Current Social, Economic and Political Situation in Nagorno Karabakh

ANN/Groong Interview with Karen Ohanjanian, 31 March 1998

Current Social, Economic and Political Situation in Nagorno Karabakh

Hratch Tchilingirian conducted this interview for ANN/Groong.

KAREN OHANJANIAN, a member of the International Coordination Committee
of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly and a member of the Parliament of
Nagorno Karabakh Republic, was recently in Boston as a guest speaker
at a conference at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Mr. Ohanjanian discussed the current social, economic and political
situation in Nagorno Karabakh in an interview with ANN/Groong on
March 28, 1998.

Q: What is the general picture in Karabagh today?

KO: The most impressive thing in Karabagh today is that everything
is being renovated. You can see this in the cities and as you walk on
the streets. The state structures and institutions are developing and
growing. The state, as a governing entity, has become very stable and
effective. We have a president and working presidential apparatus, we
have our parliament that develops and passes laws. These laws are
being implemented and are working. We have an army which is providing
security to the population. I must add that the army enjoys the full
trust of the population. Also, since virtually all the adult male
population of the country is serving in the military, the army has a
great moral significance for the population.

For instance, in the past we used to have young people who didn't want
to serve in the army and their parents used to hide them or sent them
away. But now we have a new trend whereby parents are encouraging
their sons to serve, because they feel it is important for the
strength of the state and for the future of their child. Parents
believe that military service creates a good character and discipline
in their child, and that could be useful for the rest of their lives.

Q: How about the economy?

KO: New small-scale ventures are being created, for example, we
have a new bread company; in Stepanakert small companies are being
created in the meat and milk processing sector, using latest available
techniques, machinery and equipment.

Q: Where are these machines coming from?

KO: From different countries, for instance France, Germany, and

Q: Are these new companies established by the government or private

KO: They are created by private individuals. Today, we have a new
segment in our society -- the "new Karabaghtzis" -- who have money and
are investing in businesses, and providing employment to many people.
Of course, we are not talking about huge factories or companies, but
small businesses that employ somewhere between 10-25 people. The
products are high quality and generating higher levels of income for
the employees, somewhere between $100-120 a month for each worker.
That is a lot of money considering that the average monthly income in
Karabagh is $10 a month.

The most prosperous industry is construction. We have construction
projects on a very large scale. I would say Karabagh has never seen
such volume of construction before.

Q: What kind of constructions are these?

KO: They are building a lot of residential complexes to provide
adequate housing and meet the demand. The first ones who are
benefiting from these new housing projects are those who have lost
their loved ones during the war or on the battlefield. The government
has made it a priority to first help people in this category. In
addition to housing, the roads in Karabagh are being completely
renovated. For example, the Goris-Stepanakert highway will be
completed in Steptember. In Stepanakert all the roads have been
renovated. Today, the entire city of Stepanakert is a construction
site. Underground communications and electricity cables are being
installed. You wouldn't see wires stretching along the streets.

Q: What are some of the major problems in Karabagh today?

KO: We have very difficult social conditions. While we have major
improvements and renovations going on throughout Karabagh, the
socio-economic situation of the population remains a major problem.
People do not have sufficient income to provide for their basic
needs. Imagine the average income is $10 a month. It is practically
impossible to live on such income.

I must say that there is an interesting mentality among the rich
people in Karabagh. They believe that it is their duty to help those
less fortunate. They realize that if poor conditions continue to be
the norm in Karabagh, it would certainly affect their businesses and
contribute to loss of profits. The existence of a socio-economically
comfortable population is the only guarantee that they would remain
rich. In this sense, they are trying to alleviate some of the
hardships of the population.

Many people who had left Karabagh to work in Moscow or other places
are now returning. As the conditions in these places get worse, they
feel that ultimately Karabagh is their homeland and are coming back

Q: How about people leaving Karabagh?

KO: There is still a segment of our population which continues to
migrate to Russia or Armenia or other places in search of better living
conditions. If the current poor conditions continue, I am afraid more
people would leave and the pace of migration will increase. That is
why the Diaspora should do everything to improve the socio-economic
conditions in Karabagh. The elderly citizens are the worst hit segment
of our population.

Q: What would be a comfortable monthly income?

KO: At least $50 a month.

Q: Is this enough for a family to survive?

KO: It is enough for a family of three, but not for a large family.

Q: So how do people live on $10 income?

KO: They manage by supplementing their food with vegetables and
greens that they pick from the fields. They go to various open fields
and collect whatever edible plants they can find. The land provides
sufficient food. Of course, it is more difficult for those who live in
the cities. The villagers have no problems; they grow their own food.

Since we have a free market now, everything is available in the
market, but most people cannot afford to buy them. Children have the
hardest time, they see nice things in the market, clothing, and other
objects of interest, but the parents cannot afford them. This is one
of the moral problems we have -- the disparity between those who have
and those who don't. For example, how could you dress up nicely and
walk on the streets when you know most people cannot afford to buy
anything other than bread and food?

These issues have to be resolved. If indeed Karabagh is a pan-Armenian
problem, if it is an issue of the survival of the Armenian nation,
then the entire nation should think about ways to help the people of
Karabagh. They need to make sure that Karabaghtzis have enough bread,
that they are proper clothed, and so on. They need to make sure that
the dignity of the Karabaghtzi is not exhausted. It is very difficult
for a population living in substandard conditions to defend its land.
The person who has everything would not want to lose his comfort and
possessions, but the person who has nothing does not have anything to
lose. When the enemy attacks, he would likely be the first to flee
since he has nothing to lose. But if he has everything in his home, he
is going to think twice before he leaves, he wouldn't want to lose his
comfort and disrupt his life. He is more likely to stay and defend his
life and what he has.

Q: How is the youth coping with the situation in Karabagh?

KO: New programs are being implemented to provide entertainment
for the youth and keep them interested, for example, several new youth
clubs have been opened in Stepanakert. We also have three universities,
one state and two private, for those who aspire for higher education.
However, we have a big gender imbalance. Since all the young males are
serving in the army, the young people in the cities and towns are
predominantly female. As such, young men and women socialize in
separate environments and under different conditions. For example,
most of the students in the universities are women. When young men
return from their military service to continue their university
studies, they have a hard time adjusting. It is a kind of "Vietnam
syndrome." Our young soldiers experience what I would call the
"Karabagh syndrome." This is a big social problem in Karabagh. Of
course, the soldiers are proud of their service in the army and what
the army has achieved through the years, but once they return, they
realize that life has other problems and that they have been left
behind. In this sense, I would say, women are excelling and maturing
much faster in social skills and adaptability than men. The women have
better and healthier growth than men. We are seeing the emergency of
certain complexes and complications among the male youth of Karabagh.

Q: How long is the military service?

KO: They are recruited at the age of 17 and serve until the age of
20 or 21. If there is war, all male citizens up to the age of 45 would
go back to serve in the army.

Q: What kind of choices or options does a 21 year-old returning soldier

KO: If he was studying before he entered the military, he would go
back to complete his studies. If not, he has virtually nothing to do.
At best, he would enter the "free market" by buying from one place and
selling it in another place. The government cannot provide jobs or
salaries. Let me put it this way: life after military service is a sea
and each returning solider has to try to swim in it.

Q: Therefore, we can assume that there is a large number of unemployed
young people who have nothing to do.

KO: Definitely. This is de facto the case.

Q: In Karabagh people get married at a very young age, is this still
the case under these conditions?

KO: Yes. We still have a lot of weddings.

Q: Who is taking care of them?

KO: In some cases the parents are helping and sometimes they are
finding jobs here and there, but most of them do not have any help.
This is a very big problem.

Q: How is cultural life in Karabagh today?

KO: The theater is working again, different cultural activities
are held more regularly, and recently, a philharmonic orchestra was
created. Particular attention is being given to activities that
provide cultural entertainment to the general public. Of course, if
people from the outside show more interest in these things and provide
some help, that would greatly boost the morale of the population.

Q: What types of help do you expect from the Diaspora?

KO: First, in the area of development of small businesses, jobs
and income generating programs should be institute without delay.

Second, in the area of social services, this should include providing
minimal income to the most vulnerable segment of the population, at
least $50 a month per needy Karabaghtzi. This kind of help should be
instituted as soon as possible, otherwise, I am afraid we are going to
lose Karabagh. Because, the moral damage that our society is
experiencing right now is going to be practically impossible to
rehabilitate in the future. Delaying this even for one year would
cause irreparable damages to our society. Currently, our society is in
extreme stress.

Third, in the area of transportation, in addition to the current
projects, new projects are needed to connect the regions of Karabagh
with each other and with the center. This has extremely important
strategic importance.

Q: In your estimation, how much is needed for these projects?

KO: I would say a minimum of $40-50 million a year.

Q: Do you think the Diaspora is capable of providing such large
financial resources?

KO: If one million Armenians each give $50 a year, that makes $50
million; or 250,000 Armenian families giving $200 a year.

Q: In the last three years, what is the average amount of Diaspora
contributions to Karabagh?

KO: Somewhere between five and six million dollars. It is
difficult to know the exact amount because some of it is being
channeled through the All-Armenian Hayastan Fund. In the past, money
was coming through individuals, and at times misappropriated, and so
on. Sometimes the money that is allocated for Karabagh is not reaching
Karabagh. It is only in recent years that there is better control and
mechanism of distribution of funds. As I said, we need ten fold more
than the current amount.

Q: Who is going to organize this?

KO: Representatives of the government of Karabagh and reliable
people in the Diaspora. I also think that the lack of information is
another big problem. The Diaspora should be better informed about
Karabagh and its conditions.

Q: How is the current political situation in Karabagh?

KO: While we have a government and state structures, ultimately,
if the population remains to live in dire conditions, this will affect
the political situation of the country.

After OSCE's Lisbon summit, the political situation deteriorated.
People had lost their hope for a resolution of the conflict after
what they saw happen in Lisbon. New hopes were raised after Levon Ter
Petrossian's resignation. If Kocharian is elected President of
Armenia, then we will have a stronger position on the Karabagh
issue. This would be good for the people of Karabagh.

One of our biggest problems is the fact that Karabagh is not
internationally recognized, except in the OSCE-sponsored negotiations
process. We do not have formal contacts with international
organizations or institutions. This is very dangerous. The government
should find ways to lift this diplomatic blockade.

On the other hand, because of the current situation, we have problems
implementing democratic norms in Karabagh. People are hesitant to
express their opinions or views and are afraid of the consequences.
For example, if you haven't lived in your house for a few months,
let's say you went to Moscow or somewhere else, the government could
come and take it away from you. They could say you are not living here
and do not have the right to keep this house. So the person is left
without a place to live. In the past, other unlawful things happened
with certain members of the Dashnak Party and some religious

Q: Is this because of the martial law in the country?

KO: No, this has nothing to do with the military situation. It is
simply because the government structures are not thinking about these
problems. I believe, it is very important that we have high level of
openness in our society, this is a precondition for international
recognition. Our only hope is our people, because it is the people
that gives legitimacy and recognition to the government. International
recognition is not as important to the people as for the government.
People are leading their lives whether their country is recognized or
not. If people start to lose their trust in the government, this would
create a worst situation, whereby not only the government is not
recognized by the international community, but also by its own people.

Right now people have great respect for and trust in the government,
but if the socio-economic problems are not resolved, that trust will
decline. This is very dangerous for Karabagh. Thank God that the
current leadership of Karabagh is made of the best possible people in

Q: What can the government do to improve the socio-economic

KO: I believe the government should be more visible and active in
the Diaspora through its representatives. It should explain the
current situation and the needs of Karabagh and mobilize resources for
the benefit of the people of Karabagh. It is very clear that the
Armenian Cause will be lost forever if we are not able to preserve
Karabagh. The government is not able to explain this to the Diaspora.

You cannot solve your problems with just the President or the Foreign
Minister. State structures need to be established in Karabagh;
representative offices should be opened in different countries; the
work should be systematic and continuous.

Q: What are the prospects for the settlement of the Karabagh conflict?

KO: It seems to me that after Robert Kocharian's election, the
international community is going to put strong pressure on Armenia and
Karabagh to restart the Minsk Group negotiations. In my opinion, this
would be only a single meeting between the sides, after which the
Armenian side would realize that it is a mistake to remain in these
negotiations. This will also end the job of the Minsk Group. After
this, nothing is going to happen for a while. In the interim, some
countries might try to put pressure on the sides, but I don't think it
will work. Ultimately, the impasse will lead to direct face-to-face
negotiations between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabagh, under the
umbrella of the international community.

Q: And if this scenario is not played out?

KO: Probably, we will see military confrontation. As we know, next
year they are going to decide the route of the major oil transport
pipeline in the region. They are going to determine the areas where
the pipeline is going to pass through. It is obvious that at least
someone is going to be unhappy about the route. Russia's interests are
going to collide with the interests of the Western companies. Thus,
most likely, Nagorno-Karabagh will be figured in these complex
geostrategic issues. In my view, the process of determining the
pipeline route is going to cause a major destabilization in the

Q: Do you think military confrontation is inevitable?

KO: I would say maximum in one year, probably in the beginning of
1999 or even at the end of 1998.

Q: So there is no chance for negotiations?

KO: I don't think the negotiations have any chance of
success. There are no indications that we would agree with Azerbaijan
on its current terms. All the points that we have developed with the
Minsk Group are there, but it has not been possible to come to an
agreement with Azerbaijan on key principle issues. So it seems that
the only remaining option is either a major military confrontation,
whereby whoever wins would impose its will on the other, or major
pressures from the outside on the Karabagh leadership to give in and
create internal destabilization in Karabagh.

Q: Observers suggest that oil will make Azerbaijan a very rich
country in the near future and as such Baku could win Karabagh back
through its wealth.

KO: This is just big talk. If in fact Azerbaijan is going to
become rich, it is not the people of Azerbaijan that is going to
become wealthy, but only a handful of individuals. We just have to
look at the level of corruption in Azerbaijan today.

But, for the sake of argument, even if Azerbaijan is run by "clean"
people who are not marred by corruption, the population of Azerbaijan
is in such a desperate condition that no government would dare to
invest oil revenues in the military. The hardship that the population
of Azerbaijan is experiencing is an internal time bomb for Baku.

As for the other possibility, if oil money is invested in the
military, then presumably a war would start. In this case, Karabagh
has the military strength to make Azerbaijan's military objectives
unattainable. Azerbaijan will not gain any advantage by any military

Peace is maintained only through a balance of military strength. If
Azerbaijan engages in military build up that would create an
escalation of military build up in the whole region, because no side
would want to be left behind.

Q: How would you respond to reports that Russia is supplying arms
to Armenia?

KO: If Russia is supplying arms to Armenia that is in accordance
to Russia's own geostrategic interests in the region. Russia has given
arms to Armenia as much as Russia has given to Azerbaijan and
continues to give. Depending on Russia's strategic, political and
economic interests in the region, at times Moscow will arm Armenia to
punish Azerbaijan and at other times Moscow will arm Azerbaijan to
punish Armenia. This game is played everyday throughout the world.

But right now Russia is giving to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. In
fact, whenever the question of supply of arms to Armenia is discussed
in the Russian Duma, Duma members are saying we must also look into
Russia's supply of arms to Azerbaijan. Therefore, if supply of arms is
a problem, the problem is on both sides. Armenia should not be singled

Q: How does Karabagh see the solution of the conflict?

KO: There are three important principles: a) All relations with
Azerbaijan should be on the horizontal level, not vertical;
b) Karabagh should never be an enclave of Azerbaijan; c) Karabagh
should have a land link with Armenia. The rest could be worked out
through negotiations. In a horizontal relationship, you could have
either a confederation or a fully sovereign state.

Q: Are there any other options?

KO: At this time none. Today, no political force is ready to think

Hratch Tchilingirian
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