Nagorno-Karabakh is a fissure in the heart of the Caucasus that threatens to escalate into full-scale war. It’s also a tiny unrecognized republic tying to etch out an economy, trumpet its democracy and launch its own brand of caviar.
On the streets of Stepanakert, the capital, Karabakh’s six-year conflict with Azerbaijan – which officially ended in 1994 – is never far from the citizens ‘minds.
Soldiers in camo-coloured huts talk and nod to unfamiliar face; shepherds herd their flocks past tank formations; veterans drive taxis in their old army jacket. Even the new caviar factory is staffed by men in woodland-print fatigues, guarding vats of Siberian sturgeon.
Though the war has been frozen for two decades, it occasionally catches fire. The worst violence since the ceasefire broke out in April 2016, with reports of land snatches and extensive casualties in both Karabakh and Azerbaijan.
The roots of the dispute are murky. This enclave of Armenians and Azeris felt its share of interethnic strife for centuries. But when it was absorbed into the Soviet Union, Karabakh was made an autonomous region within Soviet Azerbaijan and communist rule slammed a lid on the squabble. This remained the status quo until 1988 when, with perestoika in the air, Karabakh’s Armenian majority agitated to join the coming Republic of Armenia.