Armenia’s Speaker Dismisses Snap Elections, Emphasizes Stability and Peace

Feb 27 2024
Momen Zellmi

In a world where political landscapes can shift with the wind, Armenia presents a case of steadfast commitment to its current trajectory, as articulated by Alen Simonyan, the Speaker of the National Assembly. Amidst swirling rumors and calls for extraordinary parliamentary elections, Simonyan's declaration marks a significant moment for Armenia, underlining a dedication to responsibility and a vision for peace in the region.

Addressing the nation's concerns and the political rumblings for change, Simonyan unequivocally deemed the notion of snap elections as 'unacceptable'. This stance is not just a refusal but a principled stand, highlighting a broader perspective on governance and duty. "The elections would amount to a runaway from responsibility," he remarked, echoing a sentiment that suggests a deeper belief in the sanctity of the electoral choice made by the Armenian populace. The citizens of Armenia, according to Simonyan, have spoken, and their voice, as expressed in the previous elections, carries a mandate that the current administration feels bound to respect and fulfill.

At the heart of Simonyan's message is a commitment to peace in Armenia and its surrounding regions—a mission he describes as paramount and preceding any electoral considerations. This pledge is not merely rhetorical but is framed as an active and ongoing endeavor, setting a timeline where elections would rightfully follow the achievement of peace and stability. By prioritizing these goals, the speaker projects a future where the political process is not a tool for momentary gain but a mechanism for ensuring long-term prosperity and security for the Armenian people. This vision includes a scenario where both the ruling party and the opposition can present their platforms in an environment conducive to free and fair elections, thereby reinforcing the democratic foundations of the nation.

The statement from the Speaker of the National Assembly is a bold declaration of intent, signaling a period of political stability and focus on peacebuilding efforts. While some factions within Armenia may view the refusal to entertain the idea of snap elections as a missed opportunity for immediate political recalibration, Simonyan's perspective invites a broader reflection on the responsibilities of governance and the strategic priorities that can guide a nation towards a more peaceful and stable future. In essence, the path forward, as outlined by Simonyan, suggests a period of consolidation, where the imperative of peace overshadows the clamor for political reconfiguration. By charting a course that culminates in an electoral process grounded in the achievement of substantive national goals, Armenia sets a precedent for a governance model that values long-term objectives over short-term political expediencies.

Decades of conflict: The complex history of Armenia-Azerbaijan relations

Lebanon – Feb 27 2024

Report by Yazbek Wehbe, English adaptation by Nadine Sassine
One hundred and twenty years of wars and conflicts between the two neighboring countries, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the essence of which is an ethnic-sectarian conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, or Artsakh according to the Armenian name, as well as border disputes.

Two major wars between the two countries during the last four decades, in the years 1992 and 2022, in addition to the small wars, caused about forty thousand deaths and displaced over a million people from both sides.

More than once, negotiations took place between the two parties to resolve the dispute, but they did not succeed, without forgetting how complex the conflict was, as Armenia was receiving support from Iran while Turkey and Israel stood alongside Azerbaijan.

After Russia had emphasized its commitment to protecting regional stability and ensuring Armenia's sovereignty, in the past two years, its commercial interests prevailed and it became closer to Azerbaijan. 

As for the United States, it stands to some extent in the middle despite its criticism of Baku, even if it is interested in not expanding Moscow's influence.

Last September, the Armenians of Artsakh decided to stop fighting and withdraw from the region following an Azerbaijani attack. They felt that most of the world had abandoned them and even those closest to them, so the region came under Azerbaijani control. A large portion of its population left, while a minority remained reassured by Azerbaijan’s announcement that it seeks the peaceful reintegration of the region.

Attempts were made between Baku and Yerevan to reach a comprehensive peace agreement, but obstacles emerged, as Azerbaijan refused in mid-November to participate in talks with Armenia in Washington because of what it considered the latter’s biased position.

The picture has changed in the past weeks, as Germany is hosting the delegations of the two countries on Wednesday and Thursday after a meeting that brought together ten days ago in Munich, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, in which they agreed to continue negotiations between their countries.

As for why Germany was chosen, because Azerbaijan objects to Paris hosting any meeting, considering it a party to its clear support for Armenia, Germany was chosen for its active role in the European Union.

The negotiations aim to avoid more problems, resolve border disputes, and enhance stability, amid the continuing atmosphere of caution between the two countries and the fear of a return to the language of war.

But will the regional role be influential and supportive of such a rapprochement, or will interests play a role?

Indian workers in Armenia claim abuse from job agencies (in India)

DW – Deutsche Welle, Germany
Feb 27 2024
Luise Glum in Yerevan

Recruitment agencies in India promise well paying jobs in Armenia. But when workers arrive, they say conditions are far worse than what they expected.

When Ishan Kumar came to Armenia from southern India early last year, he thought he was coming for a better life.

Kumar, who spoke with DW using a pseudonym, said a friend living abroad introduced him to the idea of moving․

"He said I'd earn a lot of money there, about $1,000 dollars per month. He said it's a European country."

Kumar's friend organized the trip through an agent in Armenia, and paid more than 650,000 Armenian drams (€1,500/$1,600) for an e-visa, the flight and the provision of a job at a delivery company.

There was no agreement other than a WhatsApp chat, but Kumar decided to go.

His new home for the next six months was the Cherry Hotel, located some thirty minutes from downtown Yerevan, the Armenian capital. The hotel provides lodging for many Indian workers in Yerevan, who sleep in cramped rooms, Kumar said.

Kumar soon started working for the delivery service. But the job conditions were not what he had expected.

"They said for one order we would receive 1,900 drams at peak times and 1,400 drams at other times of the day. But when I came here, I realized that it is all a scam. That they were only giving us 1,300 and 900 drams."

But Kumar said he worked hard from morning until midnight. In the end, his first salary was close to what he had expected, the equivalent of around $940.

However, Kumar claims he could only save a small part of that money.

He had to pay for room and board in a space shared with 10 people. He also had to pay to rent the scooter used for the delivery service. Kumar said he had not been informed about these costs before he left for Armenia. "After I paid all that, I had only 50,000 drams to send home."

Indians are the second largest group of foreign citizens in Armenia after Russians. According to Armenia's economy ministry, 20,000 to 30,000 Indians currently live in the country.

Some 2,600 of them are students – Indians have been coming to Armenia to get higher education since Soviet times.

In 2017, the Armenian government decided to change the law to make it easier for Indian citizens to get an entry visa. Since then, their number has increased. Last year, 3,200 Indians were granted a work visa, compared to 530 the year before and 55 in 2021.

However, many workers told DW that like Kumar, they were promised a high salary and were convinced into paying large sums to agents to move to Armenia.

Some said they spent even more money than Kumar – up to $3,500. Others claimed they weren't provided with any work after arrival, or didn't receive the salary they had agreed to. At the same time, they had to pay high prices for bunk beds in crowded rooms.

Most workers originated from India's southern Kerala region. People from Kerala started migrating in large numbers in the 1970s, said S. Irudaya Rajan, head of the International Institute of Migration and Development in Kerala.

"The main factors then were poverty and unemployment," he told. Today, they are mostly "aspirational migrants" from the middle class who strive for a higher standard of living elsewhere.

Rajan said there are many job agencies in Kerala. "Migration is hope. The recruitment agencies are selling people dreams," he said, adding that the industry is rife with fraud and that migrants are abused and endure bad living conditions in many host countries.

"I know hundreds of cases where people were being cheated," he said. "Often, after migration, their life is much worse than before."

Kumar's experience soon went from bad to worse after he had a scooter accident in the icy streets of Yerevan. After the accident, he wanted to change jobs, but was unemployed for several months. He couldn't afford the rent at the Cherry Hotel, so he had to go into debt with his agents.

Later, several jobs were arranged for Kumar, but they were all short-term. His agents charged him a commission and withheld his wages to pay room and board.

He wanted to leave the Cherry Hotel, but being in a foreign country, he didn't know where to go. "That is why all of us are staying there like this," he said.

Some of his companions eventually found work on their own and Kumar wanted to join.

But then there was another problem. Kumar said the agents were holding his passport. He claimed he had to lie to get it back.

"I said I want to go to India, I want to get a ticket, give me the passport." Kumar said he doubts the agents would have returned the passport otherwise.

Several other Indian men who stayed at Cherry told DW their passports were taken.

One worker said he complained to the Indian embassy in Yerevan. DW contacted the embassy. While Consul Aditya Pandey was open for a background talk, the embassy didn't respond to DW's request for a statement on the allegations.

Kumar's agent, Raihan Sainelabudeen, was once an "aspiration migrant" from Kerala who came to Armenia to study medicine. Sainelabudeen's current business partner is Anna Petakchyan, and a company called "Find Your Progress LLC" is registered under Petakchyan's name at the Cherry Hotel address.

The company operates an additional office in Kollam, Kerala. The company's ads claim they provide "amazing salary and benefits" and a highly attractive "compensation package" that "ensures that employees are rewarded for their hard work and dedication."

However, the Indian workers who used the company said they were exploited and abused.

Yerevan-based labor and migration attorney Ara Ghazaryan told DW that the motivation behind recruitment of workers is crucial to determining malfeasance by recruitment agents.

 "If the purpose is not to give a normal and safe employment environment, but to exploit, then it's already a crime," he said.

Employing a migrant who doesn't have immigration status or a work permit is a crime. The same goes for violating labor rights, he added.

Migrant workers, Ghazaryan notes, shouldn't be paid in cash, they should have a valid employment contract and place of work, normal working hours, annual leave, sick leave, weekends off. "And of course, no ill treatment or threats," he said.

Withholding passports is one of the initial indicators of trafficking and exploitation, Ghazaryan added.

"By holding the passport, they control the movement and the life of the migrant," he said. Generally, only government agencies are allowed to hold on to a person's passport. "The passport is property. No one can keep it."

The Armenian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs told DW they delt with 14 cases of Indian labor migrants as possible trafficking victims in 2023.

To date, none of them have been acknowledged as trafficking, but violations of labor relations and fraud were found. In some cases, passports were taken by employers, but not by force, the ministry said. They were given to the employer for processing work permit papers.

However, Ghazaryan said that providing the original passport isn't needed during the permit process. A simple copy is sufficient.

"If they claim otherwise, it's a lie. It means a crime is ongoing," he said.

Petakchyan and Sainelabudeen told DW that all workers pay them $1,500 in advance, which covers airfare, job placement and the first month of food and lodging.

Apparently, some of the conditions have changed since Kumar arrived. Petakchyan confirmed that at the time, food and rent were not free, adding that workers were informed about this before their arrival.

In addition, all workers sign contracts now, Petakchyan said. However, a document seen by a DW reporter in a binder full of contracts,did not include the salary or the agent's signature.

Petakchyan claimed the recruitment agency is working with some of the biggest companies in Armenia, including hotels, restaurants and gas stations. They don't want to register Indian citizens, she said, and that's why "Find Your Progress” hires the workers and provides services.

According to Petakchyan, that is the reason why salaries are not transferred directly to the workers. "We pay them exactly the salary they are receiving," she insisted.

Petakchyan said 40 workers live in stuffy cramped basement rooms of the hotel.

"I don't say it's perfect, but it's the minimal that Indian people need," she said.

During the conversation, three men said they didn't receive their wages and accused Sainelabudeen and Petakchyan of holding on to their passports.

Sainelabudeen disputed this. "You have some proof?"

Petakchyan confirmed that they take worker's passports to file residency applications. "After that we return the passport," she said.

It is hard to say who is telling the truth. In any case, it is clear some of the men were without their passports. 

When DW talked to Kumar one month after first meeting, he was unemployed. The manager of a factory said Kumar had to leave because health problems impacted his performance. Kumar said he had to ask his family in India for money. He hopes he can soon start working as a taxi driver.

Kumar would like to return to India, but that's not an option for him now. He needs money for the plane ticket. And most importantly, he had to borrow a large sum to come to Armenia in the first place and must pay it back.

"After all that, I will go to India," said Kumar. But for now, he is stuck.

Greece says it’s hoping to nudge ally Armenia’s alliances westward

Feb 27 2024
ATHENS, Greece (AP) — NATO member Greece says it wants to help traditional ally Armenia shift alliances westward, arguing that improved ties with the European Union would boost stability in the troubled Caucasus region. Armenia, which has close military and trade ties with Russia, is reeling from a border conflict with neighbor Azerbaijan in recent years. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitstoakis on Tuesday told his visiting Armenian counterpart, Nikol Pashinian, that his government hoped to help Armenia build closer ties with the EU and Western alliances.

Baghdad: Al-Sudani calls for establishment of joint forum for businessmen between Iraq and Armenia

Shafaq News, Iraq – Feb 27 2024

Shafaq News / Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani received the President of the Republic of Armenia Vahagn Khachaturyan and his accompanying delegation, who arrived in Baghdad today on an official visit.

According to a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s media office, Al-Sudani highlighted the significance of this visit, following a series of important meetings between officials of the two countries, expressing appreciation for the Armenian government's efforts in developing bilateral relations.

He pointed out the “investment opportunities and significant projects Armenian companies could contribute to, especially the Development Road and Al Faw Grand Port and related projects.”

Furthermore, Al-Sudani called for “the establishment of a joint business forum between the two countries, emphasizing the need to open an airline route, sign a memorandum to avoid double taxation, and facilitate the issuance of entry visas to encourage mutual tourism.” He affirmed “Iraq's aspiration to cooperate with Armenia in the fields of energy, information technology, and e-governance.”

PM Al-Sudani expressed Iraq's pride in its citizens of Armenian origin, who represent a significant addition to the diversity of Iraqi society through their contributions in various scientific, medical, social, and cultural fields.

He also appreciated “Armenia's stance in voting for a ceasefire in Gaza.”

On his part, President Khachaturyan expressed his gratitude for the warm welcome, indicating that “his visit aims to express a sincere desire to develop relations between the two countries.”

He confirmed that he arrived in Baghdad leading an official delegation, accompanied by a business delegation, “to explore available opportunities and expand the economic partnership between the two nations.”

The Armenian President highlighted several commonalities between the two countries, acknowledging that “Iraq was among the countries Armenians sought refuge in during the days of the genocide.”

He also expressed “his country's readiness to cooperate with Iraq in the fields of information technology, banking, and clean and renewable energy.”

Armenia: EU4Business project on innovative tourism and technology development presents its results

Feb 27 2024

A total of 150 ventures and companies received technical and financial assistance, 126 partners received grants, and over 350 participants took part in various programmes. 

These are results of the EU4Business Innovative Tourism and Technology Development for Armenia (ITTD) project, summed up at the project’s closing event in Yerevan on 26 February.

Thanks to the €14.95 million project, 1,415 jobs were created and sustained. Over half of employees from supported enterprises are women and over 78% of enterprises have women in ownership or managerial positions. 

“Through ITTD, we’ve witnessed remarkable initiatives flourishing in northern Armenia, revitalising local economies and communities with innovative tourism ventures,” said Erik Tintrup, Chargé d’Affaires of the German Embassy in Armenia. “These businesses not only highlight Armenia’s cultural heritage and natural beauty but also foster sustainable livelihoods. And support to the technology industry is unlocking Armenia’s potential as a tech innovation hub in the region.”

The goal of the EU4Business Innovative Tourism and Technology Development for Armenia (ITTD) project was to create innovative and diversified tourism enterprises in the northern regions of Armenia, as well as to promote and further develop the technology and innovation ecosystem of Armenia. Since 2019, the project has worked in close cooperation with the Ministry of Economy of the Republic of Armenia and the Ministry of High-Tech Industry of the Republic of Armenia.

Find out more

Press release

Relations with Armenia can become even more productive, PM says

Business Daily, Greece
feb 27 2024
The Armenian prime minister's visit was a significant step in consolidating the already excellent relations with Armenia, Mitsotakis said adding that they will have the opportunity to discuss bilateral cooperation in areas such as renewable energy sources and technology. 

Greece and Armenia have historic ties that stretch across the centuries and can now become even more productive in view of the common challenges that lie ahead, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Tuesday, during joint statements with his Armenian counterpart Nikol Pashinyan in Athens.

The Armenian prime minister's visit was a significant step in consolidating the already excellent relations with Armenia, Mitsotakis said, adding that they will have the opportunity to discuss bilateral cooperation in areas such as renewable energy sources and technology. 
"We are also collaborating in the defence sector," Mitsotakis added, saying his talks with his Armenian counterpart had additionally touched on ways to improve Greek-Armenian trade relations.

Regional developments were also discussed, Mitsotakis told reporters, noting that the two countries shared many common positions. "We are steadfastly opposed to any form of threat or use of force, always on the side of international law, absolutely dedicated to respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of every state. We believe in dialogue. Armenia, after the war of 2023, better understands the values of peace. The decisions you will take will shape the course of your country in the coming years," he said.

Mitsotakis noted that roughly 100,000 refugees from highland Karabakh need relief: "Greece will stand at your side in every diplomatic effort for a permanent peace treaty with Azerbaijan. Only a sustainable agreement can open up the path. Greece supports your initiative "Crossroads of Peace" announced by the prime minister in December so that the region can be converted into a hub for trade… only joint prosperity is able to silence guns and the progress of peoples deflect the plans of authoritarian leaders."

The Greek prime minister expressed full support for Armenia's orientation toward the West and said it was natural for Greece to be prepared to help build this new, liberal democracy. He also declared Greece's support for Armenia in the protection of its important cultural heritage in areas such as highland Karabakh.

Mitsotakis concluded by referring to the good prospects for a bilateral agreement on the migration and employment of Armenians in Greece, saying the many ties between the two people make their integration into Greek society easier, while pointed to the large and thriving Armenian community in Greece "which is the most fertile link in the chain of friendship and solidarity that joins our peoples."

On his part, Pashinyan stated that his visit to Athens is important and that he will have the opportunity with the Greek prime minister to discuss bilateral issues, as well as Armenia's relations with the EU.

He also thanked Greece for its support of the Armenian community living in Greece, noting that there was also a Greek community in Armenia which contributes to economic and commercial life. 

"It reflects the historic ties between the two countries. Our relations are developing at a great speed and, as a result of today's visit, we will give them a fresh boost. You also noted the sectors of defence and security. We have a long history of cooperation and I am certain that it will become more effective," Pashinyan said, addressing Mitsotakis.

The prime minister of Armenia thanked Greece for its help in developing his country's cooperation with the EU, adding that the results of the reforms will soon become even more visible.

He also said that they discussed the issue of the displaced Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as regional developments. "I briefed the prime minister on the efforts on Armenia's part to reach a reconciliation agreement and how far on this road we are in order to make progress. A ministerial meeting between the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan will be held in the near future and I hope we will make progress," Pashinyan said.

The Armenian premier also said that on a bilateral level, Greece and Armenia are collaborating in many sectors, they have made good economic progress and it was an opportunity to take steps to deepen this cooperation.

"We have a high level of dialogue. Bilateral trade is not impressive. I hope that in the context of the intergovernmental committee meeting we will have the opportunity to discuss the details of our cooperation in trade," Pashinyan underlined.


Armenia Proposes Key Amendments to Medicine Law: Aiming for Enhanced Regulation and Import Processes

Feb 27 2024

In a significant move to overhaul the medical sector's regulatory framework, Armenia's Health Minister Anahit Avanesyan presented proposed amendments and additions to the country's 'On Medicine' law. The presentation, which took place in Yerevan on February 27, underscores a concerted effort to address critical issues related to medicine registration, clinical experiments, and the harmonization of import regulations that have emerged since the law's inception in 2016.

During the session, Minister Avanesyan outlined the primary challenges that have hindered the effective regulation of the medical sector. Among these, the ambiguity surrounding the organizations responsible for conducting examinations and professional observations stands out, leading to inefficiencies within the Armenian Health and Labor Inspection Body. The minister's critique extended to the current legislation's inability to provide clear definitions and authorizing norms, which are crucial for amending government decisions on matters such as parallel import permissions and import certification processes.

Feedback from importing companies played a pivotal role in shaping the legislative package, highlighting the necessity for reforms in the refusal system of permission for parallel imports. The proposed amendments aim not only to clarify the link to import certification processes but also to address broader aspects of the medical sector, including the regulation of clinical experiments, infrastructure for pathological anatomical dissections, import facilitation, and pricing policy. The comprehensive nature of the discussion, which also garnered the endorsement of the NA Standing Committee, reflects a broad consensus on the need for legislative improvements.

The proposed legislative package represents a critical step towards aligning Armenia's medical sector with international standards, ensuring a more effective and transparent regulatory environment. By addressing the identified shortcomings, the amendments hold the promise of significantly improving the medicine registration process, streamlining clinical experiments, and facilitating smoother import procedures. As these changes are debated and potentially implemented, the focus will undoubtedly remain on their impact on both the healthcare system and the broader public health landscape in Armenia.

For more information on the proposed amendments and the session in Yerevan, visit Armenpress and the National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia.

The Land That Was Once Nagorno-Karabakh

FP – Foreign Policy
Feb 27 2024

By Hannah Lucinda Smith, a journalist based in Turkey.

AGDAM, AZERBAIJAN—In a clearing between overgrown grasses, Khalid Zulfugarov opens a stack of wooden crates, each filled with bright chunks of metal that glint in the winter sun. There are shells, anti-tank mines, and cluster bombs with tail fins. Nearby, next to a crater blown in the earth, a 20-liter water jug is filled with thousands of bullet casings, piled together like spare change, the collected relics of a conflict that has ravaged this land for 30 years.

Zulfugarov, the head of an Azerbaijani mine disposal team, is picking through his contaminated homeland, sifting through the soil with sniffer dogs and metal detectors to find each tiny, potentially deadly fragment. As he does so, his memories of Karabakh rush back.

“This is where I was born. I studied here; I fought with my friends,” he says.

His ancestral village is Nuzgar, which is located 50 miles south of Agdam, the area that he is currently clearing. It was once a bucolic settlement on the fertile lowlands of the southern Caucasus, mostly home to farmers who tended the rich, arable land. During Soviet times, it was part of the Nagorno-Karabakh oblast, home to ethnic Armenians and Azeris such as Zulfugarov, as well as the vineyards that produced the Soviet Union’s best-known cheap wine.

But when communism collapsed, so did the peace in Karabakh. Newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over the territory. Neighbors became enemies, and as Armenian paramilitaries gained control, Karabakh’s entire population of 700,000 Azeris fled.

For the next three decades, Nagorno-Karabakh was governed by an ethnic Armenian administration as the Republic of Artsakh, an unrecognized country. Its shrunken, monoethnic population lived up on the mountains at its heart. Down on the plains, the abandoned Azeri towns and villages were looted and closed off to the world, becoming a buffer zone between Artsakh and Azerbaijan. A de facto 185-mile border was carved into the landscape with berms, barbed wire, and land mines. What was once vineyards became a barren no-man’s land.

In 1993, Zulfugarov, then a 19-year-old Azerbaijani conscript, fled Karabakh to Azerbaijan proper. There, he worked in construction before joining the national demining agency. For the past three years, he has been clearing the land just miles away from his home village of Nuzgar, yet he is still unable to return.

In 2020, after 26 years of relatively frozen conflict, Karabakh’s war reignited. Azerbaijan had turned into a gas-rich autocracy, and grievances over its loss of Karabakh had become central to its national story. Baku wagered that the geopolitical timing was right, and over the first nine months of 2020, it pumped up its military arsenal with $123 million of Turkish-made defense and aviation equipment. On Sept. 27, Baku launched a surprise offensive and recaptured the lowlands. Three years later, it launched a second offensive and seized the main city, Stepanakert, too. Nearly all of the region’s entire ethnically Armenian population fled, just as the Azeris had three decades earlier.

On Jan. 1 of this year, the Republic of Artsakh officially ceased to exist. The land that was once Nagorno-Karabakh is now fully controlled by Azerbaijan.

War and occupation have stripped the landscape of life and color; the ruins of Azeri villages are now the same beige-grey as the scrubby undergrowth, the once-fertile soil riddled with metal from tanks, shells, and bullets. The pomegranate trees are among the few things that survived from the old times, bearing yearly fruit that hangs unpicked until it bursts blood-red.

The area remains closed to the public, but Foreign Policy was granted access by the Azerbaijani government. (We were not given permission to visit some areas we requested, and Stepanakert is currently closed to foreign media.) We spent five days in the region, being escorted through a huge reconstruction project unfolding behind a curtain of checkpoints: demining sites, new villages, roads and airports, and reforestation projects, all being readied for former residents to return.

The fighting in Karabakh is now over, and the Republic of Artsakh is no more. But a new conflict—this time, centered on the region’s landscape and the scars that war has inflicted on it—is now underway.

Nagorno-Karabakh is the water source for much of the southern Caucasus. Tributaries of the major Aras, Kura, and Tatar rivers run through the region’s mountains and down to the plains of Azerbaijan. The Soviet-built Sarsang reservoir—once the biggest in the region—fell under the control of Artsakh in 1993. In September 2013, Baku filed a case with the Council of Europe, complaining that Artsakh was misusing Sarsang and intentionally depriving 400,000 people in Azerbaijan’s border regions of water. Baku’s case succeeded: In January 2016, the council called for Armenian forces to withdraw from the area around Sarsang to allow international teams to assess and repair critical infrastructure.

When Karabakh’s hot war reignited in September 2020, the landscape quickly became a focus of misinformation. Huge forest fires broke out on the front lines in the far north and southwest of the territory and close to Stepanakert. Fires are common in conflict, but these blazes were immediately weaponized. Azeri social media accounts accused Armenians of torching the trees as they fled the advancing Azerbaijani army. Armenian accounts accused Azerbaijani forces of starting the fires with incendiary weapons to provide cover for their offensive.

“Nowhere else has environmental misinformation been used at this level. It’s just off the scale,” said Eoghan Darbyshire, a researcher at the U.K.-based Conflict and Environment Observatory. He analyzed open-source satellite imagery and climate data and found that while the fires were almost certainly related to the conflict, proving who had started them and how was far stickier than the absolutist social media posts suggested.

By November 2020, Azerbaijan had recaptured the Karabakh plains, and Artsakh conceded the loss. Stepanakert remained in Armenian hands, while the rest of the territory was left with Azerbaijan. Russian and Turkish peacekeepers monitored the cease-fire. Although combat was over, the environmental dispute only intensified.

Following the cease-fire, Azeris began trickling back to the Karabakh plains to visit their homes for the first time in three decades, only to realize that the whole area had changed. The lush hilltop forests had been hacked away, and the water in the once-clear streams smelled putrid. Agdam’s ancient Oriental plane trees, which had been protected as state monuments since Soviet times, had been felled, and their roots were scorched. Azerbaijani officials say that Artsakh’s government caused the destruction—through some combination of pillaging Karabakh’s hardwood forests, opening a gold mine that leached pollutants into the water, and simple vandalism.

In March 2022, Azerbaijan’s government invited the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to assess the Karabakh plains. The UNEP documented 2,000-year-old trees felled, once-cultivated farmland abandoned, 52 new quarries or mines opened under Armenian administration, and extremely high levels of heavy metals in the Okhchuchay River, which flows from Karabakh to Azerbaijan.

The report that the program produced was meant to be for internal use only, but the Azerbaijani government released it publicly, using it as the basis for a new legal challenge. In January 2023, Azerbaijan announced that it would be filing another case against Armenia with the Council of Europe, this time alleging breaches of the Bern Convention, which governs the conservation of European natural habitats and wildlife.

Meanwhile, in December 2022, Azerbaijani eco-activists began blockading Stepanakert with pickets on the Lachin Corridor, the sole road running from the rump state of Artsakh to Armenia proper. Their complaints were the same as those made by the government: that Artsakh was illegally destroying Karabakh’s habitats. Baku said the protests were independently organized, and media organizations connected to the Azerbaijani state invited journalists in to report. Baku also engaged public relations firms to spread the news of the Bern arbitration.

In April 2023, Azerbaijan built a permanent military checkpoint on Lachin, cutting off all traffic in and out of Stepanakert—as well as the city’s gas and electricity cables. For nine months, Artsakh relied solely on the Sarsang dam to generate electricity. As a result, the reservoir, which feeds springs to the Tatar River and supports migratory birds, dropped to critically low levels.

Foreign Policy requested but was not granted access to the reservoir, but photographs shared with FP show the reservoir’s decline over the course of 2023. Steppes of brown banks drop sharply to the new water level, some 20 meters (65 feet) below what it was before the blockade. The ground left behind is sticky and infertile.

Karabakh’s environment is now a cornerstone of Azerbaijan’s image campaign as it pushes to reconstruct and repopulate the region as quickly as possible. At the COP28 U.N. climate conference in Dubai in November 2023, Baku showcased its plans for the reconstruction of Karabakh from a display in its wood-trimmed pavilion, decorated with pictures of tranquil lakes and mountains.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has promised that new hydroelectric dams in the region will be generating 270 megawatts by the end of this year, and that a solar farm capable of generating 240 megawatts will soon begin construction. New houses are being fitted with solar panels, and dams and climate-monitoring stations are undergoing restoration. Huge replantation projects are already underway to regrow lost forests, and native species, such as the Eurasian gazelle, are being reintroduced after decades of localized extinction. Baku has pledged to prioritize environmental and climate concerns during this process and has committed to a net-zero carbon emissions target in Karabakh by 2050, when the reconstruction is expected to be completed. Eventually, Aliyev says, Karabakh will turn Azerbaijan into an exporter of green energy.

“The great return will be a green return. We want to focus on the future, what we can improve,” Umayra Taghiyeva, Azerbaijan’s deputy minister for ecology and natural resources, told Foreign Policy.

In reality, Azerbaijan’s environmental imperatives are clashing with political and economic ones. On the ground, the region is mostly a construction site as new villages and towns, thousands of miles of roads and railways, and even two new airports are being built from scratch. Convoys of diggers chug through the ever-expanding arteries of this newly disturbed land, kicking up dust and petrol fumes.

In Agdam, they are starting to claw down the pomegranate trees to make way for the newly laid-out city. According to UNEP reports, waste from the demolition of old buildings is being poured into landfills, and the construction of new roads is destroying even more of Karabakh’s forests.

Much of what has been built already is Potemkin-like. Brand-new buildings, conference halls, and village squares are silent and underused—a jarring sight against the ruins of the old settlements. The first batch of former residents who have returned and resettled have been willing to withstand a strange isolation for the prize of coming home. Their rebuilt villages lie at the end of the ruler-straight new highways, about a four hours’ drive from Baku. The populations are still tiny—in the thousands overall. Most places, however, are still mined; independent experts and the Azerbaijani government have estimated that more than 1 million mines have been laid in the area. As of April 2023, only 7 percent of the contaminated land had been cleared.

The only commercial flights into the new airports thus far are transporting delegations from Turkey—one of Aliyev’s biggest allies—whose constructors have won major contracts in Karabakh. The construction company Kalyon, which is controlled by in-laws of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is building roads, while another in-law has won the contract to build an agropark—part of Baku’s ambitions to turn the once-agricultural region into a high-tech farming hub.

Baku will ramp up its green public relations drive later this year when it hosts COP29—a bid that it won with Armenian backing. Unsurprisingly, given that Azerbaijan is also a major petrochemicals producer, some see this public commitment to sustainability as little more than lip service. Its ambitious promises in Karabakh will undoubtedly be scrutinized under the spotlight.

“It is one of the more powerful examples of state greenwashing. In a different world they could create a new national park, and create employment through environmental projects and tourism,” Darbyshire said.

Aliyev has gained popularity from his victory in Karabakh and its reconstruction; many of the region’s newly returned residents proudly showed Foreign Policy their photos with the president. Today, however, there is almost no political opposition left in Azerbaijan, and critics of the war tend to live abroad in exile. But in less guarded moments, many Azeris working in Karabakh raise an amused eyebrow at the stark differences between the old land and the new.

Demining is expected to take decades, and full reconstruction—let alone rehabilitating the landscape—will take longer still. By the time the region is a fully functioning part of Azerbaijan, it will likely be unrecognizable from the idyllic place where Zulfugarov grew up. Reconstruction is yet to start in Nuzgar, which is still inaccessible, but he is certain that he will move back someday.

“I don’t think of what happened here, I think of what it will become,” he says, gesturing to the diggers working on the horizon. “In five or 10 years, this can be one of the most beautiful places.”

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Hannah Lucinda Smith is a journalist based in Turkey. She is the author of Erdogan Rising: The Battle for the Soul of Turkey and the co-author of Zarifa: A Woman’s Battle in a Man’s World. Twitter: @hannahluci

Greece seeks to help ally Armenia shift alliances westward to improve EU ties

FOX News
Feb 27 2024
  • Greece has voiced its intention to assist Armenia in shifting alliances towards the West.
  • Armenia, having strong ties with Russia, has faced challenges including a recent border conflict with Azerbaijan.
  • The country participated in joint military exercises with the U.S. and committed to reforms aimed at strengthening ties with the EU.

NATO member Greece said Tuesday it wants to help traditional ally Armenia shift alliances westward, arguing that improved ties with the European Union would boost stability in the troubled Caucasus region.

Armenia, which has close military and trade ties with Russia, is reeling from a border conflict with neighbor Azerbaijan in recent years. Last year, more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled from an Azerbaijani military offensive in the breakaway Karabakh region in Azerbaijan to Armenia.

Angering Moscow, Armenia last year held a joint military exercise with the United States and also pledged to speed up reforms aimed at strengthening its partnership with the EU.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitstoakis on Tuesday told his visiting Armenian counterpart, Nikol Pashinian, that his government hoped to assist in that process.

"We fully support Armenia’s orientation toward the West," Mitsotakis said. "It is natural, as a member of the European Union and NATO, that our country is ready to contribute with know-how and experience to building this new liberal democracy."

Pashinian thanked Mitsotakis for his government’s support in forging new EU-Armenia partnership talks agreed on earlier this month that outlined rule-of-law reforms planned in Armenia as well as EU-backed investment programs.

"Our cooperation (with the EU) has already yielded results and I am sure that in the near future, these results will become more visible," Pashinian told reporters.