Lonely tale of Nagorno-Karabakh, a self-proclaimed republic

Landlocked enclave was subject of a war between 1991 and 1994 that cost 30,000 lives

The blue-and-white bird-like structure of Nagorno-Karabakh's airport perches in the Caucasus Mountains like a shining, defiant emblem of national pride. The departures screen lists an international flight to Yerevan, the Armenian capital. Members of the airport's 120 staff stand by to pass luggage through the latest model X-ray machine. Authorities at the facility, which cost $20 million (€18 million) to rebuild, say it has sophisticated satellite navigation technology.

However, there are no passengers – and no aircraft. The flight to Yerevan is aspirational; the only way to get there remains a six-hour drive through the mountains. The reason: any flights that land at or leave this airport will come under fire from Azeri troops.

As a self-proclaimed republic recognised by no country in the world, Nagorno-Karabakh considers itself a nation under siege. Located within Azerbaijan’s official borders but run by ethnic Armenians, the landlocked enclave was the subject of a devastating war between 1991 and 1994, which cost some 30,000 lives and displaced a million people.

Nagorno-Karabakh has kept its de facto autonomy, but Azerbaijan maintains its claim to it.


Shoot down

The airport, destroyed in the war, reopened four years ago. “In 2011 we wanted to start flights, but our neighbours intervened – they said they would shoot down our aircraft,” says

Dmitri Atbashyan

, head of the statelet’s civil aviation authority.

The threats are not exaggerated. Last year three military personnel died after Azeri troops shot down their helicopter. Troops from both sides have died in sporadic clashes on the border, in breach of a 1994 Moscow-brokered ceasefire.

With a wry sense of humour and a glint behind his aviator sunglasses, Atbashyan is proud to show off the little-used airport – and tout its advantages as a flying school, in which lessons involve close-range sorties safe from gunfire. “You can get your pilot’s licence here for $6,000 [€5,400]; in the US it will cost you $31,000. And we have some of the best pilots.”

As if on cue, instructor Samuel Tavadyan, an ex-military man, starts up a small Zenith plane and takes off. He shoots into the sky, then ducks, weaves and does hairpin bends reminiscent of scenes from a Warner Bros cartoon. After landing, he jumps out and walks away as though he has parked a car.

The airport’s staff are kept on the payroll and all systems remain running “because with such sophisticated machines, it would be too expensive to turn them off”, says Atbashyan. He stresses that every aspect of the facility complies with international standards, so it should therefore be possible to operate it normally.

“The UN Declaration of Human Rights grants everyone freedom of movement,” he says. “This shouldn’t depend on the status of the country of that person.”

No UN member state recognises this enclave of some 147,000 people, despite its national flag, government, public institutions, army and police force. In the eyes of international law, it is a country that doesn’t exist.

This reality is ever present a few kilometres away in downtown Stepanakert, where the president, Bako Sahakyan, faces a lonely challenge on the international stage. As a member of the Commonwealth of Unrecognised States, Nagorno-Karabakh shares a bond of mutual recognition with the club's three other similarly troubled adherents: South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria.

“Our primary goal is to be integrated into the civilised and international community,” says Sahakyan, a balding, ruddy man in his 50s.

Far from the front lines

The president is sitting in the boardroom of his presidential palace overlooking the significantly renamed Renaissance Square in the reconstructed capital, with its wide avenues, cafes and fashionable shops. At this comfortable distance from the front lines, it’s hard to imagine that a low-level war is unfolding.

“Being unrecognised always forms the basis of our policies,” he says. “But you must know that everything we do as part of our state-building – our legislation, law enforcement, judicial system, our elections – are all established and operated according to international standards. What we have to do is restore historical justice.”

For Sahakyan, this means righting Moscow’s 1923 designation of Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous region within Soviet Azerbaijan. “This entity was itself created artificially when it was forcefully incorporated into Azerbaijan.”

The conflict dates back further, to rivalry between the Christian Armenians and Muslim Turkic Azeris who populated the area for centuries.

Nagorno-Karabakh means "highland black garden", but locals call it Artsakh, or "strong fortress". It is nonetheless deeply connected to and dependent on neighbouring Armenia. Its citizens, more than 95 per cent ethnic Armenians, hold Armenian passports, speak Armenian and use the Armenian currency, the dram. And Armenia's 11 million-strong diaspora is a significant source of funds.

As Sahakyan concedes, it is not easy to run a nation at war over its very existence.

“Of course we think we have to settle this issue with our neighbour,” he says. “We want to discuss, we want to negotiate. Unfortunately, the other side is rejecting our proposals.”

The centuries-old rivalries behind this decades-old conflict are far from resolved. This country that doesn’t exist will likely remain in limbo for some time yet.

Nagorno-Karabakh: profile of a statelet

Location: landlocked enclave in the south Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with Iran to the south

Capital: Stepanakert

Population: 146,573 (2013), over 95% per cent ethnic Armenian Language: Armenian

Religion: Majority Christianity (Armenian Apostolic Church)

Currency: Armenian dram

History: claimed by Armenia and Azerbaijan; designated an autonomous region within Soviet Azerbaijan in 1923; declared independence in 1991; run by ethnic Armenians since 1991-1994 war that cost 30,000 lives; frequent breaches of 1994 ceasefire.