By Aram Arkun
BOSTON – The National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), with the cosponsorship of the Northeastern University Armenian Students Association, presented a panel discussion on Karabagh on February 12 moderated by Professor Anna Ohanyan at Northeastern’s student center. Different personal perspectives of Armenian discussants with varying connections to the region made for an accessible and informative event. The sizable audience of approximately 110 included both a good number of students as well as older individuals from the Boston area Armenian community.
After a welcome from the vice president of the Northeastern student club, Ani Semerdjian, and master of ceremonies Marc Mamigonian, Director of Academic Affairs of NAASR, a video from Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun, was screened. Aoun declared that he had Armenian friends while growing up as a youth in Lebanon, and so learned all about the Armenian soccer teams there. He encouraged the students to simultaneously celebrate their Armenian roots and American identities, and said they were sending the world a message — that no matter where the students lived now, they continued to care about Armenians and Armenian issues.
Dr. Simon Payaslian, holder of the Charles K. and Elizabeth M. Kenosian Chair in Modern Armenian History and Literature at Boston University, provided a short historical overview of Nagorno-Karabagh or Artsakh from ancient times to the present, accompanied by PowerPoint slides.
Ohanyan concisely described the recent shift of the situation in Karabagh from what many observers called a frozen or low-intensity conflict to a more active one, with a greater number of frontline deaths last year and heavy military buildup. It has become a frontline for the new conflict between Russia and the West. For the rest of the program, she directed a series of questions on Karabagh to four panelists.
Ohanyan is Richard B. Finnegan Distinguished Professor of Political Science and International Relations and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Studies at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. She is the author of Networked Regionalism as Conflict Management (Stanford University Press, 2015) and NGOs, IGOs, and Network Mechanism of Post-Conflict Global Governance in Microfinance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), and is organizing a global security studies internship program which includes choices of placement in Armenia, Georgia and Serbia.
The panelists included Konstantin Grigoryan, Armine Mosiyan, Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte, and Olya Yordanyan. Each first presented his or her personal background. Grigoryan’s family, originally from Karabagh, settled in Baku until the events of the late 1980s forced them to flee. After brief stays in Armenia and Russia, they settled in Kentucky, where Grigoryan grew up. After studying engineering, he switched fields, and now is doing his residency in medical school. He remains in contact with relatives in Karabagh.
Armine Mosiyan, a native of Artsakh who went to Yerevan State University, has come to the US to study at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Turcotte was born in Baku in 1978, but her grandfather was from Khndzoresk village of Syunik province in present-day southeastern Armenia. He fled the Armenian Genocide to Baku where Azerbaijani violence against Armenians in 1918 forced him to flee to Turkmenistan, but eventually he ended up in Yerevan. However, the family moved back to Baku, now part of the Soviet Union, for work reasons. As hostility in Azerbaijan towards Armenians escalated, Turcotte and her family left Baku in the fall of 1989, just before the January 1990 attacks and killings of Armenians. After a period of time in Armenia, they received American refugee status and moved to North Dakota. In 2012, Turcotte published her memoirs, Nowhere: A Story of Exile, based on the diary she kept.
Yordanyan, raised in Yerevan, has no direct roots in Karabagh, but lived in Armenia during the war. She is a freelance journalist pursuing a master’s degree at Boston University who has undergraduate and master’s degrees in International Relations from Yerevan State University (as well as a bachelor’s degree in Musical Arts from the Komitas Yerevan State Conservatory). She holds a graduate certificate in Public Policy and Administration from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Ohanyan’s first question was how the lack of international recognition and the blockade of the Republic of Mountainous Karabagh (NKR) affects daily life. Mosiyan responded that NKR enjoys all the attributes of a country, and said that in daily life, “I don’t feel any kind of difference with other countries.” However, Azerbaijani threats to shoot down civilian planes do not allow the use of an airport, while diplomas from Artsakh State University are not recognized in places like the US. The blockade prevents many international investments, and loans from the World Bank or International Monetary Fund are not possible. Tourism is affected, and this impacts the economy.
Grigoryan said that there is a fear that war may break out again. The youth have to serve in the military, and even now shootings takes place, leading to sporadic deaths. He said, “It is a fear that we don’t experience here in the United States. … Having been there, it is also eerie, going through some of the regions where you see empty villages. …You are always reminded of the atrocities that had happened. The city of Shushi, yes, is being rebuilt, but there are parts of it where you go and you are reminded of the war. There is always the unease that people have.”
Turcotte pointed out that there is stable economic growth, and said that this “is unusual for a country that is not considered to be a country, that is blockaded and whose only trade is with Armenia.” She said the people of Karabagh want good government, peace, and construction. The roads are better than in Armenia, thanks to foreign investment, and despite areas reminding visitors of the war, the capital of Stepanakert is beautiful and Shushi, an artistic center, is progressing. Mining, food processing, telecommunications, construction and tourism produce income, but educational opportunities and health care are limited.
She declared that the borders are constantly being attacked, and demining is necessary. The US is the only country in the world that sends aid officially, and that is only two million dollars for demining, which is insufficient. There is no UN presence because of the conflict.
She concluded, “All the things that we hold dear here, they hold dear there. They don’t care that they are not recognized. …They are still living [there] and their kids are going to school. We need to support them.”
Yordanyan said, “There is a psychological element of permanent pressure and fear that there might be a war, but it has been 25 years so when it happens every day you get used to it even if it is extreme. … People living there are really, really strong. They are like the Scots of Armenia.” She found that many of the problems of daily life were the same as those facing Armenians living in the Republic of Armenia. Maintaining a self-sustainable economic is a great collective challenge, but, she said, there are many positive achievements in Artsakh, such as low unemployment at around two to three percent and real competition in the parliamentary elections. Yordanyan thought that “the people of Artsakh should concentrate on building civil society…which will make the Republic of Artsakh a stronger country. This is the only resource Karabagh can rely on.” Another opportunity is to increase energy production to begin exporting to Armenia.
Ohanyan’s second question concerned the recent increased intensity and breadth of violence on the 160-mile line of contact despite a formal ceasefire. How does the rapidly shifting geopolitical environment of the south Caucasus affect the peace process?
Mosiyan said that Azerbaijan has to choose between Turkey and Russia because of recent conflicts, and if Russian-Turkish relations turn sour, as part of the relations of Russia with the West, they affect the Karabagh issue too. Meanwhile, Iran is reemerging in the region after its nuclear deal. Finally, the economic collapse in Azerbaijan due to falling oil prices increases domestic dissatisfaction with the government, so President Ilham Aliyev may turn to Karabagh as his trump card.
Grigoryan said that Armenians have always been the pawn of the powers in the region, and lately Armenia has been aligning more with Russia. For him, the most likely scenario is the indefinite continuation of the status quo. Iran does not want a strong Azerbaijan since it has a large domestic Azerbaijani population, while Turkey generally aligns with Azerbaijan and is at odds with Iran. Aliyev cannot sign a ceasefire since he would lose face domestically. For Grigoryan, however, the Azerbaijani celebration of Ramil Safarov as a national hero after his brutal murder of an Armenian in 2004 in Budapest was a disturbing aspect of the situation.
Turcotte said that up to several months ago she would have said that Armenia would have successfully continued its balancing act between the various powers in the region, but now, with the fall of the Azerbaijani currency along with oil prices, ordinary citizens are committing suicide because of their debt. Azerbaijani criticism of the Aliyev regime has increased, which may lead Aliyev to irrational actions. He already has begun the use of tanks at the borders. In sum, she said, she no longer knows what may happen next.
Yordanyan said that changes for the worse in Russian-Western relations will affect the Karabagh negotiation process negatively and slow it down. The Middle Eastern situation is important. As the US wants to cooperate with Iran to achieve a solution to the Syrian conflict, an increased role of Iran in the region may also help Armenia directly, and indirectly in the negotiation process. On the other hand, a rise in Islamic fundamentalism in the region may spread to Azerbaijan and pose a threat in the future to Armenia.
Ohanyan’s third set of questions included what NKR might gain through a demilitarization of the line of contact with Azerbaijan and how important international recognition is for the people of NKR.
Yordanyan responded, saying “I do not think that the demilitarization of contact line borders is possible considering the extent of anti-Armenian hatred now in Azerbaijan.” International recognition is important as the final step or end. Without it, Karabagh does not exist, and it will provide many more opportunities. However, a lot of other steps are necessary before this, she said.
Finally, Ohanyan asked what is the significance of NKR for Armenians outside Armenia who grew up with the legacy of the Armenian Genocide.
Turcotte said that she just received a question after an event in Boston which led her to write an article afterwards. An Armenian community leader asked why can we not empty Karabagh of its Armenian population and give it to Azerbaijan in order to end this conflict. She said that this cynicism is shocking. “For the first time in our history, we have won back land…yet millions of Armenians do not know about Karabagh. They don’t support its fight for independence. That is why these kinds of events are important.” Turcotte said it is important to send the message to Azerbaijan that while Armenia may not have oil, it has its diaspora.
Grigoryan said, “I haven’t been part of the greater Armenian diaspora. I grew up in Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio, where there were not many Armenians around, but I always felt connected with Artsakh growing up…it should be important for the whole Armenian diaspora. We are all Armenians and should be united as much as we can.” He added that with Armenians from Syria settling in Karabagh, that may create further bonds with diaspora Armenians.
Yordanyan eagerly said, “I was waiting for this moment. This is the best part, where a lot can be done.” She said there is a lot of potential for developing information technologies in Karabagh which would overcome its isolation, and diasporan Armenians can be of great help. Furthermore, a lot of people in NKR are self-employed, so comparatively small sums of money can allow their projects to continue. Finally, she said, diasporan Armenians need to discover Karabagh for themselves in a new way, such as through summer internships. Yordanyan said, “You do not need formal recognition — just the will and a project.”
Mosiyan said “I myself feel that Karabagh plays a huge part in diasporan life. When someone asks where you are from and I say Armenia, and when someone is Armenian and I say Artsakh, I can feel the warmth. … We can see the diaspora caring about Karabagh when we look at the roads. It is not only financial support — it is caring about the state.” Diasporan Armenians come to live in the villages with families for several days to get to know them better.
At the conclusion of the program, audience questions were fielded by the panelists.