Justice belongs to those who seize the moment

Protest in Stepanakert against the blockade of Artsakh (Siranush Sargsyan, Twitter)

We live in a bizarre world. There are scores of countries populated by citizens who proudly proclaim the moral high ground on human rights and common decency, yet few of the governments of these nations actually use those values as guiding lights. We certainly have an abundance of public rhetoric to keep the record straight, but in the hallowed halls where policy is defined we are subjected to those haunting words—“self interests.” In the vernacular, this refers  to what allows one to maintain political power, economic impact or any other element of influence. In this game, the big guys use the smaller ones to advance their interests through “proxy” activities. 

The war in the Ukraine is an excellent example. At face value, the war is fought for democracy and freedom in the Ukraine, but if Ukraine was not a border nation for the re-invigorated East/West Cold War, then it would be ignored by the West. Ukraine serves as a convenient vehicle for weakening Russia, protecting the grain supply and crushing Russia’s fossil fuel exports. Self-interest drives behaviors that are inconsistent with the stated values of great nations. If your conflict happens to intersect with the self-interests of powerful nations, then you may pay a terrible price in human life, but eventually benefit. Who do you think will rebuild devastated Ukraine? In the age of modern warfare, when you can conduct military activity and minimize military human losses, we have discovered a new and even more efficient method in the Ukraine. Just give them billions of dollars in weaponry to kill Russian soldiers, whose army will then be required to kill more Ukrainian soldiers – all this without any American or European military casualties. I wonder if in this tragic proxy war of attrition, it has ever occurred to the “leaders” to sit down and find a compromise. Then the destruction of property and life would be minimized, and the larger goal of weakening Russia would be served.  Besides, there are hungry contractors waiting for the reconstruction. 

All nations caught in a proxy war are victims to the loss of human life. The public is fed the moral lines of freedom and democracy, while we support pseudo democratic leaders.

All nations caught in a proxy war are victims to the loss of human life. The public is fed the moral lines of freedom and democracy, while we support pseudo democratic leaders. We were lied to about Vietnam. Anyone from that generation remembers the “domino theory.” Foreign wars without an exit strategy are a disaster. There was plenty of information to say Vietnam was not winnable. Ask the French. At some point the military is replaced by politicians. We were lied to in Iraq. Remember the “weapons of mass destruction.” Still looking. We were managing a civil war that a dictator had kept the lid on. Same in Afghanistan. We went in to get the 9/11 terrorists and stayed 20 years to manage another civil war. The one lesson we have learned in this country is that we must never blame the soldiers. They serve with honor and are placed in harm’s way. 

This brings us to Artsakh. The cause of Artsakh is actually more pure in moral veracity compared to Ukraine, Bosnia or other areas of powerful intervention. The difference lies in the reality of self interest. How else can you explain the greatest democracy in the world, the U.S., enabling a vile dictatorship in Azerbaijan by refusing to enforce legislation specifically designed to prevent the U.S. military aid being used for offensive and destructive purposes? Azerbaijan has used that aid along with billions from NATO (code for U.S.) to Turkey to kill Armenians. The Republic of Artsakh has displayed remarkable growth in their democratic structures over the last thirty years, even while burdened by an unrecognized status and hostile neighbors. Meanwhile with abundant U.S. aid, Azerbaijan has sunk to the depths of a corrupt dictatorship. Turkey holds elections to legitimize the decommissioning of democracy by pseudo-Sultan Erdogan. All of this for the love of oil and gas and an alternative to Russian influence. The Europeans talk a good one, sending observers from numerous nations to witness the starvation plan of Azerbaijan towards Artsakh, yet aside from almost daily condemnation (easy to issue statements of moral correctness) there is little commitment. Predictably, calls to open the Berdzor (Lachin) Corridor are numerous and empathetic (USAID is the latest…it is ironic that we need provisions yet receive statements). Armenians receive sympathy while the Azeris do what they wish. Sympathy is for those who experience a death. What would commitment look like? I would suggest three areas: sell Armenia advanced military weaponry so it can defend itself; impose economic sanctions on the criminal regime of Azerbaijan that has spit in the face of international civility by ignoring the International Court of Justice ruling; observers are welcome, but armed peacekeepers are necessary. How do we motivate real support? It may require us to be a bit less cooperative. In our world where might does make at least reality, Artsakh is left, as incredible as it may seem, begging to prevent genocide. As “advanced” as our international peace infrastructure has become (at least regarding the hundreds of billions of dollars spent), we have been unable to prevent the worst crime on this planet with genocides committed in Cambodia, Darfur, Rwanda and Bosnia. These are only examples where we can agree on the definition. What about the hundreds of thousands slaughtered in Yemen or Syria? It is easy to call them conflicts or ethnic struggles. By any barometer, we have failed miserably. We stopped the killing in Bosnia because of “self-interest,” particularly on behalf of the Europeans. Who cares about Cambodia, Darfur, Rwanda or Artsakh? This is what we have to work with. I doubt we can change the equation, but we can change our approach.

We all seek justice, but just how is justice accomplished in this world of duplicity and deceit? Let’s take the case of Artsakh. All the Armenians of Artsakh want is to live in peace on the land they have lived on for centuries. The fact that Artsakh is not considered a part of the sovereign territory of Armenia is a reflection of injustices committed by external powers, including Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Why is it that the Armenians are the only ones following the rules? Azerbaijan has committed more atrocities than this column has space for, reneged on every agreement it has ever made, violated international laws and murdered at will. This behavior has been rewarded with no sanctions and a consensus of “territorial integrity” prevailing over “self-determination.” Why? Because they have taken advantage of every opportunity regardless of its legality and moral correctness. Has this weakened Azerbaijan’s position? Hardly. The Azeris understand that mediators have a high tolerance for their criminal behavior, even while they make a mockery of diplomacy. 

Armenia can learn from this and adjust its approach. It takes both parties for an agreement. In the meantime, Armenia is forced to participate in this three-level parallel process that has replaced the Minsk group with separate and competing meetings in Washington, Brussels and Moscow. It is similar to adult children having multiple holiday dinners because the parents don’t talk. Armenia makes no trouble for anyone, despite the partially self-imposed awkward circumstances. How insulting to attend a meeting after Aliyev shoots at civilians, attempts to starve Armenians and declares Armenia is “western Azerbaijan.” Despite the protocol of diplomacy which must accept vile rhetoric, this passes the humiliation litmus test.

Frankly, I am tired of hearing that Armenia can do nothing because it would result in a devastating war. We have already experienced that result. In addition to the loss, it has brought on a debilitating victim mentality where we feel incapable of dignity through resistance. We also forget that the presence of the Americans and Europeans (the latter on the ground with about 200 observers) is a deterrent. Even the dictator Aliyev doesn’t want any European casualties in an invasion. The Armenians have more leverage in this process than they perceive. The Americans and Europeans (perhaps not the Russians) are not about to impose a treaty. Armenia must be a conscious party. It has the opportunity to resist and respond to Aliyev’s outrageous behavior. A patient under the care of the International Committee of the Red Cross has been imprisoned by the Azeris. Prisoners are illegally kept in captivity. The blockade and border attacks on civilians continue. Armenia must respond to these intimidating tactics. It may be through a border confrontation or refusal to negotiate until these barbaric acts cease. Utilize leverage or create leverage where it doesn’t exist.

Justice belongs to those who seize opportunities. If you follow the rules imposed by others but broken by the adversarial party, those opportunities are minimized. You are taken for granted and assumed to be a defeated nation. This is less about physical capability, but more about attitude and vision. This week, a caravan of 19 trucks was delivered  by the Armenian side, while thousands of Artsakhtsis protested on the other end. This may be the beginning of a public resistance to the genocidal blockade…or it could fizzle out without the support of the government, diaspora and our friends. Seize the moment. The Armenians must introduce at the next meetings in Moscow, Washington and Brussels adjustments required to create a productive environment. They should directly link Azeri criminal intimidation with Armenia’s participation. The United States and Europeans are very invested in a treaty that outflanks Russian diplomacy and increases Western influence in the South Caucasus. We play by rules imposed by others and respond with victim-like statements. Perhaps it is time to reread the history of the Karabakh committee and freedom spirit from 1988-94. These meetings produce little except the proverbial press statements that always include words like “progress,” “substantial” and “optimistic,” when we know that the Turks feel they can use barbaric means to stimulate the process. It is time for Armenia to use its required participation in negotiations to create leverage as the grassroots activities blossom. We should have nothing to fear.   

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

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.

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