Fifteen years ago, the evening television news in much of Europe relayed a daily dose of human suffering from the south Caucasus region. The province of Nagorno Karabakh (the name means ‘Mountainous Black Garden') was the focus for the aggression, but the violence of war engulfed the entire Azerbaijan-Armenia border region.
Karabakh had nominally been part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Now, with the Soviet Union disintegrating and Azerbaijan asserting its right to run its own affairs, the Armenian population of Karabakh was wondering whether they, too, might not enjoy a little independence. There were five years of bloody war, with huge numbers of refugees - Azeris fleeing both Karabakh and Armenia; Armenians leaving their homes in Azerbaijan to seek safety in Armenia. When a ceasefire was agreed in May 1994, there were 750,000 displaced persons.
Today, Nagorno Karabakh exists in a bizarre political limbo: it is a sort of 'de facto' country. Karabakh is a mountainous territory where old villages, churches and monasteries are perched on hilltops. hidden europe has been exploring the peculiarities of life in the mountains of the southern Caucasus - a place where Europe comes face to face with Asia.
"If the Scriptures are rightly understood it was in Armenia that Paradise was placed," wrote the poet Byron in a letter penned in Venice to his publisher John Murray. Byron might have had second thoughts if he were cramped into the back row of a crowded marshrutka en route to Nagorno Karabakh. Have you ever ridden on one of those minibuses? As the Soviet Union imploded, marshrutkas appeared from all directions, as if by magic, to crowd the highways. Fifteen years on, their suspension systems are showing signs of age. Despite that, this particular marshrutka has a homely sort of feel - a Karabakh flag decorates the dashboard, and there is none of that vodka and onions smell that permeates some Russian marshrutkas.
Yerevan is an amiable enough spot, and, were it not for the lure of Nagorno Karabakh, one of those curious not-quite-real countries, one might have lingered longer. There are two preconditions for getting to Nagorno Karabakh. The first is to secure a visa, which turns out to be remarkably simple. The second is to survive seven hours in the marshrutka which links Yerevan with the Karabakh "capital" of Stepanakert. How can a country have a capital if it doesn't really exist?
There is only one place on the entire planet where it is possible to secure the visa necessary to enter Karabakh. And that's at the country's permanent mission in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. The delegation from Karabakh occupies a rather handsome building just by the Iranian embassy. The Karabakh consular officials work under the benign gaze of President Arkady Ghoukasyan, whose picture adorns the room. The leader of the self styled republic is seated at a desk with Karabakh's geometric flag in the background. Ghoukasyan looks a little bemused at finding himself in the presidential chair.