Ethnic rivalries run high on the Azerbaijani border
Blood feuds with a long history
Ethnic rivalries run high on the Azerbaijani border
Despite the exhilaration that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union early this month, the individual republics now face formidable problems. The main one arises from old ethnic enmities that the Communists had suppressed with ironfsted determination. Those tensions are now most evident in the south, where violence has gripped the neighboring republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Maclean’s Moscow Bureau Chief Malcolm Gray travelled to Armenia last week. His report:
In the heat of a late-summer afternoon, the Azerbaijani village of Kenakishlak appeared from a few kilometres away as a distant shimmer of white amid the green of a fertile river valley. In the nearby Armenian village of Paravakar, Slavik Bulgadaryan nibbled on sweet grapes and squinted into the stin as he tried, without success, to remember the last time he had visited Kenakishlak. The shallow Akhum River divides the two neighboring communities, as do centuries-old blood feuds that have erupted anew in the past three years, turning the 965-km border between Armenia and Azerbaijan into a line of violence and death. “We Armenians are Christian and they are Moslem,” explained Bulgadaryan, a fit-looking 36-year-old police lieutenant in Paravakar, a village of 1,800 residents about 180 km northeast of the Armenian capital of Yerevan. “We used to be friendly enough in this valley, visiting each other and returning strayed cattle, but no longer.”
Since 1988, as many as 1,000 people have died violently in Armenia and Azerbaijan, southern republics whose people are divided by ethnic origins, culture and religion. Russia’s czars yoked both nations into their polyglot empire during the 19th century. Then, during the 1920s, their Bolshevik successors in the Kremlin sowed the seeds of future conflict by arbitrarily altering the borders of the two republics and placing the predominantly Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijani control. Now, that hilly enclave has become an area of bloodletting, as the Azerbaijani government continues to reject the demands of its predominantly Armenian population of 180,000 for political unification with Armenia. It also provides a dark forecast of the chaos that could result if other former members of the old union try to adjust borders that were drawn and redrawn under the harsh rule of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
The fruits of that policy were evident in Paravakar last week. Although the village wa-
ter-pumping station hummed without interruption, three jagged holes in the building’s stone walls testified to the accuracy of Soviet army gunnery. On May 10, tanks firing from positions in Kenakishlak hit the building as a Soviet armored column backed by six helicopters moved against Paravakar.
Federal military forces launched extensive border-clearing operations. And Armenian officials in Yerevan maintain that such Kremlin hard-liners as then-interior Minister Boris Pugo clearly favored the conservative Communist rulers in Azerbaijan. In any event, Soviet forces surrounded Paravakar shortly after Armenian gunmen armed with machine-guns and
grenades ambushed a military truck convoy nearby, killing one soldier and wounding eight others. According to Bulgadaryan, that artillery-supported encirclement destroyed or damaged 14 buildings in Paravakar. But the villagers averted a potential bloodbath by yielding to an army ultimatum and surrendering their weapons—six hunting rifles, say the men of Paravakar.
Now, Pugo, who took part in last month’s failed coup attempt, is dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and the seven other leaders of the uprising are awaiting trial on treason charges. Soviet troops in Armenia no longer conduct border operations. But gunmen still
inhabit the rugged hills on both sides of the frontier, and Armenians and Azerbaijanis continue to die—and take each other hostage for ransoms that range from a few cattle to machine-guns and other weapons. At infrequent intervals last week, as Bulgadaryan and other villagers talked, distant rifle shots broke the late-aftemoon stillness. “Every day, there is shooting on the border,” said Bulgadaryan. “Four days ago, the Azerbaijanis killed one of my colleagues not far from here—he was 27 years old and married, with three children.”
Across Armenia, August’s coup attempt strengthened a resolve that is widely held by a majority of the republic’s 3.3 million inhabitants: to be independent. In fact, before last month’s final collapse of Kremlin rule, the nationalist, and non-Communist, government of President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, 46, had scrupulously followed a five-year Soviet procedure for aspiring secessionist states. But 11 republics, including Azerbaijan, have now openly declared their independence. And an Armenia-wide referendum on independence that was held on Sept. 21 simply became an exit poll from a union that no longer exists. Said Misha Markaryan, a 54-year-old Paravakar villager, on the eve of the referendum: “Everyone will vote za [for].” Added the barrel-
chested, unemployed former firefighter: “How could independence be worse? When we were part of the Soviet Union, our supposed brothers-in-communism, Soviet soldiers, were shooting at us.”
Still, Armenia, with roughly the same landmass as Belgium, is the union’s smallest republic. And it has bitter firsthand knowledge of the need to maintain economic ties with Moscow. Azerbaijan has blockaded rail shipments to the landlocked republic, and in Paravakar, as elsewhere in Armenia, gasoline and sugar are among the many items in short supply. Armenia’s only remaining links with the other Soviet republics run through neighboring Georgia, where the government is becoming increasingly authoritarian and protectionist.
The border conflict with Azerbaijan is the latest chapter in Armenia’s troubled history. In 1988, at least 25,000 people died in an earthquake that shook central Armenia, destroying 40 per cent of the republic’s buildings and leaving 500,000 people homeless. Despite Soviet and international aid, Armenian officials acknowledge that since the quake they have completed only about 25 per cent of the needed reconstruction. Said Supreme Council Deputy Samvel Sahakian: “Many people are still living in huts, garages and other makeshift accommodation.” And the republic’s already strained resources have been further depleted during recent years by the arrival of 250,000 Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan.
Even as Ter-Petrosyan’s government seeks better relations with its other neighbors, Iran and Turkey, it has continued a decades-old campaign to correct old wrongs. When Armenia officially announced its plan to secede from the Soviet Union one year ago, it coupled that declaration with a pledge: to continue seeking international acknowledgment that Turkish rulers committed genocide in 1915 when they massacred an estimated one million Armenians in the eastern provinces of the fading Ottoman Empire. As for Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian Vice-President Babken Ararktsian, 42, said that Ter-Petrosyan’s administration was placing its hopes on the increased influence of such republican leaders as Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, who visited the region on a fact-finding mission last week. He said that those leaders could help them achieve, at a minimum, genuine self-rule for the troubled enclave.
Meanwhile, many Armenians are watching with interest as the other members of the old union follow their republic’s lead into a postCommunist future. Armenia returned stateowned farmland, about 40 per cent of the republic’s area, to private hands earlier this year. It did so by granting peasants living near collective farms the right to divide that farmland among themselves.
The decision meant that a family can buy a plot for only 16 per cent of the nominal purchase price. Said Sahakian, the chairman of a key economics committee: “There were great debates in the legislature over whether the government should sell the land at market value or return for nothing what the people, in theory at least, already owned. We decided on this compromise.” The early result, according to Sahakian, is a jump in productivity that has filled stores in Yerevan and other communities with produce.
As Sahakian delivered those assessments of change, he gazed from the window of a highceilinged office in the legislative building. Set in a vast expanse of carefully tended lawns ringed by a high fence, the structure’s rose-colored columns are reminiscent of Tara, the southern mansion in the 1939 American film classic Gone with the Wind. The legislature’s imposing 40-year-old building used to serve as Central Committee headquarters for the Armenian branch of the Communist party. But in May, Armenia’s democratically elected government seized the structure and other Communist property. Samvel Sahakian, too, has made a personal adjustment to the new political realities. Until recently, the 55-year-old non-Communist legislator used the first name that his staunchly Marxist father bestowed upon him at birth: Mels, an acronym formed from the names of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin.
To the west of the legislature, the snowcovered twin peaks of Mount Ararat appear through the haze that hangs over Yerevan’s skyline. That mountain, 80 km away, is a visible reminder of a time when Armenia’s borders encompassed a far greater territory. Mount Ararat, enshrined in the Bible as the landfall for Noah’s Ark, is now within the borders of Turkey. Only a few nationalist extremists continue to campaign for its return to Armenian control. Most Armenians in the bustling capital of 1.3 million simply regard the distant mountain with affection and reverence.
The city’s airport offers a practical illustration of the shrewd business skills that Armenians say will ensure their tiny nation’s continued survival and prosperity. On the tarmac, the white-and-blue Ilyushin-86 four-engined jumbo jet that shuttles daily between Yerevan and Moscow is a familiar sight. Every day, enterprising Armenians, laden with baskets and hampers filled with farm produce from Paravakar and other villages, occupy many of the giant plane’s 350 seats. The reason: with Soviet subsidies still in effect, round-trip tickets cost only about 140 rubles, or $4.60 at the tourist rate of exchange. But in the private markets of produce-starved Moscow, grapes sell for up to 12 rubles, or 39 cents per pound. □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.