In Armenia, all you have to do is look up.
Look up from the grounds of the ancient monastery of Khor Virap, its chapel walls blackened by candles, to Mount Ararat, the holy symbol of Armenia stuck across no-man’s land in Turkish territory. Look up from the centre of the capital, Yerevan, at the 44m stone spire commemorating the 1.5 million lost in the 1915 Armenian genocide. Look up to the Azerbaijani checkpoint on the Lachin corridor, a mountain road that was the last route left between Armenia and its lands in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh – now cut off. Look up to Yerablur, the hilltop cemetery where soldiers who have died fighting for Nagorno-Karabakh are buried: a forest of flags, red, blue and orange, shivering above their graves.
Over the summer, I travelled around the country of my ancestors. It felt lively and confident – its economy boosted by diaspora Armenians like me on holiday and an influx of Russians seeking a less warmongersome home. Pomegranate juice flowed from street kiosks; kids splashed through fountains fizzing with mountain water in public squares; apricot craft beer heightened the much-adored national fruit.
Yet looming around us were reminders of Armenia’s impossible place in the world. That 120,000 Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian area in the territory of neighbouring Azerbaijan, had been living under siege for nine months – rationing bread and running out of baby formula – was never far from mind. As young families and gaggles of teens hung out past 11pm in cafés and bars scattered along Soviet boulevards, public meetings gathered to call for a free Artsakh (the ancient Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh).
Peace hasn’t settled on the lush mountainous region since 2020, when Azerbaijan won a bloody war over Armenian territories as the world stood by. Despite a ceasefire brokered by Russia, fits of conflict have persisted for three years – war crimes inflicted on Armenian prisoners, the blockade of the territory, and Azerbaijan shelling Armenia itself in September 2022.
So it was grimly predictable when Azerbaijan began bombing the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, on 19 September. A local journalist, Siranush Sargsyan, is posting real-time footage on social media of blasted-out clothes shops and apartment blocks – collapsed washing lines straggled across playgrounds, car windscreens shattered, children sleeping in bomb shelters.
The 4th-century Amaras monastery, where the first ever school was established using the idiosyncratic Armenian script I would learn in a London Sunday school centuries later, has reportedly fallen under Azerbaijani occupation.
It looks less like what the Azerbaijani government insists is a “counter-terrorism” operation and more like an attack on civilian life.
While I was in Armenia, the government announced joint drills with the US military. In a country that hosts a Russian military base, where you see off-duty Russian soldiers ambling around in uniform, and the Russian word for tomato (“pomidor”) is more common on menus than the Armenian “lolig”, this was a big move. The Kremlin wasn’t happy.
Russian peacekeepers were supposed to keep the Lachin corridor open, to defend Armenian people and heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia, a survivor of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, has long been locked in a bittersweet bear hug with Russia. Yet relations with its supposed protector have grown tense since Moscow, distracted by its invasion of Ukraine, broke its promise to protect those ancient ancestral Armenian lands.
“All of this… was supposed to be in the sphere of responsibility of Russian peacekeepers and as far as these issues exist, the Russian peacekeepers have failed in their mission,” Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian prime minister, told Politico. “We have to have ways to avoid ending up in the centre of clashes between West and East, North and South… There cannot be a case when Armenia becomes a ‘proxy’.”
Yet protesters in Armenia have called for Pashinyan to resign over his inability to save Nagnorno-Karabakh from what many fear may result in yet more ethnic cleansing of Armenians. Memories of the Armenian genocide haunt the latest conflict: Turkey, another hostile neighbour, has never accepted responsibility for the massacres in the First World War. To maintain Turkish ties, many other countries – the UK included – refuse to recognise what happened then too.
We might, however, expect the West today to capitalise on the disenchantment of a Russian ally. When I visited neighbouring Georgia, which had it with Russia long ago, there were EU and Nato flags hanging from every public building. Bars and nightclubs there insisted on the belief that “Putin is an occupier” as an entry requirement, and punters were asked not to speak Russian. Could Armenia go the same way?
But now, as in its fateful history, geopolitics is not on Armenia’s side. Last year the EU signed a deal to double gas imports from Azerbaijan, an oil-rich autocracy that has sportswashed and tourist-boarded its way to international standing. Aside from wordy condemnations, the world again seems to be turning away. So if you’re ever in Armenia, look up – and look its history in the eye.
[See also: The rise and fall of the great powers redux]