A Response to Dr. Sheehan in the Boston Herald

In a recent article in the Boston Herald titled “US must support Armenian PM in bid to fend off Russia,” Dr. Ivan Sascha Sheehan attempts to address a complex geopolitical situation in the Caucasus. Unfortunately, his assessments are based on half-truths and historically inaccurate assumptions which render his assertions about the prospects of a lasting peace in the region naïve and unrealistic, if not downright callous. It is important to set the record straight on the history and the root causes of the conflict between the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) Republic and the Republic of Azerbaijan.

In reference to the recent anti-government demonstrations in Armenia protesting the ineptitude of the ruling elite, Dr. Sheehan notes, “The protests themselves center on the issue that has dominated Armenia since independence from the Soviet Union: Nagorno-Karabakh. Legally recognized as part of the collapse in the early 1990s; the territory governed as an effective extension of Armenia — like the Russian Republics of Crimea or Donetsk in Ukraine, or Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.” The falsehoods in this seemingly benign statement are staggering and bring into question Dr. Sheehan’s knowledge of the history or commitment to academic integrity. Artsakh (the Armenian name for Nagorno Karabakh or Mountainous Karabakh) has never been a part of the independent state of Azerbaijan. While under Soviet rule, and soon after the massacres of Sumgait in 1988 (massacres committed by the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan against its own Armenian citizens), the people of Artsakh passed a referendum in 1991, in accordance with the constitution of the Soviet Union, to join Armenia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, they overwhelmingly passed another referendum to establish the Artsakh Autonomous Republic. Thus, at no point in time have the indigenous Armenians of Artsakh been citizens of the Republic of Azerbaijan, which declared its own independence later in 1991. Stalin annexed Artsakh to the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan in the 1920s as a means to appease Turkey’s leadership to formally recognize the then fledgling Soviet Union. Just as Turkey is attempting to block the applications of Finland and Sweden to NATO membership today, they demanded concessions prior to recognizing the Soviet Union in the 20s as well.

With those referenda, the people of Artsakh unequivocally expressed their intention to live freely, with the right to self-determination on their lands – just as our American revolutionaries did 220 years before. Dr. Sheehan’s logic is anathema to the spirit of our founding fathers who fought against the “legal” rule of England over the US colonies for the right to live freely under their own rule.

Decades of massacres and killing of civilians, systematic destruction of centuries-old churches, desecration of cemeteries and attempts to erase traces of the millennia-old presence of Armenians in the region clearly establish Azerbaijan’s continued intent of ethnic cleansing. The atrocities committed by the Republic of Azerbaijan to date, fueled by systemic and deep hatred toward Armenians, make it impossible for any arrangement which renders Artsakh under the control of Azerbaijan, a dictatorship with an abhorrent human rights record. Armenians worldwide, and particularly demonstrators on the streets in Yerevan, view this gloomy prospect as an existential threat not only to the 150,000 inhabitants of Artsakh, but to the Republic of Armenia as well. 

Dr. Sheehan’s views on the rights of the native Armenians of Artsakh as an obstacle “having removed a critical obstacle to the decades-long conflict” speaks volumes to his abject disrespect and detachment from accepted norms of human rights and dignity. He sees this as a simple transaction, one that the United States wisely did not make in the case of Kosovo, resulting in Kosovo’s declaration of independence, despite having been officially a part of the former Yugoslavia. Do we selectively apply human rights and the right for self-determination based on human dignity, or do we operate based on principles that are the cornerstones of our democracy?

Moreover, Dr. Sheehan equates the free will and the right of the Armenian people to free speech as a Russian ploy orchestrated by Mr. Kocharyan, the former President of Armenia. For the last several weeks, tens of thousands of Armenians have been peacefully practicing their right to freedom of expression on a daily basis. This has been met by increasingly brutal police crackdowns, including summary arrests of opposition lawmakers and citizens. These protests, led primarily by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), represent the free will of the Armenian people. The ARF, one of the oldest Armenian political parties, was responsible for the declaration of Armenia’s first independence in modern times back in May of 1918, following the Armenian Genocide. It accomplished this by stopping the Turkish attempts to once-and-for-all annihilate the entire Armenian population and achieve the Turkish leaders’ pan-Turkic dream, a dream continued to this day.

Dr. Sheehan further states: “The prime minister may see his survival only in acquiescing to protesters’ demands and spoiling the peace deal… Accordingly, the US must persuade Mr. Pashinyan to stay the course.” What Dr. Sheehan seems to not realize is that Armenians worldwide will never cease to stand up for their kin in Artsakh. As a self-proclaimed conflict resolution expert, it is striking to see his complete disregard for the precariousness of a one-sided and forced peace deal that will have no chance of survival nor reduce the tensions and hostilities in the region. Dr. Sheehan seems to view forcing Armenians into submission as a tool to counter Mr. Putin’s regional ambitions, but this approach would be a reckless mistake on behalf of the United States for it would fail to address the underlying problems in the Caucasus. 

Even if Artsakh were to be gifted to Azerbaijan, as Dr. Sheehan wishes to see, it would only be a temporary situation at best, for another wave of war and bloodshed would eventually engulf the region. The likes of Mr. Pashinyan will come and go, but Armenians worldwide will never acquiesce to pressure. Mr. Pashinyan’s failure in achieving any of his lofty and unmet promises, his utter incompetence in managing the 2020 war imposed by Azerbaijan, and his catastrophic diplomatic failures place him in a rather precarious position domestically, one that should be the paramount concern for leaders and experts genuinely interested in fostering long-term regional stability.

Were Dr. Sheehan an honest and objective observer, he would have referred to Azerbaijan’s almost daily attacks and violations of the territorial integrity of Armenia since the end of the 2020 war; he would have alluded to the hundreds of Armenian POWs still in captivity in Azerbaijan; Turkey’s pernicious role in sending mercenaries and aircraft to attack Armenian civilians in the 2020 war, as well as President Aliyev’s continuous bellicose rhetoric to “rid” Artsakh of the Armenian population and continuous threats to annex significant territories from Armenia proper. Instead, Dr. Sheehan is a proponent of sacrificing the Armenians as a minor bump for his “grand” vision for the region.

Ara Nazarian, PhD

Ara Nazarian, PhD

Ara Nazarian is an associate professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Harvard Medical School. He graduated from Tennessee Technological University with a degree in mechanical engineering, followed by graduate degrees from Boston University, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Harvard University. He has been involved in the Armenian community for over a decade, having served in a variety of capacities at the Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society, the Armenian Cultural and Educational Center, Armenian National Committee of America, St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.

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