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Russia: Nagorno-Karabakh -- Leadership Campaigning To Recruit Settlers Among Russia's Armenians

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

The leadership of the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno-Karabakh has launched a campaign to recruit settlers among the Armenian diaspora. Hundreds of settlers have moved to Karabakh from Iran, Lebanon, France, and the United States in recent years, but they are too few in number to compensate for the loss of population that followed war with Azerbaijan. Local authorities are now turning their attention to the Kuban region, which is home to one of Russia's largest Armenian communities.

Prague, 31 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The validity of all Soviet-era passports still in circulation across the Russian Federation will expire in a few months.

Starting from 1 January 2004, the old passports will be replaced with Russian ones. Russian citizens holding the Soviet-era papers must simply apply for new travel documents and wait a few weeks until they are ready.

But for the tens of thousands of refugees who fled the Southern Caucasus region during the breakup of the Soviet Union, things will not be that easy.

Most of these refugees have not been naturalized. They are formally considered by Russian authorities as citizens of Armenia, Georgia, or Azerbaijan, although they do not hold any official documents issued by these countries.

The problem is particularly acute for people originating from Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or other internationally non-recognized republics, such as Azerbaijan's ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In Russia's southern Krasnodar territory, where many refugees from the South Caucasus have sought shelter, migrants have long considered moving to other countries. But deprived of proper travel documents and lacking money, they are unable to leave the region.

A nongovernmental organization called Hayreniki Kanch, or Call of the Motherland, was set up on 19 July with a view to facilitating the settlement, or resettlement, of Krasnodar Armenians willing to move to Karabakh.

Call of the Motherland chairman Roman Khamperian tells RFE/RL the decision to set up an organization aimed at helping Armenians move to Artsakh -- as Karabakh is known among them -- stems from Stepanakert's political willingness.

"Both Karabakh and Armenia now have a large enough economic potential to accept all those who are willing to go back. Up until now, the repatriation issue was linked to economic hardship and political developments [in the Caucasus region]. But today, in all likelihood, Karabakh has in turn decided that it is ready to take back some of the people who have left the region and to allocate funds so that they can return home. This is the main reason," Khamperian said.

Regional experts say that although Karabakh can hardly be described as a prosperous region, it performs relatively well economically compared with other regions in neighboring Armenia, Azerbaijan, or Georgia. This is notably due to international humanitarian aid and financial assistance provided by the multimillion-strong Armenian diaspora in the West.

Tigran Tavadian is the editor in chief of "Yerkramas" ("The Region"), a Krasnodar-based monthly published in both the Armenian and Russian languages. He says Karabakh authorities appear determined to lure Armenian refugees with a number of economic incentives and that the situation of refugees in Krasnodar might well play into their hands.

"There is in Karabakh a potential need to look for candidates for repatriation among those who have left the region. There are many lands in Karabakh that need to be settled. In addition, there is a government program that says all returnees should be granted housing, loans, and a number of other incentives in various fields, such as tax cuts or exemption from military service," Tavadian says. "This is one thing. Another thing is that many Armenians who have come to Krasnodar from Karabakh and other regions could not obtain legal status, proper registration, and documents. They still have their Soviet passports, which will expire later this year. These people will then become outlaws. They will be unable to cross the border or look for a job."

Karabakh -- "Black Garden" in Turkish -- is only 4,400 square kilometers. This predominantly Armenian enclave of Soviet Azerbaijan effectively seceded from Baku in 1988 with the active support of Yerevan, sparking off a six-year war that claimed tens of thousands of lives, drove some 800,000 people from their native lands and resulted in the military occupation of six neighboring Azerbaijani districts.

Armenia and Karabakh remain formally at war with Azerbaijan, despite a 1994 cease-fire accord and international mediation efforts.

Officially, some 190,000 people lived in Karabakh in the late 1980s. Although no census has been conducted in Karabakh since 1989, authorities claim the departure of all ethnic Azeris and Kurds during the war left the mountainous region with approximately two-thirds of its original population. But the actual strength of the Karabakh population is probably much lower.

Thomas de Waal is Caucasus project manager at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting and the author of a recent book on Karabakh called "Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War." De Waal says economic hardship drove many ethnic Armenians out of Karabakh in the late 1990s and that the region's leadership is exploring ways to remedy the situation.

"Obviously, [their] central problem is a demographic one. The official population of Karabakh is -- they say, I think -- about 120,000. Obviously, unofficially, it is less than that. It is probably somewhere in the region of maybe 70,000. This is very hard to estimate," he says. "If you compare that with the millions in Azerbaijan next door and if you remember that a central reason for the start of the Armenian Karabakh movement in 1988 was fear that they would be swallowed up demographically by Azerbaijan, then, obviously, their entire policy is directed towards increasing the population. They are doing that by encouraging settlement, and they are also doing that by giving favorable benefits to parents who have several children in Karabakh."

The arrival of hundreds of settlers from Armenia, Iran, Lebanon, France, and the United States in recent years has not been enough to compensate for the loss of population. Reports in the Armenian media that many newcomers did not receive the financial aid they had been promised have perhaps contributed to reducing the number of would-be immigrants.

Be that as it may, the Karabakh leadership is now counting on Russia's sizable Armenian diaspora to repopulate the region.

In the Krasnodar territory, where ethnic minorities have been facing harassment for many years, calls for repatriation may well meet a favorable reception.

There are no official statistics regarding the number of non-ethnic Russians living in the region, but Armenians are believed to number between 300,000 and 600,000. An estimated 80 percent of them descend from migrants who settled there between the 18th and early 20th centuries. The remaining 20 percent came from the South Caucasus region in the final years of the Soviet Union.

Tavadian says a few Krasnodar refugees have already expressed their willingness to move to Karabakh, among them migrants from Abkhazia and Georgia's predominantly Armenian Javakheti region.

But Khamperian says it is too early to say how many of his ethnic kin will yield to the "call of the motherland": "Unofficial data I have suggest many people want to leave -- many people. But how many exactly, this I cannot say. This is why [our organization] is planning to circulate questionnaires to sound out the population in a number of administrative districts late [next month]. This will allow us to figure out how many people want to leave. Maybe they will be very few in numbers. In that case, maybe the repatriation issue will be not worth dealing with seriously. Maybe, on the contrary, there will be a great number of people willing to leave. It is difficult to tell now."

Azerbaijani officials have expressed concern at the repatriation campaign launched by Stepanakert, although nothing yet suggests a massive influx of Armenian returnees to Karabakh.

Azerbaijan's former chief negotiator and presidential adviser Vafa Quluzade has accused Moscow of secretly pressing for a massive return of Armenians as part of an overall attempt at exerting pressure on Baku in the run-up to presidential polls on 15 October. Quluzade has also blamed Moscow for allegedly working behind the scenes to exacerbate tensions along the demarcation line that separate Karabakh and Azerbaijani armed forces.

Other Azerbaijani officials have expressed concern that Armenian settlers might be sent to the scarcely populated occupied Azerbaijani territories.

De Waal says the demographic factor may affect ongoing peace talks and relations between Azerbaijan and its neighbors when a political settlement of the Karabakh dispute is reached.

"People moving to Karabakh itself is actually less of a problem because we all know that under any peace deal, basically, the Karabakh Armenians will get pretty much the de facto status they have at the moment. The sensitive issue is the occupied territories, and there are now a few people -- probably a few hundred -- living in some of the occupied territories like Zengelan, Qubatly, or Kalbacar, for example -- and that is going to become a more sensitive issue if a peace deal is signed," De Waal says.

Another matter for concern, De Waal points out, is that, unlike long-time Karabakh residents, newcomers are not accustomed to living next to Azerbaijanis and are generally less inclined to any kind of compromise with their Turkic neighbors.

Asked whether the Karabakh leadership has already decided where to send future returnees from Krasnodar, Khamperian answers negatively.

"So far, there is only a political decision on the part of Karabakh authorities who say they are ready to take people in," the Armenian community leader says. He adds: "As for the location of returnees, I believe this will be decided on a case-by-case, family-by-family basis. In any event, it is too early to say anything right now."

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