By Emil Danielyan in Stepanakert
The fruits of victory must have tasted particularly sweet for the Balayan family as it picked mulberries and figs in the gardens of Agdam on a hot Sunday afternoon. Completely devastated since its capture by Armenian forces eight years ago, this Azerbaijani ghost town just outside Nagorno-Karabakh sums up the scale of Armenian gains in the bitter secessionist war of 1991-94.
Standing amidst its ruins with his wife, daughter and two grandchildren, Serob Balayan, a 66-year-old pensioner from Stepanakert, had an uncompromising message to Armenian leaders and international mediators trying to exchange Agdam and other occupied Azerbaijani lands for a de-facto independence for Karabakh.
“We defeated them with their weapons,” he said. “We took Agdam, we took Fizuli and Kelbajar. These are all Armenian lands.”
“After sustaining so many casualties, why should we give them any lands? Never,” his wife Bella joined the conversation. “What about our dead and our blood?”
The militant statements by the couple appear to reflect the dominant mood in the Armenian-populated disputed region, which broke away from Soviet Azerbaijani rule in the late 1980s. Hardened by years of conflict, the Karabakh Armenians remain deeply mistrustful of their Azeri neighbours, preferring the existing no-war-no-peace situation to what they see as an unreliable peace. Persisting economic hardships do not seem to have softened this sentiment, with painful memories of the war still holding a powerful grip on people’s minds.
This is a factor which the mediators from the OSCE’s Minsk Group will have to cope with when they press on with their peace initiatives that made the conflicting parties inch towards a settlement earlier this year. At least for them and Azerbaijan, the return of six out of seven occupied Azerbaijani districts surrounding Karabakh is beyond question. But as interviews with ordinary Karabakh residents revealed, that should not be taken for granted.
“How can we return territories taken with a fight? Why did people pay for them with their lives?” asked Robert Stepanian, a Karabakh army officer and, like the region’s entire male population, a war veteran.
The same argument is cited by many other locals, who say they are undaunted by the constant threat of renewed fighting. Continued control of the occupied lands is seen as vital for Karabakh’s security.
One Stepanakert-based journalist suggested another explanation for this reluctance to give them away in return for the hard-won independence. As time goes by, he said, there is a growing “proprietorial attitude” among the Karabakh Armenians towards the most tangible result of their military victory over Azerbaijan. Some of them have an economic interest in maintaining the occupation , using the lands in question for agricultural purposes. Their previous Azeri owners fled their homes in the face of advancing Armenian troops and still live in refugee camps across Azerbaijan.
The hard-line public opinion is a major challenge to the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which stands ready to withdraw from most of the occupied territories. But NKR President Arkady Ghukasian is not worried about a possible domestic backlash against a compromise peace deal, on which the Minsk Group negotiators are currently working. Arguing that concessions must not be “unilateral,” Ghukasian says he is able to sell such an agreement to his suspicious people.
But for the moment, he says, “the issue of the territories is not topical for us. It will be addressed only after an agreement on Karabakh’s status.”
Healing the wounds left by the conflict will no doubt be a difficult task. The story of Agdam illustrates how deep Armenian-Azerbaijani mutual antagonism runs. A small mosque flanked by two minarets is all that is left of the once bustling town of 40,000 inhabitants which was reputed to have the richest bazaar in the former Soviet Union.
From its bases in Agdam and the eponymous district the Azerbaijani army wreaked havoc on nearby Armenian-populated villages right from the start of the war. Even the capital Stepanakert wasn’t spared relentless shelling. Several Karabakh villages adjacent to Agdam were overrun and burned down by Azerbaijani forces during their 1992 summer offensive.
A year later it was the Armenians’ turn to strike hard. The fall of Agdam was the most dramatic in a string of Armenian military victories of 1993. Stones from the town’s looted and devastated houses have since been heavily used in the rebuilding of Karabakh villages damaged by the fierce fighting.
It is this grim reality that makes Silva Balayan skeptical about chances of peace. She said: “Armenians and Azeris lived in peace and traded with each other after the massacres of 1915-18. Over time this will again become possible. But not at this moment because nothing has been decided yet.”
Younger Karabakhis sound even more uncompromising. The former “children of the war” remember horrors of the conflict much better than the days when Karabakh was under Azerbaijani rule. “In my opinion, we shouldn’t make any concessions. All the lands must remain ours and things must stay as they are,” said Marat, 19, as he strolled with his friends in Stepanakert’s amusement park.
Lira, a 18-year-old history student at Karabakh State University, spent part of her childhood hiding in bomb shelters. “There is a saying that lands taken with blood are never handed back,” she reasoned. “And if we are real patriots we must not allow our state, our leadership to take such a step.”
Asked about peace and reconciliation with the Azerbaijanis, she was equally categorical: “This won’t happen, I don’t believe in it. No matter how long the [would-be] peace lasts, we will end up in the same situation in 20 or 50 years.”