Through the Fog Nagorno-Karabakh Settles in for Five Years of Uncertainty

Russian troops have arrived in Nagorno-Karabakh to keep the peace, but thousands of Armenians are having to flee the region. They are leaving nothing to the arriving Azerbaijanis – and it is unclear when normalcy might return.
Peacekeeping troops in Dadivank

Peacekeeping troops in Dadivank

Foto: Johanna-Maria Fritz / DER SPIEGEL

The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh is not even 30 years old, and it is uncertain whether it will grow much older. Built on the ruins of the Soviet Union, it is now melting away like snow in the sun.

The Dadivank Monastery, which is more than 800 years old, looks as if it was carved into the mountains. If you want to understand what is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh these days, it is best to start here. It is good to have something permanent to hold on to.

On this particular Monday morning, there are few worshippers in the monastery. But there are other visitors: Down on the road below, which leads from Armenia to the city of Stepanakert, there is a Russian armored personnel carrier, a second one is parked in front of the monastery gate. A press officer barks at a group of freezing cold Russian journalists who have just arrived in an open truck.

The monastery of St. Dadi is a special place – for religious, art-historical, and, more recently, also political reasons. Russian President Vladimir Putin has explicitly placed it under Russian protection. Dadivank certainly needs it. It is located in the area from which the Armenian-controlled quasi-state of Nagorno-Karabakh – called the "Republic of Artsakh" – must withdraw. Azerbaijani troops will take over control again.


Photo Essay from Nagorno-Karabakh

Foto: Johanna-Maria Fritz / DER SPIEGEL

That is stipulated in the cease-fire agreement, signed by the defeated Armenia following a successful, large-scale offensive by Azerbaijan and negotiated with the help of Russian mediation. Many Armenians have already come to tearfully bid farewell to the monastery, Dadi's grave and also the abbot.

Father Hovhannes Hovhannesyan, a tall man with a white beard, is well-known among Armenians. When war broke out at the end of September, he had himself photographed with a cross in one hand and a Kalashnikov in the other. The official Twitter account of the Republic of Armenia shared the photo with the slogan "Faith & Power!” It underscored the country's confidence in victory and the conviction that this was, in a sense, a holy war. Christianity in Armenia is not just a religion, it is a national identity.

Father Hovhannes will stay in Dadivank. He says that the Kalashnikov in the photo does not symbolize aggression, but the readiness to defend oneself. Yet contempt, hostility and mistrust seep through his words.

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"We Armenians are God’s people. We build and do good. For the Azerbaijanis, the temptation is great to destroy that, it gives them pleasure," he claims. Father Hovhannes is grateful for Putin's protection. But he feels the whole of Christendom should protect his monastery. "How long will the peacekeeping troops be around? Five years? Fifty years? Nobody knows."

That is the core problem on which everything else depends. A war has ended and a cease-fire is in force, which is good news. But only the strong presence of Russian troops can ensure the status quo. The peace mission is limited to five years for the time being and can be terminated unilaterally. Will the rest of Nagorno-Karabakh then fall into Azerbaijani hands as well?

The road leading past Dadivank is one of only two arterials connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with the motherland of Armenia. Without those, the Republic of Artsakh would be doomed. At its core, it consists of an Armenian autonomous region within Azerbaijan, which declared itself independent toward the end of the Soviet Union. Before long, though, the island of territory became a de-facto extension of the motherland, following Armenia's surprising success in a war that led to hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis fleeing the area and the island being connected to Armenia proper in 1994.

The new road across Dadivank was inaugurated in 2017. For poor Armenia, the construction was a major project, an investment in the future of Artsakh. But it was also a clear indication that Armenia had no intention of returning the additional territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh that it had conquered, despite the fact that peace talks since the early 1990s had foreseen just such a return. Instead, Armenia was clearly interested in promoting the region's economy, infrastructure and settlement.

Now, after a lost war, these districts must be returned after all. The Republic of Artsakh will become an island again, and the road past Dadivank is essentially severed, with part of it coming under Azerbaijani control.

Khanum Grigoryan is one of those whose livelihood used to depend on the road. She had a store in the town of Yeghegnut, not far from the monastery, where she sold jingalov hats, the traditional herbal flatbread. Now, she is harvesting the last potatoes from her garden and – like all Armenians – preparing to leave before the territory is handed back over to the Azerbaijanis on Nov. 25. But she is not planning on lighting her house on fire, as others have done. "How could I do such a thing? My grandchildren were born here," she says.


Titelillustration: SAMSON / DER SPIEGEL

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 48/2020 (November 21, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

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Her home has already taken a beating anyway: At a time when both Khanum and her husband Volodya were away, they were robbed of furniture, bed linens, the porch roof and their tandoor oven. The region has been overtaken by an anything-goes mentality and whatever isn't nailed down is at risk of being swiped. Meanwhile, the forest is being culled for firewood lest it fall into enemy hands.

The situation was precisely the reverse when Khanum and Volodya moved to Yeghegnut in the early 1990s. The walls of the Azerbaijani home they moved into and later expanded were charred by fire. They constantly lived in uncertainty, not knowing if their region might fall back into Azerbaijani hands. When Khanum's daughter renovated her own home, Khanum asked: "Why are you doing that? The Turks are coming anyway." That's what Azerbaijanis are called in these parts: Turks.

For Khanum, it is the second time she has been displaced. In the late 1980s, she had to flee the Azerbaijani city of Mingachevir when violence erupted against local Armenians. She is part of the generation that still speaks fluent Azerbaijani. Back then, she was unable to take anything with her, but this time, she at least has time to pack and to cry.

In Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, life is cautiously resuming. Many of the facades are damaged, not a single café is open, garbage is piling up in the smoky hallways of Hotel Armenia and the market has been almost completely destroyed. Most of the people you see out and about are men in uniform. Still, the streets are being cleaned up and every evening, buses full of returnees arrive from the Armenian capital of Yerevan.

Mayor David Sargsyan governs the city from the ground floor of city hall, where food packages are being handed out to those in need. He abandoned his office on the third floor when the city came under artillery fire. One shell hit right next door.

Father Hovhannes: "How long will the peacekeeping troops be around? Five years? Fifty years? Nobody knows."

Father Hovhannes: "How long will the peacekeeping troops be around? Five years? Fifty years? Nobody knows."

Foto: Johanna-Maria Fritz / DER SPIEGEL

Some 70 percent of the city’s buildings have been damaged, he says. Fifteen percent have been left without natural gas and electricity. Much of his staff have yet to return. To complicate things, COVID-19 is rampant in Stepanakert, an illness that Sargsyan himself has already had. Of Stepanakert's more than 50,000 residents, only about half of them are currently in the city.

David Sargsyan avoids talking about politics, since it is rather dangerous to do so in Armenia at the moment, with society deeply divided. In Yerevan, many see Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan as a traitor for signing the cease-fire agreement. Sargsyan merely says: "It's not important which territories are being handed over to whom. What's important is how many residents return to Nagorno-Karabakh." Before the war, his city's most important revenue source was tourism, but it is difficult to imagine visitors returning anytime soon.

First, the dead must be buried – or even identified. In the evening, a number of uniformed men are standing in front of the city's morgue, awaiting the arrival of 28 bodies from the village of Karintak. "First, you Germans helped out the Turks with the 1915 genocide of the Armenians, and now you're in league with Turkey again," screams an enraged, desperate and drunk officer. Most of the dead from Karintak were under his command, another explains.

This interpretation of the war is widespread here: namely that Armenians fought not with Azerbaijan, but with the much larger country of Turkey. And that what was at stake was not a specific piece of land, but the survival of the Armenian people.

Hundreds of casualties still haven't been identified, and the severity of Armenian losses only became clear once the cease-fire had gone into effect. Instead of around 1,300 dead, it was suddenly closer to 2,300. Military and government leaders had remained confident right up until the end, making it all the more difficult to accept defeat.

"For me, the war ended just as quickly as it started," says artilleryman Armen Khachatryan, who was fighting just half-an-hour from Stepanakert. "At 2 a.m., we were suddenly ordered to cease fire. If it could stop so fast, then why did it take so long?"

Khachatryan was born in 1992, back when his father was fighting on the frontlines. His daughter was born in 2016, at a time when he himself was fighting against Azerbaijan. He wants to remain in Stepanakert and speaks of the Azerbaijanis without hate. But he is convinced that if the Russian peacekeeping troops withdraw in five years, "it will be the final day" for Nagorno-Karabakh.

Russian peacekeeping troops in Shusha.

Russian peacekeeping troops in Shusha.

Foto: Johanna-Maria Fritz / DER SPIEGEL

Wherever you go at the moment, you run into Russian troops. But nowhere is the Russian presence as important as it is on the old road leading from Stepanakert to Armenia via Lachin. It will be the only connection remaining once the new road via Dadivank is blocked. And it is a security nightmare for the Armenians.

High above Stepanakert lies the city of Shusha, or Shushi in Armenian. Its fall proved decisive in this war. It is the gate to Nagorno-Karabakh and the keys to the gate are now in the hands of Baku. In early November, Azerbaijani troops reconquered the city after suffering significant losses, which meant they also had control over the road below. The cease-fire came a short time later. Armenia's prime minister says that had they continued fighting, they likely would have lost Stepanakert as well.

Volodya Grigoryan and his son-in-law in their home in Yeghegnut. They must now leave.

Volodya Grigoryan and his son-in-law in their home in Yeghegnut. They must now leave.

Foto: Johanna-Maria Fritz / DER SPIEGEL

Winning that battle was also a symbolic victory for Azerbaijan. Shusha is the historical capital of the region and at the end of the Soviet era, it was almost exclusively populated by Azerbaijanis.

The road from Stepanakert to Armenia first winds up the mountain and runs right past Shusha. It was reopened last week, secured by Russian checkpoints. Thick fog hangs over the mountain. The bodies that lined the road have been removed – most of them, that is. A mangled corpse with no head or legs appears out of the fog, then jackets, fractured helmets and a bingo game battered by the wind.

The second Russian checkpoint is located right behind the new town sign. An Azerbaijani flag is waving in the wind, with a smaller, Turkish flag next to it – an expression of gratitude to Turkey, which actively supported the offensive. Only a thin metal fence separates the road from land under Azerbaijan control and Azerbaijani troops are standing at a gate. It would be simple enough for them to close the road.

But according to the cease-fire agreement, a five-kilometer-wide corridor to the left and right of the road must be free from Azerbaijan's control. For Shusha, that means that the road must be rerouted at significant effort.

For Lachin (called Berdsor in Armenian), after which the corridor is named, it also means trouble. There are peacekeeping troops in Lachin but all shops except for one are closed and a modern looking supermarket is being cleared out. No one feels safe anymore, a worker there says.

The stores are closed because it was bombed shortly before the cease-fire went into effect, says David Davtyan, chief of staff for the district head. He hopes the residents will eventually return.

But Davtyan's Kashatagh district will no longer exist in its current form. Only 3,000 of its residents live in the future corridor – in Lachin and two other settlements. The other 9,000 people will have to look for new homes, with the rest of the province set to be handed over to Azerbaijan on Dec. 1. "Only Russia and France helped us. The rest of the world was silent," Davtyan says gloomily.

Behind Lachin, where the corridor comes to an end and Armenia begins, stands a long column of military hardware, from self-propelled artillery to supply trucks. Like everywhere in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Russian military has demonstrated here just how quickly it can mobilize its forces.

The peacekeeping mission is to include 1,960 soldiers, 90 armored personnel carriers and 380 additional vehicles. One can be grateful to Moscow for having brought the conflict to an end. But the peace mission only extends for five years. What then?

The Republic of Artsakh, it seems, is like a ripe piece of fruit for Azerbaijan to pick at the next opportunity. It is not yet clear how the cease-fire could evolve into a lasting peace for both sides. Much like the road itself, what lies ahead is shrouded by fog.

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