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Feature Story August 25, 2006
Hot Afternoons in Armenia's Frozen Zone
By Yasha Levine Browse author Email
Page 5 of 6

"About 20% of the population lives in chocolate, the rest live in total shit. That 20% contains all the friends and relatives of government or army officials," Vadim said, pointing to the luxury building.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army has about 20,000 active military personnel. But taking into account the region's tiny population of 140,000, Karabakh tops even Israel and North Korea as among the most militarized countries in the world per capita. 1 out 7 people is actively serving in Karabakh's army. North Korea, by comparison, has a ratio of only 1 out of 20.

Although you have to go outside the city side to see the surface-to-air missile batteries that dot the country, Stepanakert's streets are teeming with men decked out in green camo uniforms, leisurely rolling around on their green UAZ army jeeps.

"You know, people in Karabakh say this joke when a baby is born. They say, 'Is that a girl or a lieutenant?'" Ruslan explained to me on our drive into Stepanakert.

Vadim put it another way. "There's not much else to do in Karabakh. There are no jobs and the army pays well... You have a choice, you can either farm or serve."


"People here are building castles, but we should be building underground! Cities, bomb shelters, schools... To wage war, you don't need to invade with troops. It's enough to send missiles. We need to build underground so that when they level our cities, we'll survive and be able to fight," Murad Petrosyan, the founder of an independent Karabakh monthly newspaper called What is to be Done and a host on a Karabakh TV political talk show , told me.

We met in the patio of my western-style hotel in Stepanakert built by an Australian-Armenian. It was noon and already pushing 105 degrees. An obnoxious group of French-Armenian kids signing Armenian songs just set off for their day trip around the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. The threat from Azerbaijan just didn't seem real.

"So you take Aliyev's threat seriously? You think that Azerbaijan will try to take Karabakh back by force?" I asked him.

"It won't happen now, but if the political situation won't change in the next two or three years, yes, I think that he'll invade"

"But won't Russia object?" I asked.

Russia is Armenia only real military ally. Russia started moving military hardware to its 102nd military base in northern Armenia after the US-backed Georgian president, Saakashvili, started trying to boot the Russian military from his country. In 1997, Armenia signed a friendship treaty with Russia that outlines mutual military assistance in the event of a military threat and allows Russian troops to patrol Armenia's borders with Turkey and Iran. Today, about 5,000 Russian troops are stationed in northern Armenia.

But according to Petrosyan, the Russians are playing both sides and seek to undermine Western influence by destabilizing the region. "Local politicians are naïve. They don't realize that it's profitable for Russia to have the Karabakh question unresolved. Russians come here, pat the politicians on the shoulder and say 'Don't worry, we will support you.' They believe it and spread the propaganda that there will be no war, that it will be safe."

"The only thing that will stop the Turks is international recognition for Karabakh. We need to become more democratic, more transparent and less corrupt. That's the only way. The problem is that no one cares about building a good society here. We've inherited corruption from the Soviet Union that needs to be dealt with."

Democracy as Armenia's biggest resource is an idea that Armenian politicians parrot all the time. The idea that the West will naturally align and protect democratic counties like theirs is a dream everyone blindly believes. Armenians accept Russia's military protection and at the same time take comfort in America's oath to promote and protect democracy in the world.

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Yasha Levine is an editor at The eXile. You can contact him at
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