By Raffi Elliot
There is still no universal consensus on how to define the series of military actions between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces during the first week of April. Is it an escalation of a dormant hetero conflict? A spike in hostilities? Or a second Karabagh War? One thing that we can agree on is the different impact this event has had on Armenian civil society and policy makers as a whole. The entire Armenian nation spread across continents focused its attention on Karabagh for a week; sharing and swallowing any bit of information, speculating about strategies, causes, casualty figures, and scrambling to help the families of the victims.
Citizens organized donation drives, and relief efforts in an impressive display of spontaneous civil society mobilization, while thousands volunteered for service, to the point of overwhelming recruiters with applications. With the support of their compatriots around the world, the defenders of the beleaguered Nagorno-Karabagh Republic were once more able to repulse their enemy.
Hundreds of deaths, and millions of dollars in damage later, the front is now stable, pretty much where it was at the beginning of the month. These four days of war have made me consider four observations about Armenian society which should address:
1- Solidarity with the military doesn’t mean approval of the State
Widespread concern amongst Armenians was that as the promised economic success, and national pride that Independence would bring us didn’t materialize as many expected, the possibility of renewed conflict would be met with apathy, or even cynicism, rather than the enthusiasm which characterized the 1988 Karabagh Movement. However, as the commentator, Nareg Seferian pointed out, the grassroots mobilisation of relief efforts by civilians, as well as volunteers for the military, and vocal support for the defense of Armenia by even the most ardent critics of the current authorities has helped dispel such fears.
One important observation here is that Armenian civil society has managed to distinguish between a patriotic call to defend their homeland and blind obedience to the State. All political parties pledged their support to the Armenian Army during the conflict, only to resume (with the exception of former President Ter-Petrosian) their demand for accountability from the authorities when hostilities ceased.
This distinction was also seen amongst youth activists who, fresh from their successful resistance to government overreach during last summer’s #electricyerevan movement, refocused their efforts to supporting Armenian servicemen on the front line during the heaviest fighting. These events did not, however, distract them from their goal of achieving government transparency, an objective made ever more relevant by the plight of their kinsmen in Karabagh. It’s good to see that the Armenian national discussion has managed to move past primitive “rally around the flag” narratives, in a telltale sign of maturing democratic consensus.
The fact that Armenia made headlines for being the second country after Iceland to force the resignation of an official in the wake of the Panama Leaks is even more significant on the backdrop of speculation that President Aliyev may have ordered the start of hostilities to distract from revelations of corruption in his family.
2- Armenia belongs to all those who risked their existence for it
“Free Artsakh welcomes you”
Armenians were abruptly introduced to the nation-building role played by the country’s minorities, when photos showing Azeri soldiers holding the decapitated head of Armenian serviceman, Karam Sloyan surfaced on social networking sites. Sloyan was a member of Armenia’s largest minority group, the Yazidi community. He wasn’t the first ethnic Yazidi to fall in the line of duty either. Sidar Aloyan, another ethnic Yazidi serviceman, was killed while defending his post in a similar Azerbaijani attack in December.
Despite being frequently dismissed, or mostly ignored by Armenian society as a whole, Yazidis have been involved in some of the most defining moments of Armenian history. As the descendants of people condemned as heretics and expelled to the eastern shore of the Arax river along with refugees fleeing the Armenian Genocide, Yazidis volunteered in large numbers to fight, and in many cases, died, as Fedayeen alongside their ethnic Armenian compatriots in the battlefields of Karabagh.
The various minority groups who call Armenia home: Yazidi Kurds, Pontic Greeks, Molokan Russians, and Assyrians all share a common trait with the country’s titular ethnic group: they are the descendants of people once considered undesirable and expelled from their homes. Caucasus observer, Maxim Edwards, noted, “a common understanding is that the modern Republic of Armenia is somehow the homeland for all peoples — Assyrians, Greeks, and Yezidis — who perished alongside Armenians in and after 1915.”
Armenia’s new constitution guarantees five seats in the National Assembly for ethnic minorities, meaning that as of 2017, Armenia will be the only country in the world with dedicated seats for Yazidis, amongst others. In another sign of deepening solidarity, Armenian officials also recently unveiled a Yazidi Genocide memorial in Yerevan.
The recent round of fighting has also highlighted the differing views on the role of women in armed conflict.
— Rzu (@RzuZalkha) April 5, 2016
Azeri media profusely ridiculed the fact that many Armenian women have volunteered to carry arms in defense of their homeland, as they seem to believe that a woman’s place is at home while their presence on the battlefield should be seen as emasculating Armenian soldiers.
One Azeri website with government links, apparently confusing renowned television personality Nazeli Hovhannissyan for an “Armenian female sniper” in an interview with an Italian television station, used the footage as ‘proof’ that Armenian men were cowardly allowing their women to fight for them.
Images of women in uniform, by contrast, were well received by Armenian audiences and should be encouraged as a reminder of the equal role that citizens of all genders play in the defense of their homes. This notable difference should also translate into a more integral role played in other spheres of Armenian society.
3- Corruption is now a national security issue
cop vs. border defender
Corruption allegations are not new in Armenia. Such accusations have been made by members of the business community, civic activists, international organisations, and disgruntled former presidents alike. Though Armenia has made some progress in fighting graft, international watchdogs argue that there is little political will to do more than the bare minimum.
The recent escalation of the conflict has thrust this burning issue back into the spotlight with a vengeance. As many concerned Armenians generously donated to various charities helping communities affected by the fighting, or the families of fallen servicemen, many were surprised to see the official social media pages of the Armenian Government posting bank account information.
Requests were made for direct donations for necessities, such as warm clothing, care for wounded soldiers, and other medical equipment, despite decades of direct financial support by Diaspora organizations, and a generous defense budget. Many have questioned the military’s ability to care for its wounded in the event of a full-scale war if emergency funds were necessary for the care of 101 injured in a four day, low-level conflict.
Commentators have uncovered cases of large-scale graft, and clientelism, where notorious oligarchs were granted various service contracts to the military.
The notion that the Armenian Government is too cash-strapped to provide those who defend this country with the right means to do so on a $3 Billion yearly budget has struck a particular nerve amongst taxpayers. New investigative reports unveiled lavish spending schemes at taxpayer expense, such as the $45-million Central Bank Research Centre in Dilijan, or the $25-million training center for Revenue Service officials. This facility, in particular, included swimming pools, whirlpool bathtubs, gyms, saunas, bars, restaurants, tennis courts and a cinema hall equipped with expensive projection and sound systems. The cutlery alone reportedly cost $85 000.
A particularly damning report by Civil.net stated that if some of the nation’s most notorious oligarchs paid the roughly $90 million in back taxes they owe for this year, the Armenian military would have been able to purchase most of the high-tech weaponry that Azerbaijan has been using as market rates. (rather than the reduced CSTO rate that Armenia supposedly enjoys).
If corruption and opaque budgetary decisions had a negative effect on socio-economic development before, the recent four-day-long escalation of the conflict has shown that it now an existential threat.
Armenian civil society should now see the need for a democratic forum to address government spending discrepancies and transparency in the allocation of government contracts both in the country and abroad as an absolute priority.
4- Need to define our values
One common trope characterizing the Armenian narrative on the Karabagh conflict is the massive use of civilizational undertones. Armenians like to remind everyone that we fight against a vicious opponent with one of the world’s most appalling human rights records, where journalists are often persecuted, which oppresses minorities, and corruption is rampant. Our neighbor to the West, Turkey, has also shown signs of regressing into authoritarian rule, with little room for tolerance of minorities, and political descent.
Though this may be true, our country fares better only in comparison. A quarter-century after regaining independence from the Soviet Union, Armenia has made some modest improvements, but corruption-related issues, an incomplete democratic transition, and a lack of transparency in government affairs continue to hamper long-term economic growth, and consequently, the country’s ability to defend itself.
Armenia’s precarious geographic location, in a region dominated by autocratic states, make the need for defining our national values that much more critical. If our opponents are corrupt, dictatorial regimes, which stifle human rights, and individual liberty, then we need to ensure that we stand for the exact opposite. Armenia was once praised as one of the most promising democratizing states in the FSU. Unfortunately, this premature accolade has had the effect of lowering the bar of expectation, with Armenian officials feeling content that Armenia’s situation was “better in comparison with Azerbaijan”. As a result, democratic reform, anti-corruption efforts, and other progress stalled across the board, with Armenia showing little change in these fields over the last decade.
Democratic reform and further market liberalization are as pertinent as ever now, as they can directly affect national security. Over the last 20 years, the poor economic performance primarily due to sluggish reforms has forced Armenian officials to rely increasingly on the presence of certain regional powers as an immediate security guarantee. Given the fact that free markets and democracy are essentially mathematically proven to affect positively living standards, one has to wonder why more efforts are not made to achieve these aims.
Some have argued that a lasting resolution to the Karabagh conflict will only come to fruition with the establishment of a real democratic change in both Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Regardless of the endgame, this recent bout of fighting on the front line will have a lasting impact on Armenia’s democratic process. Hopefully, the ability to disassociate patriotism from blind devotion to the state, the acknowledgement of contributions by others in the country’s nation-building and subsequent inclusion into decision making, and the urgent need to distinguish ourselves from our opponents will help fuel a new drive to tackle the issues which still plague this land. Armenia’s future depends on it.
(Canadian-born Raffi Elliot an honors degree in political science from the University of Ottawa, and a professional background in marketing and management. He is currently based in Yerevan. He is a regular contributor to the Armenian Mirror-Spectator and Abaka.)