AP PHOTOS: Azerbaijan separatist region aims to end…

AP PHOTOS: Azerbaijan separatist region aims to end solitude

STEPANAKERT, Azerbaijan (AP) – Most of the world is off-limits to Arshak Aghakaryan, a 14-year-old boy in the Azerbaijani separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The rows of gleaming computers at an after-school training center feed his hopes that he has a place in it.

The privately funded TUMO Center for Creative Technologies, which teaches subjects such as robotics and 3-D modeling, epitomizes the aspirations in the region to emerge from the isolation that has cloaked it for more than two decades. Nagorno-Karabakh has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since the end of a 1994 war.

Armenia‘s new government has raised hopes here that a breakthrough could come, or at least bring more investment.

Nagorno-Karabakh‘s 150,000 people don‘t hold Azerbaijan passports and can travel only to Armenia, unless they apply for Armenian passports. The mountainous region‘s self-declared sovereignty isn‘t recognized by any country. With trade, travel and educational opportunities limited, the region‘s youth are in danger of falling behind.

TUMO‘s goal is to “level up an entire generation,” said Korioun Khatchadourian, who moved from France to direct the Stepanakert branch of the Yerevan, Armenia-based center. “They will need to be multi-skilled, and techie and artsy, so that they can compete on the marketplace tomorrow.”

It‘s working for Aghakaryan, who wants to become a video game developer, and like many adolescents is impatient with traditional schooling but appreciates hands-on experience.

“If you get bad marks it‘s disappointing and you aren‘t going to learn with love,” he says.

The nonprofit TUMO was founded by an American tech executive of Armenian descent. Such contributions from the Armenian diaspora are vital. But widespread corruption allegations in Armenia have discouraged investment, said Arayik Harutyunyan, the minister of state in the separatist government.

But Harutyunyan and others hope that will change now that Nikol Pashinian is Armenia‘s prime minister. Pashinian rose to power this month on a wave of mass protests that focused on corruption.

Noubar Afeyan, an American entrepreneur and prominent diaspora figure, said he hoped the government change would encourage Armenians abroad to “finally engage in the sustained development of Armenia” and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Yet there is also concern that Pashinian could aggravate already-volatile conditions, where Azerbaijani and Armenian forces face off on either side of a demilitarized zone and full-scale fighting sometimes breaks out.

“His statements so far are more those of a member of the Armenian public than of a diplomat,” said Thomas de Waal, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is a challenge to Azerbaijan. Suddenly, the clock is being reset and nothing is clear.”

Nagorno-Karabakh has reported solid gross domestic product growth over the past decade. Once heavily reliant on imported electricity, Nagorno-Karabakh now has a self-sufficient grid.

It also has an international airport, built in 2011, but the one thing missing are the planes. Azerbaijan has warned it can‘t guarantee the safety of flights to Nagorno-Karabakh. So, neatly stacked luggage trolleys, check-in desks and an air traffic control tower remain unused.

But the region has “learned to coexist with the conflict,” said the separatists‘ foreign affairs minister, Masis Mayilian. “We have created the institutions both to maintain our existence and for our development.”

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