Independence at What Price?


By Edmond Azadian

It is a delightful autumn night in Yerevan. Streets are bustling with people. Families are strolling along boulevards and the city lights create an idyllic atmosphere. The illuminated city floats like a love boat in the ocean of the balmy night. My friends from Poland admire the kindness of the people around. They observe the authentic Armenian character of the buildings around and even in the modern stores. One particular liquor store sparks their interest — the Noah’s Ark House on Amirian Street. As we enter, the haul of Noah’s Ark, the host greets the visitor. Spirits distilled in Armenia and around the world line up in elegant bottles. Perhaps Noah himself never visualized that his ark would float over such a vast sea of light and opulence.

The illuminations at Republic Square, at the Opera House and the Cascade reminds us of the Renaissance Italian city of Vicenza, with the modern descendant of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio, Alexander Tamanyan’s monument commanding the city from the foot of the Cascade.

However, I am reluctant to point to my foreign friends the discrepancy between the capital and the rural areas 20 miles outside the city, where people live in medieval conditions. I allow them the illusion of a prosperous and happy country as I myself also delve into that illusion for a moment until I remember the 22nd anniversary of independence which is around the corner. And I begin to ask myself, how long will this illusion last with the current rate of demographic hemorrhage? The question gnaws away at my heart as I begin to think of the dangers facing Armenia.

After six centuries of foreign domination, independence came to Armenia in 1918. That did not last long as Armenia was absorbed in 1920 into the Soviet Empire with semi-independent status. When Armenia became independent in the 20th century for a second time, the two-and-a-half year experience of earlier independence became a psychological barrier which we crossed unscathed and now the 22nd year of independence sounds very natural.

In both cases, independence was thrust upon the Armenian people. Our patriotism behooves us to believe and profess that we indeed fought for our independence and that victory at Sardarabad against the General Karabekir’s forces gave us the foundations of nation-building. But, in reality, the collapse of the Czarist Empire created a political vacuum in the Caucasus region, which led to the formation of a confederation called Sayme by Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, which did not last very long and each constituent group was forced to declare its independence as all three nationalities had internal conflicts and territorial claims from each other. Armenia was the last one to declare independence on May 28, 1918, yet the newly-created state apparatus, called the National Council (Azkayin Khorhourt) continued functioning in Tbilisi, until the Georgians politely invited Armenia’s political structure out of their country.

After two-and-a-half years of independence, Armenia lost its sovereignty under pressure from outside forces and as a result of internal fights. We have a tendency of blaming others for our tragedies and never take responsibility for them.

Next door, meanwhile, Mustafa Kemal carved a new republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, by courting Lenin in the East and the European powers in the West. While pursuing these political aims, he continued the expulsion policy of the Young Turks and depopulated Cilicia of Armenians and Smyrna of Greeks.

Our counterpart to Ataturk would have been General Antranik, an uneducated soldier who happened to be a military genius and political realist, but Armenians betrayed him as he lacked the dictatorial instincts of Ataturk which were essential attributes for nation building at that time. There is a legend, whose veracity we cannot vouch. It is said that Ataturk was fond of Armenian songs dedicated to Antranik and that he would ask historian and linguist Hagop Mortayan (named Dilacar by him) who is one of the architects of the modern Turkish language and alphabet, to sing the Antranik songs and he would say, “Today Antranik would be in my position had he been the winner.”

As the second wave of independence arrived in 1991, our patriotism would not allow us to admit that the opportunity arose because of the tectonic shifts in the world geopolitical structure which once again thrust independence upon Armenia.

The most ardent patriots among us believe that it was the Karabagh movement at the southern borders of the Soviet Union that generated the political tsunami effect which brought down the Berlin wall and the Soviet Empire.

Either way, we seized the opportunity and the spirit of Vartanants was rekindled once again, helping us to liberate Karabagh from Azeri rule. Today, we are still at a stalemate.

This is not the first time that Armenians will demonstrate their resentment at being ruled by other Armenians. And that dangerous trend may lead us again to the loss of our independence if political prudence does not supersede.

You may blame the three presidential administrations of the current republic with many misdeeds, but one focal idea is clear — they were able to maintain and strengthen our independence. As inexperienced as Levon Ter-Petrosian’s administration was, it steered Armenia to state building and secured the Karabagh victory. As corrupt as the Kocharian administration was, it was equally skilled at preserving the territorial integrity of the country and consolidating its sovereignty.

The same can be said for the Serge Sargisian administration, which is rightfully blamed for the exponential rise of the oligarchs.

President Sargisian’s recent U-turn to join the Moscow-led Customs Union was derived from the same political instinct of survival and maintenance of independence.

Siding with Europe would have placed Armenia under the same Russian blackmail that was recently directed at Ukraine and Moldova. And Armenia, being more fragile, would have meant it would have suffered more.

Another aspect which is overlooked in this deal is that Europe would not touch the resolution of the Karabagh stalemate with a 10-foot pole as a disputed territory, whereas the agreement in the Customs Union will indirectly cover Karabagh. In fact, any international deal which includes Karabagh, down the road will facilitate its annexation to Armenia.

As Armenia prepares to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of independence, decorating the capital and flaunting its state-of-the-art weaponry to scare Azerbaijan, the question still looms: how independent is Armenia with its economy under Russian control and its territory used as a military base for Moscow, making the country suspect for the West and Turkey?

Countries no longer exist in isolation. The world has become a global village and the independence of individual nations is measured through factors controlling international relations.

A case in point may be India with a population of one billion. Since the 1960s, India was part of a coalition of non-aligned countries bound through the Bandung Pact, developed jointly by President Sukarno of Indonesia, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India and President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Long after Nasser and Sukarno were gone, India pursued its non-aligned policy, which initially supported the Palestinian plight against Israeli occupation. With arm-twisting from Washington, India opened up to Israel and its diamond industry developed rapidly, the US software companies set up shop in India and the economic boom began. Had India continued its traditional policy, it would have been guided by justice and sound moral principles, but nations have self-interests, morality not withstanding.

On the eve of Armenia’s independence day there are more questions that loom in the air. The main painful source of concern is its depopulation. It is reported that Armenia’s unemployment rate has fallen this year to 16 percent down from the mid 30s and that is believed to be a healthy sign of economic recovery. However, much more likely, the dip in the unemployment rate is partially caused by the outflow of skilled workers, rather than the creation of jobs through investments in the economy.

One business booming is the gaming industry. And that may be very symbolic: Is Armenia gambling with its future? Perhaps.

The question still remains: What is the price of independence?