Armenia Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place


EditorialCartoonBy Edmond Y. Azadian

Armenia’s current domestic crisis could not have come at a worse time, when the country is still licking its wounds after the four-day war in early April.

Azerbaijan has been emboldened by its success during the latest flare-up, which was condoned by Russia and encouraged by Turkey.

Meanwhile, Turkey is more and more acting like a superpower rather than a regional one, flexing its political and military muscles way beyond the Middle East, over the Balkans and Central Asia. It has already established military bases in Qatar, Somalia, Georgia and most recently, in Azerbaijan, near Sumgait, despite official denials. This is where President Ilham Aliyev’s intransigence stems from at the negotiation table.

Many plans to resolve the Karabagh conflict have been promoted but then have crumbled. One thing is clear: time is not on Armenia’s side. That is why pressure is building on Yerevan from the international community to compromise at the cost of impossible concessions.

At this point, the Kazan plan has been revived, whose terms postpone the referendum on Karabagh’s status to the last stage, while requiring territorial concessions first.

After the April attack, a trial balloon was floated that Armenia was ready to withdraw its forces from the five extra territories in Azerbaijan it had taken as insurance, in exchange for some vague promises, while suggesting that the Azeri population could return to those lands.

That scenario alarmed the Armenian public and maybe became the straw that broke the camel’s back and led to a revolt.

That revolt was in the offing even without pressure from external powers. The successive administrations of Presidents Robert Kocharian and Serzh Sargsyan have failed to improve the economy, reverse the course of emigration, keep the hands of the oligarchs off every enterprise that is founded and so much of the money entering the country, and create rule of law. Almost all elections have been won through coercion and corruption, allowing the affluent superclass to remain obscenely opulent while the standard of living for the general public declines.

Scandal after scandal was covered up. The authorities have delighted in their shortsighted success in breaking up the political opposition without realizing that after shutting down an organized opposition, they force the creation of an underground radical one.

The people have been pushed against the wall, where reactions may not always become rational ones. It is a miracle that it has taken this long for such a reaction.

Zhirair Sefilian, Varoujan Avedissian and the other members of the group who had won hero status during the Karabagh war became activists and they formed their own political party, the Founding Parliament, with the radical ideology of overthrowing the government and restoring democracy. The ideology is derived from the concept that war heroes are entitled to dictate their will to the government or better yet, they deserve to replace the elected government.

And this ambition is always fueled by the hero worship of the public.

But history has demonstrated time and again that revolutionary heroes become the most atrocious rulers. Take, for example, the leaders of the French, Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Zimbabwean, and Cambodian revolutions. The list goes on and on.

Only Nelson Mandela served as an exception in South Africa. Of course, his successor, Jacob Zuma, and the ruling ANC, are mired in corruption.

Incidentally, all revolutionaries and their admirers need to read a book by our celebrated satirist, Yervant Odian, The Parasites of the Revolution, to gauge the measure of revolutionaries’ political acumen.

At the present time, Armenia is in the middle of a serious crisis. An armed militant group called Sasna Tsrer, which is an offshoot of the Founding Parliament has taken over a police station at Erebouni. One officer has been killed and four have been wounded. The militants, 31 in number, have released their four remaining hostages and they are now holed up in the police station, with a huge arsenal of arms and ammunition.

Their demands vary on a daily basis. Initially they demanded the release of Sefilian and other political prisoners and the resignation of President Sargsyan.

Last Monday was the ninth day of the standoff, which did not give any indication of resolution anytime soon.

People have been gathering around the police station to air their grievances. One thing is obvious: there is no love lost toward the authorities. The level of hatred and the rhetoric, mired in base foul language, is remarkable.

Clearly there is a certain level of freedom of expression in Armenia, where the authorities are insulted so openly and defied so publically. That, however, is just a novelty. Instead of hurling insults, a true platform of demands is needed which will help the country move forward, and not just one or two people.

People are also fed up with the political parties, which try to take advantage of the current political climate. The mob is moving rudderless. An atmosphere of anarchy is reigning. People are calling for the overthrow of the government and giving rule back to the people. The demand is clearly one that cannot take place. How can a mob take over the governance of a country? If, God forbid, these ruffians take over and overthrow the authorities, God save Armenia.

Armenians have a victim’s mentality concerning all the calamities that have befallen them. The Seljuks are blamed for overrunning the Kingdom of Ani in the 11th century; the Mamluks are blamed for destroying the Cilician Kingdom in 1375; the Bolsheviks are blamed for the loss of our First Republic, never mind that we had staged a bloodbath before that, and so on.

We never factor in our own self-destructive instincts and lack of respect for the rule of law and authority. That self-destructive instinct is alive and well today. The Turks and Azeris are determined to wipe out Armenia. Our internal crisis can only help their intentions.

In any civilized country, the government would not tolerate an armed insurrection this long. They would have found ways to overcome the situation. In Armenia’s case, that would have led to more bloodshed. The government has precedents in mind. The October massacre in the parliament in 1999 and the 10 lives lost before Sargsyan took power in March 2008 have remained political liabilities for the ruling elite.

Further bloodshed would only add to that list of liabilities.

That is why the government is moving cautiously. The president has given a stern warning that the crisis must be solved lawfully. The militants are equally adamant in their demand.

Mediators abound, with most of them seeking political mileage for their political careers: Vartan Oskanian, founder of a new political party; Nikol Pashinian, who quit Levon Ter-Petrosian’s HAK to head his new party; Vitali Balassanian, one-time presidential contender in Karabagh, and a war hero. Yet the stalemate continues.

President Sargsyan is ready to meet the jailed opposition leader Sefilian, if the armed members of his organization occupying a police station in Yerevan lay down their arms, a negotiator said on Sunday.

In a written statement, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, who is not very fond of Sargsyan, said that Sefilian of the Founding Parliament movement, is capable of making “sensible decisions” despite his views being seen as “extremist” by some Armenians. He argued that the serious hostage crisis is only aggravating Armenia’s grave national security challenge rising from the recent escalation of the Nagorno Karabagh conflict.

Karabagh’s security “overshadows all other issues preoccupying the Armenian people,” Ter-Petrosian concluded on Friday.

If the voice of reason prevails, bloodshed may be avoided, but Armenia will emerge weaker from its self-inflicted wound. Although one of the goals of the insurrection was to prevent territorial concessions, ironically that may exacerbate the situation if a weakened Sargsyan has to sit down at the negotiation table.

This is a lose-lose proposition because Armenia is between a rock and a hard place.