When your back is against the wall, protect your dignity

It has often been stated that we learn much more in times of adversity than in times of prosperity. I once worked for a great tech company that was experiencing its most prosperous times in terms of profitability, stock value and employee retention. During a press conference that should have been filled with euphoric content, the chairman stated that he was concerned that we tend to learn less during times of success. It was that human reaction that he felt might take the company off its game ever so slightly in a highly competitive environment. Most of the press and employees present were puzzled by his comments and their timing, but those who had experienced the peaks and valleys of professional life understood his wisdom. Whether in our personal, professional or communal life, we will all experience the challenges that life offers. Experiencing adversity is as much about absorbing learning as it is about simply surviving. A perfect state would reflect our ability to address adversity in a closed loop manner where our learning is fed back into the process to enable incremental improvement. Simply stated, we would learn from our mistakes, which is why most people feel we grow from adversity. Of course, this assumes that we are honest enough with ourselves and open to self-criticism in a manner that the window of improvement opens. If experiencing adversity was the only criteria, then the Armenian nation would be the benchmark for incremental improvement. Unfortunately, our history has also been plagued with betrayal, greed and division that has distracted us from minimizing the negative impact of adverse conditions. 

In the fifth century, there were Armenian princes who sided with the Persians for personal gain, impacting the ability of the Armenians. We don’t speak often of the Armenian traitors who delivered the names of the national leaders to Talaat and his murderers. The First Republic was weakened by political opponents of the leadership. Our history, however, is equally filled with moments where adversity seemed almost overwhelming, and the very values of the nation were in peril. During the Vartanantz period, the Armenians rallied against ridiculous odds to preserve the faith and nation. In particular, the Christian foundation was at risk and would have been abandoned had the Armenians chosen a different path in 451 A.D. Perhaps of greater importance was their decision-making process with partially divided nations and hundreds of thousands of Persian troops on their border. Faced with colossal pressure, they chose a direction that sacrificed short term havoc for long term survival. They chose the dignity and future of the nation despite the death and destruction in the immediate short term. 

In 1918, the nation was faced with a similar dilemma. With the ashes of the Genocide still present and surrounded by Turks bent on a final elimination, they chose to survive in May 1918. A nation decimated by genocide and lacking the resources to oppose a professional military regime chose the dignity of the nation. It is best exemplified by Catholicos Gevorg who refused to vacate Holy Etchmiadzin and stated that if we cannot defend our spiritual capital, he will die there. Despite the horrific conditions in 1918, they never lost their core values as a people willing to sacrifice to maintain their dignity and advocacy for freedom. I often think about those who made those decisions in 451 and 1918. I believe we underestimate the profound trauma of deciding the path that we now regard as inspiring history. Perhaps their greatest accomplishment was their refusal to abandon the values of what constitutes a nation.

The men and women of Artsakh are another example where choices have ramifications. The parallels of 451, 1918 and 1991 are rich in the shared value of survival, freedom and determinationthree examples of extreme adversity when our people chose to defend the values that define a nation. Anything less would have transformed Armenia into a footnote in history and robbed us of the inspiration that we embrace today.

2009 protest in downtown Toronto (Photo: AYF Toronto)

Facing adverse conditions is nothing new to the Armenians, and 2022 provides us with yet another series of overwhelming challenges. The 21st century version of the beloved Armenian homeland is in an unfortunate yet familiar environment. The diaspora has often been criticized for advocating positions that are convenient when operating remotely. Our focus on Hai Tahd, a direct outcome of the unpunished crime of genocide, is perceived as a singular obsession that should be taken in the context of the current geopolitical environment. The reality is that a significant portion of the diaspora infrastructure is deeply committed to the challenges of Armenia and Artsakh today. It is simply a matter of what is included in the definition of our vision of Armenia. The focus on “normalization” with Turkey offers us significant insight into this dilemma. The discussions with Turkey resemble at least one party that has been “encouraged” to engage with an enemy. Who among the world powers does not want Turkey and Armenia to “reconcile” through the establishment of diplomatic relations and an open border? It is in the interests of the United States, Europe and even Russia to see this accomplished, regardless of the quality of the agreement. A major element of the rhetoric surrounding the discussions has been both Turkey and Armenia’s willingness to complete this agreement “without preconditions.” How utterly absurd! Turkey, particularly under Erdogan, operates with a middle name of “preconditions.” The winner in this “normalization” under the current terms of engagement would be Turkey. Signing such an agreement with Armenia would cost them nothing yet would add to leverage with the aforementioned parties in their ongoing duplicity of playing the west versus the east. We should not criticize Armenia solely for engaging in dialogue. It is appropriate to build peaceful relations with neighbors, and the pressure to do so is significant. We should appreciate that. Admittedly, some of our reaction is based on Turkey’s longtime destructive behavior toward Armenia and the Armenians. The blood is still on their hands from the criminal 2020 invasion of Armenian sovereignty. They have established a virtual military vassal in Azerbaijan and support the policy of holding Armenian POWs, border incursions and territorial occupation. Erdogan continues to deny the genocide of the Armenians and even taunts Armenians by labeling the current Armenians as “remnants of the sword.” Turkey advocates a territorial link from Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan through what they refer to as the “Zangezur corridor” in Syunik. The term used reflects Turkey and Azerbaijan’s position that sovereign Armenia is Azerbaijani territory. The only place that preconditions may not exist is in those carefully staged meetings between the Armenian and Turkish diplomats. The entire atmosphere, however, reeks of preconditions.

Our ideals are the bonds of our survival.

The question of preconditions is a matter of when and what, not if. Turkey is incapable of engaging with Armenia without displaying the superiority complex that has dominated their thinking for centuries. It is a deep rooted disrespect and desire to see our decline. The pan-Turkic vision of the Young Turks is seeing its greatest support in decades under Erdogan in his campaign in the Caucasus. This is all designed at Armenia’s expense. Eventually the discussions will evolve to the point where a disguised “precondition” will emerge. What will be Armenia’s response when that day arrives? Hai Tahd and the Genocide are part of our collective DNA. We should never publicly endorse the Treaty of Kars. We should be focused on issues such as the status of Artsakh and our POWs. Justice for Armenia can never be abandoned by any of us. We may choose the timing when the environment is more receptive, but maintaining our ideals is a matter of dignity. The Turks are the foxes trying to get into the henhouse. Diplomatic relations without any real sacrifice is an easy decision for Turkey. Initially, it may emerge as a simple thawing of relations, but as the tide recedes, the “preconditions” of the Genocide, border definition, territorial claims and Artsakh will most assuredly emerge. Erdogan is simply setting the table for maximum leverage. He is behaving while building credits for helping with the grain deal with Russia. Armenia must prepare for that eventuality by protecting the dignity of our nation. Our ideals are the bonds of our survival.

Most Armenians, whether in the homeland or the diaspora, are naturally cautious about rapprochement with Turkey. The economic benefit is overstated for Armenia unless there are pricing and import controls to prevent cheap Turkish goods from flooding the Armenia market. That may have a short term benefit for the Armenian consumer, but it would be disastrous for the Armenian producer in the long term. Erdogan will certainly use the economic aspects of “normalization” to his benefit. One of the Turkish tactics is to let Armenia wither with poverty (emigration) and internal political conflict. Armenians in the homeland and diaspora are generally very patriotic in that they connect their definition of Armenia to eventual justice for the crimes committed against our people by Turkey and its predecessors. These beliefs are the essence of our dignity as a people. Remove them from our agenda, and we strip away the core of who we are. They are the same values that emerged in 451, 1918 and 1991. In their absence, we become another wandering people on this earth. This is the difference between a small nation building for its future or collapsing into decline. Governments must defend these values as representatives of their people. As George Aghjayan stated in his commentary last week, the absence of earnest dialogue is a devastating distraction that weakens our ability to advocate in Armenia’s interests. At such a critical juncture, respecting each other with thoughtful discourse is essential. This is a leadership responsibility. It has been said many times, but only the Turks benefit from our disunity. We must protect the dignity of the nation if we expect that nation to survive. 

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.

2 Comments

  1. Excellent article and very timely. I hope every Armenian read this article and learn what is at stake here, the survival of Armenia and the Armenian nation. United we stand and divided we fall!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*