Special for the Armenian Weekly
As the dust settles (hopefully) from Artsakh’s (Nagorno-Karabagh Republic/NKR) recent “Four-Day War”, I’ve been gathering my notes and impressions, seeking to reflect on what we’ve learned. Here are five easy take-aways from this ordeal—some laced with humor, some not.
- When Azerbaijan says it’s been attacked…
…assume it’s the one doing the attacking! This tried-and-true tactic—crying foul while taking care of business—often succeeds in leveling the playing field, turning the Karabagh conflict into a tit-for-tat affair, instead of the self-determination struggle it truly is. This trick works especially in the West, where mainstream media already tend to treat this as an intractable blood-feud that’s impossible to figure out. Hence the numerous stories of “Azeris say this, Armenians say that,” which meander through a thicket of claims and counter-claims, before trailing off inconclusively.
In its obfuscation efforts, Baku likely has had help…from Ankara, from big PR firms, perhaps even from Washington. The clue for me came on April 2, shortly after Azerbaijan’s first assault on Karabagh’s eastern front. One of the first published stories came from the Associated Press, entitled “Azerbaijan says 12 of its soldiers killed in heavy fighting.” How’s that for balance? The story might as well have been written in Baku. Oops… I’m sorry… the byline indicates it actually was!
- When Nalbandian speaks…
…the pressure must be off! During early/mid-April, observers here were dumbstruck by our Foreign Minister’s near-total silence. In the aftermath of war, most were expecting to see a diplomatic offensive accompanying any maneuvers on the ground.
But such was not the case. Aside from a few interviews, Mr. Nalbandian remained mostly absent from public discourse. Indeed, we heard much more of substance from his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. This disparity was not lost on the public: For weeks now, it seems that everyone here—not just politicos, but hotel clerks and taxi drivers—has been asking the same rhetorical question: Does Armenia even have a Foreign Ministry?
Now, if you’ve followed Mr. Nalbandian over the years, you know he’s always been prone to reactive, push-button diplomacy. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised…except that this is wartime! And wartime diplomacy usually calls for extraordinary measures, no? Simply deplorable.
In truth, Nalbandian’s underwhelming presence was more than deplorable; it actually underscored what knowledgeable folks have been saying for some time: Armenia’s diplomacy isn’t simply passive; it chronically defers to the wishes of larger powers, especially Russia.
Now, I suppose it’s one thing to defer to Russia, waiting for Moscow to make its move; but usually there are no countermoves! Often, Yerevan merely follows suit or remains inert. And when it does act, watch out: Armenia’s diplomats are often eager to please their superiors… tendering favors to Russia, even when Russia isn’t asking! Or waiting for signals, even when Russia isn’t signaling! Some call this pragmatism. I call it, well, servitude.
But lo and behold! In the past few weeks, Mr. Nalbandian has become a chatterbox once again—holding press conferences, interviews, meetings and consultations that are in the news every day. This leads me to surmise that when things hit the fan, he runs and hides, but when things begin to cool off, he comes out into the light of day and starts acting like a foreign minister again. Good to know!
Thank goodness there are other, more pro-active voices in government. Most recently, some opposition lawmakers have proposed a bill calling for Armenia’s official recognition of the NKR. From the looks of it, the bill might gain some consideration from President Serge Sarkisian. Now that would be a bold move…
- Oligarchs wearing fatigues?
Yes, indeed. It seems that our robber barons— er, captains of industry—have gotten into the act, donning khakis and posing for photo-ops, as they ostensibly ready themselves for action. Such shameless self-promotion is simply another tactic in the oligarchs’ never-ending quest for respectability.
Two prominent cases involve Suren Khachatryan, the governor of Syunik province who’s casually known as “Liska,” and Samvel Aleksanyan, the parliamentary deputy/businessman who’s casually known as “Lfik Samo.” Khachatyran was recently seen in full garb in the NKR situation room, seated across from Artsakh President Bako Sahakian, where they ostensibly discussed matters of national security. Aleksanyan was recently seen leaving his Yerevan mansion dressed for combat, hopping into his car and evidently driving off to the battlefield (although sources say he shed his fatigues as soon as the cameras stopped rolling).
These stunts perhaps aren’t surprising for Yerevan audiences, who display a cynical, black humor regarding such matters. But beyond the humor, again there are larger points to be made: While the super-rich make these false shows of patriotism, their friends and relatives are regularly exempted from military service, even in national emergencies such as this. Instead, it is usually the lower classes who do much of the fighting and dying.
I hope the NKR can, at least, extract some compensation in return. Apparently Aleksanyan has already donated a sizable sum from his ill-gotten gains. Well, I suppose that is something at least…
- Did you say ‘Protocols’?
My, my… How times have changed! It’s been only six years since the infamous “Armenian-Turkish Protocols” were signed in Switzerland. But those six years now seem like centuries.
For those who need refreshing, the Protocols were designed to facilitate the border opening between Turkey and Armenia, paving the way for eventual normalization of relations. But of course, there was a catch: Turkey sought to insert three conditions—a) creating a joint mechanism to re-evaluate Armeno-Turkish history (including the Genocide issue); b) gaining Armenia’s formal acknowledgement of its current borders (presumably erasing any question of Western Armenia); and c) securing Armenia’s commitment toward a settlement with Azerbaijan over Karabagh. Of these conditions, the first two were explicitly mentioned in the document, while the third was regularly injected into the talks by Turkey, using press conferences and other side-efforts.
While all three conditions should be questioned, it is the third—a Karabagh settlement—that is especially relevant here. At the time, many critics were dismayed that Armenia could possibly allow Turkey to insert itself into the Karabagh negotiations, when a) these negotiations legally have no connection to Armeno-Turkish relations; and b) Turkey has displayed clear biases when it comes to Karabagh. Despite these warnings, official Yerevan found it expedient to move ahead anyway.
Well, maybe now is the time to say “I told you so!” In the aftermath of the “Four-Day War”, there is mounting evidence of Turkish involvement…not only statements of support to their “Azerbaijani brethren,” but actual military assistance in the form of advisors, training, even weaponry. As for the Protocols, they remain on the table—signed, but not ratified by either side. Perhaps it’s time for Armenia to declare them null and void; that might offer hope that Serge Sarkisian & Co. will never embark on such adventures again.
- Corruption is a luxury Armenia can’t afford
Finally, I’d like to raise a false dichotomy that pervades conventional discourse here. It’s the tendency to view domestic affairs as one sphere of activity, and national security as an entirely different sphere. It is a lopsided dichotomy, in fact, where the latter sphere usually trumps the former; i.e. the primacy of external threats—Turkey, Azerbaijan, etc.—can be invoked to squash any dissent over imbalances or injustices in the economy, society, or rule of law. Needless to say, this formula plays to the advantage of the ruling elite; all it needs to do is cry “national security,” and like a magic wand, this mutes or disperses cries for social change, economic reform, or, God forbid, regime change, which suddenly become “destabilizing” factors that must be discouraged.
Within this schema, issues like corruption become hopelessly distorted and manipulated. Many, many people believe that corruption is a bane to Armenia’s progress: Monopolies create a suffocating, anti-competitive economy; oligarchy creates a political culture based on cronyism/nepotism, rather than vision or ability; the lack of rule of law breeds a Social Darwinist credo in which the “fittest” flourish and the rest can go to Hell. But while most people acknowledge this, fewer and fewer believe it possible to fight against it. Instead, corruption is becoming reframed as a necessary evil, something too difficult to change, or simply the way things are. Within this framework, apologists for the system can justify this state of affairs, saying
– “Look at [fill in your favorite corrupt politician]. He may be corrupt, but at least he stands up to the Azeris. We need a strongman, and if this is the price we must pay, so be it.”
– “Well, it could be worse. Look at Azerbaijan…they are even worse than we are!”
I’ve always been skeptical of such straw hypotheses, and now I’m convinced: CORRUPTION IS A NATIONAL SECURITY ISSUE. Various reports—still unconfirmed—imply that there were indeed flaws in our recent war effort, and these might have come not merely from incompetence or inadequate preparation, but from instances of corruption. I cannot vouch for these reports, but if there are such instances they must be punished severely and prevented from recurring. Corruption can never be allowed to compromise or leave vulnerable our national security. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Armenia’s Prime Minister, Hovik Abrahamyan, just announced the launch of a government-led anti-corruption commission. I’m not sure how serious this effort will be—time will tell—but the tone of his announcement indicates heightened sensitivity on the part of the authorities.
And in case you were wondering, comparisons with Azerbaijan are simply a cop-out. Azerbaijan, with greater resources at its disposal, can perhaps afford to waste a few million dollars here or there. But Armenia? In our vulnerable position, we simply cannot afford to waste a thing. What we lack in dollars or numbers has been made up through other advantages we possess, such as superior organization, local knowledge, and the will and determination to fight. It is now clear that such advantages may diminish, or may no longer matter, unless the corruption problem is addressed. Imagine what we could do with the state funds that are reportedly wasted or misspent. How bout purchasing additional weapons, medicines, security devices, and other needed supplies? That would be a start…
Hopefully, Armenia’s decision-makers will make the right moves, but in the meantime we shouldn’t stand by idly. On this one, we need to demand accountability…vocally, if need be.