Sept 1 2008

In the breakaway Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan
there is a feeling of short-term security and long-term dread.

Image: WikipediaBy Ben Judah in Stepanakert for ISN Security Watch

Outside the Defense Ministry in Stepanakert, the capital of
Nagorno-Karabakh, a dozen teenage conscripts, some barely over 17, are
waiting for orders. Laughing and trying to sneak coffee or cigarettes
into the base without being caught, they readily confess how lucky
they feel.

Intensely wary, like everyone I spoke to in the enclave, they asked
for their names to be changed. Sergei knows he's lucky. "We are
spending our days guarding the HQ; however, our friends are down at
the frontlines. There is shooting everyday down there...you know...the
volume goes up and down on the killing."

Sergei translates for some of the other boys. One claims to have seen
an Azeri troop build-up through his binoculars; others stress that
the enemy is scared of their troops and is wary about attacking.

I ask Sergei how many of the conscripts think there will be war
within the next year. Of the group of 12 or so, two shake their
heads. When I ask is if war will come "eventually," they all seem in
agreement. Sergei tries to explain: "They cannot allow us to live on
our land. When that happens what else can you do but fight?"

Across the road from the Defense Ministry, a small building barely
bigger than a large post office houses the Foreign Ministry. A senior
official who refused to disclose his name gave me a curt briefing on
the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

He sits before a map of the Caucasus showing six carefully drawn out
states. Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh are all displayed
in this cartography as sovereign and equal alongside Armenia, Georgia
and Azerbaijan.

He begins, "We have been working with the OSCE group since 1994
and are committed to a solution. The other side, however, is still
refusing to acknowledge and therefore there can be no movement. What
makes this conflict so intractable is that they are Muslims, we are
Christian. They are violent by nature."

The conversation turns to recent events in the Caucasus and the
official gestures to the map: "We are not like South Ossetia or
Abkhazia - we are not a Russian puppet. We are more independent than
them. However, this is a tough situation. These are uncertain and
serious times."

And then he hisses, "just remember before you start accusing Russia
that your country is doing whatever it can to help the Muslims
swallow us."

My encounter in the Foreign Ministry brought me face-to-face with what
Caucasian expert and historian Tom de Waal has termed the deepening
of the "hate-narratives" that simplify and distort the conflict into
easily digestible and mutually exclusive world-views.

Most of the other people I encountered in Stepanakert, having lived
through the bitter war that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union
held this world view close to heart. When I asked a taxi driver what
his feelings were toward Azerbaijan, he laughed and asked: "What are
your feelings towards cockroaches? They breed fast and you want them
out of your house!"

In the same way that the frozen conflict in Georgia began to heat up
slowly in 2007 with sporadic shootings and a cranking up of rhetoric
that eventually led to war, there have been disturbing signs of a
thaw in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In March, during the Armenian election crisis, a small group of Azeri
troops tried to pierce the lines near Stepanakert and the resulting
fire-fight - the most intense since the unofficial cease-fire came
into effect in 1994 - caused deep concern for stability in the region.

Azeri rhetoric continued to rise with calls from Baku that it may be
"forced to re-take the region by military means."

However, since the war broke out in Georgia, things have frozen
over once more; yet they are far from being resolved. Nothing is
certain in this great power game, and this has left the inhabitants
of Nagorno-Karabakh on edge.

In the village of Shushi, 5 kilometers from Stepanakert, local
businessman Nelson Ketchurian shared his fears with me.

"I have been trying to make a living here since the Azeris withdrew
from Shushi. They used this town as a position to bomb Stepanakert
and almost destroyed it. How do I know that will not happen again?

"Right now I think they are scared of us and they will not attack. We
don't want war. We are peaceful people. But I think they do - and
sooner or later, war will be coming back. Right now we just can't say -
and it's hard living like this, never knowing."

In Stepanakert, the streets are tidy and clean and the massive
investment made by the Armenian Diaspora has returned economic
vitality to the town. But in the midst of an atmosphere of calm and
short-term security, almost banality, recent events in the Caucasus
have triggered a sense of long-term dread for those living on the
fault-lines of this frozen conflict.

Ben Judah is a senior correspondent for ISN Security Watch, currently
writing from the Caucasus and Russia.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only,
not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

'Letters' is an ISN Security Watch series in which our correspondents
give their thoughts on day-to-day life in their communities and areas
from which they report.