07 May 2008

The Land of the Unrecognized

This post should be more interesting than usual.

You may or may not be aware, readers, but there are quite a few countries in the world that are not recognized as such by any other countries or any international bodies of governance. I have been fascinated by these mostly unknown enclaves ever since I stumbled across a Wikipedia article about them (and the even more fascinating "micronations"):


Here are some amusing, characteristic entries in the area of non-recognition:

North Korea is not recognized by South Korea.

South Korea is not recognized by North Korea.

The Czech Republic is not recognized by Liechtenstein due to a dispute over the applicability of the Beneš decrees.

Slovakia is not recognized by Liechtenstein due to a dispute over the applicability of the Beneš decrees.

Liechtenstein is not recognized by either the Czech Republic nor Slovakia due to its refusal to recognize them.

What a silly place, the world! But these are at least countries most people can jab their fingers at on a map (use your pinky nail for Liechtenstein). Have you ever heard of the unrecognized autonomous Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh? Didn't think so! But that's where I am right now, thus fulfilling a long-standing dream of mine to visit one of these bizarre little places. Am I in Armenia? I'm not sure. Have I entered Azerbaijan? I don't think so. But, tediously, I had to get yet another $30 visa just to visit, so I'm counting it as the 40th country outside the United States that I have had the pleasure and good fortune to visit (unless Monaco and Vatican City count). Allow me to explain: while the Soviet Union was collapsing like Boris Yeltsin at a cocktail party, a process was established for the SSRs to declare their independence. That process was followed successfully by the three universally recognized nations of the Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. A small chunk of Azerbaijan SSR, however, claiming historic and ethnic associations with Armenia, decided to declare independence in its own right. The result was war. Azerbaijan invaded, bombed, and whinged about the violation of its territorial integrity, but, amazingly, they lost. The NKR even expanded its territory, making it contiguous with Armenia (before it sort of just floated in the middle of Azerbaijan). One of Karabakh's chief ministers then went on to become the present President of Armenia, and now there's a nice, new road connecting that country to Stepanakert, the capital city here. Azerbaijan continues to pretend sovereignty over Karabakh, so it remains to be seen whether or not the country will achieve true independence and international recognition or remain in its weird grey zone up in the clouds.

I half-expected it to be a prolonged, arduous ordeal to get here, involving things like interminable delays, horrid road conditions, army maneuvers, corrupt border officials, and goats. As an indication of the actual, disappointingly prosperous conditions, let me just say that when I asked a Karabakh girl on my minibus the time, she responded by whipping out an iPhone, at which I goggled. When I inquired how someone from a dirt-poor, unrecognized, autonomous ex-Soviet mountain republic could afford such a toy ($500 at least), she blithely answered that such things are not considered expensive in Armenia. Excuse me! At least I managed to deploy my famous charm to connive her into arranging a cheap homestay for me. The old lady I'm staying with stuck me in a basement room with no heat, shower, or toilet, but hey, it's cheap. She doesn't speak a word of English, so we had a spot of difficulty discussing the price and my plans. At one point, she asked if I spoke Russian. Don't these people know anything about Americans? We don't speak anything, much less Commie-talk!

Stepanakert is a fairly dismal place and looks much more like a depressing, Soviet-era city than anything I've seen in Armenia proper. The fact it's been foggy and rainy since I arrived doesn't help. Yesterday morning, I woke quasi-early, hoping to get a minibus up to a monastery which claims to possess the head of John the Baptist, which ended up here after a circuitous journey of centuries between Europe, Turkey, and the Holy Land. Believe it? I don't! But I was disappointed to miss the one and only transportation option so I could at least say I went there, credible or not, and I'm too cheap/poor to hire a taxi to bring me to such places. So instead, I went to the nearby town of Shoushi, which proved far more interesting. It was bombed during the war (ending 1994), but, unlike Stepanakert, does not appear to have been rebuilt to much extent. And it was an Ottoman Turkish town at one point, so many of the bombed-out buildings are quite old, with Turkish script details on a few (I found a mosque and a caravanserai) and neat cobblestone roads meandering between them. The dense fog made it even more atmospheric, and I wandered in the quiet gloom for hours. By the time I started walking back, I didn't even notice that I was soaking wet from the moisture in the air. Since I was walking, I didn't feel cold, but it is certainly chillier here than in, say, Yemen. I'm certainly glad I didn't mail my sweater home. A passing minibus picked me up as I stupidly (and typically) tried to walk back to Stepanakert, and it was once I was on board that I discovered what a dripping wet fool I looked like. And I've been wondering why all the people around here keep laughing at me.

So that's it for the oddity that is Nagorno-Karabakh. But my adventures in unrecognized, autonomous mountain republics are far from over. Georgia, my next stop, contains two of them! And I fully intend to break through the red tape, if I can, of at least one.

Today, I am 30 years old.


Michele Rig said...

Though I'm sure celebrations consist of at most some quasi-Russian beer, I wish you a happy birthday. Welcome to the new 40.

kajori said...


Anonymous said...

The war really hasn't come to an end, it was only a cease-fire that was established in 1994. Azerbaijan has recently attempted to test the borders through military advancement, a result of demonstrations taking place in Erevan earlier this year. Though held back by retaliative fire from Armenian Forces, Azerbaijan continues to militarily threaten the region, increase military spending drastically with sights on a new invasion of the region, all while the Azeri President continues his hateful and murderous rhetoric.

Stepan said...

you fuckin stupid American, do you think that all the people on this Earth have to speak your fckin language? what the fuck you complain when they ask you if you speak russian? for post-soviet countries it's a kind of koine, we use it for communicatiing with a rest of the world, getting more information, etc. and when you say that noone knows where the Karabakh is, or something like it, it show your snobby national character and dumbness. If you read 2-3 books more in your life instead of playing PC or eating at Mcdonalds, you'd know the right place of many countries.

The Steve said...

You're pretty late to the game, Stepan, so I don't think anyone is going to read your indictment of me and my country. But you're obviously agitating for a response, so I suppose I'll write one.

1. Yes, as an American, I do believe that everyone on Earth should speak my language. Most people on Earth happen to agree with me.

2. I am a stupid American. Please do not use Greek words like "koine" and stick to terms I might understand. Even "lingua franca" is pushing it a bit for me.

3. I think I could read a thousand books but still not one word about "Karabakh". It sounds like you're from there, so I'm sorry if your feelings are hurt, but I'm afraid it's true: nobody has heard of your country. Also, I happen to be an English lit grad student, so I read plenty of books. Maybe you should practice your grammar.

4. Americans aren't snobs. We simply know that ours is the best country in the world. A snob is someone who thinks their little shit country that no one has ever heard of or cares about is even the least bit important. Like you, sir.

5. Aren't we "playing PC" right now? I guess you mean games, though. I have to admit, I did spend hours at Civilization when I was younger, but I can hardly be compared to the World of Warcraft generation. I share your criticism in that case, though the East Asians have us beat in the spending their entire lives playing games department. What enriching activities do the Karabakhians tend to engage in other than bloviating?

6. Why would I eat at McDonald's when I can enjoy a rich and varied diet of, what is it? bread and water? such as people have in Karabakh?

7. While I have interest in and respect for all the countries I have visited, I suppose I should end my retort by suggesting that the right place of *your* country is Azerbaijan. But I met too many nice people, other than yourself, in Karabakh and wouldn't want to hurt their feelings.

Please note: this blog is intended to be read by people who know me. It is a semi-private diary, not a forum for journalistic accounts or enlightened discourse (both of which it is lacking in, obviously), so you might rather read something the sense of humor of which you understand. Therefore, fuck off.