Nagorno-Karabakh: can I have a normal life in a 'non-state'?

Article published on Jan. 22, 2018
Article published on Jan. 22, 2018

Kara… what? Out of the spotlight, the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ex-Sovietic region in the Caucasus, has been fighting for more than 25 years to become independent from Azerbaijan but no state recognises it as such. Pablo Garrigós, a Spanish photojournalist, told us the stories of young people who want to study PhDs and start businesses in their unrecognised homeland.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a ‘country’ in a stalemate. Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a six-year war over this territory that ended 1994 with an eternal ceasefire – contenders have never achieved to sign a peace treaty. As a result, Karabakh is today neither at war nor at peace.

This agreement has never really been respected: both sides denounce breaches of the ceasefire every day, still nowadays -25 years after the agreement was reached. Up to 30,000 people have died in this war, BBC reports; a number that is not final as people continue being killed in this war every now and then in sporadic clashes.

War is (only?) in the air

Government of Nagorno-Karabakh controls de facto its small territory but no member of the United Nations recognises it as a country. This leaves the Republic of Artsakh - the new name it adopted last year, based on the Armenian translation of Nagorno-Karabakh - in a limbo. It is a state and not.

People living in Artsakh can feel the war-like atmosphere: prime-time TV is filled with military shows and patriotism is a common topic for movies, music and theatre plays.

Artsakh’s lack of recognition also has direct consequences everyday: for example, almost no country accepts Artsakhi passports. Most people have an Armenian one, since almost everyone living in the territory is an ethnic Armenian, and the country supports the cause of Nagorno-Karabakh. Without this passport, it would be impossible for them to travel outside of this country, which is as small as a third of Belgium.

150,000 people live under this situation, ‘trapped’ in a region composed mainly by small villages hidden behind mountains that reach more than 3,000 metres above the sea. Mountains are so prominent that are considered the symbol of this territory, that averages 1,097 metres high.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a ‘country’ in a stalemate. Its six-year war against Azerbaijan for its independence finished officially in 1994 with a ceasefire but the contenders never achieved to sign a peace treaty. It is neither at war nor at peace.  Its government controls de facto its small territory but no member of the United Nations recognises it as a country. This leaves the Republic of Artsakh - the new name it adopted last year- in a limbo. It is a state and not a state at the same time.

People living in Artsakh can feel the  war-like atmosphere: prime-time TV is filled with military shows and patriotism is a common topic for movies, music and theatre plays.

Artsakh’s lack of recognition also has direct consequences everyday: Artsakhi passports are not accepted in any country. Most people have an Armenian passport, a country with which Artsakhis have close cultural ties. Without one, it would be impossible for them to travel outside of this country, which is as big as a third of Belgium

Cafébabel Brussels met Pablo Garrigós, a photojournalist reporting from this forgotten republic, to learn how life is there. He has travelled several times to Artsakh to portray the lives of a group of youngsters in the small villages of this mountainous land: “A conflict report makes sense when we can see how the lives of people evolve. Some have got married, opened business…”, he explains.  

Nana, 26 years-old, is one of the young women portrayed by Garrigós. She studied Political Science in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Her life turned upside-down when the minister of education of Nagorno-Karabakh asked her to come back home to be one the second woman to undertake a PhD in the ‘country’ within political science studies. “I believe I can do much more for my country and be more effective than in Yerevan. Besides, there is nothing more important to me than helping my country and there is nothing better than doing it from here”, she explains, quoted by Pablo Garrigós.

Grigor is another young man living under this forgotten conflict.  He is a construction teacher, trained in France thanks to the support of a Franco-Armenian foundation. After having returned to his homeland, he decided to buy a house to establish a youth hostel. In April 2016, he was forced to leave everything and take a rifle to fight in the four-day conflict that broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Karabakh region. “When you go to the front, you don’t have the time to think what you leave behind. The first day you wonder if you will survive. The second one you realise you could have died the day before. The third your mentality changes: you start living for your country and not for yourself anymore”, he says.

Garrigós also portrayed the director of the ‘national’ theatre of Karabakh. “Theatre plays are good to entertain civil society and the military. It is also useful as a way of transmitting patriotism”, he explains. Due to the short outbreak of violence in 2016, the theatre lost all its male actors overnight. “I realise the consequences of the war and we see that this conflict has not finished for us yet. Despite the difficulties, this should not keep us from living in Karabakh. Honestly, I have a big family and we expect to stay here for a long time. We have built big houses. We are not stopping the works despite the ongoing war”, says the theatre’s director, quoted by the Spanish reporter.

Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh started back in 1988, close to the end of the Soviet Union. Within the red giant, the region was considered an autonomous province (oblast) inside the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan although most of the population were of Armenian origin. War broke out when this ethnic majority won a referendum, approving a bold request to the Soviet Union: Karabakh needed to be transferred to the rule of Soviet Armenia.

The Azeri and Armenian ethnic groups fought for six years until a ceasefire was signed in 1994. But the war-like atmosphere remains in the region as peace talks are still ongoing today. Armies have engaged in sporadic clashes ever since, with a peak in a four-days battle in 2016, in which Grigor fought. Up to 30,000 people have died in this war until now, BBC reports.

Pablo Garrigós says people’s tenacity is what has impressed him the most: “They have faith in an uncertain future, while this is not going to be easily solved”.  Such hard-to-achieve solution might be a reason that keeps mainstream media out of the region: “This conflict is hard to sell to media because it’s rather frozen”, Garrigós explains to Cafébabel. Garrigós  still committed to goingback there in 2019 to see how the life of the characters of his stories has changed, using his photographs to tell the lives of the people of this forgotten ‘republic’.  

But Artsakh is not the only country in Europe in such a situation. Geopolis, a photojournalism centre in Brussels gathered late last 2017 the work of six reporters, including Pablo Garrigós', on the ‘grey areas’ of Europe. This concept is used in international relations to define places whose sovereignty is under dispute, often into a frozen conflict, and where it is not clear what law and state apply.

The centre gathered photographs from Transnistria (officially part of Moldova), Donetsk and Crimea (in Ukraine, but under an unclear status) - along with three de facto independent republics but not internationally recognised in the Caucasus: South Ossetia and Abkhazia (Georgia) and Nagorno-Karabakh.

A conflict inherited from the collapse of the Soviet Union is behind the frozen wars of Transnistria and the three de facto republics of the Caucasus, a region located between Russia and Turkey. All four regions have pro-Russian regimes, except Artsakh, closer to its Armenian neighbour.

The clashes in Ukraine are more recent. It all started with the Russian annexation of Crimea in December 2014, a sparkle that lit up a wider conflict that now affects areas in Eastern Ukraine where more than 10 million people live.

Exhibiting reporters say that reasons to become a ‘grey area’ are very different and situations are unique but the feeling of uncertainty and a bitterness towards Europe is often a common trait.