Crimean Crisis Creates Political Maze for Armenians

By Edmond Y. Azadian

The facts are already well known about the crisis in Crimea, whose population just voted in a referendum with 96.6 percent approval to join the Russian Federation.

For world leaders, the situation is rather simple, political facts being perceived in black and white. For the West — and especially the US — it was a violation of international law. For Moscow and for the Russian residents of Crimea, it was a legitimate expression of people’s right to self-determination.

But for the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian residents of the former Soviet territories, a political maze of sympathies and interests is being engendered by these new developments.

Armenians have been living in Ukraine since the Middle Ages and their ranks have been replenished with recent emigration from the homeland. Many oligarchs and business leaders have emerged in the Ukrainian-Armenian community, generously supporting many projects in Armenia.

By necessity, Ukrainian-Armenians will support the new government in Kiev, while the Union of Armenians in Russia has come up with a declaration sympathizing with Moscow’s strong-arm tactics in Ukraine and Crimea.

Russian Armenians have been equally supportive of the Armenian Republic in larger measures than is even known in the diaspora.

The government in Armenia has been treading more cautiously about the developments in the region. Although a strategic partner to Moscow, Yerevan has been reluctant to refuse recognizing the new government in Kiev and has not yet rushed to embrace the result of the vote in Crimea.

Armenians have been living in Crimea since the eighth century AD and have enjoyed a prosperous cultural life in the peninsula, which has suffered two major wars between tsarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire.

There were almost half a million Tatars in Crimea, left over from the Mongol invasions of Genghis Khan who were later decimated when in 1941 Stalin deported 200,000 of them to Central Asia, accusing them of collaborating with the Nazis. That move changed the ethnic balance in Crimea, whose 2-million population is 53 percent Russian. The Tatars now constitute only 12 percent of the population, although the new constitution allows them 20-percent participation in government institutions.

By contrast, Armenians in Crimea constitute only .5 percent of the total population, but traditionally, they have been a vocal minority. The Crimean Armenian community National Council adopted a resolution calling on Armenians to participate in the referendum and voting in favor of the peninsula joining Russia. The Council’s chairman, Vagharshak Melkonian, indicated that the new Crimean constitution will guarantee the Crimean Tatars 20 percent quota in the governing bodies of the peninsula and has continued to state that, “We Armenians, Bulgarians, Greeks and Germans have united under one association and we demand that they be guided by the same principles also with respect to us, if the said principle is applied for the Crimean Tatars.”

As we can see, the Crimean crisis reflects in a different and sometimes contradictory way on Armenians, who are scattered in different parts of the former Soviet Union. This is a microcosm of the nature of the Armenian people, who because of a variety of assaults as well as a full-scale genocide, have become scattered across the world.

The major question for us remains how this referendum will impact on the destiny of the people of Karabagh.

Like the other unrecognized republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Foreign Ministry of Karabagh has released a communiqué which “considers the referendum held on March 16 in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea as yet another manifestation of the realization of the right of people to self-determination … as it is enshrined in the UN Charter and a number of fundamental international documents, is a key principle of international law.”

Since the inviolability of the borders in the former Soviet bloc was broken in Kosovo and — with a counter measure — continues today in Crimea, political observers are waiting to see what actions Moscow may resort to next in Trans-Dniester and Karabagh.

At this point, the destiny of Karabagh hinges on two main factors:

• Thus far, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) co-chairmanship has been consistent in maintaining the principle of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity versus Karabagh people’s right to self-determination, making a solution impossible. Therefore, if the Crimean crisis undermines the consensus within OSCE, Moscow may resort to unilateral action.

• Crimean Tatars have received assurances from Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu that their rights will be guaranteed. The Tatars have vocally opposed to Crimea joining Russia. They have also appealed to Ilham Aliyev for support. Should Azerbaijan engage in any policy contravening Moscow’s interests in the peninsula, Putin may use his options in Karabagh.

Thus far, the political upheaval has not extended its ramifications to the peripheral issues which affect Armenia and Karabagh; however, it has already created a political maze which can move in any unpredictable direction.