(First in a several part series about Artsakh)
There are a lot of complaints about the Republic of Armenia. It’s corrupt, there is no respect for the law, oligopolies control the economy, the environment is mindlessly ravaged, the people are unemployed, depressed, and looking for a one-way ticket out. There is a lot of the same in Artsakh, but it’s better.
Years ago one of my brothers came here then told me, “when you see it, you realize why we fought for it.” And when I saw it for the first time, driving through Berdzor, surrounded by a forest so thick it looks like a blanket of trees covering the mountains, I knew what he meant. All the geopolitical and historical arguments I’d made for Armenians’ right to govern themselves on this land went out the window; one needs to but see the majesty of these mountains to grasp why Armenians will not let this land go.
I was speaking with the driver of a dilapidated GAZelle we rented to travel to Shushi. He said he was from Stepanakert, he looked about 50. I asked him if he was originally from here because I know there were a lot of people who were displaced during the war; he affirmed that he was. He told me that he and his whole family were here when Stepanakert’s civilian population was being shelled with GRAD missiles by Azerbaijani forces from Shushi. He may have fought in the war; I didn’t ask. But I did ask whether he planned on staying or going. He responded like most people here do: “Where am I going to go? This is my home. If I go, who will stay?” This is the attitude of a guy driving a van that can climb a hill at no more than 20 MPH and who lived through the criminal bombardment of the city in which he and his family were living – and this is the attitude in Yerevan.
In Stepanakert, the streets are clean and the people mellow. A police officer stopped us because we weren’t using the crosswalk because, really, who uses crosswalks anywhere outside of California? Artsakhtsis do. He asked us to use the crosswalk and was on his way. Whereas the drivers in Yerevan seem almost like they are trying to run pedestrians over, the drivers here stop for people crossing the street. And the people crossing the street acknowledge the gesture. What is this humanity?!
The taxi drivers don’t try to gyp you as soon as they realize you’re not from there. Actually, several of them tried to refuse the 100AMD tip I tried to give them and only took it after I insisted. Another time, we asked our taxi driver to stop on the way up to Shushi so we could see the tank used in its liberation. From where the tank is situated, I could see the driver milling around in the bushes and I wondered what he was doing. When we descended, it turned out he was picking blackberries for us. Hands stained, he handed them over. Ya, really.
The men don’t all have what seems to be a male fashion accessory in Armenia: the half-dome stomach. They look stronger, like what you read about in Armenian fables – except with unfortunate Caesar-style haircuts.
There are new buildings that have been and are being built in Stepanakert and part of the apartments in each are allocated to war veterans and their families. Speaking of buildings, they have managed to rebuild the fortress at Tigranakert while unfathomably not putting a cafe next door – or inside.
And there is jingalov hats, for which there is even a song (if you don’t understand anything, don’t worry, it’s in the awesome Karabakh Armenian dialect). If this doesn’t signify an improvement on Armenia, I don’t know what does.
It’s not all perfect. There is still a war going on. I found this out when I tried taking a picture of a poster memorializing the sacrifice and strength that wrought victory that was on what turned out to be a military dormitory; three young soldiers promptly popped out of their station to tell me to tell me pictures weren’t allowed. More seriously, soldiers die regularly on the front line.
Shushi, the crown jewel of Artsakh and the Caucasus, is still mostly in ruins. Some buildings have been rebuilt but many of them are derelict and awaiting what government officials say is a final plan for what to do with the city and how to do it.
Some of the people I spoke with have told me that there is corruption here, too, although I’ve come to learn that corruption means different things to different people. For some, a police officer taking bribes is corruption. For others, a government official using their influence to secure financial benefits for him or herself is corruption. Nevertheless, there isn’t a general feeling that the government is embezzling all the funds in the country like there is in Armenia.
And despite the heartwarming story above, there is also emigration. The Republic of Artsakh is woefully underdeveloped and the people suffer because of it. The little that the government is able to do has been compounded with the investments of some wealthy Armenians, mostly from the Diaspora, but it hasn’t been enough to catalyze an active and vibrant economy. Agriculture is the traditional mainstay but a mixture of land mines, irrigation issues, and lack of any developed formal agriculture economy, villagers have a difficult time making ends meet.
On the issue of emigration, though, what was most impressive was that any young person I met that was college-age or a college graduate expressed little desire to go abroad and stay abroad. There is certainly an interest in seeing new places but the feeling is always that they should return to Artsakh – and they do, as many of the Artsakhtsis I met who had spent time in the United States or elsewhere had.
Frankly, the Republic of Artsakh realizes that it cannot be the Republic of Armenia. It cannot discourage investment by creating the impression that an oligarch might step in for a piece of the pie if he sees fit; it cannot completely ignore the social needs of the elderly and veterans; it cannot act like it doesn’t have youth and uninterestedly kill their desire to stay and help their homeland. What has happened is that the Republic of Artsakh’s supposed curse – lack of international recognition of its statehood – has been a blessing because it has required it to be better – exemplary, even. When Artsakh starts setting the trend for its bigger, internationally-recognized brother to the west, don’t be surprised.
By: William Bairamian