and President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan was in DC meeting with John Kerry.

During his visit, State Department spokesperson John Kirby said Kerry “welcomed Azerbaijan’s recent positive steps” in human rights and “affirmed US support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.” Less than forty-eight hours later, Azeri forces asserted that integrity by shelling Karabakh.

Numerous medium- and long-term trends paved the way for this escalation.

Since 2010, Azerbaijan has purchased billions of dollars worth of weapons from Russia, Armenia’s supposed protector; its military expenditures now comprise nearly 5 percent of GDP.

Though poverty levels in Azerbaijan have steadily declined over the same period, Armenians fear that Azerbaijanis would like to see a return on their military investments — particularly since 10 percent of their citizens are still considered internally displaced persons from the 1988–1994 Nagorno-Karabakh War.

Add the collapse of the Azeri currency and the increased tensions between Armenia’s Russian and Azerbaijan’s Turkish patrons, and the armed clashes that began in January and crescendoed in April appear far less isolated.

Not surprisingly, views have hardened on both sides. Until recently, even Armenian nationalists like Karen Ohanjanyan, who helped found the 1988 Karabakh Committee to call for the region’s reunification with Armenia, supported peace projects. He started the Helsinki Initiative to resolve the conflict through dialogue between various civil-society representatives from both sides.

But after the four-day war, and Azerbaijani officials’ statements that they would march on the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert, Ohanjanyan called for the full-scale invasion and dismantlement of Azerbaijan:

We are ready to punish them. It is our right to defend our people. We have the right and duty of international law to do it. After all, I am a human rights defender. You have to punish all those people coming with knives and weapons to kill you. This is the philosophy of modern life.

Fortunately, Ohanjanyan’s bellicose views are not in the mainstream. Few in Armenia support his pleas to use Karabakh as a springboard to recreate “Greater Armenia.”

But the idea that Karabakh must be held no matter the cost is widespread. Even “doves” — otherwise critical of the government’s use of Karabakh to divert attention from the systemic corruption, high unemployment, and widespread poverty — support defending the region.

Perhaps even more troubling is the inability of many Armenians to separate the current conflict from the events of 1915. In Ohanjanyan’s telling words, “NKR is but the first step in the revenge for history, for the injustice suffered by the entire Armenian people.”

To be sure, Armenians inclined to believe in an abiding “pan-Turkic conspiracy” don’t have to cast about for evidence. In April, as Russia, the United States, and France urged a ceasefire, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed he would back Azerbaijan “to the end.”

Later the same month, the Wall Street Journal published a full-page ad from a Turkish group denying the Armenian Genocide’s existence.

But the historical correlations between Karabakh and past conflicts mask the bigger issues at stake.


The strongest obstacle to sustainable peace is the accusation that Armenia displaced over six hundred thousand Azerbaijani during the 1988–1994 war in an attempt to ethnically cleanse the region. Karabakh and the surrounding territories, which were seized by Armenian forces in the final stages of the war and now serve as severely depressed and depopulated buffer zones between the two nations, were the centers of this violence.

In the intervening decades, Azerbaijani refugees from Karabakh have experienced systemic discrimination in their own country. Azerbaijan has consistently blocked their efforts to assimilate in an attempt to gain leverage against Yerevan.

Azerbaijan argues that the refugees’ displacement is only temporary — they will soon return to Karabakh, if not Armenia proper. But twenty-two years later, many still live in tents, makeshift homes, and shanty communities on the outskirts of the country’s larger urban areas.

Most Armenians support the idea of receiving displaced Azerbaijanis in Karabakh. But concerns about timing (“It’s too soon after the most recent conflict! If they come now, they’ll risk falling victims to revenge attacks”), numbers (“Obviously they cannot all return”), and property (“Destitute Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan have already settled in many of their houses”) always thwart a real solution.

As for hawks and Karabakh nationalists like Ohanjanyan, while they profess their desire for a rich, “poly-ethnic society” once the refugees return, it is obvious that they would prefer to keep a status quo that more or less suits Armenians until demographics make the military gains of twenty-two years ago permanent.

Over those two-plus decades, an estimated two hundred thousand Armenians fled to escape the chaos that preceded the Soviet Union’s fall. Many are haunted by the 1988 anti-Armenian pogroms; Yerevan residents describe Armenians burnt alive in the streets of Sumgait (actions I could not find documentation for).

Yet few express a desire to return to Azerbaijan, perhaps because they have had far less trouble integrating into Armenian society than their Azerbiajani counterparts.

Complicating matters, Armenians seem incapable of separating the 1988 pogroms from the 1915 Ottoman atrocities — mention of one immediately triggers talk of the other.

Between Crisis and Stasis

The second underlying and understated problem is that the Karabakh conflict serves as a convenient scapegoat for both countries’ political elites.

The Azerbaijani government regularly uses Karabakh as an excuse to crush domestic dissent against the increasingly autocratic rule of President Aliyev, in power since 2003. Armenian activists complain that there is no longer anyone on the Azerbaijani side to work with: all their counterparts are in jail, exiled, or at risk of imprisonment for working with Armenian peace advocates.

Take Leyla Yunus. An Azerbaijani human rights activist and longtime advocate of reconciliation with Armenia, Yunus was arrested in 2014 for her active opposition to police brutality during evictions of low-income residents in Baku.

She was charged with spying for Armenia and maintaining contact with, among others, the aforementioned journalist Maria Titizian. (Titizian flatly, but respectfully, denies the charge.) On August 13, 2015, Yunus was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison.

Since Armenians more or less got what they wanted in 1994 — minus international recognition of Karabakh’s independence — their elites are less eager to call for war, but no less guilty of milking the issue for political gain.

Every prominent activist I spoke with said Armenian elites are just as ready as Aliyev to use Karabakh to distract from the economic woes facing the largely impoverished population.

President Serzh Sargsyan, himself from Karabakh, is rumored to be the world’s “highest-paid politician” (pulling in $96 million in the past year) and the country’s second-richest man, with an estimated net worth of $275 million. Yet during his first term, the official poverty rate nearly doubled.

While the Azerbaijani government and the Armenian diaspora beat their respective war drums, the people of Karabakh continue to live as they have for the past two decades: stuck between crisis and stasis, inhabiting a serenely beautiful but eerily depopulated oasis.

Common Language

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Shushi, Karabakh’s second largest city, boasted sixty thousand inhabitants. Today, barely four thousand call it home.

It is difficult to tell which of the town’s ruins come from which conflict. Between 1918 and 1920, the nascent Azerbaijan Democratic Republic destroyed most of Shushi’s Armenian community and its architectural heritage in the wake of an Armenian uprising. A local museum displays a large 1958 photograph of Shushi still in shambles after the infamous 1920 pogroms.

With the four-day war, acute conflict is again shaping the city and the country.

Our host in Shushi — a generous, resourceful Baku refugee who fought in the war of 1988–1994 and whose twenty-year old son recently volunteered on the front of the four-day war — explained the general mood since early April:

The past few weeks have actually been very positive. Under normal circumstances, Armenians are rough characters who don’t take too kindly to one another. But in the past three weeks, we’ve seen an outpouring of solidarity.

This is when Armenians come together — under times of duress. Thousands of young people have volunteered to fight at the front; young people and old are volunteering to bring everything they can to the young men bravely fighting for the Karabakh Defense Forces — whether it’s food, tea, blankets, or cigarettes. This war, while tragic, has turned out rather well for our people.

Titizian has a different perspective on the ongoing conflict. Born in Beirut but raised in Canada, all four of her grandparents were orphaned in the genocide.

A nationalist of sorts, she is nonetheless ready to see the conflict from the perspective of Azerbaijanis. “We are the victors — except that we don’t know how to be the victors. We only know how to be the victims. In the case of Karabakh, they are the vanquished — for this reason I understand them.”

She speaks emotionally about one of just two times she has met an Azerbaijani: on a flight from Stuttgart to Vienna. An elderly woman in a veil, confused and flustered, was seated next to her. The older woman tried to ask her a question, and Titizian tried to respond.

Only when the woman asked the flight attendant for juice in Russian did Titizian realize they shared a common language, possibly a common heritage. They didn’t discuss where the other came from, though the desire to do so hung in the air. Instead they sat through the flight at an awkward impasse, not quite knowing how to assess the other’s presence.

Thirty minutes after the flight landed, Titizian stumbled upon the same woman standing in the middle of the airport. She was visibly distraught, unable to find her connecting flight. Titizian approached the woman — mutual suspicion melting away — and directed her to the correct gate. The elder Azerbaijani offered Titizian her profuse thanks, and then a hug and a kiss.

“Are these not also the poor mothers of poor boys shipped to the front?” Titizian later asked. “Do their children not also bleed when you cut them?” That, she said, is biggest problem with the Karabakh conflict: “It’s forcing all of us to lose our humanity.”

Looking for Peace

According to many pro-peace Armenians, the most sensible resolution would be to give Azerbaijan back much of the buffer zone, keeping only a small corridor to connect Karabakh to the rest of Armenia, and to allow a sizeable number of Azerbaijanis to return and live with their Armenian counterparts in Karabakh. After all, as everyone is quick to remind visitors, “we lived side by side in peace for seven decades. Surely we can again.”

What’s more, in the two decades since the ceasefire, the enclave has been rated as more democratic, representative, and responsive to the needs of its strategically vulnerable population than its neighbors. Might Karabakh become an example for both countries?

Armenians are not the only ones brainstorming a constructive peace. During April’s conflict, various Azerbaijani bloggers also called for a nonviolent, democratic resolution to the crisis.

One person wrote: “Karabakh could be a perfect place to create a confederation with Azerbaijani, Armenian, and Kurdish native population[s.] It should be under the jurisdiction of neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia, but there should be a ‘No Visa’ policy too for both countries.”

A diaspora Armenian from Oakland, California replied: “Yes. I hope it becomes an egalitarian, ecologically wise, multi-ethnic self-governed republic.”

If one thing is clear, it’s that there needs to be far more collaboration between like-minded parties on both sides.

Why not, for example, have the ministries of health and education regularly consult with one another? After all, the majority of Armenians and Azerbaijanis are poor and struggling people far more interested in finding work and making ends meet than plotting the fall of their ostensible rivals.

Ultimately, positive change will only come when — as an activist at the Women’s Resource Center in Yerevan put it — “Karabakh becomes a place that people would rather live for than die for.”