The war here was the largest such conflict. Both sides put forward intricate historical claims to the region. Azerbaijan says a million Azerbaijanis fled their homes in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. As many as 500,000 Armenians reportedly fled from Azerbaijan. Neither side has fully tried to integrate those people into society, and the subject remains, from politicians’ point of view, a useful sore point.
Nagorno-Karabakh has a population that has been variously estimated at between 90,000 and 145,000. Seventeen years into its life as a de facto state, it harbors a prickly and zealous society.
“We had nothing, and out of nothing we created something,” said Galya Arstamyan, whose son Grigory left the Soviet army so he could return home to fight. He was killed. Today she runs a museum dedicated to those who died. “We will live and prove to the world that Karabakh is the heart of the Armenian nation and the spirit of the Armenian nation. The land on which we live has become sacred from the blood of our martyrs. We are not recognized, but we are still here. We ask nothing from the world.”
Poghosyan has sponsored focus groups in Karabakh, Azerbaijan and Armenia. He said Azerbaijanis define “security” as the restoration of Azerbaijani rule over Karabakh. In Armenia proper, people believe security will come from an international settlement of the dispute, followed by diplomatic recognition of Karabakh. In Karabakh itself, he said, the attitude is: “Unrecognized? So what? My son is my best peacekeeper. What’s mine is mine.”
Karabakh is “holy for all Armenians,” Poghosyan said. “For the first time in our long history, we feel pride. We got rid of this image of victim.”
It’s a rallying point for the large Armenian diaspora, which supports schools, runs summer camps for children, and owns hotels and banks here. An annual worldwide telethon raises money for Karabakh. The unresolved status of the conflict keeps Karabakh front and center. Haytoug Chamlian, a lawyer from Montreal who comes every summer to the town known to Armenians as Shushi, where he sponsors a camp, says there can be no peace deal along the lines proposed by the big powers.
“That will never happen,” he said. “It’s unimaginable. Even a handful of soil cannot be returned.”
The Armenian kingdom was the first to adopt Christianity as its official religion, in 301, and Azerbaijanis are Muslims, though both sides like to play down the religious divide. (Iran favors Armenia, for one thing.) Yet Armenians marked their tanks with white crosses. And at the mountaintop Gandzasar Monastery, where the St. John the Baptist Cathedral was consecrated in 1240, there is a regular liturgy for the “martyrs” of the war.