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Mike Hancock MP’s foreign policy disgraces

Originally published on TrendingCentral.com

hancockMuch has been written over the last twenty four hours about the personal conduct of Mike Hancock, the Member of Parliament for Portsmouth South.

Following the leaking of Nigel Pascoe QC’s leaked report (which you can read for yourself, it all its sordid glory, on the Guido Fawkes blog), the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party and group on Portsmouth City Council have rightly suspended Hancock. Only a fool would bet against his ultimate expulsion from the party.

Instead of focusing on the report into Hancock’s conduct, I wanted to shine a light on another of Hancock’s activities: foreign policy.

Since his return to Parliament in 1997 (he served briefly in the 80s) he has served as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; a body considered largely irrelevant by the British foreign policy community but one that holds significant way in the far eastern extremities of Europe. From this perch, he has advocated a range of policy positions and views that range from being ignorant to offensive to downright damaging to Britain’s national interests.

Through thick and thin, he has been an outspoken supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The former Hungarian MP Mátyás Eörsi who had the indignity of sitting beside Hancock in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said, “he is the most pro-Russian MP from among all of the countries of western Europe. When it came to debates on Putin [and] freedom of the media… Michael always defended Russia… According to him, Russia really is a fully-fledged democracy”. The travails of his former researcher-come-lover Ekaterina Zatuliveter, which involved allegations of involvement in Russian espionage at the very heart of Westminster, are well known.

During the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, which saw tanks move within miles of the country’s capital city Tbilisi, Hancock was an outspoken supporter of the Kremlin. As bombs rained down on Georgia, Hancock rather astonishingly delivered a speech thanking the Russian government for preventing the “genocide of the peaceful South Ossetia population”, while simultaneously ignoring the charred Georgian villages following Russian air strikes.  Following the conflict, he wrote an article endorsing the de facto independence of South Ossetia and calling for the breakaway region’s “boundaries and borders to be respected”, despite the displacement of more than 30,000 ethnic Georgians from the region.   To this day, the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions which comprise 20 percent of Georgian sovereign territory remain occupied by Russian-backed juntas.

In common with his throaty support for the regime in Russia, Hancock has been an outspoken supporter of the Ilham Aliyev’s government in Azerbaijan.

Speaking during the 2013 Presidential election, Hancock told an Azeri state news agency: “I have not observed any irregularity since the presidential elections started in Azerbaijan. In fact, the process is going on easily and conveniently.  I have been to at least 10 polling stations. I have not seen even minor shortcomings that people might complain.”

His view stands in direct contrast with that of the U.S. State Department whose post-election report stated that, leading up to Election Day, “Azerbaijan maintained a repressive political environment… Authorities interfered with the media and civil society routinely, sometimes violently interrupted peaceful rallies and meetings before and occasionally during the campaign period, and jailed a number of opposition and youth activists”.

Aliyev has been described by Transparency International as running the “most corrupt government in Europe” and as a “dictator” by CNN. Hancock, however, takes a different view, telling an audience in Baku that Aliyev is the “best [leader] that Azerbaijan could have at present… with a broad mandate… I [feel] that he [is] the right man with whom everyone in Europe would like to work.”

In August 2012, Aliyev demonstrated his commitment to European values by pardoning, decorating and awarding lavish financial benefits to Ramil Safarov, a man convicted in Hungary for the nationalistically-motivated decapitation of an Armenian solider at a NATO training camp. Upon his return to Baku, the Head of Aliyev’s Presidential Administration of Azerbaijan Novruz Mammadov proclaimed: “[Safarov’s return is] great news for all of us. It is very touching to see this son of the homeland, who was thrown in jail after he defended his country’s honor and dignity of the people”.  Nice.

Finally, Hancock has used his position to advocate his view that the Armenian genocide, in which over 1.5 million were killed and scores more driven from their homes (never to return), did not happen.  Instead, he refers to it as the “so-called Armenian genocide” based on “dubious historical facts”. In a particularly classy move given the Ramil Safarov case, Hancock described Armenia as being “like a headless chicken that runs around in circle [that] really does not know where to run”. As the 100th anniversary of the 2015 genocide approaches, Hancock’s comments have caused particular upset to the families of survivors and those who lost relatives.

This short piece offers but an insight – a small window – into the foreign policy views of Mike Hancock.

We should all breathe a collective sigh of relief that his days as a Member of Parliament – and a profound opponent of the liberal and democratic principles he has long claimed to champion – are numbered.

Must watch: Nagorno Karabakh as you’ve never seen it before

A friend has just sent me a copy of a video compiled to mark the recent visit to Nagorno Karabakh of the famous Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballé.

While I’m not a fan of opera, I’m sharing this video because it is by far the most professionally-produced video of Nagorno Karabakh that I have ever seen – sweeping through the country’s stunning mountain ranges, skimming its lakes and showcasing its many stunning churches. 

When discussing their visits to Karabakh, foreign tourists often tend to focus on the impending threat of invasion from neighbouring Azerbaijan rather than the myriad opportunities that exist to explore one of the most beautiful and unspoilt corners of the globe.  Videos like this indicate to me that the government are finally getting serious about promoting tourism from outside of the Armenian diaspora – and not before time.

If your interest in visiting this mysterious, far-away land has been piqued by this video, you might find the two part travel guide I wrote of interest. You can find it here and here.

Visiting Yerevan – a guide for first time visitors

imageI’ve been meaning to write a piece about Yerevan for some time. Life has, however, gotten in the way. The relative calm of a cold, wet and windy Sunday in Manchester seemed like as good a time as any to write down a few thoughts about the Armenian capital – and a few things you may wish to do if you are considering visiting for the first time.

I have had the privilege of visiting Yerevan on four occasions now; three times as a complete ‘outsider’ with nothing more than a guidebook and a scribbled list of things I’d like to see and once with a friend who lived in the city for many years and is currently based in London. My only ‘guided tour’ of Yerevan was this August, so I’d like think my perspective of what it was like to approach the city as a first time visitor remains at least partially intact.

Yerevan is a truly unique city – vibrant, exciting, welcoming, hopeful and globally-facing. It is the capital city of a country but it is so much more than that.  It’s the global centre – and a safe haven – for Armenians living across the world; from Beirut to Buenos Aires, London to Los Angeles. There are tens of thousands of diaspora Armenians who regularly drop in and out of the city, giving it the air of a city in flux.

Getting in – my advice: start in Georgia

imageI am in the slightly odd position of having visited Armenia on a number of occasions but having never arrived in the country after flying into Yerevan’s main Zvartnots airport. Instead, I have always entered Armenia via its northern neighbour Georgia to which flights from Western Europe cost roughly half of those to Yerevan and then continued my journey either by railway or road.

If you are visiting the South Caucasus for the first time, I would recommend you follow the same path. Georgia and Armenia are small enough countries that getting from Tbilisi to Yerevan (and back) is relatively quick and easy. It’s now unthinkable for me to travel to the region without visiting both Georgia and Armenia. To see one but not the other would, in my opinion, make any initial introduction to the Caucasus feel oddly incomplete. The language, food, spirit, architecture, landscapes and, most importantly, history of the two countries are wildly different (and that’s before you encounter the so-called “enigma wrapped up in an enigma” known as Nagorno Karabakh).

If you’re an adventurous traveller who isn’t pushed for time, I’d recommend that you take the overnight sleeper train from Tbilisi to Yerevan. The experience is unforgettable – but be prepared for every Georgian and Armenian you encounter to try and talk you out of it!  I’ve done the journey with friends a couple of times and it’s great fun.

imageThe train runs each evening during the summer months (and every second day during winter), departing Tbilisi at around 20:00 and crawling into Yerevan at around 07:30 the following morning. A 1st class ticket costs around £30 with two beds in each cabin. There is no buffet car so it is important to stock up on water and food before you travel.

The carriages themselves are glorious relics of the Soviet era, decked out in shades of brown and brass with ornate images of Mount Ararat on the walls of each cabin. Shortly before you depart a middle-aged baboushka provides you with clean linen for the night and helps you take care of all the passport formalities at the Georgian and Armenian border (which you reach just after midnight). The only downside of the train is that, due to the journey taking place at night, there is no real view to speak of until about 90 minutes from Yerevan when you may be lucky enough to see the slopes of Mount Ararat if the day is clear enough.

After you arrive in Yerevan, you can easily pick up a taxi outside the front door of the main station.  Don’t rush straight off thought as the station itself is well worth looking around for a few minutes – it’s a superb example of opulent Soviet-era architecture.  After that, you need not worry too much about having Armenian Drams on you prior to arrival as, from my experience, taxi drivers will happily take Euros or Georgian Lari.

imageIf you are pushed for time, driving from Tbilisi to Yerevan is a fast and stress-free option. The driving time between the two cities is between four and five hours and the journey is an attractive one, passing over the attractive Southern Georgian and Northern Armenian plains, through lush hills and down into the more arid Yerevan valley.

If you want to attempt the journey by taxi then the best thing to do is to ask your hotel to arrange a driver for you. They may be able to arrange for you to share a taxi with somebody else heading to Yerevan, something that will cut your costs (a place in a taxi from Tbilisi to Yerevan costs less than a 1st class train ticket). If your hotel can’t help, just head to Didube Bus Station on the outskirts of Tbilisi where you will find hourly buses (before 4pm) to Yerevan, as well as a number of taxis trying to cobble together enough passengers to make the drive to Yerevan worthwhile. Just look out for the Russian word for Yerevan – ‘Ереван’ – in car windows. Be prepared for the fact your taxi of bus will have no idea where they’re going when you reach Yerevan. Don’t worry about this – just disembark at the central bus station and pick up a local cab to your ultimate destination inside the city (you’ll never be more than ten minutes away from where you need to go).

The language barrier

imageVisiting Yerevan for the first time can be a fairly daunting experience. Knowledge of the English language remains relatively limited, although younger people working in hotels, cafes and restaurants can usually speak English to good standard. Almost all Armenians speak Russian fluently and you will notice a substantial a number of signs on businesses across the city are in both Russian and Armenian.

I know only a few basic phrases in Armenian and have a skeletal understanding of Russian but have never had any problems getting around in Yerevan. If you’re patient, speak slowly and smile then you’ll get where you need to go eventually. Most restaurants in the centre of Yerevan offer menus in all English, Russian and Armenian.

Do try and learn how to say “thank you” in Armenian. Given that “thank you” is the rather difficult to pronounce “shnorhakalutyun“, locals will appreciate you trying!

Where should I stay?

imageHotels across the South Caucasus are improbably, frustratingly, perplexingly and inexplicably expensive. Generally speaking, they’re also rarely very good, unless you’re willing to spend big money.

Yerevan is no exception from this rule. That’s why I was so pleased to discover the Yerevan Deluxe Hotel on Komitas Street.

Owned and operated by an Armenian diaspora family, it’s located a seven to ten minute taxi ride from the central Republic Square but is genuinely excellent. Located on a quiet street, the rooms are very reasonably priced at around £35 a night for a double, extremely comfortable and have excellent air conditioning. The staff are could not be more courteous or helpful, especially if you need to organise onward travel to other parts of the country or need advice on visiting tourists attractions.

It may seem a bit annoying to stay a little away from Republic Square but, with a taxi to the centre costing only £1.20, it’s well worth it. You won’t find anywhere better in the city.

Walk around

imageThis is a rather simplistic thing to say but one of the best ways to genuinely get to know Yerevan is to set off on foot with no clear plan as to where you are going. By wandering aimlessly in Yerevan, I have found some fantastic places off main streets that I’d never have found if I’d stuck to a rigid tourist agenda.

I’ll never forget the searing heat during my first visit to the city. During the entire time I was in Yerevan the temperature rarely dropped below forty degrees during the day and the only way to see the city during the blistering August heat was by stopping for regular breaks at many of the cafes found in the shady, immaturely landscaped parks that line Yerevan’s main avenues. If you’re visiting in the summer months, you are almost guaranteed to stumble across live music – from jazz to electro – blaring from bars and restaurants across the city.

Aside from some of the poorer Soviet-era housing developments on the outskirts of the city, there’s nowhere unsafe for tourists to go in Yerevan. If you get lost, so what? A taxi back to the city centre (just hail one from the side of the road – they’re in plentiful supply) won’t cost you any more than £1.50. Give it a go.

imageRepublic Square

When I think of Yerevan, I always think of the city’s chaotic and charming central plaza, Republic Square. Lined with imposing examples of neo-classical Soviet buildings made out of Yerevan’s trademark pink stones, the square is home to the Armenian Foreign Ministry and several other government buildings. Republic Square can be a loud and chaotic place with heavy traffic lining the square at all times of day; the sound of tooting car horns ever-present.

Republic Square has two very different faces.

imageDuring the day, it brilliantly plays the part of the imposing central square and centre of governmental power. The powerful-looking buildings and endless comings and goings of suited and booted Armenians going about their business speak to the country’s pride and (increasing) self-confidence.

By night, it takes on a far more romantic quality as thousands of people head to the pedestrianised area of the square to watch the multi-coloured ‘singing fountains’ synchronised in tune with various hits from local favourite Charles Aznavour. If you want to enjoy the light show over a cold beer, my advice would be to head to the top floor of Diamond Pizza in the square’s North West corner – it has great panoramic views.

In short, you cannot visit Yerevan and not see both faces of Republic Square.

imageThe Cascades and Victory Park

Located just a short walk from Republic Square are the Sculpture Park and Cafesjian Museum – colloquially known as ‘the Cascades’. To get there, just say “Cass-cadh” to any taxi driver.

Arriving at the Cascades, you will notice what appears to be a giant staircase heading up the side of the valley. This is the ‘Cascades’ itself. Constructed in the early 1970s, the stairway is actually a vast warren of subterranean art galleries dug into the hillside. If you walk to the entrance, you are able to go inside and take a series of escalators up to each level of the complex, occasionally stopping at one of the ‘steps’ in order to take in the impressive views of the city below – imageincluding the beautiful opera house that is located just in front. Each of the ‘steps’ has its own small garden and waterfall, as well a series of modern art objects – my favourite being a lion crafted out of reused tyres.

When visiting the Cascades, I would recommend walking all the way to the top and continuing up to now rather tired concrete viewing platform from where you are able to take in some breath-taking views of Mount Ararat and the city below.

If you continue to walk up the hill from the viewing platform, you will see the gates to Victory Park about 300 metres away on the right-hand side of the road. While the park itself is nothing special, it’s well worth walking through it in order to reach the fantastic Mother Armenia monument which stands defiantly, sword-drawn looking over Mount imageArarat and the lost Armenian provinces found in modern-day Turkey. Under the statue is a small but extremely interesting museum dedicated to the Nagorno Karabakh war with Azerbaijan in the early 1990s.

Located below the Cascades and Victory Park is the Sculpture Park which is home to a piazza filled with a collection of interesting statues, some of which are rather bizarre to say the least. The park is lined with bars and cafes on either side, many of which are frequented by ex-pats and members of the Armenian diaspora who have headed to the city from as far away as California, Buenos Aires and Lebanon – all of whom are very willing to chat and offer you their rather caustic opinions on local politics.

Genocide Monument and Museum

imageIt is hard to visit Armenia and not come into contact with the legacy of the genocide. Indeed, the city of Yerevan was little more than a provincial town prior to the murder of roughly 1.5 million Armenians and expulsion of many hundreds of thousands of others from the Ottoman Empire. Following the genocide, the population of Yerevan exploded as expelled Armenians rebuilt their lives in this corner of Armenia.

There can be no more powerful symbol of the profound loss Armenians have experienced than the looming presence of Mount Ararat which dominates the city’s skyline and is central to the country’s culture and mythology yet is now located behind a fence in Eastern Turkey, entirely off-limits to Armenians.

imageLocated on a bare hillside just outside the city centre, the Genocide Monument and Museum is a place of incredible solemnity and reflection. There is no attempt to demonise the Ottoman Empire or present-day Turkey but rather the focus is on remembering the victims of one of the darkest episodes of human history which, to the eternal shame of the international community, remains largely unrecognised.

While the paintings, manuscripts and letters on show are all moving, the part of the monument that sticks most vividly with me are a series of glass containers close to the exit containing earth samples from the twelve lost Armenian provinces. If you want to understand Armenia, the psyche of its people and the context of so many of the country’s recent and current challenges, this monument cannot be missed.

Vernissage market

There are few things I enjoy more when travelling than visiting old flea markets. If you’re looking to buy items as diverse as old communist memorabilia, traditional Armenian carpets and paintings then you should visit Vernissage. Ninety minutes or so should be more than enough time to get around.

Outside Yerevan – Etchmiadzin Cathedral and Zvartnots

imageYerevan isn’t a particularly large city and, as such, you are able to see most of its main tourist attractions in just a couple of days. Getting out of the city can, however, be rather complicated if you’re not sure where you are going. I am therefore exceptionally grateful to have had the chance to have seen some of the ancient religious sites that can be found in the provinces immediately surrounding Yerevan.

Of them, the most impressive are the Etchmiadzin and Zvartnots Cathedrals.

Located in the town of Vagharshapat, roughly one hour from Yerevan, the Mother Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin is the oldest state-constructed church in the world having been consecrated in the year 480. While Armenian churches are usually fairly simply decorated inside, the interior of Etchmiadzin is covered in elaborate murals. Along the perimeter fence of the church is a series of ornate cross stones (“khachkars”) that date back more than 1,000 years.

imageJust across the courtyard from the cathedral is a modern chapel constructed by the former Armenian Prime Minister and Ambassador to London Armen Sargsyan. I am usually hugely sceptic of modern constructions in close proximity to historic sites but the new chapel is entirely in keeping with the architecture and solemnity of the surrounding area.

Close to the main cathedral is Saint Hripsime Church which was constructed in the year 618. While its surroundings are not as ornate as the cathedral’s, I found the relatively peace and quiet of the place incredibly appealing. Unlike the main cathedral which seemed to be swamped by a large number of tourists, Saint Hripsme appears to be much more of an active place of worship with many clergy going about their business away from the maddening crowds.

imageNot far along the road from Etchmiadzin is the ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral, a 7th century church that has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The church has been battered over the years by the ravages of invading armies and earthquakes, yet large parts of its husk remain intact, including some incredibly impressive pillars which still depict ancient carvings from 1400 years ago.

One of the most striking things about Zvartnots (as with so many other sites of interest in Yerevan) is the looming presence of Mount Ararat behind it. Rather uniquely, however, the view towards Ararat has not been cluttered with other buildings but rather stretches out along an open plain giving you a great view of the mountain.

If you were to set off early, it would be possible to see both Etchmiadzin and Zvartnots in half a day – allowing you to get back to Yerevan in good time for lunch.

In the evening

ynightYerevan’s summer lends itself perfectly to socialising. While temperatures during the day can climb so high as to be unpleasant, as soon as the sun starts to come down the city is filled with a warm breeze that makes seeking out an outdoor table to enjoy a cold beer or two almost compulsory.

If you are looking for a great place to grab a few drinks in the open air then you can do no worse than to head to the area close to the Cascades and Opera House in the city centre. After heading here you will find scores of great places to visit; from relaxed cafes playing jazz music to elite-looking bars where cocktails and table service are the order of the day. Most of the bars stay open until around 02:00.

Where else should I look for information?

When it comes to visiting Yerevan, I’m no expert. Rather, I am an enthusiastic amateur whose knowledge of the city is growing with every visit.

For more information, I’d recommend you take a look at the excellent Wikipedia guide to Yerevan (and Armenia) itself as well as the TripAdvisor forums. If I can be of any help, though, please do drop me an email and I’ll do my best to point you in the right direction.

Visiting Nagorno Karabakh – easier than you might think (part two)

In part one of this blogpost, I examined how to go about getting to Nagorno Karabakh, obtaining a visa and where to stay when in the country.

Things to remember

Several months ago, I read article by the conflict expert Tim Judah in which he described Nagorno Karabakh as “as far as you can go“.  He’s right.  Karabakh is an isolated, mysterious and troubled corner of globe – but one no truly intrepid traveller can afford to miss.

Visiting Artsakh (as the locals call it) is an incredibly interesting and exhilarating experience that very few people have the opportunity to enjoy.  Getting to the country is a long and complicated process (see my previous blog post for information on travel and visas) that requires careful planning.

The second you cross the border between Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, you’ll know you make the right decision to visit.  The words “Nagorno Karabakh” roughly translate to “mountainous black garden” – an accurate description given the imposing mountains and abundance of fresh water and lush vegetation that greets you everywhere you turn.

Driving along the road from Armenia into Karabakh’s capital Stepanakert for the first time you’ll be struck by the quiet, calm nature of the place – particularly if you’re arriving from manically hectic Yerevan.  This impression of calm is a slightly misleading one.

Nagorno Karabakh has only been independent for twenty years, prior to which it had formally been allocated to Azerbaijan by Soviet Russia as a result of Stalin’s “divide and rule” policy which sought to prevent single ethnic groups (in this case, Armenians) from becoming too strong.

During the war, Stepanakert was besieged by Azeri forces for months on end – sending tens of thousands of shells raining down on the city.

Evidence of ruined buildings is now relatively limited on the road into Stepanakert and the city itself is buzzing with the construction of new homes, schools and hospitals.  A short drive outside the city, however and you’ll see the shells of buildings gradually being reclaimed by nature.

The Azeri government has vowed to recapture Karabakh and conducts frequent military exercises along the border designed to demonstrate their military firepower.  For their part, the Karabakh military forces have vowed to detonate the valuable Azeri oil pipeline that runs close to the border if any military incursion into their territory takes place.

The fear of war is ever-present with all adult males taking part in regular military training exercises designed to ensure the country is prepared for an attack.

Coming from a country where the ever-present fear of war does not exist, it is only natural that you will wish to ask questions about the conflict and its legacy.  From past experience, it’s perfectly safe to do so but you should keep in mind that every single person in the country has a father, son, grandson, brother or cousin who either fought or died in the conflict.   It’s not uncommon to see disabled war veterans or those with shrapnel injuries while travelling around Karabakh. Make sure any questions are approached in a sensitive manner.

Armenians identify strongly with Russians and knowledge of the Russian language is universal.  There are a number of theories as to why this is but my personal conclusion is that the former Soviet Union provided a degree of collective safety to Armenians following the 1915 genocide of 1.8 million of their citizens and the loss of a large chunk of Eastern Armenia to the Ottoman Empire.  If you have any negative feelings towards the Russian Government, it’s best that you try and keep these to yourself as you are unlikely to find a sympathetic audience in Karabakh

Armenian and Russian are universally understood in Nagorno Karabakh.  While you’ll find a reasonable number of English speakers at the main hotels in Stepanakert, you should try and familiarise yourself with a few Armenian and Russian phrases before you go, if only to be able to thank people in their own language.  I am told that Azeri/Turkish is understood by the majority of those over the age of 40 but you are unlikely to receive a positive reaction if you attempt to use it.

Nagorno Karabakh is a democracy that adheres to the rule of law.  The country held successful Presidential elections in 2012 which received top marks from international election observers (myself included). Crimes against foreigners are unheard of, although you should be conscious that Nagorno Karabakh is a poor country in which ostentatious displays of wealth are unwise.

With the above points understood, you’ll be ready to enjoy the unique experiences the country has to offer.

Getting around

As far as foreigners are concerned, Nagorno Karabakh is a public transport-free zone.  There are no organised tour buses, no trains, no metro stops and no trams.

Despite the lack of formal public transport services, the region is actually fairly easy to get around as a result of a combination of Karabakh being a relatively small place and the abundance of affordable taxis that are easily available.

If you’re looking for a “grand tour” of Karabakh by taxi then you have two options.  The first is to ask your hotel to arrange a driver for you – which they’ll be happy to do.  They will probably also be able to arrange an English-speaking guide for you too.  While your hotel won’t be consciously attempting to rip you off, they will want to ensure you get the very best driver and car for your journey so you are likely to pay a premium for this.

My personal preference is to print out a map of Nagorno Karabakh and point at the various places I wish to visit.  Even if the driver doesn’t understand English, he will be able to read the Latin script you show him.  You may wish to write a list of the places you’d like to go in numbered order – although ensure they make logical geographical sense. If you show interest and appreciation to your driver for the sites he shows you, he’ll be even more inclined to show you then nooks and crannies of the country that are off the usual tracks.

Hiring a taxi for a whole day should cost somewhere in the region of 40,000 Drams – a considerable amount in Karabakh but a fairly affordable sum for a foreign tourist.

Friends on the ground tell me that a bus service does operate fairly frequently between Karabakh’s main towns but I have never made use of any of these services.  If you are confident that your Russian of Armenian is up to scratch then you might want to brave it…

A cash economy?

Most guidebooks I’ve come across issue pretty hefty warnings to travellers recommending that they withdraw copious amounts of Armenian Drams before travelling to Karabakh – or risk being unable to pay for anything.

While it’s fair to say that Nagorno Karabakh has a cash-dominated economy, I’ve never had problems using credit and debit cards in hotels or restaurants in Stepanakert.  You are also able to use cards in larger shops and restaurants in Shushi and Vank but, as a general rule, you should use cash outside of Stepanakert.

My recommendation would be to ensure that you travel to the area with around 200,000 Drams (about £200) in cash for four days.  This should be more than enough to cover the cost of your transportation to and from Karabakh as well as incidental expenses such as taxis and snacks.  With a bit of luck, you should have a surplus of cash left at the end of your visit which you can either spend back in Yerevan or covert back into pounds.

If you need to get hold of more cash during the course of your journey, there is an ATM in the reception of the Hotel Armenia.

Stepanakert – the capital city

Stepanakert will inevitably be your base for visiting Nagorno Karabakh. A city of roughly 70,000 people, about half of the country’s population is based here.

While it would be going too far to describe Stepanakert as a metropolis, there’s enough to do in the area to keep first-time travellers occupied for at least a couple of days.

I would recommend seeing the following sights:

  • “We are the mountains” statute – pictured to the right, the statue has become an unofficial “mascot” for Nagorno Karabakh.  The foundations of the statue go down several metres into the ground, symbolising the ancient presence of the Armenian people in Nagorno Karabakh and the fact they are rooted in the country’s soil.  No trip to the region is complete without stopping for a photograph here.
  • Memorial Complex – a great place to visit to learn about the conflict with Azerbaijan as well as to pay your respects to those who died.  Many of the graves are decorated in an elaborate and poigniant style.
  • Stepanakert Market – I often think that visiting markets is one of the best ways to gain insights into a country’s culture and traditions.  The bustling market in Stepanakert is a “must visit”. You can buy everything here – from traditional daggers and carpets to fresh fish imported over the mountains from Armenia.  You can also buy fresh Zingalov Hats (see the “food and drink” section below) that are freshly made in front of you.
  • Artsakh State Museum (4 Sasunstsi David Street) – located in Stepanakert, the museum hosts a good collection of memorabilia from the 1990s conflict, as well as some more historical artifacts from the country’s history.

Aside from visiting the small number of tourist attractions the city has, I would also recommend taking a couple of hours to just wander aimlessly around the city.  There are no “no go” areas of the city, so feel free to explore side streets, graveyards and any other sites that look interesting.

Wherever you go you’ll never be very far from a cafe serving delicious, turbo-charged Anatolian coffee and may well meet some interesting people along the way.  I was once humbled to meet the owner of a smoke-filled cafe who told me of his love for the British as his wife had been flown to Manchester for life-saving surgery after being hurt in a shell attack.  He wouldn’t let me pay my bill.

If you want to mix with some fellow travellers and English-speaking locals then I would recommend visiting the Hotel Armenia’s bar in the evening. It stays open until the last customers leave and does a terrific selection of flavoured shishas, meaning it can get rather smoky inside if it’s too cold an evening to sit outside.

If you need the help of a friendly English speaker then a lady called Anaida and her team at the reception desk of the Hotel Armenia on Renaissance Square should be able to point you in the right direction.

Shushi

There are few towns in Nagorno Karabakh that suffered as much during the conflict of the early 1990s than Shushi (note: the town is often called by it’s Azeri name ‘Shusha‘ in various guidebooks).  Perched in a stunning location on a hillside about ten miles from Stepanakert, Shushi was once one of the largest Armenian towns in the world and the heart of the Caucasus silk trade.  It retains some of its historic buildings but saw scenes of some of the most bitter fighting during the Karabakh war.

War stories about Shushi are legendary in Karabakh. The town served as a base from which the Azeri army launched missile and shell attacks on Stepanakert before being dramatically recaptured one night by Armenian forces. The military operation saw scores of Armenian soldiers scale a steep rock face at 03:00, driving out the Azeri army and effectively bringing an end to most serious fighting in the Karabakh conflict.

Visiting Shusi will give you a unique perspective on the influences of both Christianity and Islam on Nagorno Karabakh.  Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, which was used by the Azeri army to store missiles during the war, has been fully restored and should not be missed.  Similarly, you should make an effort to visit the Yukhari Govhar Agha mosque which, while no longer in use, is protected by the Nagorno Karabakh Government.  You should also visit the town’s ancient fortress which has been at the heart of some of the great historic battles for control of Shushi.

If you have time, try and pop into the Shushi Museum which has some great examples of Karabakh art and other cultural artefacts from the town’s rich history.

In an effort to boost tourism the Nagorno Karabakh Government has constructed a 17km-long walking trail from Shushi to Stepanakert which passes alongside mountains, rivers and waterfalls.  You might want to consider getting a taxi to Shushi in the morning and then spending the day walking back to Stepanakert with a stop-off for lunch at one of the small villages along the way.

Your other option in respect of Shushi is to save your visit there until you are heading back to Yerevan as you will have to pass by it.  If you speak to your hotel, they will be happy to brief your taxi driver to first take you to see the sights of Shushi en route back to Armenia.

Vank

Once a fairly anonymous town, Vank has been heavily invested in in recent years by a former resident who made his fortune in Russia.  Passing through the town, you’ll see a string of newly-built buildings and statues, including a rather bizarre hotel built in the shape that is supposed to resemble the Titanic and an elaborate carving of a lion into rock on the hillside.

Architecture aside, the number one reason for visiting Vank is its proximity to the famous Gandzasar monastery which dates back as far as the 1200s.  Located at the top of a long and winding mountain pass, Gandzasar is probably Nagorno Karabakh’s biggest tourist attraction.  Aside from being a stunning example of Armenian religious architecture, the church is home to a wealth of attractive stone carvings and stunning views down across the valley.

If possible, I would recommend visiting Gandzasar earlier in the day as the whole complex gets gripped by fog as you get closer to sunset.  On one occasion I visited Gandzasar, I could barely see more than two or three metres in front of me!   There’s a very good restaurant in the town centre (see the food and drink secton later in this blogpost) where you can stop off for a delicious lunch.

If you have more than a couple of days in Nagorno Karabakh, then I’d also suggest visiting the town of Hadrut when you’ll find further examples of 13th and 14th century chuches.

Keep safe

A number of people visit Nagorno Karabakh in order try and gain an insight into what it’s like to be in an active conflict zone.  If this is the reason for your visit then you will likely be disappointed as the vast majority of the country has a quiet and relaxed feel to it.

The Government of Nagorno Karabakh takes security issues exceptionally seriously and does not take kindly to visitors to the region that seek to stray too close to the border with Azerbaijan.  Snipers operate in this are and by doing so, you are putting not only yourself at grave risk but also endangering the lives of Karabakh Army soldiers (many of them young conscripts) who may be sent in to get you out of trouble.

Conflicting reports exist about whether or not it is possible to visit the cities of Agdam and Fizuli – both of which are ghost towns and former strongholds of the Azeri army.  Agdam is not technically part of the territory of Nagorno Karabakh but is temporarily held by Karabakh forces due to its use as key staging point from which the Azeri army launched rockets and shells into Armenian neighbourhoods.

I have visited both places with no problems in the past but understand that, depending on the general security situation, visits may not be possible.  You will pass several military checkpoints en route at which you may be denied permission to progress further if the security situation is particularly bad.

If you do manage to visit Agdam or Fizuli – a moving and extremely interesting experience – you shouldn’t go on about what you’ve seen there to locals when you get back to Stepanakert.  Agdam was an ethnic Azeri town but, even in victory, Armenians take no pride in or draw no satisfaction from its current state and have indicated it would be returned to Azerbaijan in the event of a settlement recognising Nagorno Karabakh’s independence.

The Halo Trust has done an exceptional job at removing land mines from Karabakh.  Indeed, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days with their team in the country in order to see the painstaking work they do to rid the region of these evil weapons (although I can’t claim to have been told that walking across a certain field was safe as it “only has anti-tank mines in it”!). Keep your eyes peeled for signs marked “UXO” which indicate the presence of mines and avoid those areas at all costs.

Food and drink

No travel-related blog post from me would be complete without a quick delve into some of the local food and drink.

As a starter, I’ll say that while the food is Karabakh is fresh and delicious, it is far from varied.  With the exception of a few restaurants serving Georgian dishes and pizza, the menu of most restaurants in the region reflects the area’s cultural homogeneity.

Arguably the most iconic and unquestionably ‘Karabaki’ dish (as opposed to more broadly Armenian) is Jingalov Hats (pictured to the right), a flat pancake-like dish filled with fourteen different types of herbs.  It has a pretty unique taste and, according to friends on the ground, can only be found in Karabakh.  I can’t really do justice to by describing it but it’s tasty, healthy and filling.  I asked a friend for the recipe so that I could try and make it in the UK but was rather dismissively told this would be “impossible”.

In addition to Zingalov Hats you will also find some of the best BBQ food I’ve ever tasted.  The best option is to order a “tapas-style” range of chicken, pork, lamb and beef dishes to share amongst those you’re dining with.  The meats are always beautifully marinated as absolutely delicious.

Being the South Caucasus, you may also want to order a Georgian khachapuri – essentially a big cheese pie.  It’s not healthy but it is delicious. (If you really want to compound your unhealthiness then order the khachapuri with an egg on top).

In terms of specific restaurants, I am rather hamstrung by my inability to read Armenian script – and therefore inability to actually known the names of the restaurants (!) – but will nonetheless attempt to make some recommendations…

My personal favourite is a small restaurant on the outskirts of Stepanakert, about ten minutes walk from Renaissance Square.  If you are standing on the steps of the Hotel Armenia with your back to the hotel, take the first turning on the right down the hill.  Keep to the right hand side of the road and walk for about ten minutes (you will pass a number of newly-constructed residential blocks on the right hand side of the road and a school/sports centre on the left) and you will reach and restaurant that is part indoor and outdoor with a small stream running through the entrance area.  The staff are extremely friendly, the food excellent and the drinks cabinet well-stocked. They also have a selection of English-language menus which can be helpful for non-Russian and Armenian speakers.  After dinner, there’s a small nightclub about 300 metres up on the other side of the road.

Looking slightly closer to Renaissance Square, you will find the very comfortable bar and restaurant at the Hotel Armenia as well as the trendy ‘Russia’ restaurant.  ‘Russia’ is owned by a wealthy local who made his fortune in Moscow and is arguably the country’s most upmarket venue – imposing black marble and granite being the order of the day.  I last attempted to go to ‘Russia’ on the night of the 2012 Presidential election but was turned away as the venue was hosting the President’s victory party.  The prices here are higher than elsewhere but still very affordable for those coming from Western Europe and North America.

Another place that should not be missed is a small restaurant in Vank, not far from the famous Gandzasar monastery (this is probably a good place to have lunch after visiting).  It’s impossible to miss: just look out for a cylindrical building on the banks of the river.  The walls of the restaurant are decorated with traditional Karabakh carpets, daggers and assorted other memorabilia.  This place serves the best Jingalov Hats I have tasted.

I have a basic rule when I travel that, as a first resort, I will always drink the locally-produced lager. You can’t go wrong with a chilled Kotayk or Kilikia.

So, you’ll be asking, “what’s the local moonshine like?”.  Quite nice, actually.  Most restaurants have a decent selection of home-made plum, pear and grape liqueurs which are generally best served chilled. They’re incredibly pure and go down particularly well after large amounts of BBQ food.  High quality and affordable vodkas are available at ally restaurants, along with the world famous Ararat cognac.

In terms of food safety, I’ve never had cause to worry about standards of hygiene at restaurants in Karabakh.  Indeed, the relatively isolated nature of the place means that the majority of meat comes from locally-reared and slaughtered animals who haven’t been fed the usual cocktail of stimulants and antibiotics that all to often finds its way into food in Western Europe and North America.  I have heard conflicting reports about whether or not the tap water is safe to consume but, just to be safe, it’s probably worth sticking to bottles water.  While I’ve never fallen victim to dodgy milk in Karabakh (they’d have to do a lot to improve upon the plague-esque strain of ‘Montezuma’s revenge’ the milkshake stand at Tbilisi Ortachala station gave me), Armenian friends insist that ‘Westerners’ should avoid drinking unpasturised milk.

If you’re a smoker, Nagorno Karabakh is the place for you.  It appears almost obligatory to smoke when in a bar or restaurant.  As a non-smoker I certainly felt like the odd one out!

What have I missed?

I hope you’ve found the information above useful.  If there’s anything I’ve missed then just leave a comment below and I’ll see if I can help – or at least point you in the right direction.

Time to sever our Kremlin links and forge a new alliance

This article first appeared on ConservativeHome.

Since his arrival in Downing Street in May 2010, David Cameron has been an indefatigable advocate for human rights.

The government’s staunch support for the Arab Spring, culminating in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the holding of free and fair elections in Tunisia and sweeping constitutional reforms in Morocco are a testament to its record on this issue. David Cameron’s personal leadership in bringing about tougher sanctions on Europe’s last dictatorship in Belarus and the increasingly unstable regime in Tehran are a testament to his personal commitment to realising democracy around the world.

Fifty years ago, the Council of Europe was established as a formal means by which to forge voluntary cooperation on issues such as technical and legal standards, democracy and human rights issues. Included within the CoE is the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) which brings together MPs from all member countries to discuss topical issues of concern to citizens across Europe. Human rights issues are ordinarily top of the agenda.

While its legislative and political influence has been gradually eroded by the rapid development of Brussels-led supranationalism, the fact that the organisation’s membership stretches beyond the borders of the EU means that the Council of Europe remains an effective means by which Western European countries can share legislative experiences and build relationships with political figures in Turkey, the Ukraine, Serbia and emerging democracies in the South Caucasus.

Throughout Britain’s membership of the Council of Europe, the party has sat in the European Democratic Group (EDG), a technical group comprised of a range of conservative and nationalist parties either ideologically opposed to the EPP’s federalist polices or unwelcome in its ranks. Originally comprised of respectable parties such as the British Conservatives and its allies from Scandinavian states, the group’s work has become increasingly dominated by representatives from Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.

In recent times, United Russia members of the group have demanded the EDG vote to stifle debate over press and media freedoms in Russia, to block the so-called Magnitsky Act designed to bring prosecutions against those involved in the violent torture and murder of Russian human rights lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and to pass motions on Abkhazia and South Ossetia that are contrary to the British government’s position in respect of Georgian territorial integrity.

It is clear we have reached a point where our continued membership of the EDG has ceased to be a means by which to build links with emerging democracies and become both an embarrassment to those who believe passionately in the values of human rights and democracy and a blunt tool with which our opponents can beat us.

The British Conservative cannot – and must not – allow itself to be associated with the unacceptable positions advocated by United Russia or its puppet master Vladimir Putin.

Before the Conservative Party’s split with the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, party members were all too familiar with the poor ideological fit between our own market-liberal, anti-federalist party and the Christian Democrat EPP.

The divorce between the British Conservatives and the EPP was a torturously drawn-out and complex one, yet it resulted in the creation of both the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) in the European Parliament and the establishment of a new, pan-European political party, the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR).

While less is known in the UK about the AECR than the ECR, its membership base is substantial; including parties from other EU countries such as the Czech Civil Democrats and Polish Law and Justice alongside allies from Georgia and Iceland.

Prior to the formation of the ECR and AECR, an argument could be made that British membership of the European Democratic Group has necessary in order to avoid the party sitting in splendid isolation in the Parliamentary Assembly. This is no longer the case.

It is only now logical, given both the development and maturity of the AECR, that the group organises in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe under the “European Conservatives and Reformists” banner.

Aside from existing AECR members that would join the group are MPs from the Turkish Justice and Development Party led by Prime Minister Erdogan as well as plenty of others from the Balkans, Caucasus and elsewhere in Europe.

Just as the EPP held the Conservative Party’s pursuit of policies opposed to European federalism back, the pro-Kremlin EDG restricts the party’s ability to speak with a credible voice on the European stage on human rights and democratisation issues. Just as the establishment of the ECR group in the European Parliament gave the Conservative Party the ability to pursue our own, anti-federalist agenda, the creation of an ECR group at a Council of Europe level will give our party both the platform and the credibility to fight for democratic change in Moscow, Kiev and Minsk.

There can be no excuse for the party not implementing this change at the earliest possible opportunity.

In Memoriam: Her Excellency Karine Kazinian

Every once in a while you meet someone you really connect with and get on with.  Whether it’s your because of a shared hobby, a common experience, a similar sense of humour or for a reason completely tangential or unexplainable, you just do.

Her Excellency Karine Kazinian, the Armenian Ambassador to theUnited Kingdom and Ireland, was one of those people.

I first met Karine after our mutual friend Charles Tannock, a Member of the European Parliament forLondonand one of Europe’s leading foreign affairs experts and human rights advocates, suggested I might like to meet Armenia’s new Ambassador to the UK.  She was, Charles told me, looking to “make a difference” during her time in the capital.

We met for lunch at a small Italian restaurant in Notting Hill; the aim of our meeting being to discuss ideas for how to improve awareness in the United Kingdom of the challenges facing Armenia.

It’s often said that first impressions are the most important ones you ever form about a person and that remedying negative ones is an uphill or almost impossible task.  Thankfully, my first impressions of Karine never changed.  “Welcoming”, “friendly”, “convivial”, “sincere”, “caring” and “confiding” are all adjectives that came to mind – and never ceased to be words I associated with her.

At our first meeting we spoke at length not only about what we could do to help Armenia– a small, landlocked nation steeped in ancient history and possessed with a people whose integrity and dignity is peerless – but about our lives and families.   Before long, she wasn’t an Ambassador to me; she was my friend.

She was fascinated to hear about my Brazilian background, exchanging Portuguese phrases with me that she had learned during her time working in the Soviet Embassy in Mozambique and Portugal.  She listened with delight as I outlined by holiday plans in Armenia, offering to organise me guided tours of Yerevan and introductions to her many friends throughout the city.  She asked about my brother and sister, smiling from ear-to-ear when I told him my brother had been admitted to Oxford and my sister was saving lives every day as an intensive care nurse.  She also spoke about her own family, telling me stories about the fervent pride her son living in Moscow had at being Armenian, her daughter’s recent wedding and her son-in-law’s burgeoning career as a comic illustrator.  I don’t know any of her family – but the warmth with which she so often spoke about them makes me feel a strange familiarity with them.

It’s exactly a year today since Her Majesty The Queen welcomed Karine to Buckingham Palace to formally induct her into the Court of St James.  In that time, she has truly changed the face of relations between the UK and Armenia; helping people to better see the wood from the trees when it comes to some of the misconceptions that exist about the country and forming an indelible link in the mind of everyone that met her between the word “Armenia” and an image of hospitality, decency and kindness.

The archetypal image of a senior diplomat, one honed in the minds of most from scenes of elaborate drinks parties in James Bond films, is that of a mildly aloof figure dispensing formal niceties to the assembles hordes in a mechanical manner, secretly aghast at having to deal with the marauding masses.

Karine wasn’t like that; she was genuine.  And that’s why everyone who came into contact with her adored her - other members of the diplomatic corps, Members of Parliament, Peers of the Realm or the legion of young politicos she once unwisely allowed me to unleash upon her wine collection!

Despite being tremendously dedicated to and outstanding able at her job as a diplomat, Karine had never intended to become an Ambassador.

At heart she was a scholar, mother and wife, elevated to the role of Armenian Ambassador to Romaniaafter the tragic death of her husband in his early 40s.  Initially asked by then President Levon Ter-Petrossian to temporarily hold the fort in Bucharest as Chargé d’Affaires, she went on to serve as the country’s Ambassador to Germany and Deputy Foreign Minister with responsibility for negotiating the EU-Armenia Association Agreement before coming to London last year.

I landed at Amsterdam Airport a little after 7am yesterday morning to an email letting me know that Karine had passed away during the night as a result of complications arising from surgery.

When we last met up a few weeks ago, she mentioned she would be going to Los Angeles for a complicated and potentially risky operation – but only after she had secured a meeting for President Sargsyan with UK Ministers and organised a successful series of events to celebrate the 20th anniversary of British-Armenian relations.  She did both of those things with her typical style and aplomb, putting her sense of service to country well ahead of her own personal needs – just as she always did.

It’s gut-wrenching for those of us who counted Karine as a dear friend to think that we’ll never seen her again.

For her family, the pain at this cruel twist of fate must be unbearable. I only hope that, when the initial devastation passes, her family will be able to draw upon not only their own memories of her but the affection of so many others felt for her and smile.

Yesterday morning, I contacted a colleague of Karine’s to offer my condolences.  In his reply, there was one phrase that really stood out about his experience of working – but more importantly – knowing her: “we had so many plans”.  We all did.

Sleep well, Your Excellency.