Search and Hit Enter

A Time for Reflection

Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia have signed an agreement to end military conflict over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. (BBC)

After six weeks of fighting, Russia has brokered an agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding the disputed region of Nagorno Karabagh (Artsakh). I have previously offered some historical background regarding this conflict, so will not go further into it here.

In this most recent fighting, Azerbaijan was joined by Turkey against Artsakh and, at least on some level, Armenia. Perhaps 100 million people against 3 million.

Ankara’s supply of advanced weaponry to Azerbaijan had given Baku a decisive advantage against Armenian forces in the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

Further, Azerbaijan was directly supported by Israel with weapons; indirectly, by the United States, who had to at minimum given a wink to its NATO partner, Turkey. At least in terms of manpower, financial capacity, and military means, it was never a fair fight.

What Was Lost

Azerbaijan was successful in taking significant territory in these last six weeks – both territory of the buffer zone around Artsakh and territory within Artsakh itself. From all reports, Azerbaijan was on the verge of taking the largest city, Stepanakert, having already taken the strategic city of Shushi. It seems quite likely that had the deal not been finalized when it was, the rest of Artsakh would have been lost.

As it is, the two sides are to stand down in place. Russia is sending close to 2,000 peacekeepers for at least five years, to stand in between the parties. Additionally, regions surrounding Artsakh, still in Armenian control, are to be handed over to Azerbaijan. Finally, road corridors are to be opened between Armenian and Artsakh on the one hand, and Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan on the other.

In Armenia, and for many Armenians around the world, this is a crushing blow – and understandably so. The haunt of the genocide one hundred years ago hangs over this war and these events.

Consider what is lost. For example, the Amaras Monastery, dating back to the fourth century, and the first school to teach the Armenian alphabet. The monastery was founded by St. Gregory, the saint who would bring the Armenian king to Christianity in 301 A.D.

Dadivank is another monastery in a region now to be turned over to the Azeris. The monastery was founded in the first century by St. Dadi, a disciple of Thaddeus the Apostle; current structures were bult as early as the ninth century. By legend, it was Thaddaeus and Bartholomew who brought Christianity to the Armenians after the Resurrection.

There are two khachkars (stone-crosses as grave markers) at this monastery, dating to the thirteenth century. Father Hovhannes Hovhannisyan (John Johnson) is abbot of the monastery.

In this video he states that he will be removing these khachkars – after 800 years – to protect these from the Azeri takeover. To give some idea of his words (and my Eastern Armenian isn’t great, so forgive any errors): Our khachkars are our life, our Christianity; we have two or three days before the ungodly ones come to take over this place. You will see after what kind of condition they offer to this place.

Perhaps watch the video. You will see his pain, knowing that he will be the one, after 800 years, that will remove these khachkars from their place.

There is some possibility that this monastery is within the region to be controlled by Armenia and Russia. Father Hovhannes has more recently stated that he will not be moving; the fog of war has given way to the fog of peace.

This is not the case for Amaras. It is apparently in the region to be handed over to Azerbaijan. For Amaras to be retained, diplomatic skill by the Armenian side is required – but more on this below.

The Reaction

News of this agreement hit Armenians like a stone. In Yerevan, the protests were immediate and violent. Thousands marching on the square, on Parliament. I found myself wondering: why are so many men so angry in Yerevan? If it was so important to them, why were they not on the front?

The Reality

The situation was truly desperate from the start. With Turkey, perhaps the most powerful non-nuclear military in the world, joining Azerbaijan, there was little hope for the Armenian side to succeed militarily, and certainly not without major resources from Armenia proper and elsewhere. But absent true diplomatic skill and an honest acceptance of the geopolitical situation, the long game was against Armenia in any case.

In the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia was victorious in the fight for Artsakh. Yet, it was Azerbaijan with time on its hands. Oil. Baku was flooded in oil. Armenia, on the other hand, was a land-locked nation with no meaningful natural resources, and working to dig out from under both the collapse of the Soviet Union and the devastating earthquake that struck at the end of the time of that empire.

Since the time of that victory, more than 25 years ago, Baku spent considerably more on its military than Armenia did. It had the resources to do so. Since the time of that victory, more than 25 years ago, the process of reaching a final settlement went nowhere. A group headed by the United States, France, and Russia was mediating this dispute, with no progress to show for it.

Two weeks ago, Vladimir Putin stressed that Russia’s position has not changed. He offered:

“We proceeded from the fact that we need to talk about the possibility of transferring five plus two regions to Azerbaijan with the provision of a certain regime of the Karabakh zone, its interaction with Armenia.”

Russia’s position has not changed. For how long? This is quite curious to me. Has this been Russia’s position all along? I have no way to know, or maybe I just wasn’t that close to it. However, it sounds as if he is saying that Russia’s view is that Karabagh holds some protected status, Armenia returns the buffer provinces around Karabagh, and a physical road connection is maintained between Armenia and Karabagh.

It sounds to me just like the situation of West Berlin and West Germany, with a highway connecting the two through East Germany. It worked then, and in a case where the stakes were much higher, albeit, perhaps, not as passionate.

It also sounds exactly like the deal that has now been reached between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with a few important distinctions: first, thousands of people died on both sides of the conflict; second, the region of Karabagh that has been retained by Armenians is much smaller than it was before the fighting. In other words, a lose-lose for the Armenian side.

At least in exchange for the deaths, Azerbaijan also gained territory.

The Velvet Revolution

In 2018, in what was called a victory for democracy, Armenians took to the streets to overthrow the existing government and install Nikol Pashinyan as Prime Minister. It was called a blow against the corruption of the oligarchy.

I recall attending a discussion during that time, just after these events. Besides being interested as an Armenian, I was considering a trip that summer to Armenia (I ended up not going, for different reasons). I had concerns: I knew the results of such color revolutions in Ukraine, Syria, Georgia, and elsewhere. Violence, war, and bloodshed followed each. Sure, this one in Armenia had a different tone: it was quite peaceful. But Armenia is different: no ethnic or religious factions between which one can set a wedge. Still, I could not accept the story at face value.

Boy, was I pooh-poohed at the meeting: why can’t I just accept good news? Just think good thoughts and good things will happen (I kid you not). Well, I wasn’t buying it – it was all too familiar. Sure, bloodshed and violence did not follow, but nothing about this revolution smelled right to me.

Yet, the Armenian people on the streets were joyous, throwing off the corrupt oligarchy. My view on internal Armenian politics: I don’t live there; I didn’t suffer through the time of the earthquake or the collapse of the Soviet Union or those first freezing winters with no heat. I have some thoughts, but I am quite reserved about voicing these. As I do not suffer the direct consequences – good or bad – I remain somewhat muted. This is the most I have publicly spoken out about the situation; I do it because the wrong steps by Armenia could be fatal.

Since then, much has been speculated about this Velvet Revolution being another western-backed event, designed to cause turmoil along the near-abroad of Russia.

Russia

Now, to take a step back: despite all of the strength of the Armenian diaspora in the West, I have known for many years that Armenia’s only hope for some level of stability would be through Russia.

Armenia for some time did a decent job of balancing East and West, but in the case of difficulties, there was absolutely zero chance that America or the West would ever help Armenia. Not that Russia owed Armenia anything; only that stability in Armenia was far more relevant to Russia than it was to the West. Appo Jabarian, publisher and editor of USA Armenia Life, said it perfectly:

“As far as many in the Western official circles, Armenia can go to hell!!!!” “I plead with you to discontinue to have any wishful expectations from the United States.”

Yet, with the rise of Pashinyan in the aftermath of this Velvet Revolution, Armenia apparently swung away from Russia and toward the West. Kevork Almassyan writes the following:

The Armenians removed the pro-Russian oligarchies through a colour revolution and they installed a man who is not only anti-Russian but also wants to re-direct Armenia’s geopolitical position into NATO, the EU and the US.

In the last two decades, a few former Soviet countries tried the same Soros recipe of colour revolutions and they lost territories.

Some Armenians didn’t learn the lesson and they declared the Velvet revolution in 2018 and they lost most of Artsakh in 2020.

Armenia is located in the Caucasus and not in Western Europe or North America. Deal with this fact.

…the revolution in Armenia in 2018 raised anti-Russian slogans and Pashinyan opened the country entirely for Soros, USAID, The National Endowment for Democracy, etc., etc.

You can’t simply open your country to these organizations and later expect Russian help. It doesn’t work that way. Therefore, the Armenians should blame themselves before blaming anyone else.

[Armenians] brought a person who angered Russia and therefore we have paid a huge price.

Whatever one believes about the value of attachment to the West, the reality on the ground dictates a certain course. As I said, it has been clear to me for some time that Armenia’s only hope for a long-term stable future was via good relations with Russia. Apparently, two years ago, a different approach was taken. It was a costly decision.

The Alternative

Many Armenians are protesting this agreement. Without Russia’s involvement on terms reasonably satisfactory to Russia, what is the alternative?

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has rebuked the anti-government protests in Yerevan.

Lavrov, perhaps the most capable foreign diplomat in the world today, is the son of an Armenian father and a Russian mother. I do not say this to suggest that he will favor Armenia to the detriment of Russia; I do suggest that if anyone of importance on the world stage will have a sympathetic ear for Armenians, it will be him.

Russian involvement will only go so far without cooperation from Armenia. The downside of losing Russia?

“Turkey has consistently taken the position to approve a military operation,” [Kremlin spokesman Dmitry] Peskov explained. “We seriously disagreed, and still disagree about this with our Turkish colleagues. But this does not prevent us from continuing close interaction at all levels, including at the highest level.”

Is it conceivable that Armenia and Artsakh are in a position today to stand in front of Turkey and Azerbaijan with further weapons from Israel, while at the same time receiving no military support from the West?

I do not question the bravery of those who fight. I question the sanity of any who would send them to such a fight.

Artsakh President and Prime Minister, Arayik Harutyunyan, cited a Russian analyst as saying that to win in the war the Armenian side had to mobilize 80-100 thousand people. Nothing like this was done. He went further:

“Had the hostilities continued at the same pace, we would have lost the whole of Artsakh in a matter of days.” “…there were no resources to continue the fight.”

Grief

From what I have gathered, Armenians are stunned. The crowds who want Pahinyan’s head today are the same crowds that cheered him on during the Velvet Revolution yesterday. Emotions are running very high…and very low. Dr. Yevgenya Paturyan, Assistant Professor of the Political Science and International Affairs Program at the American University of Armenia, writing after news of this signed agreement:

Don’t ask me how I am. Don’t ask me to think, to analyse, to reflect. Just grieve with me. Grieve for the lives lost, for an entire generation lost to hope, faith. My beloved Independence Generation, the dreamers, the makers of the Velvet Revolution… Somehow I have to bring them back from the brink. They feel betrayed by their own government, betrayed by the international community.

Grieve for Armenia with me. We have a nation to heal. This is the first stage, the darkest stage.

I have read too many accounts that come across as gloating: how dumb are the Armenian people, etc., etc. Not only from Turk or Azeri supporters (as this is expected), but from elsewhere. This, to me, is unconscionable.

Like all politics everywhere, from the United States to China and everywhere in between, I keep in mind that the people are pawns. It is the people who suffer, who grieve, who die. Like all people everywhere, we are victims of such political, military, and business leaders.

There are many speculations about the game being played behind the scenes in this war. Whatever is the truth, the people almost everywhere always lose.

Plenty of Blame to go Around

But it is too easy to blame this all on Pashinyan. For over twenty years after the end of the last war in 1994, there were other Armenian leaders, in somewhat better standing with Moscow, that did not resolve this issue. As Putin offered, he has held the same position: Karabagh maintains some independent or autonomous status, the surrounding provinces are returned to Azerbaijan.

If this is true – and I have read nothing elsewhere to indicate it isn’t – then why was this offer not taken? Keep in mind: Azerbaijan was not going to grow weaker; it was only going to grow stronger. Throw in Turkish support, Israeli weapons, and US indifference (at best), and the odds would only grow further against Armenians sustaining this position militarily.

Were Armenian leaders too cowardly to properly prepare the people for this? Were they falsely wooed by the Americans? Was Azerbaijan against it?

Perhaps one answer is found here, offered by Dr. Razmik Panossian, who is the Director of the Armenian Communities Department of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation:

I followed the debates on Karabakh quite closely between the 1994 ceasefire and the year 2000. There was a very clear logic: the lands under Armenian military control outside of Artsakh proper – except the Lachin corridor – were “bargaining chips” to be “traded” for a peace settlement that assured the status and security of Karabakh (the use of the name “Artsakh” was not that common back then).

This sounds precisely like what Putin said he was after. So, what happened?

In the 2000s this logic changed. The Azerbaijani territories outside of Karabakh started to be considered as historic Armenian regions, as liberated territories and lands to be settled on. Maps changed from showing Armenia, NK and the Azerbaijani territories as separate entities, to showing one continuous territory or country with different regions. Even souvenirs – from fridge magnets to posters – reflected the new discourse.

We created an illusion of peace, and came to believe in it… And illusions don’t last, as we found out on 27 September 2020.

What I can say: I know that too many died – by one report, more people died in this war on both sides than the Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan in ten years. Illusions are painfully shattered, right where discovery starts.

Our Church

Finally, a thought from Bishop Daniel Findikyan, Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church. I have met Bishop Daniel a few times, and had the pleasure of dinner with him twice – all before he became the primate. The Armenian Church needs many leaders like Bishop Daniel. In any case, his thoughts:

By now, every Armenian in the world has received the heavy news from our homeland, about the outcome of the war in Artsakh. By now, every Armenian heart is cracked with grief.

We came together instinctively as one, when our very existence was threatened by violence from a cruel, amoral enemy. But my dear people, the struggle for our existence has not stopped. Our unity with one another will be just as critical in the days and years to come, as it was thirty years ago, in the time of the earthquake, and the earliest days of our homeland’s independence.

In this troubling time, the purposes of God are very hard to discern. But surely He has not sustained us through the past centuries to see us fracture and fragment in this most critical moment. Let us live in the spirit of unity—and in that spirit, ask our Father in Heaven to reveal His will for us.

What is Needed

What Armenia needs now, more than anything, is for its churches to be opened for liturgy and communion, our sourp badarag. The Armenian Church has been the one place, throughout the centuries, where Armenians could come together through all times of trouble and difficulty.

Easter has already been lost; are we to lose Christmas as well? if this continues, Armenia will lose its soul. This burden belongs squarely on the church. The cost of opening for liturgy might be high; the cost of remaining closed is certainly incalculable. We have lost lands before; through the Church, we have always held onto our soul. Let us not also suffer this shame in our generation.

Further, Armenia needs political leaders and skilled diplomats that understand and appreciate the reality of Armenia’s place in the world. Armenia is in the Caucasus, very near to Russia. The Western governments pay lip service to Armenia, for the sake of the votes and political donations of diaspora Armenians.

Hopefully the only choices for Armenia are not limited to corrupt leaders who understand the reality of its geographical location vs. leaders who are naïve (at best) or tools of the West (at worst).

Armenian diplomacy has failed this country and nation, it has betrayed its soldiers, it has cost a portion of the homeland. Further failures like this are unsustainable.

Header: Davidank monastery – Nagorno Karabakh

Source: Daniel Ajamian – LewRockwell