Special to the Armenian Weekly
In the 100 years since the beginning of the Armenian Genocide and the subversion of the First Armenian Republic, we have witnessed the implosion of the Soviet Union; the founding of the second free and independent Armenian Republic, in 1991; and the creation of the de facto state of Artsakh in 1994, when a ceasefire formally ended its war for liberation, launched in response to large-scale Azerbaijani aggression.
Since the ceasefire was instituted, Azerbaijan has never been content to live by its requirements. The ceasefire did little to constrain the aggressive policy of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to retake Artsakh by force if necessary and destroy, literally, its independent-minded Armenian population.
To that end, the Azeri violations, in terms of frequency, weapons employed, and intensity, have increased almost exponentially. The most serious of many violations was the full-scale offensive along the line of contact (LoC) that raged on for four days in April 2016. Unfortunately, the Azerbaijanis were able to gain control of two strategic pieces of terrain that dominated access to the Armenian settlement of Talish in the northeast, and in the southeast gave them an offensive advantage in the Martuni District’s two largest settlements, Hadrut and Martuni.
Although the taking of these strategic positions came at a high cost to Azerbaijan, it gave a domestic boost to President Aliyev’s constant threat to retake Artsakh by force if negotiations fail. Unfortunately, the casualties sustained by Armenian frontline soldiers in repelling this Azeri onslaught came at too great a cost—a cost in lives lost and wounded that, simply put, cannot be accepted. Those young men were part of the future of Artsakh and greater Armenia. They were the ones who would have married and formed families, who would have helped develop our nation through their various talents and interests.
We are forced to engage in a war of attrition that has obvious benefits for Azerbaijan. Of greater concern is the ambivalence on the part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group representatives who express their concern with platitudinous responses to ongoing Azeri violations. Moreover, the nations they represent have no political appetite to effectively monitor the situation, let alone requiring Azerbaijan to honor the agreements that established the ceasefire and the neutral zone delineated by the LoC.
We are facing an implacable enemy in President Aliyev and his benefactor, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Their goal is not only to overtake Artsakh but also to politically, economically, and militarily subordinate Armenia to the interests of Ankara and Baku. We know this, and so do the nations represented by the Minsk Group co-chairs. Unfortunately, realpolitik places the national interests of the respective Minsk Group countries (particularly co-chairs U.S., Russia, France) above the legitimate interests of Artsakh and Armenia. Accordingly, as long as the present political dynamic exists, no settlement is possible that benefits Artsakh.
Although there is a marked pro-Baku/Ankara orientation, it does not mean that an anti-Armenian bias exists. This paradox is based solely on how nations view the world and their place within its complex evolving political, economic, and military structure. States routinely develop relations with other nations that either advance or protect their national interests.
That is realpolitik. It is essentially a pragmatic approach to decision-making by a state that protects and advances its political, economic, and strategic national objectives—unencumbered by moral and ethical constraints. The favorable resolution that Artsakh and Armenia seek is hostage to the intersection of the national interests of not only the United States, the European Union (with emphasis on France and Germany), and Russia but also Turkey and its ally Azerbaijan.
As long as Azerbaijan is supported by Turkey, and as long as Turkey’s cooperation can support some aspect of the respective national interests of the Minsk Group countries, we Armenians remain the odd man out. Although the United States and the European Union have a strong working relationship, they also have competing national interests within this relationship and with Russia as well. Turkey has been adept at exploiting these competitive interests to further its national objectives.
For some, exaggerating Turkey’s internal political and economic problems or denigrating Erdogan’s policies and actions has been a happy pastime. Personal feelings aside, President Erdogan is a shrewd politician; and, for the time being, he remains firmly entrenched in power. Since it was created by the Treaty of Lausanne as the successor state to the Ottoman Turkish Empire, Turkey has been able to weather its share of internal and external problems. It has not self-destructed for our benefit during the past 100 years, nor is it likely to do so now. Could it happen at some time in the future? Who can say?
And should it happen, a likely scenario must include a takeover by the military. Although the military has been seriously weakened, it still constitutes a potential threat to Erdogan. The purge of senior military leaders following the failed coup (whoever may have been responsible for it) has served only to exacerbated Erdogan’s tenuous relations with the military. A competing scenario could just as well involve a palace coup by leaders of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) if it were believed that President Erdogan had become too great a liability for the party to rule. The United States and the European Union would support almost any government that seizes control after Erdogan rather than see Turkey drift into political chaos.
There should be no question as to Turkey’s importance. Let us recall that President Erdogan was among the world leaders at the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany this July (2017). Turkey, like its predecessor the Ottoman Turkish Empire, occupies a strategic position dominating the land bridge connecting Europe, Asia, and Africa, as well as the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Within NATO, Turkey has the largest standing army, which is well-equipped and well-trained.
Furthermore, Turkey is a major conduit for the oil resources of the Caspian Sea Basin and northern Iraq. Soon, it will become a conduit for Russian gas exports through the TurkStream gas pipeline being constructed by Russia’s Gazprom beneath the Black Sea; meanwhile, from the east, the Anatolian Natural gas pipeline (TANAP), currently under construction, will transport Azerbaijani gas to Europe. We should not lose sight of the value of the transit fees that Turkey will earn in the process.
Turkey also holds the key to controlling the movement of people seeking a better life from war-torn or economically depressed homelands from flooding Europe. It is the gatekeeper, as it were. If and when a semblance of peace eventually comes to the Middle East, Turkey could be instrumental in blocking or impeding the reverse flow of people wanting to return home from Europe. Also, considering Turkey’s military force, it can be an important ally as a counterweight to Iran. The United States support of Azerbaijan and Georgia is primarily to thwart Russia’s determination to reestablish its influence within these former soviet era republics. And so, on and on it goes.
Unfortunate as it may be, we are dependent on a restructuring of the political dynamics necessary for a pro-Armenian/Artsakh solution. While we wait for this change to take place, we must redouble our support for Artsakh. We could begin with a comprehensive public relations program that explains why Artsakh is important. A conservative estimate is that over 80 percent of Diasporan Armenians do not know what Artsakh is about or why it is important to Armenia’s future. We continue to talk to the same, dedicated minority. Special programs should be devised, subsidized if necessary, to encourage first-time visits to Artsakh and Armenia. Innovative programs to facilitate multiyear donations by individuals should be developed. Armenians in the United States and Canada have the financial means to easily raise a minimum of $50 million or more annually (excluding in-kind donations). An annual flow of financial support of this magnitude would, in itself, encourage increased immigration to Artsakh.
Moreover, greater emphasis on training recruits to reduce frontline deaths is an absolute necessity. Fortifications must be upgraded and expanded. There is precious little space for our troops to fall back, regroup, and maneuver if our frontline positions should collapse. After more than 20 years to prepare, our system of fortifications should be much safer for our troops and in sufficient depth to be near-impregnable to being overrun. If another April-type attack comes, the Azeris might not care if they lose 10, 20, or even 30 times our losses if they succeed in breaching our positions.
While the fortifications and the equipment that our soldiers need are vital to Artsakh’s defense, we cannot forget the villagers. Life goes on for them even under what amounts to wartime conditions. Increased funds must be made available to expand productivity and improve their quality of life. At the same time, settlements must be expanded and created in strategic locations within the liberated territories. And with all of this, there must be transparency and meaningful communication with Diasporan communities. We cannot expect any significant increase in Artsakh’s population at the rate we have been going. We mean well. People volunteer. Funds and in-kind donations are provided. However, after over 20 years, we are still dependent on the dedicated minority. Stepanakert, Yerevan, the Church, political parties, and our humanitarian institutions have failed to work cooperatively to harness the potential energy and the human and financial resources of the Diaspora. When is that going to happen?