Journalism can be a polarizing industry. Stories featuring clear villains and protagonists vie for our attention and our eyeballs. But reality isn’t always so black and white. Just about anywhere you look, there’s plenty of gray. And that gray area is the space I think we need to be spending a little more time in, which is why this month, I invited Emil Sanamyan to the show.
Emil is a Baku-born journalist and researcher and the former Washington Bureau editor of the now-defunct newspaper, The Armenian Reporter. Whether he’s talking about Nagorno Karabakh or the Armenian identity—issues which have the potential to be incredibly divisive—Emil’s tendency is to gear the conversation to a place of balance, moderation, and critical thinking, based in fact and often, first-hand experience. In this episode of the Armenian Weekly Podcast, Emil and I explore some of the grey areas of Armenian politics and culture.
Karine Vann: Emil, thank you so much for joining me.
Emil Sanamyan: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
K.V.: We’re going to get into a lot of fertile territory over the course of this conversation, but I guess a good place to start is at the beginning. You were born in Baku in the late seventies and your family left when it no longer became safe for Armenians to live there. I’m curious for how much of a role that played in your career trajectory, that early experience?
E.S.: Well, definitely I wasn’t aware of Armenian political affairs growing up in Baku. My exposure to Armenian politics was mostly limited to Ararat Yerevan football team playing against Neftchi Baku football team in the Soviet championship. So that was the main political dispute that I grew up with. [Laughs] And being of Armenian descent, I was aware that I was of Armenian descent I was a fan of Ararat Yerevan, even though I was from Baku, as were my parents and grandparents. So that was sort of the extent of it in the Soviet system, and of course, I was very young. There was not much of a political debate beyond sort of the discussion of the top Soviet tier and what their intentions were or directions were. Inter-ethnic issues were fairly subdued. They existed, but there was always an effort to reinforce and stress that we live in an interethnic city, and that this is our city, just like it is a city of everybody else who lives there.
K.V.: Who was stressing that?
E.S.: My parents, my friends. This was sort of the given in Baku that this was an interethnic place. You know, the main issue in Baku was linguistic. I grew up speaking Russian as most Armenians and most Azerbaijanis in Baku. We were socializing in that Russian language framework, so there were obviously also Russians and other ethnicities, you can imagine. There was also the Azerbaijani language segment in Baku, where there wasn’t as much socialization. I didn’t have as much socialization as kids who went to Azerbaijani language schools or spoke it at home, there was that division, but it mostly ran through the Azerbaijani community than in other communities.
K.V.: How did you awaken to Armenia’s political territory, how did you get into that?
E.S.: Karabakh was the issue, I mean, in February ‘88, all of a sudden we heard that Armenians were getting killed in Sumgait, which is only half an hour away from Baku and it was a shocking development and first it wasn’t clear why it was happening, and then people said it was because of Karabakh. And then it sort of clicked in my head, “Wait a second, I have been to Karabakh. My grandfather is from there.” We went to the village where he was born for summer vacations. So I was aware that Karabakh existed as a child. But not in a political sense. Just as a familiar place for me. Most of the kids in my class weren’t even clear what Karabakh was at the time, either Armenian or Azerbaijani. They didn’t have any direct experience of the place, and I’m sure the same was in Armenia, Yerevan. I was aware of the fact that Armenians lived there and it was natural that they would want to be part of Armenia. So that experience, of course, informed me of that issue, the direct experience.
And as I was in Moscow after leaving Baku, I would look for any kind of news I could get. And in order to get news from Karabakh, you had to go to the Armenian church in Moscow and they would print out leaflets with information about what’s happening in Karabakh. And of course as the war escalated, I kept following it and I was already in my teenage years, so I was sucked into this whirlwind of conflict, and after moving to the United States, I had the opportunity to go to Armenia for the first time as a conscious adult. I was 18 years old. So I went with the Land and Culture Organization to do some renovation works on a church. I worked there for a month and had a chance to go to Karabakh as well, and when I came back to the US, I switched my major from biology to political science and ever since, I’ve been either in advocacy or mostly in media in the last 15 years.
K.V.: Right, and you spent some time in Washington D.C., you worked with the Armenian Assembly. What did that look like?
E.S.: My job was to analyze the news and present the analytical product to our board, to our officers, advocacy directors, etcetera, so that when they go and lobby they had the information they could use.
K.V.: From there you went into a career in journalism.
E.S.: Yeah, I went into journalism. It was an opportunity to work at The Armenian Reporter, at the time much expanded from what it was previously. This was 2006, 2007, when Gerry Cafesjian bought the newspaper and hired a new staff both in the United States and in Armenia. At one point I think we had one of the largest staff for any Armenian newspaper anywhere and we were publishing a weekly print in three sections. So I was involved in that. It was probably the most rewarding time, because when you work for an NGO or for a government, most of your work never sees the light of day, and if it does, it’s never signed. But in this case, when you write articles, they are memorialized for the rest of human existence, I guess. [Laughs] I found that to be a more rewarding exercise than writing anonymously.
K.V.: Tell me a little bit about the Armenian Reporter. What was it before you joined, and what was it after it was purchased?
E.S.: Well, to be frank, I’m not the most versed person on the Armenian Reporter from before I started working there. From the little that I know, this was the first independent Armenian newspaper in America that was in English, that was fairly popular in the Armenian community on the East coast. But it was a community newspaper, and the effort was made to make it a sort of pan-national newspaper that would report from on the ground in Armenia.
K.V.: What were some of the major topics you were covering?
E.S.: You know, my beat was Washington. Anything that has to do with U.S. policy, be that directly with Armenia or neighboring countries, like Russia. So day to day, there was always something happening. But every once in a while, I would get drawn into stories that were completely off the beaten track, and those were probably the most memorable.
One of the stories I did was about the Quedagh Merchant, which is this vessel that was owned by Armenian merchants in India in the 17th century, and it was hijacked by pirates and they brought it over to what is now Dominican Republic and sunk it there. And 300 years later, it was found. And somebody reached out to me about the story. At first, to be honest with you, I thought it was kind of a scam, I couldn’t believe it. And I went and covered that story, and to this day, it’s just mind boggling to me that I was lucky enough to be part of it. To find evidence of Armenian connection to this continent that goes back to the latter part of the 17th century, I thought, was amazing.
Later on, as I researched this story, I had a chance to speak with a real expert on this period, Professor Seboo Aslanyan—now at UCLA. And you realize the extent to which this Armenian merchant network was significant for global trade and global affairs at that time, in the 17th and 18th centuries. With the focus on statehood, we are sometimes biased against non-state periods of Armenian history. So we focus on the Genocide and the First Republic and the current period. We don’t think of Armenian organizations or trade as a continuation of Armenian politics or history. This period I thought was very, very significant in terms of reviving the notion of Armenian statehood, where people in this merchant class of Djulfa, later India and other places, first of all accumulating the capital—oligarchic capital, as we can refer to it—and their kids going to some of the best universities at that time and accumulating intellectual capacity. And when you bring those two things together and you have the examples set by European nations, this is where Armenian statehood as we know it today comes from. And we have to appreciate this. It was not a given at all that Armenia should have a state. The states that we had in antiquity had long fallen.
K.V.: You mentioned at one point the last time we spoke that the Armenian identity is challenged by the existence of the Diaspora. That’s a pretty heavy sentiment. What do you mean by that?
E.S.: When we think of Armenia and Diaspora, frequently we just think about the fact that Diaspora helps Armenia, or in some cases, Armenia helps Diaspora, if it’s a community in danger like Syria. Some kind of positive exchange. But if you look at it critically, Diaspora and Armenia are in a contentious relationship. It’s two modes of Armenian existence. And this is something that all countries now have to deal with. How do you justify spending the blood, the sweat to build and defend a place for yourself, when you’re a fairly small country? How do you motivate people to stay in Armenia, when they can have a larger salary abroad, they can have greater opportunity abroad, more exposure to everything a broad? The first sense as a Diasporan, you feel that your role with Armenia can only be positive. You want to help Armenia financially or otherwise. And it’s sort of an uncritical understanding of what you as a Diasporan do to Armenia. As you sort of roll the camera angle away, and you look at this relationship from outside of it, you start to realize that the Diaspora does not just have a positive impact on Armenia, in terms of human resources especially.
K.V.: How did this awareness affect the way you decided to cover Armenian issues while you were working as a journalist? And also editing and commissioning pieces?
E.S.: I’m not sure it has. My reporting was not about identity. I mean I’ve written some articles on Diaspora organizations, engaging the Armenian government. This is more of an academic angle.
K.V.: Right. You’ve mentioned that there is a political sect of your readership, and a non-political sect. How did you balance offering articles and information that both of those two populations could appreciate?
E.S.: Well, I haven’t tried to do that. As a writer myself. Of course as a newspaper, we tried to do it. We had a culture section, we had a local news section, covered all the Diaspora-US, etc. But as a writer, my focus was always in politics. National security issues, international security issues. So that’s where I’ve written. I understand maybe it’s not the most popular topic for most people, but this is my topic.
K.V.: You have done a lot of research into the Armenia-Azerbaijani stand-off and the situation today. What insights have you accumulated over the course of your career? What’s the future of this conflict? Where do the US and Russia factor in, in your opinion?
E.S.: Well, there’s so many different misunderstandings about this conflict and incomplete understandings. Like I said, my first experience was that there was violence against Armenians in Sumgait and later in Baku, and caused our family to sever our roots, leave the city, where all our relatives were from, etc. Of course, my sense was that Armenians were wronged in this conflict. Then you start to realize that Armenians were the only ones wronged in this conflict; Azerbaijanis were also wronged in this conflict.
There is no way you can explain to an Azerbaijani displaced from Armenia that what happened to them was right. You start to appreciate the fact that this conflict has caused a lot of pain to both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. So if you come with that understanding, and that appreciation, that no people deserve to be kicked out of their homes where they grew up, where their families come from, and no civilian deserves to be killed in fighting, etc. So you start to appreciate the fact that some time in the future there has to be peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, otherwise… There’s just no otherwise. There’s not an alternative to this. It has to happen.
Then, as you come and you study and you see what are the trends in this conflict, you realize that it’s not going towards peace. It’s going to another series of wars. Not just one. So, this is a conflict that will be perpetuated in the next several decades, I would think. The reason being, primarily, is how connected this conflict has become to Armenian identity today, and Azerbaijani identity today, and with new technology, things happening in Karabakh are much more accessible to people than they were in the early nineties. In the early nineties, people in Yerevan—or even closer places to Karabakh—had no clue what was going on there, or had very limited information. Today, video travels very quickly. And people at least have a sense of what is happening. So, the way this conflict has evolved, it will take decades of re-education, both of Azerbaijani—especially Azerbaijanis because there’s much more of a hate narrative that’s taken root there—but also in Armenia, towards what Azerbaijan is, what it could be, etc.
In Armenia, there’s a very dismissive attitude towards Azerbaijanis, be that history or its culture, etc. And the reason of course is the power dynamic. These are both small countries and neither will have the type of advantage over the other that will make it possible to win this conflict, to force the other side to surrender. But what people of good will and good understanding have to do is to limit the damage that this conflict is causing. So, make sure it does not spill out into third country areas, because there is now a lot more tension between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Georgia and Russia than there used to be. Again, because the conflict is so accessible. There has to be platforms created where people of good will from both sides come together and reach the understanding that at least they will remain credible interlocutors with each other. These are very, very serious topics that are not being addressed, not being understood.
K.V.: The Karabakh conflict is not an easy thing to write about. Do you find that you receive pushback, not just from Azerbaijani readers, but also from Armenian readers on the way that you write about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?
E.S.: Yeah, of course. And it’s normal. You know, I haven’t been in major hot water. I think my position is fairly reasonable. The outcome has to be peace. That does not mean rushed territorial compromises of any kind—at this point, they’re impossible. But at the same time, there has to be appreciation that the territories that Armenian forces took were not Armenian before that. So whenever I hear about territories being “liberated”—I think, Mardagert was Armenian. It was liberated. But Agdam was not Armenian. I cannot consider it to be liberated.
There has to be an understanding about what is liberated and what is not liberated. That does not mean that today Armenians should not control Agdam; they should! Because it’s important for the security of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert and so on. There is this black and white dynamic that people engage in. Like if you call it occupied, oh, that means you are against Armenians. No! Why would that be the case? It’s normal to call something that’s occupied, occupied. But at the same time, you have to stress the point of why it’s occupied. My master’s thesis was about the occupation of Agdam and reasons why it happened. It was of course a very destructive event for the people who lived in Agdam; there was no way to justify it to them. But the cause and effect occurred for several years before Agdam was occupied, and it remains occupied because those factors are still present: the threat of war and the annihilation of the Armenian population is not gone. As we saw in April 2016, 20 years after the original conflict, Azerbaijani forces came into one house—one house—on the outskirts of one village and killed everybody inside. Three elderly people, including two elderly women, one of whom was 90 years old. That type of conduct is genocidal that cannot be justified under any circumstances. It makes absolutely no sense from the perspective of Azerbaijani interests, but is the product of decades of hate narratives that are used there. But if we want to have a normal dialogue with Azerbaijan, we cannot claim that there is not a territorial issue; there is.
K.V.: And it doesn’t help the situation that larger geopolitical factors are at play. Do you think that it’s in Russia’s interest to perpetuate this conflict?
E.S.: I don’t think they care one way or another. Their interest is to perpetuate their interests. But whether it happens with the conflict ongoing, without the conflict ongoing, it doesn’t matter.
K.V.: Were there peace in the Caucasus region, would that benefit Russia?
E.S.: I think so, yes. Yes. Well, first of all, we have a precedent already, right? The peace period between Armenia and Azerbaijan settled in when Russians took this area. The Russians took it twice. The first time they took it in the early 19th century. Prior to that was a constant period of warfare—not between Armenians and Azerbaijanis so much, but between Iran and the Ottomans. And both Armenians and Azerbaijanis suffered a great deal. Probably more Azerbaijanis were killed by Turks than by Armenians, because of the religious differences, the Sunni-Shiite warfare that had happened for centuries—
K.V.: —That’s a lesser-told narrative.
E.S.: Absolutely! Totally untold narrative—of course, including in Azerbaijan. But the Russians came into that area, they solidified their control, they became the paramount power in that area. And that area—between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, including what is now Armenia—experienced unprecedented stability and growth throughout the 19th century. Look at how population increased, the economic activity increased, etc. So Russians controlled that area and it was peaceful. Then, you had the post-imperial collapse of Russia. Several years of wild warfare again and a lot of losses, and the Russians coming in as a Red Army now, and again solidifying control in that area. The challenge here is whether Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians can sustain peaceful co-existence without some power—be that Russia or the West—coming in and imposing total control there. That’s the challenge that’s still unmet. The challenge is not that Russia, because it exists, it’s going to do some kind of nefarious deeds in that area. Yes, they can if it’s in their interest, but they also can do good deeds if it’s in their interest. So there has to be an appreciation of the fact that Russia can play both the positive and the negative role. Of course, at the same time, the Russian government engages in a very irresponsible and risky behavior in terms of selling weapons to both sides. They believe that if they don’t do it, other countries will, and by doing this, they’re perpetuating their influencing position. But of course, mercantile interest is also there. They want to sell as much as possible and they want to make sure whatever money Aliyev or Armenians can scrape up goes to them, rather than somebody else. So, all those things co-exist. Say if Armenia and Azerbaijan do go to war. Does Russia back Azerbaijan for whatever reason? Hard to imagine that scenario, considering the relationship Azerbaijan has with Turkey and Armenians’ defeat could really undermine Russian ability to project its influence. At the same time, will they go all the way to support Armenia? They never did, and it’s unlikely they will this time because that would mean a break with Azerbaijan. So they would have to calibrate their response somehow.
This whole point that Armenians have that, “Oh, the Russians or Lenin or Stalin gave Karabakh to Azerbaijan or gave Kars to Turks.” Look, if you look at what actually happened at the time, Armenian forces surrendered Kars to Turks. And also surrendered Gyumri, too, by the way. The Russian Army came in, the Red Army came in, did not take Kars back from the Turks, but did take Gyumri back. So, you know, it has to be a critical way of thinking about this. Karabakh was not controlled by Armenian forces totally. And if anything, the capital of Karabakh, Shusha, was controlled by Azerbaijani forces, Turkish-backed forces. That’s the reason Karabakh ended up being an autonomy inside Azerbaijan and not just part of Armenia. Armenian forces managed to take control of Zangezur. Azerbaijani forces controlled Nakhichevan. So Russians came in and basically looked at things the way they were and had to settle with those borders. There was not a nefarious plan against Armenia, as Armenians like to articulate; or a nefarious plan against Azerbaijan, as Azerbaijanis like to articulate. They try to find a solution.
K.V.: Given that you speak Russian fluently and read it, what for you has been the main difference in Russian language sources versus English-language sources?
E.S.: Well, if you looked at this conflict twenty-some years ago, you would be really at a loss looking at this conflict. At this point, Russian media has deteriorated substantially, it’s become state-controlled mostly. So their coverage has become almost as bad as the Western coverage. Disconnected, unaware of what’s happening there. Western coverage has gotten a little bit better over the years. There’s more people who are based in the region or who have been to the region. Overall, I would say, Russians by proximity are just more aware of what’s happening. Like I said, it’s not as bad as it used to be, in terms of Western-Russian contrast, because Russian coverage has gotten worse over the years and, uh, [laughs] Western has gotten a little better.
K.V.: Let’s talk a little bit about the Velvet Revolution. It was a significant change in Armenia’s trajectory as a nation. What for you has been the take-home from this transition? What themes have emerged in the coverage? What are you following right now?
E.S.: Well, I like to think of things in terms of precedents and this was a huge precedent for Armenians to realize, wait a second—there is no other entity in the world who can tell them who they want to be their leader. So they had this government that was not a good government for 10 years, this particular president. Now he wants to stay on for longer. They come out into the streets and they force him to resign. That exercise of power is unprecedented in Armenian history. There has not been one like this before. Even the period of ‘88 through ‘91 when the change of government happened, it happened much more through institutional changes than through sort of direct public pressure. That being said, that does not make Armenia a democracy. What will make Armenia a democracy is when people will not look at one person as sort of the implementer of their will—like a small king or some kind of sovereign—but will look at institutions that are implementing their will. That transition has not yet happened in Armenia. What we see right now is that power is basically concentrated increasingly in one man’s hands, in Nikol Pashinyan’s hands. His actions with the courts or with the parliament are not something that I welcome. I think there has to be many more small revolutions to come for Armenians to build up their institutional capacity or parliament or other entities to keep their government in check, and also creating a competitive system, where it’s not just about one person or one force that knows everything and moves the country forward, as the communists tried to do or the Republicans tried to do. But the whole accomplishment last year was unprecedented, it was a huge, huge, hugely positive event for Armenians, for their self-confidence, self-awareness. Especially considering the overall international climate, where you have Turkey becoming much more authoritarian, Russia becoming more authoritarian, United States having a president who is trying to make it more authoritarian or at least, in this highly negative environment, to be able to accomplish what Armenians accomplished last year is very, very commendable and creates, I think, a new narrative, but this narrative has to be written—it’s not going to write itself. Keep Armenia secure—by Armenia, I always mean Karabakh as a part of Armenia—keep Armenia developing, attracting investments, and changing the government when the need arises without a revolution, but through a normal electoral process.