Like Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been busy arguing, talking, and much, much more as they wait for the first civilian flight in 20 years to land in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. And now, as in the case of Godot, it looks like their wait might continue “indefinitely.”
Plans to reopen the territory’s lone airport, located just outside the Karabakh capital, Stepanakert, have been postponed from May 9 -- a reported, but never officially confirmed date -- until at least mid-summer, according to the breakaway region’s de facto leadership.
“The problem is not political, but, rather, organizational,” stressed David Babaian, spokesperson for Karabakh’s de facto president, Bako Sahakian. “Nobody had named a specific date. The opening was scheduled for May, not specifically on May 9. We do not care much about the day or the month. What is important is that the airport is safe and meets the relevant construction standards.”
A slightly different message, however, was delivered earlier this year, when Armenian media reported that the airport would reopen on May 9 to commemorate the 1992 takeover of the Karabakh town of Shushi by Armenian and separatist Karabakhi forces. Repair work on the airport, closed in 1991 amid fighting with Azerbaijan over the territory, began in the summer of 2009.
Reports about the airport’s planned reopening prompted a strong reaction from Azerbaijan, which claims Karabakh as its own territory. Azerbaijani Civil Aviation Administration Director Arif Mammadov underlined that Azerbaijan had the right to shoot down any aircraft that violated Baku’s control over Karabakh’s airspace. The announcement, seen as adding fuel to already simmering tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh, was widely condemned among the diplomatic community.
In response, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan declared on March 31 that he would be a passenger on Air Artsakh’s maiden flight from Yerevan to Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert. Not to be left behind, Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian also pledged to fly Air Artsakh, albeit in a different plane; for security reasons, the two men do not travel together.
Baku subsequently softened its warning, saying it would take no action against “civilian objects.” In an April 14 statement, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, which oversees negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh, urged the two sides to “reject any threat or attack against civil[ian] aircraft” and to seek a diplomatic resolution of the dispute “without politicizing the issue.”
De facto officials in Karabakh did not indicate whether wrangling with Azerbaijan or international diplomatic pressure prompted them to delay the airport’s reopening. Rather, they cite the need to provide firm guarantees for airport “security.”
“We have always stated that we’ll open the airport as soon as it is completely ready,” said Valeri Adbashian, who heads Karabakh’s Civil Aviation Department. “Active work is being done in this direction, and most likely, the airport will open in mid-summer.”
“Special services” are involved in reviewing the airport’s security in the face of any possible terror attempt, he continued, without clarifying the services’ geographic origin. “We are in a dangerous zone, and we must provide double security,” he said.
Adbashian is betting on the installation of “modern equipment” -- loosely defined as computers for navigation systems and airport information services -- to provide that security. “Specialists are actively working; information systems will be installed and launched on May 6,” he said.
Repair work is also underway on widening and painting the airport’s single, 2,200-meter-long runway, he added. Adbashian identified Karabakh’s de facto government as the source of financing for the airport’s makeover, but could not give a figure for the overall cost. To judge by local media reports, the makeover is ambitious. Armenian news stories earlier this year claimed that the Stepanakert airport would be able to handle 200 passengers per hour -- a figure that easily exceeds the seat capacity of Air Artsakh’s fleet of three 50-seat CRJ-200 jets. Tickets for Air Artsakh’s flights have not yet gone on sale. With tickets projected to cost about 16,000-18,000 drams (roughly $44-$49) for a one-way flight, a surge of passenger traffic might be a long way off.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.