Armenia: Return of the Russophobes
By Markar Melkonian
Some of the loudest opposition voices in Yerevan these days make a great show of hating everything Russian, and their hatred has become frenzied.
Most readers are probably aware of this, but those who still need convincing need only take a moment to peruse the relevant online news sources, or to recall the rants from Opera Square last summer, where, for example, one speaker proclaimed that there is no anti-Russian measure that would be too extreme for Armenians to take.
Consider Lragir.am. The high-traffic site recently (Oct. 18, 2016) ran an article by one Daniel Ioannisyan, which denounces the adoption of a statement by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of six former Soviet republics, including Armenia. The CSTO statement condemned the further expansion of NATO’s “Missile Defense Systems,” which already encircle Russia and Armenia. Ioannisyan denounced Armenia’s objection to the expansion of the missile systems. The objection was “ridiculous,” he said, since the NATO expansion “is exclusively a defense system.” Some of us recall Ronald Reagan’s “Peace Keeper” missiles, and the notorious “defensive” Star Wars program. We recall the claim, repeated by American leaders in the 1980s, that the cruise missile was an “exclusively defensive” weapon. We now know that this claim, too, was false: for the past three decades at least, cruise missiles have been deployed as a first strike weapon in America’s many recent unilateral attacks and wars of aggression.
The further expansion of NATO missile systems poses a clear and present danger to Armenia. Turkey is the second-most powerful NATO country. It is the West’s designated regional surrogate. The Turkish army is currently fighting wars on the territory of two of its neighbors, and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has consolidated his power and embarked on an even more muscular domestic and foreign policy. The suggestion that Armenia should not even protest the expansion of the NATO missile systems is a measure of Lragir’s extreme hatred of everything Russian, even at the cost of Armenia’s own vital security interests.
The Republic of Turkey was America’s reliable ally throughout the Cold War, from Korea to Syria, the Aegean, occupied Palestine, and Cyprus. The final destruction of the Soviet Union, however, catapulted Turkey into a new position as a regional superpower. This new status entails a more independent and assertive role within the larger geopolitical framework of imperialism. If strategic planners in Ankara and Washington have some differences of opinion when it comes to the Kurds in Syria, or back-and-forth relations with Russia, this is because their new status not only permits them to pursue the interests of their own ruling class, but requires them to do so.
When it comes to plans for the South Caucasus, though, Washington and Ankara are in broad agreement: Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia should be integrated into the dominant imperialist system within Ankara’s sphere of interest. (Of course they don’t put it this way in public. Instead, they talk about Russian colonialism, national sovereignty, the need for national liberation, and so forth. And on cue, their mascots in places like Yerevan, Baku, and Tiflis repeat the noises that their masters in Washington and Ankara make. Thus, for example, a recent headline in Lragir poses the question: How Will Russia Be Removed from the South Caucasus?
Russophobia is a returning fad in Yerevan. Some of us recall the public displays of hysteria in the early 1990’s--the conspiracy theories, the Ronald Reagan portraits, the swastikas, the racism, and all the rest. Back then Russophobia was inextricable from anti-Sovietism. “Intellectuals” in Yerevan assured us, for example, that a Soviet atomic bomb had triggered the 1988 earthquake, that Russia had sided with the “Turk” enemy, and that “blonde pigs” had imposed the Medzamor nuclear power plant on Armenia, thereby creating “a generation of birth defects,” as the phrase would have it. There was not much in the way of evidence to support any of these assertions, but no matter: lies were permissible as long as they helped to destroy the last vestiges of Soviet power and to enthrone the oligarchs in Armenia.
Looking back, it might seem as though everyone in 1991 had gulped down the Kool Aid. But even in those early days of “independence” there were a few scattered skeptics. Every now and then, far from the trumpets and the bullhorns of Opera Square, a few thoughtful people tilted their foreheads together and spoke in low voices: “Surely these speech makers cannot believe what they’re saying.” “What is the end game here?” Unfortunately, their voices never reached other ears.
Some people back then suspected what is now common knowledge, at least among serious students of that history: the anti-Sovietism had little at all to do with freedom, democracy, independence, or human rights. What it was about, really, was tycoons seizing state power and imperialists seizing Russia’s assets.
The anti-Soviets scored a quick victory, and they did so because aspiring capitalists already occupied high positions in the Party and the state and were waiting to take power. (For a quick rundown, see: “Breaking the Ban on Class Analysis in Armenia,” Hetq Online, 14 March, 2011.) The disastrous consequences of their victory are more than apparent twenty-five years later, and we will not rehearse them here. Let us just remind ourselves that a generation of young people has come of age in a country that the earlier crop of Russophobes ruined.
But this time around the opposition parties, at least until recently, have appeared to be out of touch with the rest of the country. In a July 2007 poll funded by USAID, 98% of respondents agreed that Armenia’s relations with Russia were “good.” (International Republican Institute et. al., “Armenia National Voter Study 2007,” p. 28.) The same study reported that that 88% of respondents described Russia as a “partner” for Armenia (compared to 3% for Turkey), while only 2% said that Russia was a threat (compared to 76% for Turkey).
The study is ten years old, though, and in the meantime the Russophobes have been compensating for their small numbers by rallying resources from the big NGOs (the “civil society” NGO’s, the agencies of foreign states, and so on) and by seeking the support of the Big Embassy. According to a recent Mediamax poll, there has been a significant shift in Armenia when it comes to perceptions of Russia as a friendly country, down from 86% in 2015 to 69% one year later. (Mediamax, “Russia is Losing Public Support in Armenia,” Oct. 26, 2016.
Why the dip? There was the April Karabakh War, of course, and Putin’s overtures to Erdogan. The war provided a pretext for Yerevan’s Russophobe opposition to set up camp in Opera Square. For years before that they pooh-poohed the military threat that Turkey poses to Armenia, but this time around they used the war and Putin’s overtures to Turkey to paint a picture of Erdogan and the Russian leader as a two-headed beast.
Nobody with even a cursory familiarity with the situation would seriously bet that Moscow and Ankara could become genuine strategic partners any time in the foreseeable future. And perhaps nobody knows this better than Putin and Erdogan themselves. But no matter: what will carry the day for the Russophobes is not argument and evidence, but rather the pushing of emotional buttons.
Despite Russia’s slumping reputation in Yerevan, though, a large majority of Armenians still view Russia favorably. This should not be surprising, if for no other reason than that the Armenian diaspora in Russia comes in at over a million, and tens of thousands of families in Armenia rely on remittances from that diaspora.
The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel once wrote that nobody has ever learned anything from history. Adults who were within earshot of Opera Square last summer could testify to the truth of this statement. One would have thought that the last century taught us a lesson that was about as clear as clear could be: do not look to the West for your salvation. But from even the clearest and most costly of lessons, dogmatists can draw the opposite conclusion.
Let us consider for a moment the larger regional context of the rising Russophobia in Armenia. After Iraq, America’s neocons set their sights on Syria, to destroy the army, to shatter the country, and to impose puppet regimes on the pieces. While doing this, they plunged the country into a hurricane of blood and hatred. As one of many collateral effects, their surrogates destroyed ancient Armenian communities in Syria, killed 300 members of those communities, drove one hundred thousand Syrian Armenians out of their country, and destroyed long-established Armenian institutions and billions of dollars’ worth of Armenian-owned property.
Meanwhile, America’s confederates in Riyadh and Qatar have denounced the “barbarism” of Russian pilots in Aleppo--even as the Saudi air force was (and is) killing thousands of civilians in Yemen. American diplomats and the “free press” in the United States rallied behind their foreign-backed radical Islamist surrogates in Syria, denouncing Russian and Syrian “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.”
Russian pilots flying Russian planes were bombing the eastern part of Aleppo, inhabited, according to the Western press, by some 250 to 270,000 noncombatants. The very next day, as American pilots in American planes were bombing Mosul, a city in Iraq inhabited by one million noncombatants, the press of record in the West blandly reported that ISIS in Mosul was hiding behind “human shields.”
It would seem, then, that when Russian pilots drop bombs on part of a city occupied by America’s radical Islamist allies, the Russians are barbarians who are deliberately targeting civilians. But the next day, when American pilots drop bombs on four times that number of civilians, America is innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever. Indeed, America’s enemies in Iraq—who happen to be allied with America’s surrogates in Syria—are to blame for the civilian casualties. To add another level of irony, America’s nominal enemy in Iraq, ISIS, exists only thanks to the fact that the American invasion and occupation created a space in Iraq for it to come into existence in the first place. The American invaders fomented the violence that gave rise to it, and then provided recruits to ISIS by dismantling the Iraqi army.
None of this is surprising: America has a long history of atrocities, and many tens of millions of victims. Nor is it even surprising that the imperialists can recruit confederates in countries like Armenia. Intellectual mercenaries are a dime a dozen in every country. What is surprising is that, after the atrocities that our compatriots in Iraq and Syria have endured and continue to endure today, those confederates can bring hundreds of people into the public squares, stoking popular hatred against—Moscow!
Armenia’s Russophobe opposition has adopted the official words and catchphrases of the American playbook: Armenia is a “colony” of Russia; it must wage a “national liberation struggle” to remove Russian “occupation forces” from the South Caucasus; the opposition demands “regime change,” and so forth.
Regime change. Let us consider for a moment where this has taken place in recent years: Serbia, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Where “regime change” has taken place, we have seen the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocents, the creation of millions of refugees, and the installation of tyranny far worse than what had come before.
Perhaps the cruelest chauvinists in Baku or Ankara would welcome such regime change in Armenia. If they do, they share a common purpose with Lragir and Yerevan’s Russophobe opposition.
In a small country like Armenia, located at the intersection of competing imperialist forces, political fads can be dangerous. They can have far-reaching consequences. We saw it happen twenty-five years ago, and if a responsible working-class opposition does not get itself together--sooner rather than later--then we might see it happen again.
Markar Melkonian is a teacher and an author. His books include Richard Rorty’s Politics: Liberalism at the End of the American Century (1999), Marxism: A Post-Cold War Primer (Westview Press, 1996), and My Brother’s Road (2005).