7 Insane Realities Living In A Country That Doesn't Exist
Hey, do you live in a country? You do? What are the odds?! Come on: Everybody lives in a country ... or, like, a territory, or some other technical form of national ownership. Right? What's the alternative, living in a balloon? In fact, there is such a thing as an "unofficial country." We sat down with a recent visitor to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, a de facto state sitting inside of Azerbaijan, to find out what life is like in a place that "just kind of is." He told us ...
Nobody Is Totally Sure About The State's Legality
The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is what's called a de facto state, which is usually the product of a separatist movement that was at least successful enough to seize some territory. Any group that has enough wherewithal to do that will usually also be smart enough to set up a system of government, post offices, and a shitty DMV. However, groups like the United Nations will often refuse to recognize de facto states, effectively making them illegal countries (and a cartographer's worst nightmare).
Still less confusing than a New York subway map.
The NKR is hardly the first de facto state to stumble into existence. Bigger names such as Kosovo and Taiwan have done time as de facto states. The Confederate States Of America was a de facto state, and the Republic Of Texas was also one for a period of time. Kosovo and Taiwan are officially recognized as actual countries by 112 and 22 other countries, respectively.
The NKR, on the other hand, is the no-frills version of a de facto state. It was formed as the result of a fight over an Armenian community in Azerbaijan that Armenia wanted back, and because the NKR isn't recognized as an official country anywhere, it's in a near-constant state of war. Bordering countries will use it as a buffer for their own war zones, and it's been like this for about a quarter-century.
Which is how you end up with a nation with way more landmines than people.
"If you bring an iPhone there, it will Azerbaijan," our source told us. "To make things even a little more bizarre, Nagorno-Karabakh is also known by a ton of other names, such as Artsakh, the Republic Of Artsakh, Karabakh, Karabagh, the Armenian Occupied Territories, Southwest Azerbaijan, the Republic Of Mountainous Karabakh, or the Liberated Territories, all depending on who exactly you ask."
They're working on things over there, though. They even have their own flag, albeit one that looks like it was designed by a 9-year-old in Microsoft Paint.
It's hard to get international backing without anti-aliasing.
Getting There Is Hilariously Convoluted
Largely due to how few countries recognize these de facto states, it becomes significantly harder to move in and out of them than it is to go from the United States to Canada. Heading from Taiwan to China, for example, is a complete clusterfuck. Nobody can agree on how to handle a passport or visa, and the Chinese travelers have it only slightly better than the Taiwanese.
"Sorry, sir, but I can only approve travel from fictional states to other
fictional states. So visit ... Narnia, maybe? I hear it's nice."
The NKR, on the other hand, has it even worse than Taiwan. Our source gave us a step-by-step guide to getting into the NKR, so we'll let him share it with you in his own words, because it would give us a headache to try to do it ourselves.
"The NKR is landlocked and has no functioning airport, so one must go overland. It borders Azerbaijan, Iran, and Armenia, but the border with Azerbaijan is closed due to the WW1-style trenches with a land-mine-filled no-man's-land."
All the scenic beauty of rural France, circa 1917.
"The border with Iran is theoretically open, but there is no road there, so one must go to Armenia first in order to get to Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the mountains with Armenia are nearly impassable and there is only one road in and out of Nagorno-Karabakh: the Lachin corridor. The Lachin corridor is an incredibly long, windy mountain road that reaches up to 10,000 feet in altitude. ... The official English name of Nagorno-Karabakh is the Republic Of Mountainous Karabakh for a reason."
For context, imagine most of Connecticut being accessible only via some sort of death maze.
"However, getting to Armenia in order to get to Nagorno-Karabakh is also really convoluted. The usual hub for flights in this region is in Istanbul, but the Turkish-Armenian border is also closed, meaning the only two countries left are Iran and Georgia (Armenia is also landlocked)."
"Getting a visa to Iran is really difficult for an American, so that meant that I had to fly into Tbilisi in Georgia, drive to Armenia, and then drive to Nagorno-Karabakh. The drive from Yerevan, Armenia, to Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh, takes six hours despite the seemingly short distance on a map because of the crazy high mountains. On one particularly bad 25-mile stretch, my guide said he once counted a little over 380 turns, many of which are almost 180 degrees and on the edges of cliffs."
Seriously, guys: hands on 10 and 2.
Long story short, there's a reason we didn't do this interview in person, and it's not only because of how hard corporate laughed when "the dick joke folks" asked for a travel budget.
There Can Be Tons Of Demi-Rulers
Just because a territory calls itself a country doesn't mean it is one. You've been calling yourself a ninja for the better part of a decade, but you still can't land that backflip, can you? Same problem here. While places like Taiwan have put together a sort of democracy, many de facto states have to work around a fractured and local-centric system of governance.
When the national parliament borders an overgrown field, that's usually not a good sign.
The NKR, on the other hand, has found itself happy to accommodate billionaires who want to mold it in their own image, like some kind of venture-based capital deity. One German who recently moved there has plans to make a town into an eco-friendly food haven, which sounds pleasant enough. Then there's the town of Vank, and we'll let our source explain the pit of nonsense that it's become.
"A random Russian billionaire and oligarch just happened to be born in the tiny village of Vank in Nagorno-Karabakh, and then returned years later to 'make it rain.' He built a palatial ocean-themed restaurant named The Sea Stone in a country that is so landlocked that it is only accessible through another landlocked country. Sea Stone is in the wilderness near Vank and features a lion carved into a mountain like a mini Mount Rushmore (which actually roars), a statue of peeing mermaids, a scale model of an 18th-century sailing ship, and the bathroom in an entirely separate building with a car on the roof. To top it all off, he also built what is supposedly a Titanic-themed hotel in this tiny village. The Titanic hotel features a Vincent Van Gogh-themed restaurant because at that point, why not?"
It bears repeating that this came before anyone thought to build an airport.
We know it's landlocked and not technically a ship in the first place, but we're still betting that hotel sinks.
War Made It Safer
Many nations like the NKR have been at war (or at least legitimately threatened by it) within the past couple of decades. But peace is inexplicably just as unsafe. People don't have an army paycheck, so they'll stick up the nearest convenience store instead. But while Kosovo's crime rates are exceptionally high in peacetime, the NKR's peace made things, well, peaceful.
"After the war (which ended in 1994) completely obliterated all manner of everything in the region, the Armenian diaspora from all over the world donated huge amounts of money into this region to clean it up, so now much of it is nicer than Armenia. The mountain road from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh is bad in Armenia but pretty good in Nagorno-Karabakh. Since the only open border is with Armenia and most towns are so small that they all know each other, there is virtually no crime."
Ignoring rubble-strewn mine fields, it really is the Mayberry of Central Asia.
This doesn't factor in a police force that is trained to defend against an attack from Azerbaijan. Aka, cops with the discipline and training of conventional soldiers. All of this results in a place where the only major complaint is that taxi drivers sometimes pay bribes. You probably stand a higher chance of being the victim of a serious crime in Yellowstone, and yes, that's including cross-species picnic-basket muggings. Things are also extremely cheap there. Our source explained that the presidential suite at his hotel was $100 a night, and normal rooms cost less than the laundry, which is crazy when you realize where the hotel was ...
It's Really Easy To Break Into Really Important Buildings
When the crime rates are so low, everyone in society just kind of chills out. This means that even government buildings are open to anyone. They're practically begging you to break in and build a money fort in the treasury.
"There are only about 150,000 people in Nagorno-Karabakh, so everything except military bases are totally accessible, as I learned in a pretty surprising way. When I arrived in Stepanakert, the capital, and checked into a hotel, people I visited nonchalantly pointed out the National Assembly of Nagorno-Karabakh. As it turns out, the national parliament shared a building with both my hotel and a random ice cream shop. The fucking national parliament building was literally also my hotel and literally no one had mentioned this."
Yup; the seat of government is in a glorified strip mall.
So what if you decided to go all Hans Gruber and hold an important building hostage? Well, just because you can't see security doesn't mean they won't throw your ass to the ground. The NKR has been prepared for full-blown war for over 20 years. Bruce Willis would have nothing on the police in the NKR. So if you feel you can take a small army of Willii, go right ahead.
Every City Is Surrounded By Remnants Of Other Cities
When the Soviets tried to take control of the region, they put new buildings and cities everywhere, but decades of on-again-off-again war and rebuilding have left a countryside filled with ruins. There used to be several roads out of the area, but years of fighting have reduced it to just the one -- and THAT one is a more recent addition.
"Way out in the middle of nowhere, the roads haven't been repaired since 1991," said our source. "The first person I saw was a giant picture of an Armenian military commander from California named Monte Melkonian. Beyond that? The primarily Azeri city of Agdam, completely and utterly 100 percent totally destroyed. It is actually surprising how thoroughly the entire city was just completely 100 percent destroyed. The ruins go right up to the road, but no one can enter the city because it is full of landmines."
Population May 1993: 40,000
Population August 1993: 0
"On the road to Agdam, we literally pass through a historical fort. As in, the Soviets cared so little about this centuries-old fortress that they just knocked some holes in the walls and built a road right through the freaking fort like it wasn't even there."
In fairness, the inside of a building is pretty much guaranteed not to be a mine field. Probably.
"On one side of the parliament building you have that big, beautiful national square. On the other side of the parliament/hotel, and literally on the same freaking block as the national square, is the breakfast terrace, and my view at breakfast every morning was the remnants of war."
"Tigranakert is an ancient town near Agdam that has no modern-day population but is the most important historical/archaeological site in Nagorno-Karabakh. The big, historical fort and the excavation of a nearby church is, again, totally unguarded. For miles and miles in every direction, through the valley and up several mountains, everything had been completely burned to the ground."
There's Shocking Intra-Nation Racism
The reason NKR is disputed is because it's essentially a bunch of Armenian people stuck living inside territory claimed by Azerbaijan. The result is a bunch of Hatfield-McCoy, Fleetwood Mac writing Rumours, Yankees-Red Sox level hatred. This gets even worse when you throw in different religious groups, most of which simply wanted refuge from all the fighting.
Whoever could've guessed this would be an area with some conflict?
"On the road to Nagorno-Karabakh, I drove down a highway with a big pile of dirt on one side. Azeri snipers firing from the hills of the nearby Azeri exclave of Nakhchivan had been shooting random people in Armenia, so the big pile of dirt was there to provide cars on the highway cover from the sporadic gunfire."
Losing the scenic mountain views is a small price to not have to dodge bullets.
"When my mother made small talk with her hairdresser about our plans weeks before going, this little unassuming hairdresser suddenly exploded into a ball of fiery anger and started ranting about how terrible the Armenians were for stealing Karabakh and how awesome Azerbaijan was, while practically frothing at the mouth with hatred. Then she went back to dressing hair. The hairdresser, as it turns out, was from Azerbaijan but had actually fled years and years ago because she was Jewish and was being persecuted by Azerbaijan, which is a Muslim country. The Azeri population of Nagorno-Karabakh was kicked out/ethnically cleansed, and the Armenians suffered from the genocide in 1915. Coupled with 5,000 years of brutal warfare, various ethnic groups in this region hate each other. It's like racism on steroids, and most people don't understand it since everyone looks the same."
So we guess we're concluding that the whole "just live in a balloon" idea is probably best after all. Plus pooping would be really interesting.
Evan V. Symon is the interview-finder guy for Cracked. Have an awesome story you'd like to share? Hit up our tip line at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
For more insider perspectives of life around the world, check out 7 Ways My Modern Country Turned Into A Dystopia Overnight and 5 Survival Lessons From Inside A Real-World Dystopia.
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