A recognised pub in an unrecognised state
Two bottles of whiskey and a small location was all Azat Adamyan had to start with. Today, the pub Bardak (Russian for “mess”) is one of a kind in the city of Stepanakert – the capital of the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh. His success has led him to branch out into other business ventures.
At eight o’clock every evening Azat Adamyan kick starts his motorcycle – which he named Charlotte – and drives to work. The 27-year-old from Stepanakert (the capital city of the de facto state of Nagorno-Karabakh) is the founder and only employee of Bardak, the one and only pub in Karabakh. Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, is the de facto unrecognised republic located in the South Caucasus. For more than 20 years Artsakh Armenians have lived in a state of “neither war, nor peace”.
In 1988, the Armenians of Karabakh, which at that time was part of Soviet Azerbaijan, went to the streets demanding to join their motherland Armenia. After Karabakh declared its independence in 1991, the first Karabakh-Azerbaijan war broke out. It ended in 1994 with a ceasefire agreement. However, even after the agreement, incidents and clashes continued.
On April 2nd 2016 a new conflict escalated with Azerbaijan – one that was called the Four Day War. It also ended with a ceasefire, yet the situation on the border continues to be tense.
“It was 2016. The Four Day War had just ended. I volunteered as a fighter in a hot spot,” Adamyan says. “For about two months, I was on the front line. When I returned, my friends and I would often meet to talk about our experiences. We would get together in a small place that used to be an internet café. Gradually I realised that our young people need a place where they can meet in an informal setting, discuss issues that they are concerned about and simply hang out.”
Two bottles of whiskey, which Adamyan received as a gift, and a small location which was a literal mess was all he had to start with. This “mess” in the end gave the bar its name: Bardak (translates as “mess” in Russian). Adamyan admits that the name has become a sort of filter for the pub’s visitors. When people hear the name, many decide to stay away from it. This is also good, in a way, as it alleviates any need for strict control. Those who do come to Bardak are more or less familiar with the pub’s culture and feel at ease here.
“At first, when I was designing the tables and chairs, I had to take into account the mentality and preferences of the local population. I put together small tables for 4-5 people,” Adamyan says. “People in Karabakh are not used to sitting in cafés or pubs at a table with strangers. It took time to get used to this culture. In less than a year after opening, I removed the small tables and put three large tables out instead. By then, the locals were used to sitting next to strangers and foreigners. I try to introduce everyone to each other. At first they are a little embarrassed, but once things lighten up a little, people often try to communicate with each other and enjoy their time together, even if they don’t speak the same language.”
Everything in the pub was made by Adamyan himself. He had few resources to invest, but had the desire to do something on his own and show young people that one does not need a lot of money to start a business.
“Many complain that there is nothing in Artsakh. But what could be better? Not much exists here, so all it takes is to figure out what people are lacking and fill this void. You don’t need a turnover of a million dollars from the beginning. I know many young guys who have recently established small and medium-sized businesses,” he says. According to official statistics from 2016, the unemployment rate in Nagorno-Karabakh is still high – 15.8 per cent (data for 2017 has yet to be released).
Adamyan’s pub was difficult to locate at first (it is quite far from the city centre), but now anyone in Stepanakert can easily find Bardak thanks to Google Maps. Adamyan says that at first he tried to contact Google in order to correctly map the location of the pub. When marking “Stepanakert”, Google automatically sets the country as Azerbaijan. After the pub started getting popular and when patrons would geotag their location, Adamyan received an email from Google confirming that the location of the pub would now be listed as “Stepanakert, Armenia.”
Adamyan hung this email on the pub’s door, as a reminder. It is crucial for him that Stepanakert was mentioned by Google as a city in Armenia. “After the official location of the pub on the Google Maps was set, we saw a growing number of foreign visitors including members of the Armenian Diaspora from all over the world, and tourists from Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Germany. Last year most of the Armenians were from Syria.”
According to official figures, 22,500 tourists visited Karabakh in 2017. Since the Four-Day War in 2016, the number of tourists has declined drastically compared to previous years.
Expanding the business
Even though Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh do not have diplomatic relations with Turkey (one of the reasons is the historical massacre of 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey) and all interstate borders with it are closed, most of the goods sold on the Armenian market are still imported from Turkey. Adamyan tells the story of how he once asked a seller if the t-shirts he had chosen to promote his pub were good quality. The response he got was: “You can be sure they are; this is a Turkish product, high quality.”
This led Adamyan to the idea of opening up a local t-shirt production business that would not use Turkish fabric. “There was no problem to find help. My mother and sister are both tailors. What took longer was to find non-Turkish fabric,” Adamyan says. “We were lucky enough to get our hands on fabric from Egypt and we began making t-shirts under the name Adamyan’s.”
With profit from the pub, he bought some sewing machines and 10 metres of fabric. With the sales from the first batch of t-shirts he was able to purchase more material. Today, his branded t-shirts are sold exclusively in Stepanakert. Adamyan has sent samples of the t-shirts to Russia and France and is now waiting for proposals for co-operation.
“What makes these t-shirts unique is not only that they are locally produced, but that they also have creatively combined inscriptions in English and Karabakh that are usually a play on words. The most popular one has been the Armenian interpretation of the well-known brand Lavis – LAVըս՞, which translates as ‘How are you?’”
Adamyan has been playing the violin since the age of seven. After attending music school he went for compulsory military service for two years. After the demobilisation in 2010 he became the first violinist of the Chamber Orchestra of Artsakh.
“My father played the accordion when he was young and even wanted to become a musician. But music always remained a hobby for him. Of the five siblings, I was the only one who got a musical education. I was very skinny and the accordion was too heavy for me, so I chose the violin,” Adamyan recalls.
As a teenager, he became fond of hard rock music and abandoned the violin. He says he is a music lover. He loves all musical genres and it has never stopped him from playing classics. After 15 years of playing the violin professionally, Adamyan left the chamber orchestra and decided to dedicate himself to mountaineering by establishing the FreeStep trekking club.
“A sedentary lifestyle is not for me – I love movement. I love trying new things and travelling. I have long been interested in mountaineering and extreme tourism, I even went to trainings in Yerevan.”
Today Charlotte (his motorbike) drives Adamyan to a field four kilometres outside of Stepanakert. His latest idea is to set up a camp site here and plans to organise tent outings on the weekends. “Karabakh is the perfect place for camping. Starting with these sites we will then develop extreme tourism. I rented about 10,000 square metres of land on the river bank. I plan to build a camp on one side and turn the rest into an orchard.”
Adamyan is confident that nothing in the conflict zone can prevent him from opening a business. Here the problem is different: one first needs to understand the local market. Sometimes you see a new pharmacy opening up and then after things start going well for it, someone else immediately opens another pharmacy right next to it, hoping to emulate that success. And then a third one pops up. In the end, all the pharmacies start to fail. Adamyan believes that one has to be willing to try something new and take some risks.
Yet for various reasons, many young people prefer not to follow Adamyan’s example. They seek opportunities abroad, often temporarily working in countries of the former Soviet Union (particularly, Russia). Some come back. But few, like Adamyan, are willing to invest in developing the local economy.
Translated by Natalia Smolentceva
Knar Babayan is a journalist and documentary photographer from Karabakh.