The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is one of the most complicated of our time. In this first part, Blankspot's reporter Rasmus Canbäck has traveled to the border area between the countries to seek answers from the people who live between war and peace.
Av Rasmus Canbäck 16 september, 2022
The reporting work was done together with Nvard Melkonyan who translated and arranged contacts on site. Without her, the reporting would not have happened. This is the first part in a series that will be published during the autumn.
Pictures by Rasmus Canbäck.
A green military jeep with a black license plate comes up behind us. The military police designation is visible on it as the man behind the wheel slows down.
– I saw you over in Tegh, he says in a stern voice as he opens the door. What did you do there?
He jumps down from his high seat and lands in his black leather boots on the dusty ground. On his chest, large Russian Cyrillic and Armenian letters indicate that he is an officer. It has been 45 minutes since we were in the village of Tegh, and since then we have been driving on small roads far from there.
He has asked others where he could find us.
– You are a reporter, I understand, a journalist, he says. Where do you work? I make sure that you haven’t taken pictures of anything that you’re not allowed to take pictures of.
As he looks through the pictures in the camera, he nods. He states that I did not photograph the Russian military base that was next to the location where I took the photos.
The Russian military base which two years ago was not there and which now guards the road to Nagorno-Karabakh.
– Thank you for that, he says. Take care now. No pictures of military personnel. Understood?
It is the end of July. The Armenian summer heat is intense and it’s a relief when day turns to evening and the winds start blowing. In the fields outside the village of Tegh, right on the border with Azerbaijan, the villagers are out harvesting. They are in a hurry to finish their final tasks before the sun goes down.
It is the summer harvest and after it, the fields must be burned so that it can sprout for a second harvest in the fall.
I have been here many times before, most recently in March of last year. It was just a couple of months after the war in Nagorno-Karabakh ended with a ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In the agreement, the parties agreed that Russian troops have a mandate to guard the cease-fire for the next five years, until 2025. That mandate also includes guarding the road, the Lachin Corridor, which runs between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which is formally within Azerbaijan’s borders. De facto, the Armenian-dominated region is self-governing from Azerbaijan.
According to the agreement, the parties would also build a new road no later than November 2023, i.e. in more than a year. What I did not know is that as I stood there on July 28, there were just days until fighting would break out again.
At the beginning of August, Azerbaijan attacked the Armenian positions and forced a faster transition of the Lachin Corridor to them. Both Russia and the EU have singled out Azerbaijan as the perpetrator. Azerbaijan itself asserts its territorial rights and thus does not see the attack, which they called “Operation Revenge”, as violating any protocols.
My plan this day was to go into Nagorno-Karabakh. It would be my fifth trip there. A couple of years ago I could drive on the road unimpeded. Last year’s passage was preceded by a rigorous and nervous process where, just a week before departure, a list leaked of all the foreign journalists denied entry by the Russians.
Reporters Without Borders sharply criticized it. American Freedom House believes that Azerbaijan forced an isolation of Nagorno-Karabakh, which risks limiting transparency in a place where independent journalism is most needed.
That is as far as I managed to get. This year, on my latest attempt, they refused me an entry visa.
This was despite extensive planning. I had contact with, what some call “privileged contacts”, in both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Diplomats at the top level.
The Armenian side was the first to say no. The message came a month before my departure that they could not help with anything. Several diplomats gave the explanation that it is a “security issue”. “What if something were to happen to a foreign journalist?”. One of them admitted, after discussion, that it was ultimately not up to the local authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh, or the Republic of Artsakh, as they call it.
It is up to the Russian so-called peacekeeping troops to say yes or no.
Some believe that it was when the war started in Ukraine that it became even more difficult to enter Nagorno-Karabakh. The Russians simply do not want to see any Western journalists in the region. Others believe that as the peace talks have moved from the OSCE to Brussels, Azerbaijan is pressuring the Russians even harder not to let anyone through.
Anyone who has previously crossed the border without a permit from Azerbaijan, which is almost impossible to obtain, is put on a list of criminals, a black list.
This list has not been updated since 2020. Presumably, this is because Azerbaijan considers that after the invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh, it resolved the conflict and “restored territorial integrity”. With a blacklist, the government indirectly admits that one can still enter the country illegally, and that the list in its mere existence is a contradiction to the official rhetoric.
Anyway, even the Republic of Artsakh finally refused to grant me a visa. This was despite the fact that several diplomats announced that they would do everything they could.
A month later, at the beginning of September, came the last nail in the coffin of foreign independent journalism in Nagorno-Karabakh. Anyone applying for a visa is now being told that no foreign nationals can be granted a visa, regardless of whether they belong to the Red Cross, are married to someone in Nagorno-Karabakh or are a journalist.
That applies to all but one category: soccer players. In Nagorno-Karabakh, about ten African young men play in the local league.
That is why I have started playing amateur football in Stockholm’s fourth division. Soon I will be a semi-pro.
The 80-year-old Baba Kazak, who says it does not really matter what his name is because everyone calls him that, stands outside his house and calls out over the valley below. His house is perched on top of a hill at Armenia’s southernmost tip and on the other side of the river below, just a stone’s throw away, is Iran.
– Mohammad is usually there, says Baba Kazak with a laugh. I stand here on my hill and he’s down there among the crops; then we talk. It’s a shame about those on the other side. They don’t have any booze, so sometimes I hand him a bottle or two.
Baba Kazak is called so because he has put up a sign outside his property that says “Kazakshen”, or the Kazakh’s house. Not because he is Kazakh. “Not at all,” he says and explains, “but sometimes I feel like one. So I named my home the home of the Kazakh”.
Sure, he is a character, a kind of local figure that everyone knows in Meghri and Agarak in the southernmost parts of Armenia, but above all, his story is unique.
He grew up in the outlying border town of Agarak and moved to Saint Petersburg in his twenties. There he met his Russian wife and stuck around for fifty years, but all the while he had the dream of moving back—to move to this hill overlooking the Arax River valley, which marks the border between Armenia and Iran. “It’s the most beautiful place in the world,” he sighs.
– When the wife heard about my plans to move here, ten years ago, she let me go, he says. She was as tired of me as I was of her. Never marry a Russian wife. Now we don’t talk anymore. She called me and bothered me with all the family dramas. ’To hell with them, she can handle the drama herself’, I told her.
When he came to Kazakshen, it was just a pile of rubbish. He cleared everything away and started building. The authorities complained at first, but after a short trial they saw he was doing pretty well and handed over the land to him.
Ten years later, the situation has changed. The road leading to the house is guarded by Russian troops and nowhere along the entire Armenian-Iranian border is it permitted to take pictures or stop the car.
Except at Baba Kazak. And now a Russian flag has been hung on the grounds to appease the Russian soldiers.
Since the 2020 war, it is not only the road to Nagorno-Karabakh which Russian soldiers guard. In a brief time, Armenia’s formal military ally Russia has increasingly taken control of all the border areas between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran.
Anyone who is a foreign journalist hardly gets access to these areas. Some of them, such as in the northern part of the Syunik Province, require special permission from the Armenian Security Service. Other areas, such as the road that passes Baba Kazak’s house, need permission from the Russian troops. Just as in the case of the Lachin Corridor, foreign journalists are generally denied permission to drive on this road.
Formally, Russia has about 2,000 peacekeeping troops, which are authorized by Armenia and Azerbaijan, in Nagorno-Karabakh. In Armenia, Russia has also had a military base in the city of Gyumri since the 1990s with 4,500 troops. It is part of Armenia and Russia’s membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – the post-Soviet answer to NATO.
Since the 2020 war, the troops at the military base in Gyumri have been redeployed across the country, and Russian military vehicles are everywhere on the roads, as well as silver-green cars with the words FSB – the Russian security service that has formal cross-border responsibility.
If in March 2021 there was a large Russian military movement in Nagorno-Karabakh, it has now spread to Armenia.
The airport outside the town of Sisian has been taken over by Russia, as well as the military base in Meghri, where locals have even opened a restaurant called “Café Russia”. In that small town, there is a quarter which Russians almost exclusively inhabit with their families.
In restaurants, you bump into a number of Russian soldiers with their girlfriends. A few are wearing t-shirts with the letter “Z”.
Only in a few media outlets can you read about the Russian presence, which, in the shadow of the war in Ukraine, has rapidly increased in Armenia. Perhaps the media silence is due to Azerbaijan constantly using it as a propaganda argument against Armenia that the country is practically a Russian satellite state.
Baba Kazak picks up his fishing hat to protect his head from the strong sun as he shows me around the property. In just ten years, he has planted around a hundred trees, built his house and made the hill flourish. He smiles at the youngsters who come up to his house to date each other in peace in secluded corners he has arranged for them.
The Russian flag flying up on the hill is not there because he is some “big Russian patriot, it is just practical to have it there”, as he says.
– The officers come by here sometimes for coffee or a few glasses of vodka, he says. They usually smile with satisfaction at the flag here.
At the same time, he has hung flags from all corners of the world on his patio. There is a Chinese, American, French and Mongolian flag. He has also hung ones of the EU and the UN.
– Oh, everyone can come here, he says and laughs with satisfaction. After all, deep down I am an Armenian patriot, nothing else. And everyone knows about that. When the war was ongoing, I went to the volunteer centers three times and told them “give me a gun now damn it, I’m ready to fight”. They called me too old and told me to go back to Kazakshen.
Below the hill, where no one is really allowed to go, a Russian soldier is walking. Baba Kazak calls out to him and the soldier waves back. He goes behind a bush and can be seen putting a fishing net into the river.
A little way down the river, on the Armenian side, is another Russian military post. A truck is in the process of dumping sand there to strengthen it further.
Below you can see an old Soviet train track, or the remains of it. The rails were removed many years ago.
As part of the 2020 ceasefire agreement, it was not just the Lachin Corridor that was regulated. There is also an intention to open communications between Azerbaijan and the country’s enclave of Nakhitjevan.
Today, all transport going between Azerbaijan and the enclave has to travel through Iran. The road is beyond the green fields where Baba Kazak calls out to Mohammad, and you can see the cars driving there.
An Azeri population inhabits the northern parts of Iran, and it is called Iranian Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijan, many call it South Azerbaijan, and the feud between Iran and Azerbaijan over these areas has long been the cause of bad relations between the countries.
During the Soviet era, the road between Azerbaijan and Nakhitjevan went behind Baba Kazak’s house – on the same road where foreign journalists are not allowed to drive today. The old train track below is where the locomotives brought passengers and goods.
In Armenia the stretch is called the “Meghri Corridor”, while in Azerbaijan it is the “Zangezur Corridor”.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has made historical claims on Syunik Province, or Zangezur as it is called in Azerbaijani, in several speeches. The OSCE, for its part, has accused Ilham Aliyev of threatening a new war and called the rhetoric “inflammatory”.
While Azerbaijan wishes to equate the status of the Zangezur Corridor with the Lachin Corridor, the Armenian side believes that they are two different statuses. The Lachin Corridor, according to Armenia, is a humanitarian corridor established by the cease-fire agreement and where Azerbaijan lacks de facto control over the road. The Zangezur Corridor is also stipulated in the agreement with the difference that it concerns regional communications where Armenia has continued de facto and de jure control over the communications.
In other words, that Armenia has the right to customs and border control over the corridor in the southern part of the country.
This view is shared by the vast majority of people we speak to in Meghri. They say they can accept the resumption of train traffic, but as for the road itself there is consensus that Azerbaijan should not use it for ordinary traffic.
A week after we were in southern Armenia, the entire road from Meghri to Agarak closed to non-essential traffic and the Russians are now checking ID cards. The official excuse is that they want to prevent smuggling from Iran.
An excuse that almost no one believes.
Three Iranian trucks have stopped just outside Meghri. The drivers have set up a table and placed old worn plastic pallets around where they make tea. Their pupils as well as the strong smell of rejected liquor testify that they possibly stopped at one of the Persian-speaking bars along the way.
They tell us that they are Azeris from northern Iran, and actually speak “Turkish”, as they say. It is what most people in Iran and Armenia call the Azeri language, which belongs to the Turkic language family.
In addition to the Lachin Corridor and the southern parts of Armenia, the main highway that ran from Meghri to Yerevan, via the city of Goris, has also changed its route. Azerbaijan makes a territorial claim to parts of the road that extend perhaps twenty meters in over the new border – which is not yet decided (it is part of the peace talks in Brussels).
The consequence is that, at record speed, Armenia has had to build a new road that is significantly less accessible, passing by the beautiful Tatev Monastery.
For every Armenian truck, it can go up to six or seven Iranian trucks in the opposite direction, which means that with the new road, the transports have changed. In addition, the new route goes through more difficult mountain passes.
– It is what it is, says one of the drivers. It’s a shame they had to go, but we don’t want to get involved in that politics. We are doing our job and now it may take longer. At first we drove the old road. It became too uncertain even if formally it still works.
Another of them breaks in.
– Once when I was driving there, they [the Azerbaijanis] stopped me and demanded money. Customs they said. And then they took my registration number and everything. We are the same people! We speak Turkish to each other, and yet they give me a headache.
Previously, they ran truck transports to Nagorno-Karabakh. They stopped that a couple of months ago as the situation became too tense.
– The Russians started messing with it, says one of them. The risk is too great that they stop us at the border, so now we just drive to Armenia.
About the author: Rasmus Canbäck has been covering the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan since 2020 and is current with the book “Every day I die slowly” about the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
After the publication of the report, a military offensive was launched by Azerbaijan against Armenia. On the night of 12-13 September, rockets were fired at several military and civilian targets along the entire border. Among other things, the village of Tegh was shelled.
At the time of writing, a fragile ceasefire is holding. So far, the Armenian army reports that over 100 soldiers have been killed and that Russian military vehicles were hit. The Azerbaijani army counts over 70 dead.
These are the bloodiest attacks since 2020.
In a week, part 2 will be published, which deals with the peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Top photo from the Latjin Corridor on the way to Nagorno-Karabakh, from July. The mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh are in the background.