The landlocked mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh is the subject of an unresolved dispute between Azerbaijan, in which it lies, and its ethnic Armenian majority, backed by neighbouring Armenia.
In 1988, towards the end of Soviet rule, Azerbaijani troops and Armenian secessionists began a bloody war which left the de facto independent state in the hands of ethnic Armenians when a truce was signed in 1994. Negotiations have so far failed to produce a permanent peace agreement, and the dispute remains one of post-Soviet Europe's "frozen conflicts."
Having just left Azerbaijan, I found “Black Garden” by Thomas de Waal a fascinating account. In this book he 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 of Azerbaijan by Goltz, and form a bridge between the Azerbaijan perspective and the Armenian perspective which will follow later.
For a full review of this complex account of the conflict I shall defer to an analysis by Fariz Ismailzade, editor of "Azeri Voice" Online Journal:
Writing about such a complicated conflict as Nagorno-Karabakh is always hard. The history of the conflict and the attachment to the land by both Armenians and Azeris are so intertwined that it makes the identification and revelation of the truth nearly impossible. Thomas de Waal came the closest to this mission.
His "Black Garden" does an excellent job describing the sorrow and tragedy of both nations and keeping the neutral perspective to the roots, development and current status of one of the bloodiest conflicts in the post-Soviet space.
In an easy-to-read fashion, de Waal travels through the history of the region, revealing past atrocities and the times of happiness and friendship between the two nations. He does so in such a manner, that constantly keeps the reader motivated to move to the next chapter. De Waal smoothly switches back and forth between history and present, personal lives and national politics, human tragedy and political achievements and all of these make the reading absolutely fascinating.
De Waal also reveals one of the most important features of the Karabakh conflict and that is the spiral model of the conflict. He manages to show to the reader how the conflict, which could have been easily prevented, started at low levels and quickly transformed into one of the hotspots in the world. De Waal also manages to describe the inability of the Soviet regime and its leader Mikhail Gorbachev to cope with the growing instability in the region and to prevent bloodshed.
The book also refutes all rumours and assumptions that the roots of the conflict go back to ancient times. De Waal excellently shows that the hatred between the Azeris and Armenians really started in the 19th century.
De Waal tries to show both perspectives to the conflict: the attachment to the land by both warring nations, the importance of cultural centers, such as Shusha, Armenian tragedies in Sumgait and massacres of Azeris in Khojali, the suffering of refugees in Azerbaijan and Armenia, Armenian and Turkish visions of the so called "Genocide of 1915". This all deserves him much credit.
Even describing such a sensitive event as Sumgait pogroms of Armenians, de Waal does not forget to mention how ordinary Azeris were helping to save Armenian lives: "...'We lived in a fourteen-story building with lots of Armenians in it. There were Armenians on the fourteenth floor and we hid them, none of them spent the night at home. In the hospital, people formed vigilance groups, every patient was guarded', says Natevan Tagiyeva [the Azeri citizen of Sumgait]."
The book does, however, open eyes on some of the interesting moments, still unknown or unacceptable for the majority of Armenians and Azeris. The author writes:
"...Uliev [Azeri from Agdam] was the first victim of intercommunal violence in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.." (p.15).
"...Yerevan, the capital of a khanate, was basically a Muslim city that contained no large churches but had six mosques." (pp.74-75)
"..Yet by the 20th century the Azerbaijani people, who had lived in eastern Armenia for centuries, had become its silent guests, marginalized and discriminated against. The Armenians asserted their rights to their homeland at the expense of these people. In 1918-1920, tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis were expelled from Zangezur. In the 1940s, tens of thousands more were deported to Azerbaijan to make way for incoming Armenian immigrants from Diaspora. The last cleansing in 1988-1989, got rid of the rest..." (p.80)
Most of the Armenians will probably disagree with the above mentioned statements. Similarly, the Azeris will argue with the following:
"Most of the attackers [in Sumgait] were not well armed but relied on sheer force of numbers... Many of the rioters, however, were carrying improvised weapons-sharpened pieces of metal casing and pipes from the factories-which would have taken time to prepare. This is one of many details that suggest that the violence was planned in at least a rudimentary fashion..."
Karabakh conflict is truly a sorrow and sadness of the Caucasus, but more so, it is a tragedy of two nations, who have been friends for the most of the time. De Waal passes the words of Azeri guy Zaur, who says: "During the war I was always afraid that I would suddenly see Vazgen or Sunik [his Armenian friends in Shusha] through the sights of my gun... I had nightmares about that..."
De Waal concludes with a phrase that must be the guiding principle for the solution of the conflict, which is often ignored by the warring sides: "Any just solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute will entail painful compromises on both sides, and it will have to balance radically opposing principles..."
I shall visit the other protagonist in this complex dispute, Armenia, soon. In the meantime I travel next to Georgia – another former Soviet state with its own complex disputes…
In doing so I effectively retrace the steps taken in my convoluted journey from Azerbaijan to Nagorno-Karabakh. I take a ‘marshrutka’ taxi from Stepanakert back to Yerevan in Armenia, via the ‘Lachin corridor’ that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.
Still retracing my steps, I take a flight from Yerevan to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. Again, I fly with Armavia Airlines for the 45-minute flight that leaves Yerevan Zvartnots airport at 17.35 and touches down (allowing for the time difference) at Tbilisi Novo Alexeyevka airport at 17.20: for £76.30 one-way.
Tbilisi, courtesy of “Stories I Stole” - an account by former Time journalist Wendell Steavenson of her stay there at the end of the twentieth century - will be my home during my stopover in Georgia…