Who speaks for the people of Artsakh?

March dedicated to the 33rd anniversary of Artsakh Revival Day held in Stepanakert, February 20, 2021

With the Armenian political landscape currently dominated with the “normalization” dialogue with Turkey and the “peace” negotiations with Azerbaijan, the lines of communication and representation have become controversial. Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) was legally considered an autonomous oblast (region) within Azerbaijan. The latter abused this relationship with decades of discrimination and economic deprivation. When they were unilaterally attacked in 1991, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh succeeded in securing their freedom from the oppressive Azerbaijani regime. Most Armenians have a vague recollection that, despite their status as an unrecognized republic (some refer to it as a “breakaway” but how can you break away from something that you were never a part of), Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), until the late 1990s, was a direct party in the post-war negotiations with Azerbaijan and Armenia. Beginning in 1998, as the wounds of the war diminished, Azerbaijan hardened its position and refused to recognize NKR as a party in the peace talks. The leadership dynamics also changed in Armenia as Robert Kocharyan, a native of Karabakh and veteran of the liberation war, became the second President of Armenia. He was followed in 2008 by Serzh Sargsyan who was also raised in Karabakh. Starting with Kocharyan, Armenia backed away from the direct participation of NKR in the conflict. This decision was obviously influenced by the birthplace of the president and his close ties to the people of Artsakh. It also began a period of tension between some political leaders from Armenia and the Karabakhtsis. The ugly head of disunity began to emerge. Regardless of the causes, Armenia from this time had assumed full responsibility for the security and representation of NKR in the negotiations process. Many Armenians considered this a political error because the Artsakh situation would be subject to the interests and pressures of Armenia proper. This is particularly evident today as Armenia is no longer led by individuals with strong emotional ties to Artsakh. There have been ominous rumors and public statements from the government about compromise and capitulations. The rhetoric of the government denies this, but fear of surrender is present in the general population.

Armenia’s Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan recently said, “For us, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not a territorial dispute, but a matter of rights.” I would venture to say that a few people would disagree with that statement, including the people in Artsakh whose future he is discussing. It seems clear that these alleged concessions are intended to gain Azerbaijani agreement for some “guarantees of rights and freedom.” This is how a defeated nation acts. We are appealing to the murderers and thieves to respect our rights, and we will forgo with this idea of the last 30 years that this is Armenian land. Based on the public statements of the government, it is difficult to draw any other conclusion. In his recent address to the Parliament, Pashinyan did nothing to dispel this mentality. Apparently, the leaders of Armenia have decided to sacrifice Artsakh in order to “save” Armenia.” In contrast to a time when we fought against overwhelming odds, the vision of the last 30-plus years, at a cost of thousands of lives, will be discarded. I weep for our heroes in Artsakh.

In recent days, there has predictably been an increase in public opposition to this approach. Public rallies and opposition statements from prominent Armenians are speaking up against the predicted capitulation. It raises the question: “Who speaks for the people of Artsakh?” Is it possible that the current environment has created a conflict of interests whereby the interests of the people of Artsakh are not aligned with Armenia? If so, how can the people of Artsakh have their voice heard in this process? Normally one would never question Armenians representing Armenians, but these are very different times. The Pashinyan government is inexperienced. It presided over a disastrous war and now operates as a defeated nation. The animosity between the former presidents from Karabakh and the Pashinyan government remains high. I doubt there can be respect between Pashinyan and Kocharyan after the former’s failed attempt to prosecute the latter. The current government has consolidated its power by controlling the Parliament and the replacement of Armen Sarkissian as President. Yet, instead of working to unite the country at a time of great external peril, we are divided. Armenia has operated for years as the guarantor of Artsakh security. There were never foreign troops on the soil of the Artsakh until late 2020 when the Russian peacekeepers entered the picture. This was a monumental change and reduced Armenia’s position as the security partner to a subordinated position. Border incursions have occurred regularly by the Azerbaijani criminals. Armenia fails to respond, and instead defers to the Russian presence. Azerbaijan violates the tripartite agreement on a daily basis, yet Armenia fails to respond to the needs of our brethren in Artsakh. How can Armenia represent the interests of the Armenians there when they have removed themselves as the security guarantor and are operating as a subordinated player? This summer, many of Armenia’s contract soldiers will be rotating out. Will they be replaced? Will the Artsakh Defense Army be forced to disband with Armenia’s consent?

This question of advocating for Artsakh is not a legal matter. We have managed to box ourselves into a corner. Artsakh remains an unrecognized republic and as such has no formal diplomatic relations with other countries. So, it is easy to dismiss them as a party in the negotiations. It became far more difficult for the Armenians of Artsakh when even Armenia, the protector for 30 years, failed to recognize the Republic of Artsakh. Even in the darkest days of Azeri oppression, Armenia balked for fear that it would ignite war with Azerbaijan. Apparently, it didn’t prevent the 2016 attacks and the barbaric 2020 war, including the thousands of border violations. The overly cautious approach by Armenia, behaving like a vassal state of Russia and fearful of being perceived as an aggressor, has cost the Armenians dearly. In contrast to the “nice guy” approach, the Azeris have ignored all agreements, continued aggressive policies of intimidation and violated international law countless times. So much for following the rules and seeking fair play. This is a matter of conscience among Armenians. When Armenia assumed the responsibility for Artsakh’s security, that obligation carried with it to work in their best interests. Many of us have met the people of Artsakh. They are strong, courageous and committed to their rights. Capitulating is not something in their vocabulary. Those of us in the western diaspora have witnessed, read or seen hundreds of examples of their valor and determination during the endless border disputes and incursions. Have we ever heard comments about giving up on their dreams or relinquishing their freedom? After the devastating war in late 2020, during which the refugee situation was catastrophic, thousands returned within a few months. As a result of Azeri barbarism, many returned to nothing except the beloved land they are eternally committed to. Can there be any clearer expression of their desire to live free in Artsakh? Yet, here we are talking about “lowering the bar” and abandoning their future. There seems to be a large gap in the desire of the people of Artsakh and those representing their interests at the negotiating table.

The Armenian government has diluted its position with wording shifting towards “security and rights” verses “freedom and sovereignty.” A question that Armenia must consider during this process is what type of future will the Armenians in Artsakh have under any type of Azerbaijani administration? Undoubtedly, it is a death sentence that will be filled with discrimination, population dilution and cultural genocide. In 20 years, the Armenians of Artsakh will have gone the way of our people in Nakhichevan through no fault of their own. There is no evidence or history to suggest anything but another calamity. Knowing this, why would the Armenian government advocate for a deadly compromise? It is unconscionable. We have heard that resisting would be a disaster. The only thing worse than these difficult odds is agreeing to the humiliation of a plan that will ensure your eventual destruction. A great deal has been written speculating that Pashinyan may already have agreed to a “peace” agreement or that the pressure to surrender Artsakh is too great. What if he refused to sacrifice Artsakh? In practical terms, what would happen? Would Russia shut off the gas supply or would Azerbaijan sabotage the lines? The Armenians have been there and would not be intimidated. What if Aliyev decided to attack? That would be interesting given the border presence of Russian troops and their commitment for a five-year presence. What would the European reaction be given the Council of Europe mediation and the OSCE Minsk Group? They haven’t been very helpful, but this could push their buttons. It is not our right to speak for the people of Artsakh given the options available, but they would rather resist than accept a slow death under Azerbaijan. A Russian protectorate status is reminiscent of the “autonomous oblast” past unless it is absorbed into the Russian Federation. History would repeat itself. In 1920, Armenia became a Soviet entity to prevent a further slaughter by the Turks and virtual extinction. Is this an option that Pashinyan will represent? Will Russia be able to convince the criminal Aliyev to accept this compromise?

The future is unclear, but Artsakh must have an advocate to prevent its demise. The Armenians have too many examples in our history of areas subjected to forced expulsion, massacre and economic discrimination. The list is long with Western Armenia, Cilicia, Nakhichevan and the current atrocities in occupied sections of Artsakh. We don’t need another territory lost that becomes an additional demand of territorial return. The price has been too high already. It would be a stain to abandon those heroic people and an insult to the memory of those sacrificed. I realize that words such as “abandon,” “insult” or “responsibility” have little value in the vicious world of geopolitical conflict, but Pashinyan has one last chance to stand with the people of Artsakh and demand a viable future for our brethren.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Columnist
Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.
Stepan Piligian

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2 Comments

  1. I think that it is a mistake to frame the rights of Artsakh people to be independent of Azerbaijan, as solely for the benefit of the Artsakh Armenians living there. The 2020 war showed that the defense of Armenia proper is inextricably bound with a strong Artsakh. Armenia is weaker today because it lost Hadrut and Shushi. Only a strong military will ensure the safety of Armenia and eventual return of the lost territories including Nakhchivan. If the Armenian army performance was comparable to that of the Russian army in Ukraine, then major reforms are needed. Armenia has no margin for error, unlike Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkey who can afford some setbacks without threatening their own existence. I continue to be amazed by the lackadaisical attitude of the Pashinian and previous governments for the strategic defense of Armenia and Artsakh. I agree with Mr Piligian that the disunity must stop. I propose that a war cabinet of national unity be established during this time of peril. If Pashinian can’t do it, then he should step aside and let a new leader unite the people.

  2. An independent Artsakh is permanently lost. There has been a tectonic change in Russia-Turkey relations from the time of the earlier Artsakh war. If Azerbaijan and Turkey attack again, not only Artsakh, but Syunik and potentially all of Armenia will be lost. There are only two viable options, 1) Artsakh is swallowed by Azerbaijan, leading to ethnic cleansing or 2) the Artsakh population votes to become a constituent Republic of the Russian Federation. How can Armenia effectively fight Turkish and Azeri forces alone when even Iran considers Artsakh to be part of Azerbaijan? It is quite apparent that Azerbaijan is preparing to go back to war that will lead to another Genocide of our people.

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