We have often commented in this column that building an Armenian identity in the diaspora is a choice. There are many faces in that identity that are available. There are those who align with our faith, our culture or our human rights. Whenever I speak with young people about engaging in our communities, I suggest that they stay focused on the mission and not the personalities. The other piece of advice is to prepare for the long term when attempting to make a difference. Too often in this age of instant gratification, we lose interest when the results are not significant or immediate. When an Armenian school teacher has inspired one student to pursue fluency, they have made a difference. If a mentor can motivate a few young people to participate in the human rights struggle, they have left a footprint. This is particularly true in the diaspora where participation can fluctuate based on burnout, distractions or frustration. Our history is extensive, and our struggle is of equal length. We are merely the current gatekeepers and should view our contributions in that content. We must protect our personal sustainability if we are to optimize our collective contributions.
In most global nations, the major grouping is separated by information and authority. Ironically, in a democratic society, the people delegate that difference to elected officials. The origin of those relationships is often forgotten leading to a separation. This is especially pertinent to the current Artsakh struggle and its relationship to Armenia and the diaspora. The two groupings are separated by power, access to information and ability to impact the outcome (authority).
In one group, we find the government, career political elite and political intellectuals. This grouping accounts for a very small percentage of our nation (perhaps less than one percent) but also possesses most of the ability to make or influence decision making. The other grouping is populated by the vast majority and is often referred to as the “rank and file,” general public” or “common citizens.” Whether they reside in the diaspora or in the homeland, “citizen” refers to status as a part of the global Armenian nation. Often in the former group, they confront the most difficult situations with political rhetoric or rationalizations. The rank and file seek the truth through the veneer of political dialogue. Because the authority group operates in a different reality, they are somewhat shielded from the frustration factor. It may be a job to them or perhaps they have different objectives, but for the common citizens, who are unable to impact the outcome, they are vulnerable to a loss of empowerment. Left untreated, frustration can evolve into ambivalence, which is a threat to democracy.
In the past week, the Minister of State in Artsakh Ruben Vardanyan was relieved of his duties by Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan after only 112 days in office. Ironically, the dismissal occurred at nearly the same time as the International Court of Justice ruling in favor of the immediate opening of the Lachin Corridor. Opinions are flooding the internet as to whether Harutyunyan caved to pressure from Azerbaijan and perhaps Armenia that direct dialogue between Azerbaijan and Artsakh would not take place with Vardanyan. Aliyev has made several public comments criticizing Vardanyan’s presence as a “Russian oligarch” and representing Russia’s interest. Armenia’s aloofness to Artsakh began after the 2020 war when they delegated their longtime role as “security guarantor” to Russian peacekeepers per the November 2020 trilateral agreement. Aliyev’s response clearly indicated that he felt threatened by Vardanyan’s leadership. Russia’s interest is much more fundamental. The instability in the region is in their interest as it affords them the opportunity to manipulate both sides. When Armenia criticized the CSTO and peacekeepers for their lack of support, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his ministry lashed out at Armenia. Lavrov sounded like a parent scolding a child for daring to speak. Yet, this week, Lavrov sounded more conciliatory as he updated the press on the “negotiations” to open the Lachin Corridor. He stated that he did not envision checkpoints in the open corridor. This is in direct contrast to Aliyev’s demand that Azeri checkpoints be installed.
Vardanyan has spoken publicly this week about his ouster in the context of his enduring commitment to the people of Artsakh. Armenian politicians have sounded a bit defensive on the Artsakh situation this week. When commenting about proposals for an Armenia/Azerbaijan peace treaty, National Assembly president Alen Simonyan stated, “Don’t get the impression that we are somehow trying to abandon Artsakh’s interests.” He then went on to state that the November 9 treaty governs the process. Other politicians have suggested that Vardanyan’s presence caused tension with Armenia. When politicians seek to clarify a perception, it usually means that they are feeling some resistance to their policy. Even casual observers can agree that Armenia’s position has become more aloof. Armenia has been active in pursuing a response to the humanitarian aspects of the struggle, but the political landscape has changed. The response of the general public is simply a reflection of what they see.
The rank and file may not completely understand these confusing dynamics, and they probably don’t care. Their concern for some time has been an end to political instability and the need for leadership. In the view of a significant portion of the global Armenian nation, Vardanyan is a breath of fresh air with a vision for Artsakh that the people holding the land can connect with. He gives people hope that their leaders understand the fundamental issues. How can one not be inspired by an individual who leaves his comfort zone to be with his people in their time of need? His mere presence and influence raised Artsakh’s profile in an unprecedented way. Naturally, this is a threat to Aliyev and to the political establishment in Armenia. In this odd alignment of short term interests, political forces led to Vardanyan’s dismissal. In the eyes of many, he is a hero victimized by those fearful of his vision.
As for Azerbaijan’s willingness to “talk” with Artsakh, was it Vardanyan’s dismissal or the ICJ decision? It is unclear, but to those who have chosen to defend their rights to the land, he is admired and respected. They understand after Sumgait, Baku and 30 years of terror, that there is no “security” agreement with Azerbaijan that will prevent another Nakhichevan.
The diaspora has always been assertive in its support for Artsakh. One factor to consider beyond patriotism is the kinship of being dispossessed. The diaspora was founded by the survivors of the Genocide and their descendants. The expulsion and recovery are major elements of the psyche of this community. In the last 30 years, those victimized by Azeri crimes have a tragic common experience with the diaspora. Many in the diaspora stand with Artsakh to prevent the expulsion and destruction experienced by their ancestors. When we visit Artsakh and witness the remarkable courage of its people, we often think of Western Armenia. The threat of survival has inspired miraculous ability in Artsakh. Despite the controversy of the previous two administrations, as natives of Artsakh they brought that spirit and understanding of Artsakh to Armenia. After the 2020 war, Armenia became more concerned with the sovereign state of Armenia. While it is the right of the government to formulate such a policy, it is essential that Armenia be concerned about its role as the center of the Armenian global nation. Regardless of their reasoning, Armenia’s policy toward Artsakh and the commitment of the diaspora have created a bit of an estrangement between these two very important players.
We should also note that Armenia’s enthusiasm for approaching “normalization” talks with Turkey is at best confusing for many in the diaspora. Turkey is a nation that denies the murder and dispossession of Armenians; contributed significantly to the killing of Armenians in the 2020 war; has labeled Armenians as “remnants of the sword;” and unapologetically defines criminal Azerbaijan as “one nation two states.” Details on the terms of the border opening and “normalization” are unclear, but only the naive would not expect the predictable Turkish pre-conditions to soon emerge. With “normalization,” Turkey would be free to damage Armenia economically by flooding Armenian markets with cheaper goods, crippling agriculture and other industries. Will there be pricing protection and import restrictions? Turkey is not Armenia’s friend. Cordial relations between neighbors are important, but they will not change Turkey’s strategic objective to weaken or destroy Armenia with Azerbaijan. These are important issues that need more public dialogue with the government of Armenia. The absence of such allows the void to be filled with speculation, discontent and frustration. Civil discourse is essential.
The general public in Artsakh, Armenia and the diaspora are united in one sense that they are not privy to insider information and certainly not empowered with the authority to make strategic decisions. In a victim state, this can easily lead to mentally exiting the struggle and general ambivalence. There is another option. Our citizens possess remarkable filters and sensors to know when the nation is drifting because those filters are based on the core values of the Armenian people. The recent example of Vardanyan illustrates this point. He was well received by the rank and file generally in our global nation, particularly in Artsakh, because he fulfilled a need—leadership and hope in a sea of chaos. It was not politics. He simply aligned what he had to offer with a void the people are feeling. Can you blame them? They feel politically isolated having to negotiate with a government that seeks their destruction. The resistance to Vardanyan was sadly political. He was disrupting the careful alignment. Some will even have the audacity to take credit for dialogue with Azerbaijan as a result of forcing him out. Politics can be entertaining in a stable environment. When survival is the headline, it can be tragic. The people are the core check and balance in a democratic society. They are the base of the pyramid and for that reason their presence and participation must be self protected. The sleepless nights of concern and constant anxiety must be regulated to ensure sustainability. We all need ways to manage our human emotions. For those on the periphery, stepping into the circle of participating and contributing can also be therapeutic. For those immersed already, protect the time with your family and other casual outlets to keep your commitment intact. Your nation needs you.