World View: Eurasian rumble comes to Newport

December 22, 2010|By Imran Vittachi
  • Bako Sahakyan.
Bako Sahakyan. (Hand in, Daily Pilot )

NEWPORT BEACH — Can you say, "Nagorno-Karabakh"?

Mumbling that double-barreled name to my boss' face triggered a moment of rare discomfort between us. The keen eyes of my editor narrowed and squinted at me through his glasses.

His face formed a question mark. This was something he didn't know.

"You know, that oil-rich enclave in the Caucasus," I said.

He didn't.

I was telling him about my plans to leave the newsroom earlier than usual the following evening, a Friday, because I wanted to attend a speech in Newport Beach before the World Affairs Council of Orange County by the "president" of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Little did he know that I had on my poker face. The truth is that I was only slightly less ignorant about Nagorno-Karabakh. I was right about its strategic location but not quite right about its richness in oil.

I first heard about Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, when I was a postgraduate student of international relations at the London School of Economics. A nasty ethnic conflict had flared up in Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh, as it is also known. That war was a sideshow in the European press compared with the war in former Yugoslavia, which I was studying and researching then for my master's thesis at LSE.


The neighboring South Caucasian republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan were fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian-dominated enclave inside Azerbaijan's national boundaries. A ceasefire has been in place since the mid-'90s, yet tensions have persisted.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are small countries that cropped up with the breakup of the Soviet Union, where the backyards of three regional powers — Russia, Turkey and Iran — converge. On the Lower 48 scale of geography, Armenia is about as big as Maryland and Azerbaijan is slightly smaller than Maine, according to the CIA's World Factbook.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a dot on the map. It's a patch of western Azerbaijan that Armenia controls. The disputed territory, whose ethnic Armenian majority wants Nagorno-Karabakh to break free of Azerbaijan, may lack oil but black gold is a factor in the conflict.

The territory lies near gas and petroleum pipeline routes that are important for supplying Western Europe with energy resources from the land-locked Caspian Sea, a bonanza of oil and gas fields.

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