When I first started this blog I promised myself to never write about politics; not because it’s unimportant or outside of my personal interest, but because there are few domains that are capable of dividing a nation as much as politics. But desperate times require desperate measures so I too will weigh in on the ongoing political crisis in Armenia following the catastrophe in Artsakh.
The elections are at our doorstep and Armenia finds itself at yet another crossroad. Do we elect the leadership that capitulated Artsakh, look back for guidance in leadership that was so festively abandoned during the velvet revolution, or someone else entirely?
I’m not going to tell you here who you should vote for. I’ll simply give you my (limited) opinion on the situation and share with you a few words of wisdom.
So first things first, let’s zoom out a little and understand the context of the current political crisis. To put it simply, the current geopolitical situation was born out of the collapse of the Soviet Union. If before, Moscow guaranteed security, employment and economic growth at the cost of totalitarian control, today Armenia is a sovereign state and has to successfully navigate geopolitics, overcome domestic challenges and compete on the world-markets.
In the late 70ies and 80ies, the Armenians, like most of the people of the soviet republics, started to believe in self-determination and expressed the desire to leave their cozy soviet nest to spread their wings of freedom.
But right before the collapse of the Union, a bloody war broke out between the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. Emboldened by this new-found belief in self-determination, the Armenian people exerted all their effort and accomplished something no one would have predicted: despite being heavily outnumbered and out gunned, they defeated the entire Azerbaijani army and even captured 7 adjacent regions of Azerbaijan as buffer zones. However, the conflict wasn’t successfully settled and remained frozen for the next three decades. It has since largely shaped Armenia’s foreign policy.
In addition to the war, Armenia experienced perhaps the worst earthquake in its entire history, as a result of which 40000 people died and around 130000 injured, in 1988. Nevertheless, neither war nor earthquake could spoil the people’s will to fly solo, and on August 23rd 1990, Armenia finally declared independence from the USSR.
A rocky start to say the least, but Armenia was free. Freedom, however, is not all sunshine and rainbows, as we soon found out. Freedom brings with it the burden of responsibility. It means you’re on your own; you have to figure out how to survive, how to take care of your country, defend it and build a lasting economy. That’s where our problems began.
Armenia signed up for capitalism, but couldn’t understand how capitalism works. So it remained clinging to the idea of a benevolent centralized government to take care of its people, instead of relying on personal responsibility to progress the country forward.
Now, let’s also put a few things in proper perspective before we further express self-criticism. Running Armenia is a tall order to fill for anyone. I’ve heard the phrase: “Armenia is parked in the wrong neighborhood.” and I couldn’t agree more. Armenia is not in Europe, Armenia is surrounded by dictatorial regimes whose genocidal intentions towards the country have been expressed freely by their leaders. And exactly because of this, Armenia cannot afford to make geopolitical mistakes. Whoever thinks that the Armenian Genocide ended in the 20th. century is in for a rude awakening. Both presidents of Turkey and Azerbaijan persistently make Armenophobic remarks.
Erdogan has threatened to finish the Armenian genocide and Aliyev has repeatedly called Yerevan the ‘historical territory’ of Azerbaijan. During a speech at the 6th Congress of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party in 2018, he said:
“Yerevan is our historical territory, and we, Azerbaijanis, must return to this historical land. This is our political and strategic goal, which we must gradually approach.”
This is not an isolated case; Aliyev called the capital of Armenia, as well as “Zangezur,” that is, the Syunik region, and Sevan the ‘historical lands’ of Azerbaijan.
Let these statements sink in for a moment. And, despite all this, there are still “analysts” among us who claim “they don’t mean it, this is just political hyperbole.” No, they do mean it. They are literally erasing all Armenian traces from lands that they historically stole from us. Our churches, cross-stone cemeteries and other monuments are being systematically erased from our ancestral lands.
Armenia is a landlocked country of barely 3 million people with little to no natural resources.
If geopolitics played out in high-school, then Armenia would definitely be the small nerdy kid who is constantly being bullied by his larger, abusive classmates with daddy issues.
Why are we here?
I’m not sure how much was organized behind closed doors, but I have no doubt that something has been agreed upon by both the Armenian leadership, the adversary, Turkey, Russia and perhaps even the West prior to or during the conflict. If you’d ask me to freely speculate I would say the following:
Armenia was told by the powers that be, that control over Artsakh will have to be handed over to Azerbaijan. Yerevan leadership was already growing tired of the frozen conflict and the constant threats from Azerbaijan, it started to view Artsakh as a headache and an obstacle towards progress.
Serzh Sargsyan tried to fulfil this command through diplomacy and negotiations in order to squeeze out a better deal but the people would have none of it. When they started to protest his 3rd term nomination, he gladly handed over power to the protesters headed by Nikol Pashinyan. During transition, Nikol was briefly “abducted” and informed. Serzh told him “Artsakh is to be handed over to Azerbaijan, we have a few options…”. Nikol decided that the best option was through a brief and “clinical” war. Armenia would not commit all of its military power, nor utilize full force of reserves and volunteers. Armenia was to lose the war, but with “dignity.” This way, he predicted, people would swallow the bitter pill and he could stay in power. There was no more need for diplomacy, so Nikol kept screaming “not an inch,” and his generals kept screaming “new war, new territories!” The theatre stage was then prepared together with the opposing side, and the play was performed live for 44 days. Nikol even sent his wife and child to take selfies on the set. The Armenian side kept lying “Haghteluyenk” while at the same time a mysterious corridor to Shushi was created. Arayik started communicating prophetic messages, reassuring that the war was almost at an end, and the grand finally was to be performed in Shushi. The bravery of Armenian soldiers and volunteers almost derailed the script, but as promised, on the national flag-day of Azerbaijan, Pashinyan announced that he, without any consultation, signed an agreement with Putin and Aliyev. It was “not a victory but also not a defeat.” The play is over, the deed is done. Armenia lost around 5000 soldiers, 1000 civilians, around US$5 billion worth of military equipment, causing over 70.000 displaced families, loss of irreplaceable cultural heritage, a humanitarian crisis, social and economic unrest, and psychological trauma. But the show must go on as the conflict is far from resolved.
Some might argue that “there was no other way; this was inevitable.” I would have to disagree. There were several options, some more desirable than others. Here is one outcomes table I put together in a few minutes (1 being the most desirable outcome and 10 the least desirable). Yes, it’s somewhat simplified, but it’ll illustrates the point.
Levon was accused of plotting option 7, Serzh was accused of plotting 5, and Nikol ended up with 10, only to be upgraded to 8 by the Russians. Are we really to believe that our leadership didn’t see this coming? I did, and you probably did as well. Then how can it be that they didn’t? If they truly didn’t anticipate this outcome, then we have to ask ourselves, is this the type of incompetence we want in the highest offices of Armenia?
Intellectual Yet Idiot
Intellectual Yet Idiot (IYI) is a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his essay by the same name that refers to the semi-intelligent well-pedigreed class of intellectuals like academics, journalists, and media pundits with an overwhelming influence on the vast majority. Taleb points out that being educated and “intellectual” does not always mean that someone isn’t an idiot for most purposes. “You can be an intellectual yet still be an idiot. ‘Educated philistines’ have been wrong on everything from Stalinism to Iraq to low-carb diets.” The Armenian diaspora certainly doesn’t lack these types of individuals. Not understanding the grave geopolitical reality, they have played a huge part in shaping the current political climate. To be frank, I’m getting really tired of reading feminist blogs and social media posts complaining about the toxic “militarization of Armenian culture,” and witnessing ideologically possessed Hollywood actors and rock-stars turned part-time political scientists and repatriated college-dropout columnists spreading populist fantasies: “If only we had a true democracy, Armenia would turn into Denmark.”
Then there was fake news – lots of it. Some of it professional, well-funded by foreign interests, and some amateur. But it spread like wildfire among the eternally suspicious Armenian community, prone to believing old wives’ tales and rumour over the sobering nuanced truth.
What are our options?
If we’re to return to the bullying analogy, just ask yourself, what anyone can do if they are being bullied? What options do they have? Well, let’s see. If you’re being bullied by someone larger than you, you more or-less have these 4 options:
- Try to reason with the bully (diplomacy),
- Call your brother or find friends (alliances),
- Learn self-defense, become stronger (military expansion),
- Go to the authorities like the principal, parents or the police (international law).
Let’s look at what these 4 options would entail for Armenian foreign policy.
Was option 1 ever possible? I think so, but the window of opportunity was closing rapidly as Azerbaijan and Turkey started to assert themselves more aggressively on the world stage; not to mention the fact that Nikol Pashinyan definitely shut all windows with his populist rhetoric. Perhaps there will be more opportunity for this option in the future.
Option 2 would have been a natural choice for Armenia, but somehow we’ve failed in this endeavor too. Apparently relationships require active upkeep. Who would have thought?
Option 3 is another great one, and perhaps the only option that guarantees a lasting autonomy. Azerbaijan being an oil rich country however, makes this task nearly impossible to achieve. There is absolutely no chance we would have won an arms race against Azerbaijan, especially considering their close relations to their ethnic kin, and major regional power, Turkey. We would have to have developed or acquired some weapons of mass destruction to tip the balance in our favor. Still not too late.
With the declining role of the US acting as world police, especially during the Trump administration, the Armenian options for appealing to authority have declined drastically. Especially when all the regional (and not so regional) “authority” has been well satisfied by Azerbaijani caviar diplomacy. Unfortunately it’s a matter of fact that our world is still run by a mafia style power structure. While Option 4 can only yield limited results, there is nevertheless, value in pursuing it.
Of course nothing in life is just black and white, we should work towards all 4 options (to some extent). However, it has become clear now that we failed on all fronts, because for now, the bully wins.
Understanding the gravity of our situation:
Before all else, we need to understand the true gravity of our current crisis. This is absolutely a life or death situation for our republic and the entire nation. This is nothing short of an existential struggle and requires emergency response.
Solving real world problems:
Perhaps one of the most important challenges Armenia is still facing is the population decline. I’m not an expert in population planning but if we’re waiting for a rise in living standards to increase population size, then we’re in for another rude awakening. It’s not the wealthiest countries that have the largest birth rates, it’s the poorest.
In addition to that, one of the key determinants of the economic growth rate are labor force growth and productivity growth. A declining population will also contribute to a slowdown in economic growth. Tackling this problem should therefore be one of our top priorities.
What did the Chinese do when faced with a population crisis (albeit in reverse)? They resorted to drastic measures, like a one child policy, and limit the number of births parents could have.
Has anyone in Armenia considered heavily restricting or banning abortion for (let’s say) 5 to 10 years? Apparently almost a quarter of Armenian pregnancies are being terminated with an induced-abortion and around 40 percent of Armenian women have had at least one abortion, according to UNFPA. Women’s rights campaigners say some of the women they work with have two or three abortions in one year alone.
Current statistics are hard to come by and can vary greatly, but it’s not a secret that abortion rates in Armenia are insane and exceed even those of modern European countries.
Perhaps this solution is too drastic, but my point is still valid; if we’re to survive the coming few decades, we need to resolve real world problems. That’s why we need to rally behind competent leaders who are problem solvers with the ability to produce results.
Setting our priorities straight:
We also need to set our priorities straight. You can’t have a free country without national security. There is no freedom if you’re too weak to defend your borders and guarantee the safety of your citizens. Populism doesn’t work when a country is in crisis. Competence should be demanded from our leadership before anything else. Yes, even before “democracy!” You can’t have a democracy if you don’t have a country. If the misinformed majority democratically makes the wrong decisions they could steer the entire country towards the abyss. I would rather be guided by a competent autocrat than an incompetent populist. And no, I’m not calling for a dictatorship; in fact, Armenia never had a dictatorship to begin with (despite popular belief). In any case, unless we get our priorities right, all the war on corruption and the spread of social justice won’t do much as the real problems remain unresolved.
While we’ve been playing “democracy,” our enemies have been bribing politicians and journalists, expanding their military capabilities and plotting “revenge”. Yet, lo and behold, none of the other “democracies” helped us end to the war.
Making ourselves useful:
Here is another example. You want allies? Make yourself useful! How do people compete on the labor markets? They make themselves more valuable to the employer than their competition. Increase your competence and demonstrate your worth and you will get the desired rewards.
The world is in constant competition and always has been. Those who stop competing, lose! Great powers, including our enemies have long been studying us. Laurence of Arabia, back in 1919 claimed: “Armenians are impossible”. He even argued for the complete elimination of the entire Armenian race, but not by the hands of the Turks; he argued US should complete this task. The imperialist powers have little use for Armenians because they cannot be exploited and therefore should be eliminated was his thesis. Armenians who are familiar with this account often express their anger at the British spy, but sometimes its wise to pay attention even to those with malicious intent.
In a world where everyone is competing, a small nation only survives if it’s capable of demonstrating value, not to its own detriment, of course. If Armenia doesn’t show its value it will be unable to create meaningful alliances. If we won’t send fighters to aid the Kurds when they are in trouble, why would they send help when we are in need? We should be asking ourselves these questions. But there is a fine line between being useful for mutual benefit and being used and discarded as is sometimes the case. It is, after all, a game of thrones.
Freedom or Peace?:
When peace becomes the main priority, you will start losing freedom. That’s just the reality. Of course we all want peace and freedom at the same time, but as usually is the case; you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Nothing is free in this world; you pay for peace with freedom, you pay for freedom with blood. Our history is a testament to this statement. The Persians offered Vartan Mamikonian peace in exchange for the loss of religious freedom. The Ottomans offered peace to everyone who converted to Islam, the Soviets offered peace to everyone who joined their union. If Armenians valued peace over freedom there would be no Armenians existing today. We have difficult choices to make as a nation, but if we give in to the demands of every “peace offeror” then there will be no end to their demands until there will be no Armenia left. We have to be willing to fight for freedom so peace might come as a result of it.
Sometimes we have to fight with the sword, sometimes with the pen. In the end, we are left with a simple question: Do we want to have a free Armenia? If our collective answer is “yes,” then we all have to work towards that goal. Armenians are survivalists, but we have to stop thinking that our survival is guaranteed. Independence brings a lot of responsibility; if we’re not willing to bear it, then we’re not going to have an independent state. We should look for competence in our leadership, especially in these strenuous times. But no one is perfect and just because we haven’t found our messiah doesn’t mean all is lost. We have to resolve the urgent challenges we’re facing, like the population crisis, with or without proper leadership. If we sacrifice comfort now, we don’t have to sacrifice lives later. We have to build our country, work towards peace, but prepare for round 3! Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. ✌️