Much has already been said and written about the increasing tensions along Armenia’s international border with Azerbaijan since deadly assaults on the region of Tavush began just over two weeks ago. In an attempt to lend to the discourse surrounding the regional implications of the deadly flare-up, the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Series on Contemporary Armenian Issues hosted an online forum to examine the motivating factors behind the escalation of aggression, the significance of democratization in Armenia, domestic and global media coverage of the events and the geopolitical roles played by Turkey and Russia.
Last Thursday’s discussion was moderated by Anna Ohanyan, Richard B. Finnegan Distinguished Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Stonehill College. Panelists included former Weekly editor Antranig Kasbarian (Director of Development at Tufenkian Foundation), Arsen Kharatyan (Founder and Editor-in-Chief at AliQ Media) and Maria Titizian (Editor-in-Chief of EVN Report).
The panelists agreed that the recent attacks represent both a continuation and departure from past practice on behalf of Azerbaijan, noting the novelty of the incursion into internationally recognized territory of Armenia.
“More than ever, in all countries, wars are being fought simultaneously for domestic consumption and for international gain,” stated Kasbarian, referring to the Aliyev administration’s interests in diverting attention from domestic strife and the increasing promotion of anti-Armenian racism and hate speech.
In the immediate aftermath of the assault that was instigated by Azeri forces, mass pro-war demonstrations broke out in Baku, which Kharatyan believes were orchestrated by the state to turn the attention of the public to the conflict, a strategy that backfired when people took advantage of the temporary easing of pandemic restrictions on free assembly and free speech to assert their discontent with the Aliyev regime and demand domestic changes.
“That reflected the general environment in Azerbaijan, and that is not prioritizing Karabakh as much as it is prioritizing their own freedoms, prioritizing their problems with democracy, the kleptocratic regime that Aliyev has there and the fatigue of not bringing about a change,” argued Kharatyan.
The panelists agreed about the significance of democratization for Armenia’s national security, yet disagreed about its exact function.
Kharatyan stated that while Armenia does not have a lot of oil and gas to export, it could effectively export its Velvet Revolution. “This is not just a territorial or ethnic war. This is a war against democracy. This is a war against human rights,” he said. “This is a war against our aspiration to build a strong democratic country, which some countries in the neighborhood do not like, because if we are successful, that means the same thing can happen in their own case.”
Yet Kasbarian warned about the quixotism of going too far with this line of thinking. “It sounds nice rhetorically, but it worries me in practice,” he contended. “I don’t know how our large neighbor to the north would take to an Armenia with ambitions of exporting its democratic revolution elsewhere,” said Kasbarian, referring to Russian influence.
Nonetheless, the panelists recognized the multitudinous benefits of promoting democracy in all domestic realms, including supporting the media, human rights groups, local non-governmental organizations and civil society groups at large.
“Deepening Armenia’s democracy, consolidating it, has an enormous strategic value for the country, particularly in regards to addressing the conflict,” Ohanyan stressed.
Titizian, who has been leading EVN Report’s relentless coverage of the ongoing developments to the minute, attested to the necessity of investing in the media in Armenia by elevating the quality of journalism, particularly in terms of conflict-sensitive reporting. “Not always believing what the Defense Ministry says…does not make you a traitor. It makes you an honest journalist,” she upheld. “When you try to do that, you are framed as a traitor to the nation. When you say, ‘escalation of clashes,’ well, no, you need to be hung out in Republic Square, because you have to say ‘attacked by the enemy.’
Titizian partially attributed the international media’s incomplete and uninformed coverage of the recent flare-up to the failure of Armenian news outlets to develop good relations with global media outlets and “present their side of the story.”
All of the panelists agreed that the false equivalence established between Armenia and Azerbaijan by the international media is unacceptable and detrimental to conflict resolution.
“This false parity is a disservice to the peace process,” said Titizian. “Because when you’re not calling out the aggressor, when you’re not calling out the person who instigates the escalation, then you’re just compounding the problem even further.”
The panelists also deliberated the respective responses by Turkey and Russia to the escalation of aggression by Azerbaijan, contrasting Turkey’s immediate declaration of support of Azerbaijan and incendiary rhetoric with Russia’s explicit neutrality and backdoor diplomacy.
Ohanyan explained that Russia behaved characteristically as an imperial power in selecting not to take sides in a conflict among its peripheral states. “I think the signature move really shows how far-sighted Russia as an imperial power is, relative to Turkey, which has narrowed its foreign policy to nationalism and to working purely with the Azerbaijani side,” she upheld.
“For Turkey to come out and talk about how they’re willing to support, whether militarily or otherwise, is just showing how disingenuous it is to talk about Turkey’s possible involvement as a mediator in this process,” Kharatyan assented. “I see Turkey as a patron of Azerbaijan that can be viewed as an equal party.”
“I sense that Turkey is still in a long process of realigning itself, and it’s testing out all directions to see where it can maximally leverage its influence,” Kasbarian argued, speaking to the future of the conflict. “I think not only our preparedness, that is the Armenia side’s preparedness, but also Russia’s preparedness to defend its southern flank, will ultimately be the deciding factor in how far Turkey can go.”
All of the panelists agreed that the recent violence indicates the supreme importance of calling for ceasefire monitoring at the border and the line of contact.
The panelists ended the discussion by encouraging viewers to develop a sense of media literacy and rely on dependable sources of information on the conflict, suggesting Civilnet, EVN Report, the Armenian Weekly and Hetq as resources to continue to stay engaged.