Nagorno-Karabakh: Exploring the Unrecognised Republic of Artsakh

Nestled in the mountains between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a tiny breakaway republic is struggling for outside recognition. Nagorno-Karabakh – known also as the Artsakh Republic – is what’s sometimes referred to as a ‘post-Soviet frozen conflict zone’: a disputed region that became a place of heated territorial battles following the break-up of the USSR. Like Transnistria and Abkhazia, it exists today in a state of political limbo.

According to most of the world, the Nagorno-Karabakh region is a part of Azerbaijan. By the 1990s however, this previously autonomous Soviet territory was largely inhabited by ethnic Armenians – so when Soviet borders fell and the land defaulted to Azerbaijan’s control, many local Armenians were none too impressed. Since February 1988, in fact, they had been demonstrating in the streets and calling for a union with Armenia; so when Azerbaijan moved to deny the region its autonomous rights in November 1991, the response was a referendum for complete secession. The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh voted overwhelmingly for independence, at which point Azerbaijan boycotted the process and began deploying military troops. The ensuing war continued until May 1994, when Russia entered to help broker a reluctant ceasefire.

That ceasefire (mostly) continues to this day. The entire length of the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is closed, the countries are no longer on speaking terms, and in the Karabakh mountains to the south where a population of some 150,000 ethnic Armenians live in a self-declared republic on the Azeri side of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, tensions tend to run higher than anywhere else.

In August 2017, I went with some friends on a road trip through Nagorno-Karabakh. Here’s what it’s like to visit.

 

The first view of Nagorno-Karabakh, as the road emerges from the mountain pass from Armenia.
The first view of Nagorno-Karabakh, as the road emerges from the mountain pass from Armenia.

 

Getting into Nagorno-Karabakh

Starting in Yerevan, Armenia, we drove east and then south along the lake’s edge to get there – from the town of Sevan in the north, where the iconic shape of the Lake Sevan Writers’ Resort building juts precariously out from the hillside, and down along the eastern bank where the mountains meet the water. Those same mountains define the geography of Nagorno-Karabakh, its name meaning, literally, “High Karabakh”; and as we left the lake behind, turned east through the first of many dramatic passes, I wondered more than once how difficult a place this much have been to wage a war.

The border out of Armenia would have been easy to miss. There was a guard hut beside the road but no barrier, nothing but our good judgement to prevent us from driving on by and into the unrecognised republic. At a turn in the road a car had pulled over, and a border guard was leant in one side talking to the driver. We diligently pulled up behind and waited. When our turn came, the guard wanted to know why we were visiting the Republic of Artsakh; “tourism,” we said, and that seemed to be enough. He told us to get our paperwork on arrival in the capital, Stepanakert; he told us not to visit Agdam; and then the guard waved us through and retreated to his hut.

 

Agdam, Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh Republic).
Agdam.

The roads were better here. That’s the first thing I noticed: good roads, smooth tarmac. We would see more being freshly surfaced, later, as we drove through the rest of Artsakh. But all thoughts of infrastructure left my mind when we rounded the first corner on the road, drove out of the pass and the landscape fell away before us. That view through the mountains was breathtaking. We had to stop and take it in, pulling up in gravel at a corner where the tight mountain road broke out to the plateau’s edge to begin its winding descent. There was a small memorial park on the corner. Two tanks watched the road, one lifted up on a pedestal of orange-pink tufa, the other rusting in the gravel nearby. Most likely both were casualties of the war, memorialised where they fell.

 

Abandoned tank memorial in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Beside the mountain road into Nagorno-Karabakh, two retired tanks have been arranged as a makeshift memorial to the war.

Abandoned tank memorial in Nagorno-Karabakh.Abandoned tank memorial in Nagorno-Karabakh.

 

We drove for the rest of the day through fields of yellowed grass, past more broken tanks, through ridge after ridge of blasted, sun bleached mountains and the smell of asphalt. The road took us close to Agdam – the place we’d been warned to keep away from. The city of Agdam sits right on the border between Azerbaijan and the self-declared Artsakh Republic. Today it is no more than a ghost town, though – the war destroyed it back in 1993. We couldn’t see the city from the main road, only its outskirts: ruined stone buildings disappearing off beyond the ridge, hinting at greater devastation in the valley beyond.

 

Ruins of the 18th century Askeran Fortress. Nagorno-Karabakh.
Ruins of the 18th century Askeran Fortress.
Young tourists play on a memorialised tank. Nagorno-Karabakh.
Young tourists play on another memorialised tank.

Near the turning to Agdam, a map of the region was printed large enough for passing drivers to read, and off to the east it showed no-go areas coloured in red. Later, someone would tell me these red zones indicated the range of Azeri snipers beyond the border. Between those red-hatched regions though, life went on – we passed by families on day trips, saw tourists exploring the stone towers of the 18th century Askeran Fortress, a remnant from the time of the Karabakh Khanate. Kids in clean white shoes played on taxidermied tanks while their parents drank beer under sunshades. Their cars all had Armenian number plates.

Close by, on the road to the capital, we passed what looked like a military base. An old red star decorated the metal gates, a hangover from past eras, while a sentry watched the gate. Outside, on the road, a simple bus stop had been painted up in military camouflage colours. The sentry gave us one disinterested glance as we drove by and then we were gone, speeding through yellow fields on the last leg to the Artsakh capital.

 

Mountain view from the highway. Artsakh Republic.
View from the highway.

 

We Are Our Mountains

By late afternoon we reached Stepanakert. Visitors approaching the city from the north are greeted by an extraordinary sight: two stone heads, vast, orange, and almost cartoonish in their depiction of an elderly couple in traditional local dress. The sculpture – titled ‘We Are Our Mountains’ – was created in 1967 by Sargis Baghdasaryan, and represents the mountain people who populate the Karabakh region. As a symbol of local Armenian identity, the two heads appear on the Artsakh coat of arms and locals sometimes refer to the couple as ‘tatik-papik,’ or ‘grandma-grandpa.’

We stopped to admire the monument for a while. Vendors had set up stalls at the base selling homewares and handicrafts – plates, cups, chess sets – as well as souvenir t-shirts, coins, and wristbands with the slogan: “I Love Armenia.” Even the flag of Nagorno-Karabakh is a love letter to Armenia, the same three colours but here with the addition of a white zigzag representing Artsakh’s separation from Armenia.

 

We Are Our Mountains: a monumental sculpture by Sargis Baghdasaryan (1967) that celebrates Armenian heritage and identity. Nagorno-Karabakh.
‘We Are Our Mountains’: a monumental sculpture by Sargis Baghdasaryan (1967) that celebrates local heritage and identity.

Armenians have been living in Nagorno-Karabakh for a very, very long time. Some scholars say they arrived in the 2nd century BC – others, as early as the 7th century BC. Though Karabakh would change over the following centuries in relation to the ever-shifting balance of power in the Caucasus (with the Arabs, the Persians, the Russians, the Turks and others all vying for influence in the region) it would nevertheless remain an Armenian place, predominantly inhabited and typically governed by Armenians. That is, until Britain and the Soviet Union got involved.

British forces briefly occupied Karabakh following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WWI. Nagorno-Karabakh is sandwiched between two Turkic nations, with Turkey to the west and Azerbaijan to the east (a former Azeri president, Heydar Aliyev, once described them as “one nation with two states”). In 1920 the British command appointed an Azeri leader as the governor-general in Karabakh, which resulted in protests and armed revolt amongst the Armenian population before the decision was overturned. The Bolsheviks, when they arrived soon after, promised to keep Karabakh with Armenia; however, that promise was broken when Joseph Stalin decided there was more value in placating the Turks than there was in keeping faith with the Armenians. Thus, in July 1923, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast was founded as a dependent state of the Azerbaijan SSR. The Azeri population began to grow (there have even been accusations that the Azeri Soviet government was attempting a forced Azerification of the region) and by the time new post-Soviet borders were drawn, Azerbaijan got to keep control of the territory.

Today, not even Armenia itself formally recognises Artsakh’s independence – a diplomatic move, perhaps – though culturally, they do continue to celebrate the Armenian history of the region. In 2009 it caused a row at the Eurovision Song Contest, when footage of ‘We Are Our Mountains’ in Stepanakert was spliced into Armenia’s introduction video.

 

Stepanakert monument in Nagorno-Karabakh. Stalls sell souvenirs, handicrafts, and pro-Armenian trinkets.
Beneath the monument stalls sell souvenirs, handicrafts, and pro-Armenian trinkets.

Leaving the monument behind and heading into the city, we immediately ran into issues with our accommodation: that is to say, the Airbnb hosts never answered their phone. We set up camp for a while in a coffee shop near the apartment, that looked out onto a metal-frame children’s playground, while I hijacked the patchy wifi to try and email our host. But they never got back to me, and after two bitter, over-brewed coffees I don’t think any of us could face another drink and so we left, hitting up the first hotel we could find.

The hotel was basic, a sterile post-war new-build, and our room for three came with everything we needed but not an iota more. It was cheap, however, it was central, and though communication between us didn’t come easily the staff were nevertheless friendly. I got the impression they didn’t see many Western tourists here.

 

The Palace of Culture and Youth in downtown Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Palace of Culture and Youth in downtown Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh.

Many of the vehicles in Stepanakert were relics of a former age. Nagorno-Karabakh.
Many of the vehicles in Stepanakert were relics of a former age.

We decided to have dinner in Vank that night – a small village we’d passed on the road, some 45 kilometres back. Not that Stepanakert doesn’t have plenty of its own restaurants, but the next day we planned to drive south; Vank was north, we wouldn’t get another chance to go, and by all accounts there were a couple of fairly weird things to see there.

Google Maps called it a 50-minute drive. It took us longer, of course, though at least on the way to Vank we still had daylight on our side. The narrow road curved and carved its way through the mountainside, sometimes twisting right back on itself in loops so severe that they felt as though they defied any geographical logic. It was worth it though for a look at the Eclectic Hotel, a mad, post-modernist ship-shaped building so utterly bamboozling that I entirely forgot to photograph it (fortunately though, this guy did). We ate in the restaurant there – rabbit stew was on the menu, served with dogwood juice and cognac – and after dinner I took a walk to photograph a nearby rockface carved into the likeness of a lion.

 

Behind the Sea Stone Hotel in Vank, Nagorno-Karabakh, a rocky hillside has been carved into the shape of a lion.
Behind the Sea Stone Hotel in Vank, Nagorno-Karabakh, a rocky hillside has been carved into the shape of a lion.

Vank is not a normal village, but its abnormality is no accident. A local Vank man, Levon Hairapetian, left the village to seek his fortune and went on to amass incredible wealth and influence most notably through his involvement in the privatisation of Russian energy suppliers in the 1990s. Now splitting his time between homes in Russia, Armenia, France and the US, Hairapetian has made the redevelopment of his hometown into a hobby: building quirky hotels and a new hospital, fixing the roads, restoring the cathedral, and yes, carving a lion into a hillside.

 

Stepanakert

We spent the next day exploring Stepanakert. The atmosphere on the streets was a strange mixture of apathy and subtle tension: like a lazy Sunday afternoon on a military base. Young soldiers smoked cigarettes on corners while a trickle of pedestrians ambled slowly through the streets. More sat in cafes, sheltered from the hot sun. Flowers bloomed in well-tended beds between buildings that ranged from Stalinist-classical townhouses, constructed here from soft orange-pink Armenian stone, to space-age steel and glass creations like the Modernist Palace of Youth and Culture. Overhead, flags and banners fluttered between lampposts, bearing slogans like: “There is no alternative to independence.”

 

Flags and political banners fly above a billboard advertising wine and cognac. Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh.
Flags and political banners fly above a billboard advertising wine and cognac. (If I had to pick just one photo summing up Stepanakert, this is it.)

On Google Maps the city is marked as ‘Khankendi’ – its Azeri name – though none of its Azeri citizens are still around to call it that. At a population of roughly 55,000 people, it’s hardly a metropolis: we more or less walked from one end to the other in a few hours, stopping first for our official business at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Tourist visas for Nagorno-Karabakh can be acquired either in Yerevan, or on arrival in Stepanakert by visiting the ministry in person. We did the latter and the staff at the Artsakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs (located on the central Azatamartikneri Avenue) were, I think, perhaps the friendliest bureaucrats I’ve ever met in the former Soviet territories. There was no queue – instead, a young, suited man popped his head out when we arrived, and he immediately came over to give us a warm greeting. “Just wait here ten minutes, guys,” he said as he took our passports then disappeared back into the office.

 

A main street in downtown Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh.
A main street in downtown Stepanakert. Note the fuel price: somewhere around 380-400 Armenian Dram (roughly €0.75 EUR) per litre.

The lobby of the ministry building was decorated with panels that showed off the tourism highlights of Nagorno-Karabakh. The standard of written English was excellent, I noted, better even than the English-language brochures produced by some EU member states. We had felt like a novelty at times, when meeting with the people of the region – but it seemed the local government at least was very keen to have us here.

“Okay, they’re ready!” said the ministry man, suddenly returning with our passports. He gave us a thumbs-up as he walked into the lobby. It hadn’t felt like ten minutes, but we paid our fees (amounting to roughly 5 euros each) and we were good to go.

 

Monument to the Fallen in the Great Patriotic War. Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh.
The central obelisk at the Monument to the Fallen in the Great Patriotic War. Located on the edge of Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh.

On the street outside I was immediately accosted by a stranger. I thought she was asking for money at first. She spoke fast in Russian, had a desperate look about her and kept touching my arm as she talked. I understood just a little – enough to realise, first, that she wasn’t begging. I asked her to speak slower, and when she did, I understood that her brother was fighting in the separatist-controlled Luhansk region of Ukraine (currently calling itself the ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’). She was scared for him, and though I struggled to keep up when she began talking quicker again, I still made out occasional words: “snipers”… “bombs”… “death.”

She asked me if I spoke German. Not well enough for this conversation, I tried to explain – in German. I must have butchered it badly though, because she laughed. Then she started crying. The woman squeezed my arm again one last time, then turned to go. I wished her well; “Viel Glück,” and “do svidaniya.”

I realised, after she left, that I’d never asked which side her brother was fighting for in Ukraine. But maybe it didn’t matter.

 

Soviet war memorial in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh.
Ancient-looking faces carved from volcanic stone decorate the Soviet-era war memorial.

I was still thinking about the encounter later, as we visited Stepanakert’s memorial to the soldiers of WWII; or as they call it here, the ‘Monument to the Fallen in the Great Patriotic War.’ The memorial complex adhered to a similar formula as all those Armenian Soviet monuments I wrote about last year: a generic pro-Soviet message but presented here with just enough local idiosyncrasy as to make it feel personal. The central obelisk with its hammer and sickle crest – still intact – was carved from the iconic local tufa stone. Visitors to the complex pass through a stairwell embossed with the dates “1941-1944” in strong, loud characters, before reaching a plaza decorated with traditional Karabakh-style pitchers, and an arch carved with a series of surprisingly expressive stone faces in an almost Grecian style.

The Christian cross was a more recent addition though, I guessed. At the top end of the memorial plaza, in front of a row of stone faces carved to show Soviet soldiers, a clean, white tower rose in the style of an Armenian Orthodox church topped with a cross. Almost certainly post-Soviet, if this had been any other country (say, Lithuania or Ukraine) I would have taken it for a symptom of decommunisation: a rededication of the dead, but also, perhaps in its own way some small anti-Soviet gesture. Here though, in Artsakh, a land recently and violently wrested from the control of the predominantly-Islamic Azerbaijan, that Christian symbol could just as easily have been a gesture of defiance pointed at Baku, rather than at Moscow.

 

Stepanakert's WWII memorial. Nagorno-Karabakh.
Stepanakert’s WWII memorial now features a white stone church tower – more than likely a post-Soviet addition.

 

Agdam

On our last morning in Nagorno-Karabakh we decided to get a closer look at Agdam. We had heard the name so many times (usually in the context of “don’t go to Agdam”), that at some point, it became kind of inevitable that we’d try. Whatever else it was, all those warnings gave the distinct impression that Agdam was at least significant.

Back along that same stretch of highway, where the red zones to the east marked the range of enemy snipers, we approached the Agdam turn-off very slowly. There was a car behind us so we let it overtake, and we idled until it was out of sight before turning fast down the lane marked on my map, down a dust road flanked in sun-scorched plains. Ahead of us, broken stone structures littered the dead grass. It didn’t look like much from here – the remains of no more than a village, perhaps – but winding deeper into the fields, further from the highway, the ruins grew denser and more numerous until we crested a rise and the city of Agdam appeared before us. Or, what was left of Agdam, at least.

 

Driving into Agdam, the ruined city of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Driving into Agdam, a first view of the ruined city.

Even while the rest of Nagorno-Karabakh was predominantly Armenian, Agdam was 97% Azeri up until the last Soviet census. During the Nagorno-Karabakh War, the Azeri forces had used Agdam as a staging post for troops, and a base for launching their missiles and bombs to the west. The Azeri army committed heinous acts in Nagorno-Karabakh. In April 1992 they massacred a whole village of Armenian civilians in Maraga; and they targeted churches and other cultural sites in an effort to purge the region of Armenian culture. In 1993, the Armenian army pushed back and captured Agdam from the Azeris. According to a report from Human Rights Watch, the Armenians themselves then violated the rules of war, as they forcibly chased Azeris out of their homes in an act of violent ethnic cleansing. When the Azeris were gone, the Armenian forces destroyed what was left of Agdam; leaving the city, once numbering 24,000 citizens, as a smoking, ruined ghost town.

 

Agdam in its heyday. Nagorno-Karabakh.
Agdam in its heyday. Photographer(s) unknown. More images here.

Abandoned building in Agdam, Nagorno-Karabakh.
Agdam today: and this building is in better condition than most.

The Armenian army did a good job of wiping Agdam from the map. Where once there had been streets and houses, now only scattered frames, doorways and pillars still stood, while young trees filled out the spaces in between. At first glance the ruins might have looked ancient, like the vestiges of some long-gone empire – that’s how little was left of the city today, after war and looting and decay. Here and there amongst the stones though, lay burned-out vehicle chassis, bits of wrought-iron fence and strands of jagged rebar poking out from piles of concrete rubble. Scattered clues hinting at the freshness of the tragedy.

We parked the car on what was presumably once the edge of the city centre: where devastated stone cottages gave way to larger concrete shells. Half hidden by bushes nearby, an Azeri-Cyrillic slogan announced some Soviet-era political sentiment in faded red letters; the words “Party” and “People” were amongst the few still legible. We walked through the rubble, towards the centre of Agdam.

 

Political slogans on a devastated building. Agdam, Artsakh Republic.
Political slogans on a devastated building. The words “Party” and “People” are still just legible.

Abandoned bus in Agdam, Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh Republic).
One of the few vehicles in Agdam not already disassembled for scrap.

The city was a corpse in the final stages of butchering – metal mostly stripped, a lone digger sat stationary beside a mound of crumbled marble – and we weren’t alone here either. A military-style truck was hidden in a discreet parking space between two dirt piles; while one of the bomb-scarred houses we passed looked distinctly lived-in, with curtains on the windows and a new lock on the door.

Being stealthy isn’t easy on the terrain of a former war zone. We did our best to creep around the backs of buildings, watching out for snakes, while trying not to trip on rocks and rebar… and knowing full well that if our rental car was spotted first, we were already as good as caught. Nevertheless we slowly made our way towards the minarets that rose above the former streets, marking the location of Agdam’s main mosque on the city square.

 

Archive photo of Agdam's central mosque. Nagorno-Karabakh.
Agdam’s central mosque in better times. Again, photographer(s) unknown. More images here.

Mosque in Agdam, Nagorno-Karabakh.
The mosque today, standing over a field of rubble.
Park and fountains have given way to weeds and ruin. Agdam, Nagorno-Karabakh.
Plazas and fountains have given way to weeds and ruin.

Agdam’s mosque, according to archive photos, used to open onto landscaped gardens with pools and fountains, its twin minarets rising amongst trees over an elegant Persian-style park. Now it’s a wonder those minarets are still standing at all. These brick towers, and the building they’re attached to, stand forlorn in a field of dead grass and building debris.

We crept behind the back of the mosque, out of sight from the city streets, then quickly ducked around, inside, and up the stairs. The interiors were devastated. High, arched ceilings resting on ornate pillars sheltered nothing now but dust and stone, while graffiti – etched in Latin, Armenian and Cyrillic scripts – spread as high up the walls as human arms could reach. Track marks in the walls showed where copper cables had been stripped out by looters.

 

The interior of Agdam's mosque has been burned, looted and graffitied. Agdam, Nagorno-Karabakh.
The interior of Agdam’s mosque has been burned, looted and graffitied.

Abandoned mosque in Agdam, Nagorno-Karabakh.Abandoned mosque in Agdam, Nagorno-Karabakh.

 

Abandoned mosque in Agdam, Republic of Artsakh.
An incredible space destroyed by ethnic conflicts.

A stairwell near the entrance led up onto the roof, where grass had taken root between the mosque’s brick domes. From there the minarets beckoned: an arch led inside to a spiral staircase, a steep stone passage winding up towards what promised to be the best views left over Agdam. I followed it to the top.

 

On the mosque's domed roof, an entrance to one of the minarets. Agdam, Nagorno-Karabakh.
On the mosque’s domed roof, an entrance to one of the minarets.

The scale of the city – the scale of the tragedy – became more apparent from this vantage point. At ground level the ruins pressed in close, just one row of buildings at a time, while the fear of getting caught made it hard to step out of the present; to reflect on what this place might once have been. Up here in the minaret though Agdam revealed itself. Block after city block of empty houses, devastated parks, overgrown roads… 24,000 people chased out of their homes, an entire city put to the torch.

 

A view of Agdam from above. Nagorno-Karabakh.
A view of Agdam from above: looking down on the main street from the top of a minaret.

A lone figure strolls the empty streets of Agdam. Nagorno-Karabakh.
A lone figure strolls the empty streets of Agdam.

I saw a movement then, down amongst the hulking blocks that littered the former city square. A young man in camo fatigues was strolling the streets – too confident to be here illicitly, like us, I guessed he was perhaps connected to the nearby military base, either here for some training exercise, or else on security detail. I held my breath for a moment… he hadn’t seen us. Nearby a dog began barking, then another.

The penalty for visiting Agdam seems to vary depending on who catches you. Some visitors report a stern telling-off from soldiers, having their photos deleted, then being sent on their way. Other times you might pay a cash-in-hand fee for an easy exit. However, it is also perfectly within the power of the guards to put you through a bureaucratic hell of detention and interrogation, which was something that none of us wanted to see. So we waited in the sanctuary of the mosque until the stranger had passed, then we made our way as fast and as carefully as we could back to the car, shooting back to the highway in a cloud of dust as we left the dead city behind.

 

Ruined building in Agdam, Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh Republic).
Whatever this building used to be, only its entryway still stands.

The road out of Agdam. Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh Republic).
The road out of Agdam.

We left Nagorno-Karabakh that same day; driving back through Stepanakert, south past Shusha and Berdzor on a road signed to Goris, Armenia. The road folded into the mountain pass near a village called Zabux, and there a monument stood on the plateau facing northeast: our last view of the land we were leaving behind. Other cars came and went, passing motorists stopped to admire the view – snap photos on their smartphones and then leave.

The monument itself took the form of granite mountains, carved with window and arch designs reminiscent of an Armenian Orthodox church. Combined with the panoramic view behind, it struck me as a powerful symbol for local Armenian identity. These resolute mountain folk, still strong in their religious convictions even after centuries of persecution: a theme that seems to echo throughout Armenia’s history, from the conflict with Azerbaijan, back to their genocide under the Ottomans, and before.

All the more reason then to keep tourists out of Agdam… because at Agdam, it was the victims of this particular narrative who committed violent ethnic cleansing against the families of their oppressors.

 

The Gates of Artsakh – a monument near Zabux, on the southern road out of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.
The Gates of Artsakh – a monument near Zabux, on the southern road out of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.

 

Visiting Nagorno-Karabakh

Before I visited Nagorno-Karabakh, numerous people told me it was impossible – or at least, not safe to try. The more I researched it though, the more accounts I found from people who’d travelled through independently and, for the most part, had very positive experiences. I’m adding my own account to that number.

Some of the friendliest places I’ve ever visited were breakaway states with limited recognition. Tourism implies, if not recognition per se, at least an active interest in these places and so local people will very often bend over backwards to ensure that tourists leave with only good things to say about their *region/country* (delete as preferred). Nagorno-Karabakh is no exception. The so-called Artsakh Republic is one of the most welcoming places I’ve seen, and our three-day trip through the Karabakh mountains felt not only safe, but intellectually stimulating too. Certainly, for experienced travellers with an interest in post-Soviet geopolitics – in borders, nationalism and identity – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

It is not a trip that should be taken without caution, however. Too many travel blogs argue a place is safe simply because the author themselves had a safe experience… and I wouldn’t want to be so irresponsible here. Nagorno-Karabakh, however peaceful it may seem, is still a war zone and the conflict here between Armenia (de facto occupiers) and Azerbaijan (de jure territorial power) remains very far from settled. It’s only three years now since the last violent clashes (the ‘Four-Day War’ of April 2016) saw 350 people killed, and so it’s unwise to visit without first checking the latest news, and then paying close attention to the mood on the ground. At the slightest sign of political disturbance, you’re probably best off making a tactical retreat to Yerevan.

I should also add that if you plan to visit both Nagorno-Karabakh and (*the rest of*) Azerbaijan, then do be sure to visit Azerbaijan first. Travelling from Armenia into Nagorno-Karabakh – as we did – is considered by the Azeri government as an illegal entry to their territory, and so anyone arriving in Baku airport with a Karabakh stamp already in their passport is in for a really rough time.

By the way – Nagorno-Karabakh has some fantastic architecture and monuments, and I have more photographs than I could reasonably squeeze into this post. If you’re interested to see more I’ll be uploading them to my other site, Monumentalism.net.

 
Mountain views on the road from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.

COMMENT

  1. Both history and international public law is on the side of Armenians. Territorial integrity and sovereignty are not “sancto sanctum” principles. There has been an evolution in international public law with the introduction of the concept of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), especially since the 1990s, which allows for some peoples (understood as nations in international law) in specific conditions to go forward with a secession and independence.

    But even before the 1990s, the concept of self-determination is well protected within the UN system.
    In the UN Resolution 2625 of 1970 under the principle-chapter “The principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples” it is stated:

    “By virtue of the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, all peoples have the right freely to determine, without external interference, their political status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development, and every State has the duty to RESPECT this right in accordance with the provisions of the Charter” […] “bearing in mind that SUBJUGATION of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a violation of the principle, as well as a denial of fundamental human rights, and is contrary to the Charter.”

    “The establishment of a sovereign and independent State, the free association or integration with an independent State or the emergence into any other political status freely determined by a people constitute modes of implementing the right of self-determination by that people.” (Artsakh has declared its independence (1991) and wish to unite with Armenia (since early times under the USSR)).

    “Every State has the duty to refrain from any forcible action which deprives peoples referred to above in the elaboration of the present principle of their right to self-determination and freedom and independence. In their actions against, and resistance to, such forcible action in pursuit of the exercise of their right to self-determination, such peoples are entitled to seek and to receive support in accordance with the purposes and principles of the Charter.” (hence, when Azerbaijan acted through usage of force against the right to self-determination of Artsakh, Armenia intervened by all its rights to support Artsakh).

    “NOTHING in the foregoing paragraphs shall be construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States … (and here it precisely says which type of States) … CONDUCTING themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples as described above and thus POSESSED of a government representing the whole people belonging to the territory WITHOUT distinction as to race, creed or colour.”

    This UN resolution clearly shows how the principle of territorial integrity and self-determination conciliate each other. Territorial integrity depends on the way the State conducts its responsibility to protect ALL its citizens.

    Azerbaijan abolished the status of autonomy of Artsakh in 1991. Azerbaijan has continuously failed this responsibility to protect Armenians, throughout the last century and continues to fail by its state-sponsored anti-Armenian propaganda and brainwashing education, not mentioning its expansionist claims onto the territory of Armenia itself, (blessed by Turkey’s support as we saw during the last Turkic Council) and its official policy of denial of the Armenian Genocide, alongside Turkey (how could Armenians allow themselves to live onto their ancestral lands, under a State which actively denies the Armenian Genocide and justifies the eradication of the Armenian people from their homeland? Denying a genocide, is part of continuing that genocide, because you are justifying that genocide, and by doing so, continuing to deny the right of Armenians to exist in their homeland.

    This is a violation of a Jus Cogens imperative norm of international law condemnable by the international community. A Jus Cogens norm is a norm which is superior to all international norms and treaties, obligates all states to respect no matter what, and the violation of it can automatically justify a war: Jus Cogens norms are the inviolable norms of genocide, torture and slavery. The right to secession and independence can become also a Jus Cogens norm of international law, if the justification for secession and independence is liberation from oppression and danger of annihilation (genocide), which was (and continues to be) the case for the Armenians of Artsakh, whether in the 1990s or nowadays.
    Azerbaijan had its chance to prove itself with an autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh for 70 years under Soviet rule and what did we get? The silent ethnic cleansing through carefully planned discriminatory policies against Armenians that led to their population stagnation if not reduction. Azerbaijan HAD that opportunity (autonomous status) and it failed. The Madrid Principles returns to an option that has proven to fail and which remains totally unproductive and ineffective for a durable conflict resolution plan.

  2. Armenian side has always mentioned about the “Self-determination of people in Nagorno Karabakh”. Please note that the right of nations to self-determination is a cardinal principle in modern international law binding, as such, on the United Nations as authoritative interpretation of the Charter’s norms. Well, you cannot make a referendum in a day and declare your own state, which belongs to another country. If it was so easy, imagine what would happen simply in Russia where hundreds of nations live in territories where they are majority, or even Eastern part of Georgia, Turkey, southern part of United States and so on. Almost in every multinational country there are some regions, which are mainly populated by other ethnic groups. There are specific regulations and rules which need to be passed and later confirmed by authorities such as United Nations, if we are talking about the self-determination. Once I had a conversation with an Armenian and he mentioned “my great Grandmother has been from Karabakh and why then Karabakh should be forced to become Azerbaijan”. Well, Karabakh was a place where people of different nations lived together, shared the memories. However being your grand mother as well as other other people from Armenian ethnicity does not necessarily give them a right to declare their self-determination, which is the issue today that none of UN members has recognized it as an independent state. Armenia cannot recognize it either, which can potentially cause them to lose either their seat in UN or some other negative impacts. If the question is about the self-determination of what you call “Nagorno Karabakh Republic”, it cannot be done because:
    Nagorno Karabakh (and seven regions around it) is an Azerbaijani territory. Not a single country anywhere in the world says differently. Azerbaijan is an independent country, gained its independence from USSR in 1991. These territories officially recognized as an integral part of Azerbaijan since that time.
    There are four United Nations Security Council resolutions (822, 853, 874, 884), one General Assembly Resolution (62/243), one Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe resolution (1416), which calls for the preservation of the ceasefire (during Nagorno Karabakh war), withdrawal of Armenia from recently occupied Azerbaijani Districts. Please note that, all UN Permanent and non-Permanent members voted for these resolutions at that time (Permanent members: China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States).
    Nagorno Karabakh has been an autonomous state under Azerbaijan SSR during Soviet Union (and before part of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, 1918). So I hear the same thing from Armenian fellows by saying that “Karabakh was given to Azerbaijan during Soviet period” or “when Bolsheviks came to South Caucasus”. No, it was not. When both of us declared our independence in 1918 (Azerbaijan Democratic Republic & First Republic of Armenia), delegates of Armenia and Azerbaijan attended the meeting of league of Atlanta in Paris conference (Armenian delegates arrived in January, 1919. Azerbaijani side arrived later in March) in order gain a legal status for our (both Armenia and Azerbaijan) independence. As an outcome of the meeting we both got an international recognition for our newly created states, which included Nagorno Karabakh under Azerbaijani territory. If we are going to even a past history, we will not be able to find a solution. Reminding you a point about the “Referendum that was held in Nagorno Karabakh”. So Nagorno Karabakh was an autonomous territory under Azerbaijan SSR during the Soviet Union. It had its own parliament and other legislative organisations, which were ruled under Azerbaijani SSR. In 1988, there was a referendum in Nagorno Karabakh, which were only voted by ethnic Armenian MPs (88 member of Parliament voted to be part of Armenian SSR) of Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous territory under Azerbaijan SSR. Not a single ethnic Azerbaijani MP voted (or attended the meeting of parliament). It is clear that Nagorno Karabakh was/is an ethnic problem, not a religious, not a democratic, not anything else. Voting was only held by ethnic Armenian MPs and it was very clear to see what would be the result of this referendum.
    This referendum was not considered legitimate by Soviet Union (we all were part of Soviet Union in 1988). After the referendum was held, Armenians (both in Armenia & Nagorno Karabakh) started to protest and demanded Nagorno Karabakh to be given to Armenian SSR. Starting from 1986 (even before the referendum) the relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia became much worse during the Soviets period. Ethnic Azerbaijanis living in the Eastern, Southern, South Eastern part of Armenia started to be deported to Azerbaijan and also after the events of Sumgayit (1988), Armenians started to leave Azerbaijan. In 1991, both Azerbaijan and Armenia declared their independence from Soviet Union and Nagorno Karabakh was recognized as a territory of Azerbaijan. Obviously, Armenians were not happy with this and we went into the war. The war continued till 1994, which ended with the ceasefire signed in Bishkek with the representatives of both sides. As a result of the war, Azerbaijan lost not only Nagorno Karabakh, but also 7 regions surrounding it. Please, note that the agreement of 1994 Bishkek ceasefire was only meant to stop military actions and to start negotiations about the problem, which did not progress since that time.
    So you may ask “what is the end of the issue?” Well, OSCE Minsk Group came up with the compromise proposal called “Madrid Principles” (Madrid, 2007 and Italy, 2009) that was accepted by Azerbaijanis and Armenians (Armenians initially accepted it). However later Armenian representatives walked away from it, which resulted to have a zero progress since that time. OSCE Madrid Principles were co-chaired by the government of Russia, United States and France, which urged Armenia to return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control, an interim status for Nagorno Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance. (For full details: Joint Statement on Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict by U.S. President Obama, Russian President Medvedev and French President Sarkozy at the L’Aquilla Summit of the Eight, July 10, 2009).
    From my objective & perspective points, 7 territories surrounding Nagorno Karabakh must be returned to Azerbaijan in order to be able to talk about the status of Nagorno Karabakh itself. The status quo for Nagorno Karabakh can be an Autonomous Republic under Azerbaijan, which can have its own parliament and other government organisations (both Armenians, Azerbaijanis can be elected). Azerbaijani side must provide the security of Nagorno Karabakh in order Armenians to be able to live there. I believe having military of Azerbaijani government is not a solution in this case. 3rd party should provide the security of this territory in order to make sure there is no threat for each side.
    Finally, Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived together for generations side-by-side in a peace and harmony. We have had bad memories in the past as well as shared good memories together. It is not easy for both of us to forget what happened in the past and simply step to the future. All the time in the history we had problems, went into the war. We have to learn our mistakes from the past and we have to remember that we cannot live with the past. Southern Caucasus region has always been invaded by Persians, Russians and others. Even bolsheviks ended our first democratic republics in the beginning of 20th century. So do we hate Russians today? Do we hate Persians? France had a 100 year war with England, do they hate each other? No. I guess while time passes, we can build relations again with each other.

    • Wow, this was very eloquently written and I appreciate the honest conversation

    • Here are some of the reasons why Karabakh does not belong to Azerbaijan and Karabakh residents deserve freedom and self-determination.

      (1) When the Armenian King Tigran the Great (140 – 55 BC) negotiated with the Roman general Pompey, there was no notion of a country called Azerbaijan anywhere in the world.” Azerbaijan in its current territory ONLY since 1918’’. In the times of Tigran the Great (95-55 BC) there were only two nations in the region Armenians and Georgians.

      (2) Karabakh was placed under Azerbaijan by Stalin to only form the Soviet Union economic system.

      (3) Karabakh was never part of Independent Azerbaijan before officially forming the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) or after the fall of the Soviet Union.

      (4) Azerbaijan became an independent country from Soviet Union just like Karabakh did. Azerbaijan was an independent nation from 1918 to 1920 but was then incorporated into the Soviet Union. It became a constituent (union) republic in 1936. Azerbaijan declared sovereignty on September 23, 1989, and independence on August 30, 1991.

      (5) Independent Azerbaijan has not exercised political authority over the region since 1988.

      (6) Ethnic Armenians make up roughly 95% of the population. No Cristian nation should be ruled by neighboring Islam nation.

      (7) The Collapse of the Soviet Union disqualifies Azerbaijanis claims.

      (8) Mistakes of the past Soviet Union political decisions should not determine the future of Karabakhs people.

      (9) Most facts familiar with the most popular ancient historical records, such as the Histories of Herodotus, Xenophon’s Retreat, Strabo’s Geographica, the works of Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Cassius, Appian, Tacitus, Ammianus Marcellinus.

      The works of famous European travelers such as Rubruck and Marco Polo, which have a large-scale coverage of the Godly Hayastan-Armenia country and its indigenous Armenian people. Many facts also can be found in Georgian, Persian, Arabic and Greek sources.

      If Azerbaijanis do not trust the mentioned authors, they could at least have read the Ottoman writers of 16-19 centuries such as Mustafa Naima, Rashid, Ismail Asim Efendi, Suleiman Izghi, Katib Chelebi, Ahmed Cevdet Pasha, Evliya Çelebi.

      Some of whom not only have provided vast information about the Armenian world, but traveling to Armenia-Ermenistan, contacted with its Armenian-Christian residents.

      Of course, they did not write anything about Azerbaijan, but it’s not their fault that they did not encounter a country named Azerbaijan in its current territory until 1918”

      Treaty of Sèvres

      On August 10, 1920, the victorious Allied Powers of World War I and the defeated Turkey signed an important treaty—the Treaty of Sèvres in the French city of Sèvres near Paris to settle their conflicts with the Ottoman Empire, to redraw the map. The Treaty of Sevres is a historical fact. it remains such up to this day.

      Just as the Treaty of Versailles established peace in Europe, in the same way, the Treaty of Sevres was meant to bring peace to the former Western Asian territories of the Ottoman Empire. It put an end to the war-driven sufferings and deprivations experienced by Armenians. among other obligations, provided for an independent Armenia with a 160,000 square kilometer territory.

      The subject that the Armenian delegations underlined at the Paris Peace Conference was that Armenians had supported and helped the Allied Powers during the war and therefore, they had to benefit from the gains/spoils of the war, and this had to be a great Armenian state between the Mediterranean- the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea

      Not only does the Treaty of Sèvres recognize Turkey as responsible for its war crimes, it also demands that Turkey take steps to facilitate the process of punishing those directly involved in the crime. The Treaty also demands that Turkey repeal the 1915 Abandoned Property laws and the supplementary provisions thereof, compelling it to return all confiscated properties to individual or community owners. Finally, the Treaty of Sèvres provides a legal basis for the arbitration appeal to US President Woodrow Wilson to determine the Armenia-Turkey border.

      One of the signatories of the Treaty of Sèvres was the Republic of Armenia, which had declared its independence on May 28, 1918. The Republic of Armenia acted as an equal party to the Treaty. On behalf of Armenia, the treaty was signed by the head of delegation of the Republic of Armenia Avetis Aharonyan with a golden pen especially ordered for this occasion.

      On 22 July 1920, that is when the terms of the Treaty were already known, the Sultan invited the Shoray-e Saltant (the Crown Council) to examine and decide on the execution of the Treaty. The execution of the Treaty was approved in that meeting and the Treaty was signed on behalf of Turkey by a delegation headed by Damad Ferid Pasha (the other members of the delegation were General Hamdi Pasha, Riza Tavfik Bay and Rishad Halis Bay (the Turkish Ambassador in Bern).

      Treaty was submitted, by the representatives of the Allied Powers, to Turkey’s representatives in May 1920. Tabled and approved in the 22 July 1920 session of Shuray-e Saltanat (Crown Council) which means that the representatives of Turkey had signed the Treaty within and without exceeding the powers granted to them. Thus, it is undeniably clear that the Treaty was signed for Turkey by its duly authorized representatives.

      It consisted of 110 large pages, 13 chapters and 433 articles. Highlighted the principle of self-determination and equality of peoples. It put an end to the centuries-old subjugation imposed by empires, bringing freedom and independence to the peoples of the region. Not only does the Treaty of Sèvres recognize Turkey as responsible for its war crimes, it also demands that Turkey take steps to facilitate the process of punishing those directly involved in the crime. The Treaty also demands that Turkey repeal the 1915 Abandoned Property laws and the supplementary provisions thereof, compelling it to return all confiscated properties to individual or community owners. Finally, the Treaty of Sèvres provides a legal basis for the arbitration appeal to US President Woodrow Wilson to determine the Armenia-Turkey border.

      Moreover, the arbitral award of the President of the United States of America Woodrow Wilson, published on November 22, 1920, continues to be the only international document delineating the legal border between Armenia and Turkey.

      It should be documented that on November 22 of the same year, the 28th President of the United States Woodrow Wilson, endowed with international mandate and arbitration, approved the Armenia-Turkey border with the Great Seal of the United States and handed over his decision to all state-signatories of the Treaty.
      There were six articles in the Treaty (88-93) that related Section 6 entirely concerning Armenia. These articles demanded that Turkey recognize Armenia as a free and independent State (88). The signatories agreed to let US President Wilson determine the boundary between Turkey and Armenia, which would pass through the provinces of Erzerum, Trebizond, Van and Bitlis and prescribe an outlet for Armenia to have maritime access to the Black Sea (89). Article 89 of the Treaty of Sevres was stating and affirming the Armenian people’s historic and undisputed relation with the Armenian Highlands, where the Armenian people were born, lived and shaped statehood and culture for millennia. Turkey renounced any claim to the ceded land. Articles 91-93 referred to the establishment of a boundary commission; to accept obligation in the repatriation and restoration of the Armenian survivors; the prosecution of the perpetrators of the Armenian massacres; and the protection of non-Armenian citizens within Armenia.

      The Treaty of Sevres Article 89 was a legally binding verdict. It had to come into force without ratification.

      Article 88: Turkey, in accordance with the action already taken by the Allied Powers, hereby recognizes Armenia as a free and independent State.
      Article 89: Turkey and Armenia, as well as the other High Contracting Parties, agree to submit to the arbitration of the President of the United States of America the question of the frontier to be fixed between Turkey and Armenia in the vilayets of Erzerum, Trebizond, Van and Bitlis, and to accept his decision thereupon, as well as any stipulations he may prescribe as to access for Armenia to the sea, and as to the demilitarization of any portion of Turkish territory adjacent to the said frontier.
      Article 90: In the event of the determination of the frontier under Article 89 involving the transfer of the whole or any part of the territory of the said Vilayets to Armenia, Turkey hereby renounces as from the date of such decision all rights and title over the territory so transferred.
      Article 92: The frontiers between Armenia and Azerbaijan and Georgia respectively will be determined by direct agreement between the States concerned. If in either case the States concerned have failed to determine the frontier by agreement at the date of the decision referred to in Article 89, the frontier line in question will be determined by the Pricipal Allied Powers, who will also provide for its being traced on the spot.
      Article 93: Armenia accepts and agrees to embody in a Treaty with the Principal Allied Powers such provisions as may be deemed necessary by these Powers to protect the interests of inhabitants of that State who differ from the majority of the population in race, language, or religion.
      Article 230: The Turkish Government undertakes to hand over to the Allied Powers the persons whose surrender may be required by the latter as being responsible for the massacres committed during the continuance of the state of war on territory which formed part of the Turkish Empire on August 1, 1914.

      Turkey was obliged to immediately and unconditionally accept this document because a legally binding verdict doesn’t have to be ratified by this or that country. In terms of international law, from the very first day of presentation in November 22, 1920 the Treaty of Sevres remains in force up to this day, and de jure the Armenian-Turkish border isn’t defined by the current Akhuryan-Araks line, but actually the borderline including the major part of the provinces of Trabzon, Erzurum, Bitlis and Van, with Western Armenia’s 90,000 square kilometer territory and 70,000 square kilometer of Eastern Armenia – including the territory of the Republic of Armenia,

      On November 22, 1920, President Wilson announced that he had drawn the map of Armenia under the terms of the Treaty of Sèvres. “Wilsonian Armenia” awarded the Armenian nation a territory that encompassed approximately 155,000 square kilometers. It included vast areas of historic Armenia with the exclusion of southernmost and westernmost sectors.

      Undoubtedly, the Treaty of Sèvres was an internationally binding document. However, it wasn’t realized, because unfortunately the international situation abruptly changed in autumn of 1920. The treaty wasn’t ratified because of the onset of the Turkish-Armenian war in late September of 1920, which resulted in Armenian defeat by the December 3 Treaty of Alexandropol. The Allied Powers had made a commitment to accept President Wilson’s Award as the final settlement. But unfortunately, they did not honor their pledge to their ally, Armenia.

      Until Turkey fulfills its obligations under the provisions contained in the Treaty of Sèvres based on international law, Turkey is obliged to:

      End the 27-year illegal land blockade of the Republic of Armenia
      Stop its aggressive steps against Armenia, especially recently
      Stop its anti-Armenian policies within Turkey – including on our historic and occupied lands – or outside, against the Armenian diaspora formed as a result of the Genocide
      Another fact which states the Treaty of Sevres’ was the first valid international document active status, none of the signatories have announced that the treaty is null and void, thus it is still active. Moreover, the document doesn’t contain any deadlines or timeframes.

      Although it has not been ratified by all signatories, it has not been legally replaced by any other international instrument. At least from the point of view of the Armenian Cause, and the interests of the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian nation, it remains a legal obligation based on international law, compelling it to return all confiscated properties to individual or community owners.

      Thus, it can be concluded that Treaty of Sevres is a valid document under public international law

      Legally binding and non-appealable legal documents. As per Article 2-F of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969, treaties that are signed by high contracting parties such as the Treaty of Sèvres are enforceable whether they are ratified or not.

      Turks must bear its responsibility and compensate all losses of the Armenian people.

  3. Ill be going there in September! I cant wait to see everything first hand. Thank you for your information and experience, it was very helpful.

  4. Really interesting once again! The breathtaking landscape mixed with complex history makes for a really interesting article. Good also to read your word of caution at the end…the fotos make it look really peaceful and tempting to go there.

  5. Love the places you visit. Thanks for sharing them with all! This post was particularly interesting.

  6. Well worth the wait. Thank you.

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