Since the last years of the Soviet Union, the region around the Caucasus mountains has become an area of violent ethnic conflicts. The Armenian-Azerbaijan War for Nagorno-Karabakh, the hostilities in Georgia (South-Ossetia, Abkhazia), the clashes between Ossetians and Ingush within the Russian Federation, and last but not least the two large-scale Russian-Chechen Wars have drawn the attention of the international public to this up to then unknown region at the edge of Europe. But it was precisely this dangerous atmosphere that attracted journalists from all over the world to report directly from this new hot spot.
Thomas Goltz, an American journalist who worked in Turkey during the 1980s, was one of these journalists. In 1991, he was actually on his way to Tashkent, Soviet Uzbekistan, where he was to take up a position as an adjunct professor of history for the next two years, when he made a detour and landed in Baku, capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan. Personal contacts gave Goltz a unique inside view into Azerbaijani society in the last months of Soviet rule. He was so fascinated by the atmosphere that he decided to stay for sometime before leaving for Tashkent. After the failed coup in Moscow in August 1991 he returned from a sleepy Tashkent to a boiling Baku to cover the developments in the Caucasus for the next two and a half years.
Based on his experience, Goltz wrote a draft manuscript that was published in Istanbul in 1994 with the title “Requiem for a Would-be Republic” and covers the period from the Azerbaijani declaration of independence in 1991 to the Azerbaijani decision to join the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1993. In addition to the slightly revised text of Requiem, the present book, “Azerbaijan Diary”, includes an epilogue about the time from 1994 to November 1997, which he wrote after a short visit to Baku in the autumn of 1997.
Reading the book it becomes obvious that Goltz saw and experienced quite a lot during his stay in the Caucasus. The reader is overwhelmed by "new facts", unique first-hand observations, portraits of individuals from all spheres of Azerbaijani society, travel accounts, reports from the battlefront in Nagorno-Karabakh (e.g. the Xodjali catastrophe of February 26-27, 1992) and the negotiating table. Goltz also reproduces several interviews, for example with Abulfez Elchibey, the first democratically elected president of Azerbaijan, and Heydar Aliyev, the "Grand Old Man" of Azerbaijani politics, who returned to power in Baku in 1992-93 and rules as Azerbaijani president since that time.
The density and richness of his impressions are both an advantage and disadvantage for the book; sometimes the gripping story outweighs analytical clarity and structure. Goltz's aim is not to prove a thesis or a certain argument, but to disseminate as much information as possible about Azerbaijan and thereby to correct misperceptions and misinformation in the Western press. He states: "I have the arrogance to suggest to the reporters, editorial writers, and, ultimately, scholars of the period and place that they take the time to wade through this opus before furthering the promotion of "facts' based on repetitive errors". Thus, the book with its twenty-five chapters, a prologue and an epilogue is a "quarry" for all who are interested in the recent history of Azerbaijan.
Three maps of the Caucasus and the Azerbaijan Republic and several photographs help the reader to keep track with the fast-paced account and its changing personal and locations. Some (scholarly) readers will not like the first-person style of writing which reminds us of the annotated diary that was the source for the book, but other readers will enjoy "accompanying" Goltz through his fictitious-like "adventures in an oil-rich, war-torn, post-Soviet republic". Personally, I found this account insightful, fascinating and heart-breaking in equal measures.
After a lengthy stay courtesy of a lengthy book, it is time to take my leave of Azerbaijan. Well, sort of. Actually my next destination, Nagorno-Karabakh is a de facto independent but unrecognised state populated mainly by ethnic Armenians. However, the region’s international status remains so far unsettled, although many international organisations, governments and NGOs tend to recognise it as officially part of Azerbaijan, which has had no actual control over the region since 1991.
The next book “Black Garden” by Thomas de Waal, chronicles – through research and personal observation - the build-up and the aftermath of the events that led to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of the early 1990s and which continue to resonate today. As such this forms a valuable work to update the previous account by Goltz, and form a bridge between the Azerbaijan perspective and the Armenian perspective which will follow later.
In plotting out my round the world trip I probably made life difficult for myself here in terms of travel. Despite being ‘officially’ part of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh is only officially reached via Armenia – which comes later in my travels. Current US government advice states:
It is not possible to enter the self-proclaimed “Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh,” which is not recognized by the United States, from Azerbaijan. Travelers are cautioned to avoid travel to Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding occupied areas.
Therefore I travel to Armenia via Georgia in order to arrange a visa for Nagorno-Karabakh at their embassy in Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan – the only place one can obtain a visa for this area.
Throwing caution to the wind (and with one eye on my bank balance) I take a cheaper Azerbaijan Airlines flight from Baku to Tbilisi Airport in Georgia. This leaves at 23.30 and arrives at 23.50 for £129 (the flight is actually 1 hour 20 min – the hour is gained by time difference). I then lose my gained hour on a flight from Tbilisi to Yerevan in Armenia via Armavia Airlines. This leaves Tbilisi at 7.00 and arrives at 8.45 after a 45 minute flight for £66.
Upon arriving at the Nagorno Karabagh embassy in Yerevan, the visa procedures are pretty smooth: fill in the application form, bring a couple of pictures, pay the corresponding fee, and you can get the visa stamped on your passport the very same day. Everything’s perfectly normal, except for one thing: once stamped on your passport, Azerbaijan becomes forever off-limits (it is possible to get the visa put on a separate piece of paper if you ask)!!
Public taxis (‘marshrutka’) bound for Stepanakert, NK´s capital city, run daily from Yerevan´s Kilikia Central Bus Station. Once the Yerevan´s tufa-pink outskirts have faded out, the highway then runs southeast parallel to the Arax river towards semi-arid central Armenia. Across the other side of the Arax valley, Turkish territory, the twin peaks of a snowy Mount Ararat reach for the sky. The view of Ararat dissapears once the road reaches the Zangezur region, a longish corridor flanked on both sides by Azeri territory; the Nakhichevan exclave to our right and Azeri mainland on our left side. Iranian petrol tankers aplenty cross this road southwards on their way home. Their moustached drivers sound the horns of their rusty trucks, at the request of the kids who gather alongside the road without much else to do.
The marshrutka makes a necessary logistic stop atop the southern village of Goris before heading for the Lachin corridor. This “umbilical cord” connects Armenia´s mainland with the enclave proper and is, by far, the best road in the whole Caucasus. Unsurprisingly, it has been funded by the Hayastan Fund, the Armenia Diaspora spread all over the world.
A billboard welcomes us to “Free Artsakh”, which is the name Armenians give the enclave. A little further, an immigration officer makes sure documents and passports are in order at the Berdzor checkpoint.
The descent into Stepanakert is an easy run down through stunning scenery. The marshrutka lurches into the bus station where a handful of taxi drivers look in anticipation at the new arrivals. But the Karabakh capital is a small city, a place for walking, so there´s no need to pay any overpriced ride in a Lada.
Non-Armenians are required to register upon arrival at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where they are warned against visiting villages in the front line such as Aghdam. Thus I finally find myself in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic – a place which does not officially exist…