Since the beginning of the war, I have sat at my desk many times, opened a blank document to write down my thoughts. Sometimes, I would spend all day putting those thoughts in order in my head, but I never could go further than that. When ideas are abundant and feelings are overwhelming, it is hard to concentrate and challenge yourself to critically assess and analyze what’s happening around you. Foreign pundits and journalists are doing it really well, because they have no emotional attachment to the events. These last days after the signature of the notorious peace deal, I’ve learned much more about my nation than during the last 25 years of my life. I love my country, and I love my people. I’ve probably vented a lot about our problems before, but that’s only because I knew we could do better. My mom always told me, “Believe me, if no one talks about your mistakes, it doesn’t mean you don’t have any. It means they don’t care about you enough.”
I will not discuss surreal conspiracy theories or search for a scapegoat for the defeat in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. Instead, I will share my honest assessment of why and how we got here and discuss the endogenous factors that shaped our current reality.
We don’t know our history and geography.
We know only some aspects of our history. We instinctively know about the Armenian Genocide, but only few of us can talk about its reasons and implications. And we certainly did not know much about the 2016 Artsakh War, until recently that is. This ignorance means that we cannot retrieve lessons learned from our experience.
More of my classmates were interested in international history than Armenian history. We can debate for hours about the Byzantine Empire, but can we have a two-hour debate with a knowledgeable foreigner about Armenia and its role in world history? Can we defend our position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict outside Armenia, where people may be unfamiliar with Dadivank and Shushi?
Due to the lack of our own knowledge, we depend on others to form an opinion, which means a national discourse can be formed by few “influencers,” while the rest agree to be retweeters.
We have an education system which doesn’t incentivize critical thinking.
I am currently pursuing my third academic degree. I studied economics in Armenia, communications in France and I am currently studying international relations and diplomacy in Belgium. The enormous gap in teaching methodologies between Armenia and these Western European countries is astonishing. Armenia’s education system (coming from the Soviet times) encouraged a knowledge of general culture. A linguist could easily chat with you about laws of physics and a chemist could recite poetry. At least that was the case until the last few years. With the Europeanization of our education system, there was a necessary transformation of our general culture approach to a more specialized learning process. But the metamorphosis of our educational traditions has been incomplete. The Armenian education system seriously lacks analytical thinking. We don’t analyze. We rarely connect dots. We mainly memorize and reproduce. Over the last three years in Europe, I have rarely learned anything by heart for my exams. I listen, debate and read a lot. Some of our exams are open-book format. I have tried to connect all the dots between theory, empirics, my own experience and personal opinion. But unfortunately, that is not the case for Armenia. Generations educated in this system have failed to acquire critical thinking skills and now we are all suffering because of that. That’s why for 30 days people looked at the map showing a 25-percent loss of territory control but continued to repeat “We will win,” just because someone told them to.
We have the wrong understanding of victory.
Our understanding of victory is rooted in our education system. I am not sure if any other nation in the world has scholarized the notion of “moral victory.” In Armenian history, “moral victory” is a deeply rooted and toxic concept. It means a defeat which still managed to prevent something worse, or a defeat which still sent an important message to the adversary. It was used for the first time to refer to the Avarayr Battle in 451, where Armenians fought against Sassanid Persia to keep their faith, suffered heavy losses, lost the commanders but somehow changed the Persian’s mind regarding Christian Armenia.
I’ve also noticed over the years how much we have used the notion of “moral victory” when speaking about defeat. This numbed our sensibility to acknowledge, accept and cope with defeat. You cannot just do a mic-drop in the 21st century; you need to have a solid military and an economic and sociopolitical basis to win any war. Armenians need to learn how to accept and manage defeat. We need to learn how to move on without forgetting anything or rejecting our past.
We have a low level of media literacy.
I am not revealing anything groundbreaking if I say that we lost this war long before there was a physical defeat on the ground. And I know that some may argue with this statement. The aforementioned factors added to a low level of media literacy has contributed to the creation of a society vulnerable to any kind of information attack. And no matter how much people were told to respect certain rules, don’t panic, don’t underestimate the opponent, don’t overestimate ourselves, the intensive information action led towards Armenians online while Azerbaijanis, in a quasi-total blockade of information, scattered the spirit and unity of our people little by little every day.
We get attached to people, not values.
“Loyalty to country always. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.” These words by Mark Twain should be printed and distributed to the three million people living in Armenia, where politicians are either villainized or worshipped. It is not fair to blame it all on the current government and their controversial “black and white” narrative. This habit has long been rooted in our society. We get attached to people and not to their values. That is why it is so easy to trick our society, to make people believe in things or accept opinions which are completely groundless and sound surreal. That is why we fall in love so quickly and get disappointed to a level of national heartbreak. Our people are in desperate need of heroes. We have a strong nostalgia for our past. Unfortunately, the heroes we create in modern Armenia fall as fast as they jump on the pedestal of people’s hearts.
We have always perceived military service as an obligation and not as a necessity.
Mandatory military service in Armenia has always been considered a burden for Armenian men and their families. I know, as a woman, my opinion may not resonate with men who feel obliged to put their lives on hold for two years, go through a not-so-fancy period of military service and come back most frequently as a different person, affected by their erlebnis (a German word which is translated as experience, but refers to a short-term experience in people’s lives).
This false sense of security has been one result of the confidence that comes after winning a war. We thought we had won our peace for lifetimes. Mea culpa, I never considered that this level of military escalation would happen so soon and so fast. And when it did, many of us were not ready physically, emotionally or professionally to stand beside Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh the way we would want to, because we have never learned to fight in a war. Those who did their service, of course with certain exceptions, mostly considered it an obligation deriving from our blue passports. Had we had a different mentality of this mandatory military service, had we perceived it as an opportunity to have the necessary skills for self-defense, the picture on the battlefield would be substantially different.
What could we have done or what can we do differently to prevent the repetition of this scenario in the future? And that moment, certainly will come sooner or later.
Pursue education reform
We cannot have an extremely educated five percent of the population with three academic degrees and knowledge of five languages while 95 percent prefer to stay in their comfortable darkness. Because the information wars are not targeted at that five percent but to the prevailing majority. Our education system needs a total transformation on all levels, which should include an intensive teaching of military history and Armenian history. We should not learn Italian or Spanish. We have to learn Turkish, Georgian, Azerbaijani, Arabic and Persian. Because those are our neighbors and our adversaries. Our teaching has to be transformed from descriptive to critical, and for that we need competent students now who can become teachers and university professors in 10 years’ time.
Invest in hybrid threats, innovation, science and research
Armenia has a growing IT potential which fascinates the world. A significant investment should be done in science, research and innovation. Hybrid threats should become a mandatory teaching subject across different domains. Cybercrime, disinformation and terrorism are going to be our challenges for the next decade. Our IT sector should become the driving force and the backbone of innovation, especially military innovation. But for that, a very intensive collaboration is necessary between public and private sectors.
We need to get rid of the victim mentality and geographic fatalism
Our neighbors are never going to change, but we must reject any concepts of geographic fatalism. Being aware of the complexity of our situation does not mean becoming desperate. Yes, Armenia is situated in a terribly complicated region where we cannot rely on anyone, but it is our region. We have been living there for three millennia, and we will continue to do so. We have to eradicate the victim mentality. We need to discard the paper ladle described by Khrimian Hayrig, embrace the iron ladle, and start building our country, make it stronger, self-sufficient and self-reliant as much as possible in the modern globalized world.
We need to give incentive to the educated young people to stay in Armenia.
The most disappointing question we can ask is “If x politician resigns, then who will manage the country? There is no better alternative.” We are stuck in this vicious cycle of choosing between two evils just because we don’t have a better alternative or refusing to let go of something that has to go because we are scared to stay leaderless. Why? Because young, educated, critically-minded people often have no incentives to stay in Armenia. When the time comes to fill the ministries and the government with competent and dedicated individuals, we lack professionals. But don’t expect an Armenian student who has acquired three to four degrees, is fluent in multiple languages and has a rich working experience abroad to leave all of that for a ministry job and a 150,000 AMD salary. Brain drain has always been our problem and will continue to aggravate if we do not give incentives to those people to come back and invest their time and energy in the development of our homeland.
Do not mistake compassion with weakness.
In order to be strong, we don’t need to be animals, barbarians and vengeful people. Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and in our Republic have lost a lot; so did the Diaspora Armenians 100 years ago. But, we need to keep our heads clear and focus on our objectives. Let’s not forget who we are, where we come from and the values that we have retained over the last centuries. In our disgust of documented Azerbaijani violence and in our quest for justice, we must remember that we cannot become like them. If we lower ourselves, it would be a shameful Kafkaesque defeat. Azeris can afford celebrating decapitation and hate-murders; we can’t. That is not who we are. Maps change all the time, but we Armenians are still here after 3,000 years because we managed to maintain our national features and our values.
As I summarize my final thoughts, my heart is breaking, because I realize that we all collectively share the fault for what has happened to us. But it is not a fault that can be attributed to one specific period of time, one event or one decision. It is a cumulation of small “sins” that brought us to our current reality, which for some of us is an ice-cold shower.
Again, this list is not exhaustive, but it is a roadmap that all of us can hopefully draw from to help bring change in our smaller communities. We also need a strong and competent government that will help us solidify those changes on an institutional level.
The biggest challenge that we, as a nation, have to focus on right now is overcoming our inner enemy. And I am not talking about particulars or political parties; that is not what this article is about. We need to initiate systemic change in our society. We desperately need a change of mentality. Only then will we stop waiting for the EU, the US or any other countries’ condemnation when someone is destroying our cultural heritage or violently killing our people.
Editor’s Note, November 24, 2020: A factual error regarding the Battle of Avarayr was corrected.