Azerbaijan separatist region aims to end solitude

Azerbaijan separatist region aims to end solitude

Most of the world is off-limits to Arshak Aghakaryan, a 14-year-old boy in the Azerbaijani separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The rows of gleaming computers at an after-school training center feed his hopes that he has a place in it.

The privately funded TUMO Center for Creative Technologies, which teaches subjects such as robotics and 3-D modeling, epitomizes the aspirations in the region to emerge from the isolation that has cloaked it for more than two decades. Nagorno-Karabakh has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since the end of a 1994 war.

Armenia’s new government has raised hopes here that a breakthrough could come, or at least bring more investment.

In this Friday, May 11, 2018, a teenager taking a course at TUMO, an after-school training center, in Stepanakert. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Nagorno-Karabakh’s 150,000 people don’t hold Azerbaijan passports and can travel only to Armenia, unless they apply for Armenian passports. The mountainous region’s self-declared sovereignty isn’t recognized by any country. With trade, travel and educational opportunities limited, the region’s youth are in danger of falling behind.

TUMO’s goal is to “level up an entire generation,” said Korioun Khatchadourian, who moved from France to direct the Stepanakert branch of the Yerevan, Armenia-based center. “They will need to be multi-skilled, and techie and artsy, so that they can compete on the marketplace tomorrow.”

Video: In Azerbaijani separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the ruins of buildings destroyed in a six-year separatist war are a stark reminder of a bloody past. The war ended in 1994 with a cease-fire yet a lasting peace deal was never signed. (May 23) (AP Video/David Keyton)

It’s working for Aghakaryan, who wants to become a video game developer, and like many adolescents is impatient with traditional schooling but appreciates hands-on experience.

“If you get bad marks it’s disappointing and you aren’t going to learn with love,” he says.

The non-profit TUMO was founded by an American tech executive of Armenian descent. Such contributions from the Armenian diaspora are vital. But widespread corruption allegations in Armenia have discouraged investment, said Arayik Harutyunyan, the minister of state in the separatist government.

 In this Friday, May 11, 2018, teenagers taking a course at TUMO, an after-school training center, in Stepanakert. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Friday, May 11, 2018, teenagers taking a course at TUMO, an after-school training center, in Stepanakert. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

But Harutyunyan and others hope that will change now that Nikol Pashinian is Armenia’s prime minister. Pashinian rose to power this month on a wave of mass protests that focused on corruption.

Noubar Afeyan, an American entrepreneur and prominent diaspora figure, said he hoped the government change would encourage Armenians abroad to “finally engage in the sustained development of Armenia” and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Yet there is also concern that Pashinian could aggravate already-volatile conditions, where Azerbaijani and Armenian forces face off on either side of a demilitarized zone and full-scale fighting sometimes breaks out.

In this Thursday, May 10, 2018, children stand at the yard of a church as a destroyed building during the war is seen in the background in Shusha town. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

“His statements so far are more those of a member of the Armenian public than of a diplomat,” said Thomas de Waal, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is a challenge to Azerbaijan. Suddenly, the clock is being reset and nothing is clear.”

Nagorno-Karabakh has reported solid gross domestic product growth over the past decade. Once heavily reliant on imported electricity, Nagorno-Karabakh now has a self-sufficient grid.

It also has an international airport, built in 2011, but the one thing missing are the planes. Azerbaijan has warned it can’t guarantee the safety of flights to Nagorno-Karabakh. So, neatly stacked luggage trolleys, check-in desks and an air traffic control tower remain unused.

But the region has “learned to coexist with the conflict,” the separatists’ foreign affairs minister Masis Mayilian said. “We have created the institutions both to maintain our existence and for our development.”

In this Thursday, May 10, 2018, a bus passes in front of a factory painted with the colors of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh flag in the capital Stepanakert. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Thursday, May 10, 2018, destroyed buildings during the war are seen in Shusha town.  (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Wednesday, May 9, 2018, people attend a concert in Stepanakert, during the Victory Day to celebrate 73 years since the end of WWII and the defeat of Nazi. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Thursday, May 10, 2018, Armenian Garnik Avanesyan, veteran Lieutenant Colonel poses in front of destroyed buildings during the war in Shusha town.  (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Wednesday, May 9, 2018, a vendor gives a candy floss in Stepanakert, during the Victory Day to celebrate 73 years since the end of WWII and the defeat of Nazi. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Saturday, May 12, 2018, workers carry a medal box at Gandzasar monastery near the village of Vank. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Thursday, May 10, 2018, military officers attend a church service in Shusha town. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Thursday, May 10, 2018, Azan Grigorevich, the owner of the only rock bar in Stepanakert prepares cocktails was he speaks with his friends. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Wednesday, May 9, 2018, a soldier and other residents watch the fireworks in Stepanakert, during the Victory Day to celebrate 73 years since the end of WWII and the defeat of Nazi.  (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Friday, May 11, 2018, soldiers leave a military area after a shooting practice at Mataghis army base.  (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Thursday, May 10, 2018, a soldier cemetery with the victims of 1988-1994 war is seen in Stepanakert.  (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Thursday, May 10, 2018, a pedestrian passes outside a restaurant in Stepanakert.  (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Friday, May 11, 2018, a man watches a screen atop the air-traffic control tower at the empty Stepanakert airport. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Friday, May 11, 2018, a dog walks on  the empty runway of Stepanakert airport. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Tursday, May 10, 2018, a fruit vendor with his friend sit outside his shop in Stepanakert. AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Saturday, May 12, 2018, local residents enjoy thermal springs in Karvachar. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Friday, May 11, 2018, people visit the monument ''We are our mountains'' in Stepanakert. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Friday, May 11, 2018, commuters board a bus in Stepanakert. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

In this Thursday, May 10, 2018, a woman lights a candle at a church in Shusha town.  (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)


Text from the AP news story, AP PHOTOS: Azerbaijan separatist region aims to end solitude, by David Keyton. 

Photos Thanassis Stavrakis

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Visual artist and Digital Storyteller at The Associated Press