Three years ago, I was sitting at my desk in Yerevan when a shootout on the Talish sector of the Line of Contact (LOC) in Artsakh flared into a brief, but deadly encounter. For four days, which saw the use of heavy artillery, armored combat and unmanned aerial vehicles for the first time since a ceasefire ended the Nagorno-Karabakh War back in 1994, the Armenian military managed to fend off a sustained attempt by Azerbaijan at settling the deadlock through the use of force.
In many ways, this short war became Armenia’s Yom Kippur. The Armenians, just like the unprepared Israeli soldiers managed to snatch overwhelming victory from the jaws of defeat at the hands of nine Arab opponents in 1973, achieved a similar feat. By the time the ceasefire would be re-established, Baku claimed to have recovered only marginal tracks of land, paid for with the lives of hundreds of Azerbaijani servicemen, whose bodies now littered the No-Man’s-Land. Despite both sides claiming victory (one claim is more valid than the other’s, obviously), it was in Armenia that this four-day conflict would have the most long-lasting impact. Few back then would have predicted that this engagement may well have triggered last year’s Velvet Revolution.
In retrospect, this war sparked a discussion on who we wanted to become as a nation. The spontaneous actions were taken by Armenians in the homeland and the diaspora served as a reminder to our enemies and us that, despite the unpopularity of the regime of the day, the Armenian people’s commitment to defending their Republic had not waned since 1994. Young people, often accused of dodging the draft, flocked to military bases to volunteer in such numbers that overwhelmed recruiters had to turn most away. University students gathered food, socks and other items to send to the front line. Their compatriots across the world mobilized considerable resources to provide Stepanakert with medical equipment, supplies and even ambulances.
Yet at the same time, the war laid bare the government’s lack of preparedness to deal with existential threats to the nation. During the election held two years prior in 2013, President Sargsyan dropped all pretense of tackling corruption or leading economic growth. Instead, his campaign message focused on his essential role in ensuring the country’s security. Every other failure of his administration, he argued, was a necessary sacrifice for the defense of Artsakh. This justification would come back to haunt him in April 2016 when he proudly declared to reporters that Armenian soldiers stopped the technologically advanced Azeri military with “weapons from the 1980s.”
The war would also raise concerns of corruption and incompetence surrounding the Armenian military industrial complex and the State as a whole. Why did Armenian soldiers urgently need socks, for instance? For two and a half decades, Armenia’s military expenditures remained at seven percent of the total budget mark, making it one of the most militarized nations in the world. Socks typically cost 500 AMD ($1) in Armenia. Corruption, which until now had been a nuisance for our daily lives, had literally jeopardized national security.
When the dust had finally settled, those who had put their internal political divisions aside for the duration of the conflict began to re-assess the country’s situation. This national self-reflection would raise several questions. For instance, of the 91 servicemen who lost their lives over the four-day conflict, virtually all came from families living near the poverty line in Armenia’s underdeveloped regions. Unlike their urban compatriots, they could not afford the bribes to avoid service. The fact that few of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia elite had sons actively serving on the front-line, while then-opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan had actively participated in the conflict played into the “lions lead by donkeys” narrative and would come up again later. The government would later rectify this somewhat by setting up a fund to make sure that no Armenian soldier’s family would be ignored in the event of combat death.
Armenian civic identity, a topic which had simmered under the surface of Armenian political discourse for decades, would also emerge as a unifying factor. I had the painful honor of attending the funeral of a 20-year old private named Kyaram Sloyan in his native village of Artashavan. Private Sloyan was the victim of one of the most brutal atrocities of the conflict when photos were circulated online showing Azeri soldiers holding his severed head. Sloyan was a member of Armenia’s Yazidi ethnic minority. His ancestors had fled to Armenia along with the survivors of the Armenian Genocide in the 1910s. As one of 100 ethnic Yezidis to volunteer for the NK Defense Force, he manned a trench in Artsakh while his kin in Syria and Iraq were being murdered or forced into sexual slavery by ISIS. His sacrifice demonstrated that though Armenia is the country of Armenians, it also belongs to all those stateless nations who made this country home in 1915. Armenia’s 2017 constitution would reward their service by reserving parliamentary seats for ethnic Yezidis, Pontic Greeks, Molokan Russians and Assyrians. Armenia would also become the first state in the world to recognize the Yezidi Genocide.
Another bizarre episode of the conflict would unfold on Twitter rather than on the battlefield but remains equally significant. Azeri news outlets mistook television personality Nazeli Hovhannissyan who appeared in a televised interview on the front-line in military attire, as a “female sniper.” This would lead to countless tweets by Azeri trolls mocking Armenians for allowing “our women to fight for the men.” Of course, Armenian women have already proven their ability to hold the line alongside their men in modern warfare time and time again.
Armenia has come a long way since April 2016. The fighting forced Armenians to seek a justifiable answer for the “why we fight?” question. Until then we contented ourselves with the knowledge of being the indigenous inhabitants of this land under threat by a petro-dictator. But this was never a sufficient answer. The aforementioned national self-reflection would present itself in different ways. At its most violent, it would spur the terrorist takeover of a police station by veterans. But in its more mature form, it would trigger a peaceful revolution which would set Armenia on the path of becoming a truly democratic, inclusive and proud society, while Azerbaijan would continue on a path to dictatorship, censorship and economic instability. This is what made us different. In a roundabout way, the first martyrs of last year’s bloodless revolution gave their lives in the valleys of Talish and Martakert two years prior.