A country as big as Belgium, surrounded by nothing but enemies

Derk Sauer

This week is a celebration for our friends Delya and Elshin, born in Baku. The flag was raised as the Azerbaijani army this week ended the “Republic of Arstakh” – a “small country” proclaimed by Armenian rebels in the otherwise Azeri-majority Nagorno-Karabakh – a desolate territory and inhospitable with a small strip is connected to Armenia.

For our friends Ruben and Veronica Vardanian, this week is a huge tragedy. According to them, this is the starting signal for the ethnic cleansing of some 120,000 Armenians who, before the proclamation of their Republic of Arstakh in 1991, lived as second-class citizens.

We met both couples in Moscow – the Soviet-era melting pot of all nationalities: Ukrainians, Georgians, Balts, Kazakhs and more – when race and ethnicity played little or no role. of role.

But now Elshin and Ruben face each other. Elshin breathes fire if we mention Ruben's name. Banker Ruben renounced his Russian citizenship and returned to his native country. Until recently, he was “prime minister” of the Republic of Arstakh. From the capital Stepanakert, fifty thousand souls, he tried to revive the economy with his own money. According to many, this was the prelude to his ultimate goal: the presidency of Armenia.

It doesn’t matter what he likes, I thought. The few visits I made to Yerevan filled me with great sadness. The buildings appear dilapidated and neglected, the residents seem sullen and constantly stressed.

Anyone who takes the trouble to climb the many stairs to Victory Park, which offers stunning views of the surrounding area, will understand why. It almost looks like you can touch Mount Ararat in Türkiye. Azerbaijan is just as close. Two sworn enemies.

It is not surprising that Armenia feels condemned to an alliance with Russia. But this love has seriously cooled since the invasion of Ukraine. Russia has other things in mind, and Armenians feel much more comfortable in the modern world than in Putin's ultra-orthodoxy.

This is why President Pashinyan has made cautious overtures towards the EU. This cost the Armenians dearly. Putin, upset, signaled to Baku: we will not stop you if you want to dismantle this Republic of Arstakh.

Europe is far away when you walk in Yerevan. A country as big as Belgium, surrounded by nothing but enemies.

Derk Sauer is editor of the Moscow Times and columnist at Het Parool. He is also the founder of the Russian newspaper Vedomosti and former editor of RBK Gazeta.