We have become all too familiar with the names Yeraskh, Goris, Kapan, Gegharkunik and Tavush within Armenia, and most recently, Martakert in Artsakh. These are but a few examples of where Azerbaijan has violated the sovereignty of Armenia and ignored the so-called “November 9” agreement. Azerbaijan has consistently violated humanitarian agreements, international law and confidence building measures from the OSCE. They have offered duplicitous rhetoric about solutions only through peaceful means while unleashing unilateral and criminal attacks on the Armenians. This is all well documented by our ombudsmen offices and is being presented to international courts. Illegal holding and torturing of POWs, occupation of sovereign territory, use of illegal weapons, importing jihadist mercenaries, attacking civilians…the list is endless for the criminal Turkish/Azeri alliance. All true, but we know painfully from recent experience that the world is at best ambivalent to justice and probably closer to complicit through geopolitical interests. Our interests are best served by looking closer in the mirror and taking some responsibility. Acting as victims may garner sympathy but little tangible support.
The Azeri assault on Armenian sovereignty and human rights is somewhat analogous to a schoolyard bully. Bullies essentially operate off the fear of their victims and the assumption that the authority structure will not act. They are cowards and display no respect for human dignity. The role of the victim in this case is the Armenians, or more specifically, the peaceful border villages and the military personnel. The bullies are the Azeris buoyed by their violent assault on Armenians and the absence of deterrents to their aggression. The “school” administration is represented by the Russian “peacekeepers,” which have superseded the Armenian authorities. This is similar to a school superintendent overriding local authority in the principal. The Azeri bullies run rampant because there are no ramifications to their belligerent behavior. Border incursions are met with endless “negotiations.” They shoot at civilians in multiple locations, and we are thankful when they stop. They murder an Armenian civilian in Martakert, and life is expected to continue. No justice. No changes. De facto anarchy. The school “administration” (Russia) meanwhile declares that they are the guarantor of stability and peace! All is well in their version of reality. This, of course, only encourages the bully because in their world of cowardly actions, the lack of repercussions is critical. The cycle continues until the day that the victim chooses to no longer behave like a subordinate with low self-esteem and little dignity. It is the hope of all victims to come to the realization that the implications of being victimized are greater than their fears. As long as the authorities are in denial or choose to do nothing, the weight of a solution lies in the hands of those victimized. The cowardly lion in the iconic Wizard of Oz was a bully until Dorothy decided to rap him on the nose. This is the nature of bullies: cowards at heart that count on fearful victims and ambivalent authorities.
Under the current circumstances, one cannot expect the strategy of Azerbaijan to change. They have never advocated for peace or been a good faith negotiator. Why not? The punishment has been insignificant. The tactics have been consistent for 30 years. Soften the defenses and morale of the Armenian border regions with unilateral violations of ceasefire agreements, and more recently, the terms of the tri-nation agreement of 2020. Emboldened by their gains in late 2020, they are operating as if there was no agreement in place. With a rogue nation such as Azerbaijan, this will continue until the “bully” is confronted. Russia’s role is a double-edged sword for Armenia. On the one hand, Russia stopped the carnage in Artsakh because it was in a unique position to negotiate with the neo-Ottoman Turks who are focused on establishing a permanent presence in the Caucasus. Russia’s assistance always comes with strings, hooks and ropes. “Mother Russia” was able to maintain a level of control in her backyard as the sole provider of “peacekeepers,” but made concessions to Turkey while outflanking her OSCE partners, France and the United States. It is clear that Russia does not intend to police justice in the border skirmishes. Its presence is a reactive role without any real deterrence in the short term to Azerbaijani violence. The continuing illegal presence of Azeri troops on Armenian soil, barbaric sniper fire, ethnic cleansing and POW captivity are clear evidence of not only their aggression but lack of respect for Russian authority. There are many analysts who predict that Azeri belligerence and taunting of Iran will backfire on them in the long term. The Azeris, of course, hope to accomplish their goals of the “Zangezur corridor” and border changes in the short term, thus rendering the longer term ramifications irrelevant. The passive player in this scenario is Armenia. It seems that Armenia has delegated its foreign policy, as it relates to Azerbaijan and Turkey, to Russia. One of the primary responsibilities of a national government is to establish and protect its borders. Russian troops guard the border in the west with Turkey (occupied highlands). This was established early in the independence period as a result of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) agreement. Currently, there are Russian troops on the border of Artsakh/Azerbaijan and Armenia/Azerbaijan (occupied Artsakh). An occasional Russian presence on the southern border with Nakhichevan leaves only the northern sectors with Georgia as purely Armenian. What definition of sovereignty is this? What are the implications of an overt subordinated role? A protector that only is concerned with their interests?
We all understand the geopolitical considerations — Armenia is in a weakened state, the army has a recovery to maintain and the government has limited options given the position of Russia and Armenia’s over-dependence on its “strategic ally.” Despite the perception that diaspora Armenians from the west do not understand (or accept) the relationship with Russia, the reality is that most get it. Armenia does not want to become Georgia by leaning too far to the west and losing territory and regional support. Yet that is exactly what is happening as Azerbaijan treats the border as a mere formality and insists on connecting their territory with an Armenian “economic corridor.”
Lost in all the political intrigue and theater is the position of the common citizen. It is my belief that the government victory in the recent election was more a rejection of the past than an endorsement of the government’s performance. The border villages are not given enough importance in today’s thinking. Cosmopolitan Yerevan is a world away from village life in Tavush, Artsakh, the eastern shores of Sevan, Syunik or along the Nakhichevan border. The political reality with the Turk/Azeri alliance is a daily reality here. Ask the family of the Martakert farmer murdered by Azeri snipers or the wounded soldiers and civilians in Yeraskh. Perhaps spend a moment with the brave citizens along the Goris/Kapan corridor where Azeri soldiers are squatters, and harassment is a regular occurrence.
We have traveled through Yeraskh many times on our way to Paruyr Sevak. Located next to Armash, it sits on the Azeri border where apparently the criminal regime feels free to violate international and humanitarian law regularly. Our response? Press releases, strong rhetoric and presentations to a world barely listening. What about these people? Have we lost all sense of responsibility that we choose to ignore these threats, intimidation and murder? Have we institutionalized instability?
Where is our threshold of dignity? Will we ever reach it, or do we keep “moving the goalposts” to avoid confrontation? Forget the politics and diplomatic dynamics for a minute. The citizens of Armenia are being treated like serfs on their own land. Has Armenia lost its self-respect to the point where Azerbaijanis can abuse the basic freedoms of Armenian citizens and our response is to take the high road until we have the okay from Russia? If that is the state of affairs, then we should ask ourselves what is the purpose of nationhood. Don’t judge it by the nightclubs and shopping in Yerevan. That’s too easy. Life seems normal. Go to the borders, and see how we have declined. The government owes the people an actionable response. If we have lost our sense of dignity, then being reserved today for a brighter tomorrow has no value. It is time that we raise the bar on our threshold of being a dignified, self-respected state that addresses the most fundamental needs of its citizens — basic security. Armenia’s recovery starts with having enough self-esteem and confidence as a nation to defend its rights. We are not talking about longer term security in Artsakh or reparations for the Genocide. This is an issue that is impacting the lives of thousands and the dignity of a nation. No one has the right to violate these inalienable rights…unless we abdicate them. A country that ignores these attacks has spiraled into a victim state. The response is only to blame others. The core of patriotic behavior is to focus on what will help Armenia improve and not patronize the people and its government. After the disaster of the 2020 war, the road to recovery passes through restoring dignity and self-respect.