Ultra-Nationalist Folly: How Much More Can Armenia Take?
By Markar Melkonian
Much of what happens seems inevitable in retrospect, but not the martyrdom of our four thousand sons. The 44-Day War has shaken delusional certitudes about Armenia’s foreign policy. Now, too late, it is easy to recognize the errors that might have been averted. They include:
- Over-estimating the military capacity of the Republic of Armenia;
- Badly under-estimating the military capacity and battle-readiness of the Republic of Azerbaijan;
- Discounting Erdogan’s willingness to challenge Moscow by intervening directly in the armed conflict;
- Disregarding Armenia’s diplomatic isolation and vastly exaggerating--or just hallucinating--the willingness of the West to intervene on Armenia’s behalf;
- Dismissing, or ignoring entirely, the unanimous international commitment to the Madrid Principles, notably the first principle, “return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabagh to Azerbaijani control,” as a prelude to discussing autonomy or self-determination for the Armenians of Nagorno Karabagh;
- Brushing off Moscow’s numerous and insistent reminders to Yerevan that security provisions of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) apply, in letter and in spirit, only to the U.N.- recognized territory of the Republic of Armenia, and not to Nagorno Karabagh.
Wishful thinking can be a dangerous thing. There is more to say about the errors listed above, and in the following paragraphs I’d like to mention one or two additional instances of wishful thinking that have been even more consequential. My purpose is more urgent than just hindsight criticism. I hope that the cautionary, forward-looking character of my observations will become clear.
Prime Minister Pashinyan has rightly been taken to task for his ill-considered statements in the lead-up to the war. Consider, for example, his prepared remarks on 10 August 2020 at a conference hosted, for some bad reason, by Armenia’s National Academy of Sciences to mark the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Sevres. The Prime Minister glorified the Treaty, which, according to him, is “a historical fact, which reflects our long journey to restore our independent statehood.” Without going into the details of the Treaty of Sevres, let us note in passing that: (i) it was never ratified (the USA did not even sign it); (ii) it was never implemented, and (iii) it was in any case superseded by the Treaty of Lausanne 98 years ago.
At least one commentator foresaw the likely diplomatic fallout of Pashinyan’s remarks. In an article of 1 September 2020, Jirair Libaridian, the former senior advisor to the Levon Ter-Petrosyan administration, explained:
Adopting the Treaty of Sevres as an instrument of foreign policy, Armenia placed the demand of territories from Turkey on its agenda. This was possibly the last step that will, in the eyes of our opponents and the international community, define the Karabagh problem as a question of territorial expansion, setting aside the right of self-determination of our people in Artsakh as the basis of our policy. And that revanchist approach depends so much on the sympathy of that same international community to see its demands satisfied. That which is considered “the solution to the Armenian Question” by some is regarded by the international community as inane, at the least. Is it not time to stop harming our chances of resolving the real problems we face with what we say and do for internal consumption?
(Jirair Libaridian, Aravot, 1 September, 2020, aravot-en.am)
Libaridian’s comments were published three weeks before the start of the 44-Day War. Very sadly, subsequent events have borne out his warnings. Not all of Pashinyan’s critics, then, are hindsight critics.
Other observers in Yerevan, in Artsakh, and even in the diaspora, have also responded to the events of last fall with thoughtful, honest insights, from a range of ideological perspectives. Some of them have focused on the Prime Minister. Pashinyan’s blunders, however, were less fundamental than Yerevan’s long history of failure to negotiate an end to the Nagorno Karabagh conflict. For twenty-six years, Armenian forces held onto those famous “bargaining chips,” the seven territories surrounding Nagorno Karabagh. And in all those years, from their position of strength, four Administrations in Yerevan (not three administrations but four) failed to make the territorial concessions necessary to start negotiating for self-determination for the Armenians of Nagorno Karabagh. Thus, as Libaridian noted, Yerevan found itself in direct defiance of that very same “international community” that leaders and pundits have assured us was on our side.
Pashinyan’s own pronouncements revealed that negotiations had come to an impasse. Meanwhile, Baku and Ankara were preparing for war. When they launched their attack, Ilham Aliyev announced that, “this issue is being resolved by military means.” Despite the heroism of the defenders, Armenians were driven out of the surrounding territories, as well as Hadrut, Shushi, and other parts of Nagorno Karabagh. And if it were not for the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation--the only country on Earth that was willing and able to lift a finger to defend the Armenians of Nagorno Karabagh—the Azerbaijani military might well have ethnically cleansed Stepanakert, Mardakert, and Martuni. On 17 November, a week after Pashinyan signed the ceasefire agreement, Aliyev triumphantly proclaimed, with reference to past negotiations on the autonomy or independence of Nagorno Karabagh, that: “There can be no question of any status. There is a single state of Azerbaijan.” Thus, after twenty-six years of balked negotiations, Armenia’s window of opportunity had closed.
Some of our compatriots, including people in positions to know better, have expressed surprise about Armenia’s near-total diplomatic isolation: Where was the Free World? Where were the “democracies”? Where were all of those well-connected people in high places who, we always imagined, have such unbounded admiration for “the first Christian nation”? But no one should have been surprised: the OSCE had insisted for years that Armenians must relinquish at least five of the seven territories, as a prelude to negotiating the “status” of the Armenians of Nagorno Karabagh. (Refer, for instance, to the 21 April 2020 interview with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, available at Eurasianet, 24 April 2020.) If we should be surprised about anything, it is that, even in the face of repeated resolutions and statements in one international forum after another, foreign ministries in Yerevan never seem to have gotten the message. They persisted for twenty-six years to flout the “international community’s” overriding principles of territorial integrity of states and the inviolability of borders.
Armenians, both in the Republic and in the diaspora, have gotten used to depicting the diaspora as a crucial asset for the Republic of Armenia, an asset that could offset the many advantages that our adversaries enjoy. But the diaspora failed dismally to mitigate the defeat last fall, just as it has failed dismally for thirty years to mitigate poverty in the homeland. In hindsight, it should be clear even to the casual observer that the Armenian diaspora could never have lived up to the fantastic expectations in Opera Square thirty years ago. But then this is a discussion for another time.
And then there are Pashinyan’s other critics, the ones who want to continue defying the very same Western-led “international community” that they, too, idolize in their willful ignorance. These are the opposition critics who now look forward to “the next war,” and to somehow turning Armenia--an impoverished country that has undergone a thirty-year brain drain--into a garrison state with a formidable high-tech military-industrial complex.
Weirdly, many of the very same ultra-nationalists who conjure threats of pan-Turanism and neo-Ottomanism also demand that Armenia withdraw from the CSTO and expel Russian armed forces from the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri. “From now on,” an orator announced at a rally on 16 March, “the wind blows from the West.” Once again, we see that the opposition in Yerevan, both extra-parliamentary and parliamentary, is considerably worse than the unsatisfactory administration in office.
“Oh, but those are just a few nut-jobs,” our compatriots in Yerevan tell us: “Nobody takes them seriously.” Aside from the fact that hundreds of people have applauded them at Freedom Square, we should remember that we heard the same dismissive comments about the secessionists in the same city square thirty-two years ago: they, too, were a small minority of extremist nut-jobs, and we were told that they would never succeed in convincing our compatriots to take a step into the abyss. But today, like thirty years ago, fanatics in Yerevan do not need to make any sense at all, as long as they receive enough support from agencies in the West.
Some of our ultra-nationalists still have a habit of demanding “historically Armenian lands,” as an applause line in Glendale and Freedom Square. And how do they propose to realize their demands? Consider the hard-headed pragmatism of far-right opposition figure Jirair Sefilian, who, just six months after the Armenian defeat, explained:
We believe that not only will we bring back Shushi soon with our nation-army that will be formed, but we will do that without much effort because when we have a nation-state with the right policies, we will demand that Azerbaijan leave many regions, just as they did to us. We will not only demand that they leave Shushi without firing a single shot, but even Gandzak and Nakhichevan. Glory to the Armenia that will be freed tomorrow!
Aravot, 8 May 2021, https://www.aravot-en.am/2021/05/08/282461.
Thunderous cheers, no doubt, greeted this bit of oratory.
Ultra-nationalists who look forward to “the next war” appear never to have performed even the roughest back-of-the napkin calculations: the Republic of Azerbaijan now has three times the population of the Republic of Armenia (mainly due to emigration) and four times Armenia’s GDP, and Baku is closely allied with the Republic of Turkey, population 82 million. The Turkish military consists of 437,000 active military personnel, plus 231,000 conscripts, plus 380,000 reserve personnel, and the military budget of the Republic of Turkey is more than $21 billion. Compare this to the entire state budget of the Republic of Armenia, military and non-military, which in 2017 was an estimated $2.644 billion, and which was more than offset by state expenditures of more than $3.0 billion, resulting in a negative budget balance.
For twenty-six years, the ultra-nationalists have refused to concede “even one square inch” of the seven districts around Nagorno Karabagh, in order to negotiate for self-determination for the Armenians of Nagorno Karabagh. To the extent that these parties succeeded in forestalling any territorial compromise, they share responsibility for the defeat last fall.
As it turns out, Armenians are not the only tribe in our solar system that likes to talk about “liberating historical lands.” Some highly placed Azerbaijanis like to do this, too. On 9 February 2018, for instance, Ilham Aliyev announced to attendees at a congress of his New Azerbaijan Party that, “Yerevan is our historical land and we Azerbaijanis must return to these historical lands.” The ultra-nationalists in Baku could not agree more with their ultra-nationalist counterparts in Yerevan: “Soviet-era maps” must be redrawn. But in Baku they understand that if any party to this conflict is going to “redraw Soviet-era maps,” then Azerbaijan will do the redrawing, not Armenia.
“Don’t be defeatist!” the ultra-nationalists tell us: “Anything could happen in the future, and we must prepare for opportunities as they arise. After all, who fifty years ago foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Empire?”
As if the destruction of the Soviet Union—a process which, as a matter of demonstrable fact, has been a disaster for the vast majority of Armenians—should serve as a source of inspiration to future generations of Armenians! (One might more plausibly say: “Anything could happen in the future; after all, who 150 years ago foresaw the Armenian genocide?”) Thanks in large part to the efforts of the secessionists in Soviet Armenia and the subsequent destruction of the USSR, Armenia has been impoverished and diminished, and Turkey has been catapulted into regional supremacy.
One of the most admired figures in recent Armenian history is quoted as having said: “If we lose Artsakh, then we turn the last page on Armenia’s history.” Monte Melkonian would not have said this if he did not believe it. After the 44-Day War, we had better hope that he was wrong on this point. Unfortunately, as we have noted, Azerbaijan’s leaders have made it hard to dismiss Monte’s warning. The warning becomes even more acute when we consider that imperialist domination seldom requires military invasion and occupation.
The 44-Day War has underlined the lessons of the past decades and confirmed what some few sober people (including Monte, as in his 1988 article, “National Self-Determination or National Suicide?”) said thirty years ago: the fantasies of the ultra-nationalists will come to worse than nothing. Moving forward, Armenians do not need garrison states, military-industrial complexes, or any other grandiose visions. Yes, they need secure borders: they need a strong army, and they need the CSTO. But if they and their grandchildren are to make lives on their ancestral lands, they need jobs, too, and decent housing, healthcare, childcare, and education. For thirty years our capitalist rulers have failed miserably to provide any of this, and there is not much evidence that this will change fast enough or fundamentally enough to stop the country’s slide.
Armenia’s big capitalists have twenty political parties, each one crazier and further-to-the-right than the next. But when it comes to the poor and working-class majority of the country, it has no organizational presence on the ground, or almost none. Today, in the rubble of the 44-Day War, the lesson should be crystal clear: Armenia needs a strong, combative party of the working class.
Photo credit: AFP
(Markar Melkonian is a university instructor and a writer. One of his recent books, The Philosophy and Common Sense Reader: Writings in Critical Thinking (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), is the first textbook of its kind. Another recent book, The Wrong Train: Notes on Armenia since the Counterrevolution (2020, 2021), is a selection of articles that appeared in Hetq between 2008 and 2018. The English edition is available from Abril Bookstore and online vendors, and the Armenian edition, ՍԽԱԼ ԳՆԱՑՔԸ. Գրառումներ հետհակահեղափոխական Հայաստանի մասին (2021) is available from Zangak Publishing House, www.zangak.am.)
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Hetq.