Armenia’s existential struggle

This is the third article in my series on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Here, I try to explain why Armenia’s fear of another genocide is justified. Sorry that this article is a bit longer than usual. Here I do unambiguously take a side and if the language comes across as strong, remember that I am criticizing the governments and the ruling elite, not the people who live in these countries. Also, this has nothing to do with the religious differences or anything like that.

The map of modern Armenia looks like the portrait of a woman, with the lake Sevan as her precious brooch. If I had to choose a name for her it would probably be Ani, a common feminine name in Armenia. In the high middle ages though, this name would rather be associated with one of the largest and most advanced cities of the world: the Armenian capital Ani. Today, the lonely ruins of this once glorious city reflect two things: the past achievements of the Armenian culture and the uncertain future of the Armenian-Turkish relationships, as the ancient city lies directly at the closed border between these two countries, on the territory of Turkey.

The map of Armenia and Artsakh (please don’t politicize it’s for illustration purposes)

In the previous article I mentioned that the recognition of the Armenian Genocide is not only a moral and emotional issue for Armenians but also a political and existential one. When talking about the political implications, I do not mean territorial claims or even material reparations from Turkey. Even if Turkey is worried about any possible legal consequences, I don’t think that’s an issue in terms of realpolitik, so it seems like a lame excuse. Instead, the mere confrontation with the past has become a seemingly insuperable obstacle for reconciliation. As if that’s not enough, Turkey continues to push and support anti-Armenian sentiment and even bring military power into play. Let me explain.

To begin with, there is a purely formal issue: Turkey has closed its borders to Armenia and has ceased diplomatic relationships unless two preconditions are fulfilled: 1) the abandonment of the efforts to internationally recognize the Genocide and 2) the return of the regions currently under the control of the Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) to Azerbaijan.

There are many countries that do not officially recognize the Armenian Genocide yet; however, there are only two countries that actively deny it in any discussion, be it political or historical. Guess which countries? You are right, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Let me make it clear again: unless Armenia gives in to the denialist claims of Turkey and forgets about the largest tragedy of its people not so long ago, Turkey doesn’t want to talk. What a blackmail! Remember, the Republic of Armenia has so far not raised any preconditions for reiterating diplomatic relationships.

Pipelines from Baku bypassing Armenia (the small gray patch between Azerbaijan and Turkey, the other large gray parts include other countries)

Curiously enough, Turkey’s second precondition has nothing to do with Turkey per se. So, what’s the deal with Azerbaijan? Turkish-Azerbaijani relationships started to thrive based on linguistic affinity (they speak mutually intelligable Turkic languages) as well as economic interests (e.g. Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline) after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their relationship extends to military cooperation with a Turkish military base located in the Nakhchivan exclave of Azerbaijan, southwest to Armenia.

Fine, but what’s the danger for Armenia? The recipe for disaster is simple: extreme anti-Armenian sentiment, great military power coupled with authoritarian regimes and expansionist aspirations, all of that in the immediate neighborhood .

Let’s for a moment ignore the fact that Turkey denies the Armenian Genocide. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say well, the past is past, stop holding a grudge. Unfortunately, the hatred towards Armenians is not a matter of the past. Just go through the Wikipedia article about the anti-Armenian sentiment in Turkey: you will encounter everything from assassinations to taking pride in the Genocide, from being “psychologically damaged” when called Armenian to vandalization of Armenian culture.

Now let’s see why even friendly gestures from Turkey, such as the restoration of the Armenian church in Van, are met with extreme caution by the Armenian side. Simply put, Turkey is often shifting the gears in its struggle to consolidate a national identity.

In his book “From Empire to Repubic: Turkish Nationalism & the Armenian Genocide”, Turkish-German historian Taner Akçam writes “Regarding Turkey, and especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have struggled with the following fundamental problem, which has gained currency among sociologists: “What is that keeps a society together and/or leads to its collapse and dissolution?”.

Here is an extract from a 2017 Atlantic article called “Turkey’s identity crisis”:

While Turkey explores potential avenues of a unifying identity for its citizens, many dangerous ideologies are brewing under its surface, including Neo-Ottomanism pushed forward by the current president Erdogan or the ultra-nationalist movement of Grey Wolves (supported by approximately 2 million people, 7000 in Germany) the major actions of the latter being massacres, assassinations and bombings. One aspect of the Turkish nationalism is Article 301 in the Turkish Penal Code that condemns any insult to Turkey, Turkish nation,Turkishness etc., for example when falsely calling someone Armenian. As of free speech and other democratic luxuries, it suffices to remember Erdogan’s famous words that democracy is a train, you get off once you’ve reached your destination. Apparently, he’s missed the train or worse, reached his destination. Just four years ago the Turkish leader mentioned Hitler’s Germany as an example for effective government.

Azerbaijan faces a similar struggle for identity. In Soviet era, it actively worked on creating a mythical identity based on a long vanished kingdom of Caucasian Albania (covering areas in modern Azerbaijan) by carefully replacing “Armenia” for “Albania” in historical documents. In the words of Thomas de Waal “The subtext of this theory was obvious to anyone who lived in the Caucasus: the Karabakh Armenians had no relation to the Armenians of Armenia. They were either “guests” of Azerbaijan or Azerbaijanis under the skin (descendants of Albanians) and should behave accordingly”. They went so far to claim that Armenians, the first Christian nation, had nothing to do with all the churches and monasteries in Armenia (not in Nagorno-Karabakh!), which were all Albanian instead. An intriguing question that hasn’t received its answer yet is why are Azerbaijanis diligently destroying ancient “Albanian” heritage. Obviously, Armenians were outraged and perceived this as cultural genocide. After all, in all the centuries of oppression by different empires, Armenians took pride in maintaining and fostering their culture and language, surviving as a nation.

Ruins of the Church of the Redeemer, Ani, 11th century

Tragically, cultural assaults turned into physical ones in the last years of the Soviet union, when in multiple Azerbaijani cities, such as Sumgait, Kirovabad and Baku, bloody pogroms were organized against ethnic Armenians in response to their request to join Soviet Armenia. The Azerbaijani writer Akram Aylisi who had the courage to write the book “Stone dreams” about the Baku pogrom and earlier massacres, was harassed and his books were burnt in Azerbaijan. Eerily, a reward of 13.000$ was promised by a politician for cutting his ear off. That was in 2013.

This barbaric announcement pales in comparison to what was done to the Armenian lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan. During a NATO program in 2004, he was brutally axed in his sleep by his Azerbaijani peer Ramil Safarov. Safarov was extradited to Azerbaijan in 2012, where he was immediately pardoned and showered with gifts. He’s a national hero now. In 2016, during a four day war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani soldiers killed peaceful civilians and mutilated their bodies (including cutting ears off). They also decapitated the Yazidi-Armenian soldier Kyaram Sloyan and happily posed to take a picture.

But the most disheartening aspect of Azerbaijan’s anti-Armenian sentiment is that it has spread its roots deep into the young generation. There is strong indoctrination in schools and even kindergartens. Recently, there was a viral video, where the kindergarten teacher shows the map of Armenia and teaches the children that Armenians are their enemies. She then proudly posted it on the preschool’s Facebook page. Maybe it was an isolated case, I don’t know, but it’s certainly a worrying symptom.

Obviously, Azerbaijanis are not particularly liked in Armenia. We are also far from flawless when it comes to political correctness. Nevertheless, as biased as I may be, never have I experienced such animosity against Azerbaijani people as I get to know from the other side. Don’t take my word, just compare the lengthy Wikipedia article on Anti-Armenian sentiment in Azerbaijan to the one on the Anti-Azerbaijani sentiment in Armenia. I will later talk about the issues that Armenians misunderstand about Azerbaijanis and what has to change, but one thing is clear: the state-sponsored and systematic anti-Armenian sentiment in Azerbaijan doesn’t have its counterpart in Armenia. Tragedies such as the Khojaly massacre in 1992, during which Azerbaijani civilians were killed as the Armenian forces were gaining control of the town, are to be condemned but one important detail shouldn’t be missed: the soldiers involved “were not acting on orders from their command” and according to Thomas de Waal it was a result of a chaotic situation, and not a “deliberately planned” action by the Armenians, much less by the government. In addition, many things are exaggerated by Azerbaijani propaganda machine, as you can learn in this article.

Hopefully you can see that the first ingredient for yet another catastrophe, anti-Armenian sentiment, is there, especially when it comes to Azerbaijan. The next piece to spice things up is military power coupled with authoritarian regime. I touched upon the problems in Turkey and you can already assume that many of the things I discussed about Azerbaijan would not be possible in a democratic country. In fact, Turkey and Azerbaijan rank 110/167 and 146/167 by democratic index, while Armenia’s rank is 86 and improving. In addition, Azerbaijan has experienced an economic boom due to its oil and has used the money not as much to improve the lives of its citizens but to bribe politicians worldwide (see caviar diplomacy, Azerbaijani laundromat), to create a nepotistic government (guess who’s the vice-president: president Aliyev’s wife!) and to pile up personal wealth. Worst of all, Azerbaijan has invested heavily in military. Turkey’s military is even stronger. You can explore the differences between our militaries here. In response to this threat and to the unsolved Karabakh-conflict, Armenia is a highly militarized country, too. But without oil, without access to the sea, with two of its four borders closed and with a population of only 3 million, Armenia is virtually wringing its budget to be able to defend itself and to guarantee the security of the people in Nagorno-Karabakh.

As of the expansionist aspirations. Well, there is no reason to assume that at some point, these two countries will not use a good opportunity, such as a struggling Russia (Russia is obligated to protect us if Armenia proper’s borders are attacked) to attack and engulf Armenia. After all, when you look at the map, the bone in the throat for Turkish-Azerbaijani union is the tiny Armenia. The idea of Pan-Turkism, unification of Turkic people (or more realistically Turkey and Azerbaijan) is not alien to nationalist circles in these countries and may be in a dormant brewing state. Here’s another quote from Taner Akçam’s book:

Now imagine this. Turkey and Azerbaijan, the adamant Genocide-denier and armenophobe states, “blessed” with military power decide to cooperate to recapture the “occupied” territories from the people of Artsakh. They say enough’s enough, thirty years of negotiations didn’t bring anything. While pretending to be only “morally supportive”, Turkey has provided Syrian mercenaries, fighter jets and military advisors to Azerbaijan. International journalists are not allowed to report from the combat zones on the Azerbaijani side. The journalists on the Armenian side are targeted with military drones, such as these journalists from Le Monde. The regional capital Stepanakert is being shelled from day one - half of the population have fled, the other half is in cold underground basements. Some people found rescue in a church. But the church got hit twice. They said there was a military base nearby. Apparently they could “miss” the “base” twice! and hit the exact same location. There was no military base, there were people praying and broadcasting a video about half an hour ago before that. Luckily, at that moment people were somewhere else but when the second strike came, a Russian journalist was injured. The very first thing the Azerbaijani soldiers did when entering an Armenian village was to kill a woman and her disabled son. The stories are countless. While Azerbaijan and Turkey are chasing us with military “wonders” such as heartless killer drones, the handful of Armenians around the globe, whose ancestors have survived the unspeakable, are sacrificing everything they can: money, time, resources and most tragically — their lives. Why? Because this is not a fight for territory. This is a fight for the right to live, for the right not to be slaughtered like sheep. Not again.

How would it look if Germany never apologized, used anti-semitic rhetoric and openly supported an even more anti-semitic country in a conflict with Jewish people? Would you take a chance?

Performance of a medieval Armenian melody in the ruined church of Shushi, Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh

Next, I will talk about the factors that have made the negotiations fruitless.

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