Editorial, 27 August 2016
Hamlet is the favorite Shakespearean male character of Eastern Armenians. So much so that many parents have in the past century named their sons Hamlet. The mood of many Armenians these days reflects the above troubled thoughts of the Danish prince Armenians ‘adopted’ in the 19th century.
The graphic cliché “between a rock and a hard place” is inadequate to illustrate the dilemma the Armenian nation finds itself as the malodorous summer of 2016 winds down. A new metaphor is required to illustrate the current Armenian quandary. We are caught not between a rock and a hard place but between a slew of razor-edged rock shrapnel and half-a-dozen hard places.
It’s pointless to enumerate the wrongheaded, incompetent, and corrupt policies and practices—external and internal–of the Republic of Armenia, which have helped push us to this dismal corner. The urgent question is what to do to end Armenia’s sudden isolation, boost its economy, and be combat ready to crush the Azeri forces if Baku launches another war.
Putting aside the extensively covered internal tensions of Armenia, what are the sharp shrapnels and the hard places which have put us in this untenable spot?
—We have an ally which sells arms to our enemy and blithely justifies the unprecedented treacherous act by “explaining” that if it didn’t, another country would. Nothing personal, you see; it’s just business. Words which would make a Mafia godfather proud. In recent weeks Moscow and Yerevan have announced that Kremlin has begun to deliver to Armenia the same sophisticated weapons it sold to Baku. The Kremlin might be selling the same weapons, but in what quantities? How much can our $200 million buy, compared to the 4 billion petrodollars Baku has spent to acquire mostly Russian weapons?
—Our hostile allies (the oxymoron of the month). Kazakhstan and Belarus, our Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) allies, are plainly hostile to us. They accepted Armenia into the club only because of Putin’s arm twisting. Belarus has sold arms to Baku while Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, wastes no opportunity to scorn Armenia’s president. A few weeks ago he was the fixer who brought Putin and Erdogan together.
—Iran, a friend of Armenia, has become chummy with Azerbaijan and Turkey. On August 9, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Russia signed a tripartite agreement for a North-South railway which would by-pass Armenia, further isolating Armenia. The economic integration project could encourage Iran to use Azerbaijan as corridor for its exports to Europe. The strategic reconfiguration/new alliances will intensify Armenia’s isolation.
—After some flirtation, Putin and Erdogan have begun to bromance. Putin would like Turkey in his Eurasian economic club. If Turkey joins, Azerbaijan could follow. While on paper Armenia has the right to stop such a development, in reality Yerevan will not object if Putin wants the Turkbeijan pair in the Eurasian club. Turkbeijan membership in the club would further diminish Armenia’s importance to Russia as a strategic ally.
—The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group has become more insistent that Armenia hand over the buffer regions around Karabagh to Azerbaijan with the tacit understanding that eventually Karabagh would be ceded to Azerbaijan.
—After 25 years of negotiations about Karabagh’s future Armenia has run out of time. Aliyev has also run out of time. After years of promising his people that he would take Karabagh, Aliyev finds himself in a “put up or shut up” position. Trapped by his rhetoric, Aliyev has to attack Karabagh/Armenia unless through negotiations he gets the lands he has promised his people. The situation is similar to what Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser disastrously faced in 1967. After promising for more than a decade that his armies would conquer Israel, Nasser reluctantly got entangled in the disastrous Six-Day War.
Because of the above pressures, Sargsyan and Bako Sahakian (president of Karabagh) have softened their stand re negotiations. Both are now prepared to give some of the buffer zone to Baku. Would Baku be agreeable to less than half the cake?
—Pressure on Sargsyan from the Armenians in Armenia and in the Diaspora. Although divided re how much of the buffer zone to give to Azerbaijan, Armenians are steadfast that Karabagh remain Armenian and be robustly protected from Azeri adventurism. This means holding on to some of the buffer areas.
—Putin and Sargsyan know Russia is the only game in town for Armenia. Yerevan can’t emulate the Ankara game of playing off Russia against the U.S. Armenia also needs the Russian shield against Turkbeijan; Russia is the biggest market for Armenian exports; Russia owns the largest chunk of Armenia’s infrastructure; millions of Armenians—many send remittances to Armenia—live in Russia. Thus a few years ago Putin half-jokingly said that he ruled over more Armenians than Sargsyan. The best argument Sargsyan has against a Russian diktat to cede land to Baku is that if Sargsyan gives away too much, his days as president would be numbered… and the new president may well be anti-Russian, and Armenia could sink into chaos.
—Armenians who insist that not an inch of the buffer zone be given to Azerbaijan are courting existential peril for Armenia. Do these rejectionists know something about Armenian military might that the rest of Armenians don’t? Do they have an accurate picture of the military balance of power between Armenia and Azerbaijan? Have they considered that in the last few years the Azeri military budget has been bigger than Armenia’s state budget?
Where do these Armenian hardliners get their unrealistic confidence in Armenia’s military might? Wasn’t the April mini-war debacle sufficiently instructive? For years it was an axiom in international military circles that the Armenian army was the strongest in the Caucasus. Since April those voices have been muted. Many Armenians have become jittery about the strength of their army. We also don’t know how much secret military help Baku will receive from Turkey, Israel, and Muslim extremists if there’s war. Over-reliance solely on the professionalism and commitment of the Armenian commanders and fighters is a fool’s errand. Modern warfare is an over-sized Nintendo game where high-tech holds a huge advantage.
Armenia should avoid war primarily because if it loses the blow could be near deadly. We would lose land, our economy will hit rock bottom, Turkbeijan’s appetite for more Armenian land will be whetted, and more of citizens of Armenia and Karabagh leave. What’s left of Armenia would become a Russian oblast.
Armenia should pray for peace but prepare for war.
But a strong army is not the whole answer. There has to be demonstrable improvement at a granular level in the way Armenia is governed. Armenia—like any other country—needs a strong and capable leader. It’s ironic and a sad commentary on the quality of Armenia politicians that Sargsyan happens to be the only politician who has the clout to bring about positive change. His “rivals” don’t have the power, toughness, resilience, experience, ability, and the organization he commands. If only he saw the light, made a 180-degree turn and became truly the leader of his people! Right now he “enjoys” a rudimentary legitimacy. To become Armenia’s “savior” Sargsyan must first earn the trust and respect of the citizenry by observing the rule of law and by crushing the oligarchs. He should reverse the economic decline, put an end to the pervasive corruption, and re-visit his “pension reforms” and the disputed constitutional referendum.
A tall order, indeed. But that’s the price of saving the 4,000-year-old motherland. We hope against hope that he will have a moment—a road to Damascus interregnum–when he will see the light. Twenty-five years ago he heeded the call of the nation and fought for the independence of Artsakh. We hope that there’s a glimmer of development in that direction: On August 19 it was announced (“Zhoghovourd”) that Sargsyan will invite all the political forces to discuss the draft new constitution. He has already said that he would like to hear the opinions of all parties on all issues.
One of the first fundamental strategies Sargsyan or whoever leads Armenia should adopt is make Armenia a more valuable ally of Russia. Armenia’s leader should make every effort to discourage Russia from looking for a “girlfriend” elsewhere. Through unity, good governance, disciplined army, economic development (partly through Diaspora participation), Armenia can demonstrate to the Kremlin that Yerevan is an indispensable ally and Moscow’s only true long-term friend in the South Caucasus. Through genuine reforms Sargsyan can also gain the moral high ground and international political leverage. As well, when he has the backing of the citizenry, he will have a stronger hand when he meets Putin and other government heads.
Still several questions hang over the effort to wrest Armenia out of the vise: Has Sargsyan the ability to change? Will the citizens of Armenia accept a new, improved Sargsyan? Is there time to get out of the systemic morass? Will Baku attack before Armenia has had the chance to catch its breath and get its act together? The next few months will be crucial.