It’s always been helpful to put things into context especially when the goal seems almost overwhelming. Let’s take the cause of Armenian justice for example. From 1915 to 1923, we suffered a series of debilitating humanitarian and political catastrophes. We lost 75 percent of the Western Armenian population and thousands more in the east through starvation, disease and continued massacres. Western Armenia was stolen, Javakhk to Georgia, Nakhichevan and Artsakh to Azerbaijan. Diplomatically, we were teased with Sevres and ignored with Lausanne. By 1923, no one had suffered more than the Armenians. It was the low point after years of oppression. But then again, no one has been more resilient than the Armenians. Conquered, massacred and culturally deprived by every aggressor of the last three millennia, Armenians have a recipe for survival in their DNA. As we hold our tragedies close to our heart, we must save room for those moments when the will of God and our sacrifices enabled our survival. The examples demonstrate this as more than a random occurrence.
Armenians have always viewed their tragedies as an opportunity to live for another day. Much of that mentality is derived from our faith. We have hope. With hope, there is always a tomorrow. In 1923, that opportunity was to rebuild. Thousands set about the task of building communities in the diaspora from North America to Europe to the Middle East. Again, let’s put this in context. The surviving generation reestablished the base by building a marvelous infrastructure of churches, centers, schools and cultural venues. The entrepreneurial instincts and work ethic of Armenians enabled the next generations to advance their education and that success translated into wealth. That combination of acquired education and wealth together with a retention of commitment established a political self revival that began to blossom in 1965. Prior to that year, the term “political” carried a negative connotation of internal partisan conflict. It became a component of justice.
Another 50 years have passed and recognition of the Genocide is generally considered a victory, and the era of reparations has begun. Incredibly, Armenia is now an independent, sovereign, democratic nation with a bright future. Perhaps the most extraordinary change has been a reversal of the territorial losses of the last 125 years with the liberation of Artsakh and its emergence as an unrecognized democratic and sovereign state. The diaspora has matured into a respected advocacy force and a strong supporter of Armenia and Artsakh. A people with a written history of over 3,000 years should always look at their current reality in the context of the longer term. The state of Armenians’ aspirations from 1920 to 2020 should be viewed as nothing short of a miracle, another one in our long journey.
We live in a dangerous world that is full of hypocrisy, selfish interests and duplicity. Our fate over 100 years ago was influenced in large part by near misses, betrayal and naive dependence. What if the allies had been successful at Gallipoli in 1915 and captured Constantinople? It is quite possible the Genocide may have been thwarted. What if the French and allies had acted like united victors and not abandoned the Armenians in Cilicia in 1920? What if the United States Senate was not controlled by partisan isolationism and had actually approved a mandate for Armenia? Would it have prevented Soviet rule or Kemalist massacres? The common threat among all of these pivotal crossroads in our recent history is the dependency Armenians have had on others.
The Paris Peace Conference of 1918-20 was long on sympathy and short on action. The reality is that each western power simply wanted their needs satisfied. Britain got Iraq and Palestine. The French got greater Syria. America entered a period of isolationism as it was relatively new to the international geopolitical game. No one wanted to deal with the defeated Turkish resurgence, and the Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians were the collateral damage. The allies abandoned us one by one, and we were forced to survive with Turkish/Bolshevik territorial looting.
Over the next 70 years, Armenians in the diaspora would debate the Sovietization of Armenia in the context of freedom (Dashnaks and others) or a survival alternative to Turks (all others). Granted, the vile horror of Turkish barbarity was averted after 1923, but the Stalin purges of 1937-38 and the systemic removal of all nationalists was not exactly an act of benevolence. Furthermore, the damaged psyche of Armenians as it relates to work ethic and entrepreneurial pride has been the legacy of the Soviets. Nevertheless whether murdered, oppressed or neutralized, we were subjugated people. Although Armenians longed for freedom, years of dependency had reduced our political self-confidence to a minimum. Small nations survive through the sponsorship of larger ones. The lucky ones maintain their dignity and sovereignty. Armenia has slowly been emerging from this forced addiction.
The impact of the liberation of Artsakh on the political thinking of Armenians should not be underestimated. The people of Artsakh have always had a reputation of being independent and strong-willed. Their success in liberating Armenians lands with the support of Armenia and the diaspora represents a new precedent in modern Armenian history. In addition to the correction of a long-term injustice, their success has enabled a new level of confidence and inspiration among the global Armenian nation. Prior to the liberation period of 1991-94, only a few Armenians were alive who had tasted freedom and that experience had been under constant pressure from hostile enemies. The experience in the diaspora had been one of passion but essentially dominated by Genocide recognition. Even in Armenia, where sovereignty also was declared in 1991, the peaceful transition included the territorial expanse of the former Soviet Armenia, no less, no more.
In 1923, the people of Artsakh were betrayed by Stalin and the Soviet system. After decades of Azeri oppression, again they were denied despite peaceful and legal intentions. Azerbaijan’s response was to attack Artsakh and to extinguish the Armenian presence, a replay of Nakhichevan. The Azeris underestimated the resolve of Armenians to defend their land. Just as Catholicos Gevorg V had rallied his people before the tri-battles, beloved Pargev Surpazan has been a spiritual warrior for the people of Artsakh. Their success has changed the psyche of Armenians from a pure victim mentality to one of belief in achieving justice. As a result, the idea of Artsakh returning to any form of Azerbaijani governance is unthinkable. This experience has reinforced the idea that Armenians must take responsibility for their future. For a small nation in a hostile region, this is essential to maintain any semblance of sovereignty.
Armenians today are frustrated by the response of many outsiders to Artsakh. How can anyone not support the cause of freedom after decades of oppression and aggression? What kind of world do we live in when the victim defends themselves and the oppressor is rewarded with calls for “return of occupied territories”? The answer lies in the desire of most nations to support the status quo, regardless of the injustices. The arguments of “territorial integrity” (Azerbaijan) and “self-determination” (Artsakh) are inherently incompatible. The right of self-determination is fairly straightforward: the right of a people to self govern. Questions may come into play when defining the entity itself. With territorial integrity, it has more to do with maintaining a current state even if that state is based on an injustice (such as Stalin’s award of Artsakh to Azerbaijan). The reality is that there is insufficient interest in resolving some of these injustices where freedom is denied or cultural deprivation is rampant. Self-interest carries the day and for the big powers, stability, status quo and self-interest are interdependent.
But within the Artsakh experience and the hypocrisy of today, there is an important lesson that may help quell our frustration and help us optimize our efforts. Take responsibility. Build credible alliances, but assume you are alone. Armenia and Artsakh should work with Russia and the west. It could offer unique opportunities to both, but we must remember that self-interest always carries the day. Addressing the duplicity requires a level of political will that enables respect. Strength breeds respect. Respect will eventually level the playing field as the power of Azerbaijani oil and political capital begins to fade. The people of Artsakh understand this to the point of inspiring the rest of us. The new “status quo” is that Artsakh is free, has had a functioning democracy for almost 30 years and is populated by nearly 170,000 people. The nation has built an impressive infrastructure and has a well-equipped defensive military. The lesson of Artsakh was built on the isolation they experienced. No one but Armenians were there in the dark days of 1991. The initial capability of the Armenian defenders was built in large part by equipment captured from the enemy. Were it not for their will to defend their land, a second genocide was on the horizon.
Now the endless “negotiations” continue and the people of Artsakh are not a direct party. Despite this hypocrisy and its sad irony, they know the answer lies in maintaining strong self-reliance. Keep building, don’t back off, have faith and defend what is yours. After the sacrifices of the last decades, the people of Artsakh will not be deceived and manipulated. It’s another important gift they are giving to the greater Armenian nation.