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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.)

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DisclaimerThe views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Hetq.

Comments (20)

Salone Man
It's always shocking to realise that Armenia refused to turn over internationally recognised Azerbaijan territory for three decades. And that's where the problem started for the Armin ian nation. Because of that stubbornness, the international community lost trust in Armenia and Azerbaijan got a legitimate ground to use force whenever they deem it necessary. And because of Armenia's three decades stubbornness to compromise, coupled with the recent Azeri triumph, the Karabakh question is now settled: Azerbaijan will never negotiate any status for Karabakh again. Azerbaijan, with the support of Turkey, hope to take the rest of karabakh by force in the near future. And don't even think the international community would do anything about it because Nogorno Karabakh is recognised by all UN members as part of Azerbaijan. Even Armenia's closest ally Russia holds that same position. And don't even think Russia will intervene when Azerbaijan decides to settle the Karabakh question once and for all because Turkey will negotiate with Russia to stand aside. So my warning for Armenia is to start thinking of negotiating for greater autonomy for Karabakh Armenians with Azerbaijan through the Minsk group. Maybe Azerbaijan will concede to that for the sake of saving lives that could be lost in a final solution war
Andranik
All of the people in these comments criticizing Markar’s take from the comfort of their couch in Glendale… I guess 4000 boys weren’t enough of a sacrifice for the ego of Ultra Nationalists. I’m glad someone as brilliant as Markar is being the voice of reason and accurately assessing this situation
joe
What nerve.. Blaming nationalism as if a free independent strong united Armenia is somehow a determent. Blaming the diaspora for the last 4 losers that were DIRECTLY in control of Armenia's affairs. Ter-Petrosian the giver of Armenian lands to invading Asian pedophile Turks for some future peace that will NEVER happen. Kocharyan the ultra thief that stole elections and everything else to line his OWN pockets while 1/3 of the population emigrated out. Sarkisyan was Kocharyan #2 and now the ultra coward traitor massively stupid incompetent impotent loser of all of Armenia, Pashinyan who has no clue what so ever, who lies directly in your face, that's taking everything down with him by secretly signing away Armenia's best interest while pretending its not his fault. Almost seems on purpose. Traitor needs to hung. The diaspora is the real party with real resources wishing only the best interest for Armenia. Its the diaspora that pressures the existing country they reside to take up pro Armenian causes. Yet Armenia proper ignores the diaspora and excludes it in all dealings. Why didn't Armenia proper ever indoctrinate diaspora military units from the start like Israel does? Why? They didn't want outside influence that's why.. They just wanted the money from the diaspora. Nothing else. Every time a diaspora would want to start a business in Armenia they were asked for hefty nonsense fees upfront so the acting agent can pocket money for himself discouraging investment and growth. Stop blaming nationalism and the diaspora and blame the greed and incompetence and treasonous actions of past and current Armenian political systems. Currently there are 17 political factions for a nation of 3 million. Are you kidding? We need real leaders that unit, not divide, that are competent and who's interest are truly the best for Armenia and all Armenians. That includes the diaspora's direct involvement. Nothing less.
Arka Gatian
A very pragmatic and sincere written article with compelling facts that should not be dismissed or brushed aside; I do wish that it's a wake up call to impeding dangers that the Armenian nation is facing. The demise of Soviet Union, gave Armenia a historic & a unique chance that an independent nation was born without spilling blood, which rarely happened in Armenian history. After three decades of independence, where Armenia stands now needs a critical dose of Pragmatism to tone down unrealistic expectations.
Armen S.
Thank you Markar. You are so right. Nationalist sentiments have deluded the masses. In the meantime, the oligarchs have crushed the people. Unfortunately, while there are amazingly heroic and decent people in Armenia, there is no worker consciousness strong enough to make inroads in the political scene.
Anna
To Iran: I will gladly acknowledge my people’s massacres when the demon itself admits to the grand and multiple genocides of the past several centuries. How can you sit there and make such a ridiculous statement when the turks have slaughtered all the neighboring peoples, we are not the only ones that demonize turks, Assyrians and Syrians do, Greeks do, Bulgarians do, Cypriots do, Arabs do, Kurds do, even some Persians that have read history do. if you read history you’ll read about all the bloody massacres that the Mongol turks have committed over the centuries extending up to one millennia. The sad thing is you don’t even expect retribution that’s how arrogant your vicious culture is. Thankfully there are some Turkish story ends that are willing to reflect soberly on this reality.
Bakunian
Azerbaijanians and Armenians lived together for centuries. I still remember Armenian people on the streets of Baku, my neighbors, class mates. What happened to us. Why we started to hate each other. People become victims of the ideology of corrupted clan leaders who came to power using ultra-nationalistic ideas. It is sad to see how people on both sides in this region talk about revenge. Instead of talking about wealth and prosperity, people talk about revenge. No one wins when people die.
Voldemort
The main issue is absence of 5-10-20year strategy. For years all Armenian administrations have though "well we still have lands and alliances, lets see how long we can hold on to them". When someone sits to think about a proper strategy, will see the inevitability of dialogue with all neighbors. Except for Iran, there is no neighbor Armenia doesn't have land claims. And then those nationalists get surprised, why Azerbaijan and Turkey teamed up against us, why Georgia supported their supply lines. Those nationalists live in a pink rainbow dreamland without ability or willingness to see the reality on the ground. Armenia is neither an industrial or technological powerhouse, neither has significant population or natural resources. Longest borders are with Azerbaijan and Turkey, and no matter how many times those ultranazis scream "go back to Mongolia", they will not leave, for centuries they have been here, for centuries they are planning to stay. After WW2 European countries managed to reconcile and and develop together. As long as countries in Caucasus don't put their differences aside and cooperate Caucasus will always remain the way it is. And due to power balance Armenia will be the one to suffer the most. Only thing I agree with Ultranazis on is that Armenia is existential crisis and Ultranazis are the ones to blame preventing regional cooperation and reconciliation.
David Karapetyan
Nicely written article. I agree that this situation requires politics that are aligned with the values and interests of working class people instead of ultra-nationalist blowhards and the first step is acknowledgement of the failures (with articles like this one) that lead up the 44 day war. Admitting mistakes is the only way to regain the trust of the international community. Admitting past failures is not a weakness, it shows strength of character and when admitted at the national level it shows that we are committed and united instead of scattered and divided.
Bedir Memmedli
You should learn how to leave with this. If you become realistic, end claims against your neighbors, get rid of your “ancient” map that claims the entire Caucasus, stop being Russia’s puppet, and start thinking about the ordinary citizens who are desperate to get the hell out of Armenia, everything will be fine.
Iran
I am an Iranian Azerbaijani. I read the article and comments. Unfortunately Western countries and Russia abused Armenians and Armenian questions to reach the goals. Before anything you need to accept genocides committed by Armenians in Yerevan, Sunik, Karabakh, İran Azerbaijan and Karabakh. With or without Russia and Western countries' support you have to live with Turks. Karabakh war triggered a new sense of Turk-Azerbaijani identity in Iran which is located just south of your border. Instead of demonizing Turks and Azerbaijanis accept your guilt and then try to find new ways to get rid of Russia, Western countries and corrupt clans in Azerbaijan and Armenia. While the people of Armenia and Azerbaijan live in fear they can not accomplish it and establish democratic regimes. Dialogue and accepting own responsibilities are the only way.
Hovhannes
No one in post-war Armenia seems to have grasped the new reality on the ground. The pre-June 20 election arena is a "circus" full of blabbering third-rate individuals and parties (if you can call them such) spouting nationalist rhetoric in a bid to curry public support. Voters in Armenia are faced with a few options when it comes to choosing who will lead the country out of the current morass. Oligarchs masquerading as "national saviours", incompetent former presidents seeking a "second chance", alliances comprised of so-called patriots (Sefilian et al) who are so detached from reality it's tragic)......This is what voters in Armenia face.Politics based on personalities, not principles. It's a never ending cycle of failure and frustration in which the real interests of citizens get short shrift at best. The situation can be described in one word - ողորմելի (pitiable).and the average voter, pardon my Turkish, can only be labelled as "zavallı".
R.Duke
Markar, you are no Monte. Period. Can't even hold his jockstrap.
Sev
Complete hogwash. You sound like a crying old woman. Put away your hysterics and slither away. It's a shame you share the same last name as Monte.
Gagik Tovmasian
Totally agree with the author about committed errors and the ultra-nationalism. However I can not agree with his assessment of the role of Russia (forget the CSTO, it is ill born formality to underline Russian influence over its participants). One of the greatest errors in the pas was a total unconditional reliance on Russia. It includes winning the first war and not able to capitalize on it (i.e. legitimize the existence of Artsakh by forcing the defeated side to accept it). It was Russians who prevented it and dictated the ceasefire agreement, because they could (Armenia was indebted for military help). And because Russia was not interested in final resolution and peace. Then and there the foundation of the defeat in 2020 was laid. The corruption, failing economy dependent on Russian gas and inability of Armenia to cooperate and integrate with anyone else is a direct reason why Armenia is so unprotected and poor. Author insists that Armenia should continue totally rely on Russia, effectively means end of the Armenian statehood. Russians wanted to install in Artsakh since 1994. Armenia prevented it, because the treat from Azerbaijan was nil at that moment, but curiously let Russians to enter the Armenian proper, under the claims that the military danger comes from the west. However if you cite Libaridian, you should also mention and explain that it was against Russian interests if Armenia established normal relations with Turkey. And it was Russian meddling in Armenian internal politics that made possible dismissal of LTP, then murder in the Parlament and establishment of "Putin's best friend Kocharyan" (marionette in reality) into the power.
Sona
Corruption has become the go-to explanation for everything that afflicts Armenia, the diaspora, the world. (It has also become an instrument for gaining favors with the so-called international community by those "pro-democracy" voices in the post-Soviet space. "Excellence" and "competence" are the more fashionable mantra these days, and as empty of content!) Always referring to corruption as the source of all failures only skirts the deeper systemic factor for the sorry state of affairs in the Armenian world. Markar Melkonian rightly points his criticism to the ultra-nationalists and the big-capitalists and offers a clear and broad critique which is free of the buzz words and the blame game of the post-war talk. It is the kind of critique we must adopt and deepen.
Sevak
Serop , I read your comment and couldn't agree more. I too will never set foot in that country again. The Armenians in Armenia don't seem interested in statehood and nation building but instead seem comfortable living in a feudal economy where mafia laws dictate the economy and political system. Markar can go on and on about the failures of the diaspora but from my subjective and justified experience Armenians in Armenia don't seem eager to gain trust from us. I hope they can sleep knowing that they squandered a rare chance to create a Armenian nation. Hope they rot together with the turks and russians.
Shant Kirmizian
...oh, great! "Workers of the world UNITE!"
Serop
The diaspora for almost 30 years tried to engage in more ways than imaginable. The corrupt successive governments poisoned by decades of soviet rule and soviet corruption simply gobbled up, stole, and gave every reason possible for the diaspora to develop a deep distrust of successive Armenian governments. The blame lies entirely with the corrupt clans that have been disguised as political parties that have managed to yet again destroy our nation by their greedy & treacherous behavior. One only needs to read our history to see how we have NEVER managed to learn our lesson. The diaspora is the most powerful body that should have been engaged, trust developed & nurtured, yet even as I type I will never again invest a single $1 in Armenia( After being forced at gun point to relinquish my $2.2M investment to former minister of the Republican part and close friend of the thief in law Serj Sargissyan and his corrupt brother and son law. Change you ways before we again become another slave province of the Turks. Over $2.5 Billion estimated has been stolen in past 28 years and the diaspora is now being blamed for the utter failure of successive corrupt governments.
h. bezikian
I absolutely agree with you. We have people in government that are totally inept. The people who governed the country were and interested in one thing, make more money. They never cared about the country. We need real person to take us out of this mess.

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