For decades, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been involved in a conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The 2020 ceasefire is fragile, and civilians are bracing for a fresh escalation of violence.
Gohar has put on a camouflage jacket especially for this training session. It’s Friday evening, nearly 8 p.m., in a gym situated on the outskirts of the Armenian capital Yerevan. The place has seen better days.
The 27-year-old woman has already completed several rounds of push-ups and squats. A lesson in weaponry is up next.
“The situation in our country is so unstable that every Armenian man and woman should know how to handle a firearm,” she says, “in case something goes wrong.”
Gohar is referring to the fragile ceasefire between Armenia and its neighboring country Azerbaijan. The most recent war, in autumn 2020, lasted six weeks and claimed over 7,000 lives. Six times a week, Gohar partakes in the three-hour paramilitary training lined up by the nongovernmental organization VoMA. She also works as a dentist and is the mother of a one-year-old son.
“It’s important that all of us, including civilians, are prepared,” she says.
Others share this, as well: Twenty-five participants have shown up for this evening’s training session. More than half of them are women. In one corner of the gymnasium, participants simulate mountain climbing, in another, they practice administering first aid to wounded soldiers. Kalashnikov mockups can be seen next to a first-aid box.
By its own account, VoMA has already trained between 5,000 and 6,000 volunteers — financed by donations, particularly from Armenians living abroad. Apparently, the demand for paramilitary training has seen a sharp increase since the last war.
Two wars claimed tens of thousands of lives
The conflict between the two former Soviet republics Armenia and Azerbaijan has been ongoing for decades. At its core is the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is mostly populated by Armenians.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the independent Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh was proclaimed, but it never achieved international recognition. Briefly afterwards, in 1992, a war broke out between Armenia, which had superior forces, and Azerbaijan. It lasted until 1994, claimed tens of thousands of lives on both sides, and caused flight and displacement on a massive scale.
Subsequently, Armenia occupied the area, despite it being part of Azerbaijan by international law. During the second war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, Azerbaijan gained control over large parts of the region. Human rights organization Amnesty International accuses both sides of having committed war crimes.
Officially, the war ended on November 10, 2020, with a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia. The agreement, however, is rather fragile, as a visit to the Armenian village of Sotk, situated a mere five kilometers (3.1 miles) from the Azeri border, reveals.
In September 2022, the village was shelled by Azerbaijani forces. Mayor Sevak Khachatryan points to a house that was hit by a grenade.
“This used to be the home of a family of seven,” he says, adding that the attack was launched at night. Now, only remnants of the walls are left, the windows are smashed, broken crockery is lying on the floor, next to a single spoon and an old frying pan. “It’s almost a miracle that nobody was hurt,” says Khachatryan. “All occupants managed to escape to safety just before the attack.”
However, a young woman was wounded in the house next door. “She’d come from abroad to visit her mother,” the mayor explains. In the living room, otherwise completely destroyed, a television appliance evokes happier times.
Let down by Russia as the security guarantor
Last September, other villages situated along the border saw attacks as well, with both sides exchanging blame. The Russian peace troops deployed to monitor compliance with the 2020 ceasefire agreement were either unable or unwilling to halt the escalation.
Many Armenians feel let down by Russia as their former protector. “The war in Ukraine affects us Armenians, as well. It has produced a vacuum of power in the southern Caucasus,” says Tigran Grigoryan, president of the Yerevan-based Regional Centre for Democracy and Security think tank. Now, whenever Azerbaijan breached agreements, Moscow no longer intervened as it would have before, Grigoryan added.
In July last year, much to Russia’s irritation, Armenia and Azerbaijan approved an EU monitoring mission. Some 100 police officers from various EU countries were assigned to patrol Armenia’s border villages and document potential incidents. “We cannot interfere, we only have binoculars and cameras at our disposal,” says Markus Ritter, head of the EU mission.
Is Azerbaijan planning a new offensive?
Many Armenians are glad about the EU presence, Ritter says. But he is quick to dampen expectations: Observers are not permitted access to Azerbaijani territory. Ritter and his colleagues are therefore unable to detect, for instance, troop movements in preparation of another attack.
“Many Armenians believe there’ll be a spring offensive by Azerbaijan. If this doesn’t happen, our mission is already a success,” Ritter says.
Over the past days, there have been renewed incidents of violence reported. Armenia has accused Azerbaijani troops of killing a serviceman. One week prior, Armenia allegedly shelled Azerbaijani positions.
Reports like these motivate Gohar to continue taking part in paramilitary exercises in Yerevan. She has already completed the first half of the three-month training course.
“There are two possible scenarios,” she says. “The optimistic one is that we will manage to sit down at the table and settle our dispute. The pessimistic one is: We will fight until one of our nations is dead.”
Research for this article was supported by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. This article was translated from German.