Times like these call for honest self-assessment. Our best traits that have enabled our survival as a people are also the ones that put us at risk. We are fiercely independent and clannish. In the years since the Genocide, these attributes have served us well. They have contributed to the establishment and growth of the diaspora. During Soviet times, there were many cultural and religious threats, but complete assimilation was not a major risk. Armenia was controlled by the Russian-led USSR but was also protected. Independence and sovereignty are the dreams of many but carry with them major responsibility. The inward thinking that has kept us intact as a nation has also slowed our progress from debilitating corruption and blinded us to certain political realities. One should never confuse the sovereignty of a small nation with the impact of the geopolitical power structure of the region. It essentially hasn’t changed in 100 years. The names of the countries and governments have changed, but Russia’s hegemony over the Caucasus and other selective territories of the former Soviet Union has remained.
When the former Soviet empire collapsed, it was quickly replaced with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)—a federation of 12 former Soviet states led by Russia. To counter NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—a Russian-led mutual defense pact of seven nations—was created in 2002. Armenia joined both as a practical matter. To advocate a regional economic alliance, Russia formulated the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) which included Armenia after its initial launch in 2014. Although the effectiveness of these associations can be debated, we should not confuse that with Russia’s significant influence with the member states, especially the smaller nations with critical dependencies of which Armenia is a primary example. While these developments have been progressing in the region, the diaspora has maintained essentially an anti-Russian view. Some have projected a “practical” acceptance but generally the diaspora has been uncomfortable with the Russian impact. Given the influence of the North American and European communities and their belief in western democratic values, this is understandable. However, there is a major difference between bringing the western values of education, market economy and social issues and advocating for a geopolitical migration from the Russian orbit.
The latter years of the Sargsyan administration began some modest movement with western integration through EU partnership programs and NATO cooperation. Although corrupt, the Sargsyan government understood the tolerance level of Russia and was careful not to stray from the nest. It is a very difficult balance to find. There is no question that “western” ideals have helped Armenia progress in many dimensions, and the Pashinyan entrance overtly accelerated that trend. In fairness to the PM, we are all complicit because the support he received from the diaspora was overwhelming. Most of the diaspora and Armenia were “corruption weary” and didn’t look much beyond that. Pashinyan restored hope in the eyes of many who were driven to ambivalence, but many admitted that they knew little about his governing skills. Leading a revolution is one thing. Governing to lead a country through a series of complex domestic and foreign policy matters is an entirely different matter. Still, we wanted change, including a more independent thinking Armenia. When Pashinyan challenged Putin, we applauded the move as a sign of strength, not naivety. Is it possible to “modernize” Armenia without adding substantial political risk? Can we separate the two? The dark clouds of isolation were visible, yet we chose a different path.
Is it possible to “modernize” Armenia without adding substantial political risk?
It is against this backdrop that the latest and most damaging conflict in Artsakh occurred. Our future lies with selfless commitment, skilled competencies and pragmatic politics. We have been operating in this world of moral righteousness, believing that our cause is just and the world will support us. Russia painfully disciplined its stepchild Armenia using the lives of our young to make its point, and everyone watched like it was entertainment. From a geopolitical perspective, Armenia was brought back into “the family” after “wandering,” and Azerbaijan’s “victory” may have cost them their sovereignty. Aliyev owes Turkey for prevailing, and the cost will be high. “One nation, two governments” may soon become “One nation, one de facto government.”
The world is small. There are only proxy wars, and the small folks need to be aligned with support. Russia bargained with Turkey to share the pie and remain pragmatic. In 1921, the Bolsheviks needed Turkey’s support for neutrality as they consolidated their power. Putin, likewise, traded a few minor chips in the Caucasus to solidify his control in Syria. Russia will only support its “strategic ally” Armenia to the extent it serves its interests. We must internalize this reality. The long sought goal of Russian troops in Artsakh has been accomplished. Cold, realistic, practical and unemotional. Lesson learned? The world of nations? The balance of power? Please. In 1948, the United Nations adopted a convention for the “PREVENTION” of genocide. Since then, millions have been slaughtered through acts of genocide without an ounce of prevention. The “civilized” world has experienced atrocities at an alarming rate. A majority of the time, the world’s nations debate whether something meets the criteria of genocide. Pitiful. This is what we must understand. We must not build our direction on a foundation of myths.
The future of Armenia lies with significant upgrades or wholesale changes in four strategic areas: intelligence, the economy, military research and development and foreign policy/diplomacy. Given Armenia’s dependence on the regional dynamics and proxy battles, Armenia must develop a world class intelligence service. The always visible NSS (sometimes for its revolving door) is more comparable to the FBI and domestic issues. Most of their work is focused (at least publicly) on corruption. Quality “intel” is the lifeblood of nations, especially those vulnerable to hostile neighbors. Any attempt at developing new technologies, stabilizing the emigration patterns (which may be problematic given the current state) or retaining the talent in the country is tied to a robust economy. This is where the diaspora can play a make-or-break role.
Given the incredible success of the diaspora in entrepreneurial activity and job creation, it is our collective failure that the barriers between the diaspora and Armenia from an investment perspective have not been eliminated. Nonprofits and NGOs are doing incredible educational, humanitarian and philanthropic work, but are not major job creators. What is the point of a productive university system if graduates lack exciting job opportunities? A recent report (probably optimistic) placed the poverty rate in Armenia at about 26-percent. We need to take this personally. Only a private sector investment plan with a welcoming business environment can change that. A balance of foreign investment (i.e. India) must also be part of the solution. Our recent experience has shown us clearly that without access to appropriate technology, Armenia cannot defend itself.
Internal development must become a priority, otherwise Armenia will continue to receive second-rate weaponry and be at the mercy of others. It’s but one of several integrated national security strategies, but a critical differentiation from today. Consider the impact on our recent experience if drone detection and shield technology were available instead of our tragic defenseless positions.
The area of foreign policy and diplomacy needs to change in two dimensions. We are lacking a corps of seasoned diplomats with both credibility and skill. For nearly 20 years, the Tavitian scholars program has been training a new generation at the renowned Fletcher School at Tufts University. How many of these individuals have continued advanced training and meaningful assignments to develop the skill base required? This is another area where diaspora Armenians may provide valuable resources, but only if our leaders view us as one nation. A skilled diplomatic workforce with high-level negotiating competencies is important but diluted if not working within a meaningful strategy. Our ability to develop and execute pragmatic yet effective foreign policy is the foundation of any diplomatic cadre. It is easy to blame some of the names associated with our diplomacy, but the lack of a coherent strategy that recognized certain constraints as well as Armenia’s interests was evident. The intersection of these two points is the foundation of an effective foreign policy. The immediate focus must be to become a meaningful participant in the detailing of what is clearly an “outline” in the nine-point trilateral agreement. That window is finite and probably tied to a re-engagement of the OSCE Minsk Group. Border definition, the transportation corridor in Syunik and final status of Artsakh will require a skilled and unified approach.
The enabler for all of the above points is a stable and credible government. There are obvious questions about that today. Armenians are divided between Pashinyan resigning immediately and weathering the short-term with new elections in the future. The danger of a sudden transition today is the risk of an “emotional” change based on short-term frustration and anger. Another risk is that the alternative may not be any more effective and perhaps regressive. There is also the possibility that Putin is tolerating Pashinyan politically because Pashinyan’s presence currently creates division and political turmoil. A wounded Armenia and Azerbaijan are much easier to manage. Pashinyan must do something beyond changing ministers and publishing plans for recovery. I would suggest two items: cancel the martial law of September 27 and restore all rights to the general population. Pashinyan should also announce a date for early elections. Constitutionally, unless there is a resignation or no confidence vote, the impact is minor. Since his My Step alliance controls the parliament, only new elections will allow the people to speak. Given the gravity of the situation, it seems justified. Scheduling them out will hopefully minimize voting with anger. The risk for Armenia is that Pashinyan’s government is ineffective at handling important issues on the table. Practical risk assessment must drive our thinking.
The time for shallow thinking is over. The time for people to use Armenia for personal gain is over. We must have the courage to proceed with selfless resolve to bring pragmatic policies in play. This type of unemotional and disciplined approach for Armenia and the diaspora is a cultural change of sorts. We have shown moments of brilliance, but now is the time to make it permanent.