In Azerbaijan's big plan to turn Shusha into a cultural capital

Uwhen Alvina Nersisyan’s husband told her to lock their apartment and get their children to safety, she thought they would be gone for a few days – maybe a month at most. “I only took a few documents and my laptop,” says the 39-year-old university lecturer. “Without valuables and family photos because none of us believed we would be able to return.” That was almost two years ago and she has not returned to her home in the town of Shushi in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region since.

Known as Shushi to the Armenians who called it home and Shusha to the Azerbaijanis who now control it, the city on the rock of several thousand people has changed hands many times in the course of its history. Armenians made up almost half the population before their Azerbaijani neighbors drove them out and destroyed their part of the city in 1920 pogrom. Amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, a brutal war from 1988-1994 saw Armenian forces capture almost all of Nagorno-Karabakh, displacing 600,000 Azerbaijanis in the region, including over 90% of Shusha’s population. More recently, in 2020, Azerbaijani forces invaded the disputed region and Shushi fell on November 8, prompting several thousand Armenians, such as Nersisyan, to flee the city. It is estimated that around 2,000 soldiers from both sides were killed in the city alone.

“This will be a great day in our history” said Azerbaijan’s strong president Ilham Aliyev after the fall of Shushi. Parts of the wider Nagorno-Karabakh region were also handed over as part of Moscow’s mediation ceasefire agreement written in November 2020, leaving control to the Armenians about a third of the region.

Read more: Scenes from the rear front lines of Europe’s oldest ‘frozen war’ in Nagorno-Karabakh

Azerbaijan now seeks to extend these dramatic wartime gains; in May 2021, Azerbaijan Shusha said its “cultural capital” as part of an attempt to cement control over both the city and the wider Nagorno-Karabakh region, where Armenians form the majority of the population. Dozens of events and conferences are now being planned to paint the city as a center for art, music and learning. And throughout September, Azerbaijanis across the country and as far as Germany and France celebrate, as they say, the 270th anniversary of the founding of Shusha. “We restored our country’s territorial integrity and national dignity through selfless battles and bloodshed,” Aliyev saidat the end of August.

But given the city’s complex, multi-layered past, the celebrations and the March declaration risk inflaming wider Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions.

“Shusha is ours”

In recent months, the city has become a beehive amid Azerbaijan’s plan to declare Shusha its cultural capital. Two shiny new hotels have been built for approved visitors – mainly official delegations and those Azerbaijanis privileged enough to pull the strings and obtain the government permits necessary to visit, given that the military is still in charge of much of the region. Construction workers work around the clock on illuminated construction sites, erecting new apartment blocks and conference centers. “It is very difficult to predict how much all the work will cost here,” said Emin Huseynov, special representative of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. “It’s a massive project, but there’s no doubt it will transform the region forever.” Most officials and experts TIME spoke with couldn’t put a dollar amount on the construction blitz, but agreed it was in the billions — a big venture despite Azerbaijan oil-rich economy.

Other parts of Shusha are more or less as they were when the shooting stopped two years ago. The Daniel Kazarian School of Music in the city center, named after an Armenian composer born there in 1883, still has dusty footprints on the doors from where they were kicked in, and bricks still piled up as when it was used for a fireplace post The school’s gym is barricaded, and documents written in Armenian are strewn around the corridors. Dozens of Azerbaijani soldiers have plastered their names, hometowns and unit numbers on classroom walls to celebrate their conquest. One message, written in red marker behind a broken Soviet-era piano, reads “Shusha is ours.”

A large white marquee has been set up between the shells of unlit buildings for those attending a conference of the young Azerbaijani diaspora to watch football. Qarabağ FK, who are based in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, play and the crowd cheers when they score. Ihan, 22, who is studying finance at the University of Warsaw in Poland, is among them. “This is my homeland,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how far or if we change our passports – we belong to this land.”

One of the organizers of the conference, Gunel Atkinson-Nasibova, traveled from France for the opportunity to be one of the first Azerbaijanis to see the city after the war. “It’s wonderful to see so many bright young people coming here to learn about our heritage,” she says, and hopes her own children will one day make the trip as well. Atkinson-Nasibova, like Ilhan, is not from Nagorno-Karabakh, but sees the region as a core part of her Azerbaijani national identity, even while living abroad.

Plaques marking the former homes of major Azerbaijani cultural figures, such as Uzeir Hadjibeyov, who was billed as the creator in 1908, have been placed on the city’s main Gazanchi Street. opera in a Muslim majority country. Hadjibeyov is also one of the three cast metal busts honored that dominate the central square, all riddled with holes from shelling or gunfire. The others are the poet Khurshudbanu Natavan and the opera singer Bulbul. Baku claims the Armenians tried to sell them for scrap, a charge Yerevan has never acknowledged.

After the 2020 war, Yerevan appeared to admit it could have done more to protect that heritage, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan raised eyebrows in November with descriptive as a “sad, gray town” that never got the investment it deserved. “Did we need Shushi?” he asked, “and if so, why wasn’t he left in better condition?”

A contested story

Despite Pashnian’s comments, the city has an almost mythical status for Armenians as well as Azerbaijanis. “From 1820, Shushi became one of the main cultural centers for Eastern Armenians,” said Rafi Kortoshian, co-director of the Armenian Architecture Research Foundation, which is based in Yerevan. “Now Azerbaijan is trying to neutralize this story from the entire territory under its control.

After the war, dozens of reports of Armenian churches appeared equalized and cemeteries defiledas signs of their historical presence in the region are directed. Videos appeared online of Azerbaijani troops smashing sculptures as plans to convert a chapel into a mosque are published.

In March, the European Parliament adopted a movement which condemned Azerbaijan for “erasing and denying the Armenian cultural heritage in and around Nagorno-Karabakh”, which he assessed as part of a “systematic state-level policy of Armenophobia, historical revisionism and hatred of Armenians”.

However, Baku denies conducting a campaign to erase any traces of Armenians living in the region. Ruslan Anvarli, who is in charge of cultural heritage preservation at Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture, said his officials are trying to reverse “the total destruction caused during the 30-year occupation by Armenia” and “protect sites that require urgent intervention “.

Restoration work has already begun on mosques in Shusha, which Anwarli says have been left to decay for the past three decades. “We found this as you see it now,” says Farid, the team leader working on the Ashaghi Govhar Agha Mosque, pointing to the crumbling walls and missing minaret.

At the same time, the Gazanchetsots Cathedral, which was the main place of worship for Armenians, is fenced off and completely covered with scaffolding, which practically shields it from view. It was bombed during the 2020 war by Azerbaijani forces while journalists and civilians took shelter inside, according to Human Rights Watch described as a “possible war crime”. “No visitors are allowed due to construction work,” a soldier with a Kalashnikov outside told TIME, but declined to explain why no workers or construction machinery were visible.

A man enters the damaged Ghazanchetsots (Holy Savior) Cathedral in the historic city of Shusha, October 2020 (Aris Messinis—AFP/Getty Images)

A man enters the damaged Gazanchetsots (Holy Savior) Cathedral in the historic city of Shusha, October 2020.

Aris Messinis—AFP/Getty Images

Read more: War crimes committed by Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh, Amnesty says

Azerbaijan has big plans to repopulate Nagorno-Karabakh with its citizens who were displaced by fighting in the 1990s. Local authorities say Shusha will eventually have 30,000 residents, and the nearly 20,000 Azerbaijanis who lived there three decades ago will be first in line for new homes. Currently, the rubble-strewn city is mostly inhabited by Azerbaijani workers and their families.

69-year-old Mohubet Samadov is one of the Azerbaijanis evicted from the areas around Shusha in the 1990s. The farm worker says he lived in miserable conditions as a refugee and dreams of returning home. He returned to find his destroyed village, Agali, on the first day after the armistice was signed in 2020. “I wouldn’t wish anyone to be expelled,” he adds with a sigh, “and even if they were Armenians, I’d try to help them if I can.

Thousands of Armenians now find themselves in a situation similar to that experienced by Samadov and other Azerbaijanis in the 1990s.

Protecting the past

With both sides embroiled in a recent round of hostilities, the prospect of them working together to preserve their shared heritage in the city appears dim. However, there are efforts to bring in international mediators who could help untangle the issue.

Elman Abdulayev, Azerbaijan’s permanent delegate to the UN’s cultural heritage agency UNESCO, said Baku would “welcome a mission from the organization to our territory as soon as possible”. According to him, this would help demonstrate that “Azerbaijan is committed to preserving the rich cultural heritage of this special place.” He says such a move has previously been blocked by Yerevan.

In response, Gegham Stepanyan, the human rights ombudsman for the unrecognized Armenian republic of Artsakh in Nagorno-Karabakh, says he would be open to a panel visit. “The work of a prestigious international organization like UNESCO could be a valuable step,” he says, “and would have a deterrent effect in preventing new cases of vandalism.”

But for Nersisyan, who now lives down the mountainside in the Armenian-controlled town of Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh, that story seems to be slipping away. “I can always find a new apartment to live in, so I don’t feel sorry for myself. I feel it for the churches I can no longer enter. I feel sorry for the old streets I can no longer walk on,” she says. “I can’t believe I’ll never be able to go back.”

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