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Thursday, November 19, 2020

Armenia has lost, but we must not lose Armenia

The siege of Artsakh is over, while the siege of Yerevan proceeds.

Little that has occurred in Armenia during the past week or so is clear from my distant perch except that the people of Armenia are shocked and angry, and many feel betrayed by their own government.

Just how angry they are and what the effect will be is hard to gauge. But calls for the prime minister’s resignation—possibly even his head—are coming from well beyond the country’s deep and slimy pool of deposed oligarchs and political opportunists. 

Shocking scenes have been streaming from the capital since peace terms ending the six-week war were announced Nov. 10, including a mob that dragged the speaker of parliament from his car and beat him senseless. 

Developments since then have been a blur: the prime minister ducking in and out of hiding, members of his party resigning government posts, police breaking up demonstrations in the capital and arresting opposition leaders. 

Further roiling the situation are rumors of a foiled coup, perhaps even an assassination plot. 

As sad as I was about the war, I’m almost as sad to see Armenians now attacking other Armenians because it could portend a far greater loss. We know the lessons of our history and yet we ignore the most important one: our divisions only make us weaker. 

Armenians would do well to remember that we aren’t the only ones with access to live-stream video. The already jubilant Turks and Azeris must be cheering wildly as they watch Armenians at each other’s throats. 

Fortunately, there are calmer voices in Armenia and in the diaspora addressing the obvious questions of how this calamity occurred and what can be done to secure Armenia’s future. I’ve read a lot of smart observations but none point to an easy path forward. 

The invasion that began Sept, 27 was hardly unexpected after years of threats, ceasefire violations and outright attacks as Azerbaijan repeatedly tested Artsakh’s will and readiness while tapping its oil-rich treasury to acquire advanced weapons systems. 

Yet Armenia was evidently unprepared for the scope and ferocity of this war, which left much of historic Artsakh in ruins. The human toll is even greater, including more than 2,000 Armenian fighters dead. 

Tens of thousands of civilians who just weeks ago were encouraged to expect victory have been forced to flee, many burning their own homes to keep them from being occupied by the invaders. 

Armenia was just as clearly unprepared for the imbalance of foes versus allies. The former included not only Azerbaijan but Turkey, which provided weapons, air support and tactical guidance. Azerbaijan’s troops were also bolstered by mercenaries from Syria and Afghanistan and most likely Pakistani special forces as well. 

As for Armenia’s allies, none were evident. 

One sobering reality crystalized by this war is that Armenia stands alone. Armenians always have, yet we repeatedly delude ourselves by thinking the world’s sympathy will translate into action. 

The deus ex-machina is a Greek invention but we Armenians have embraced the idea that some greater force will appear out of the blue to rescue us. 

If so, it won’t be the Russians. 

Many Armenians around the world expected Russian President Putin to halt Azerbaijan’s advance if only to block Turkey from gaining a foothold in the Caucuses. 

The depressing reality is that while Putin and Turkey’s President Erdogan remain at odds in Syria and elsewhere, they get mighty chummy wherever their interests align—and they align all too neatly in Artsakh, where both want to assert influence. 

The terms of Armenia’s surrender—let’s be honest and call it that—allow Russian forces to occupy the war zone as “peacekeepers.” Ominously, Turkey insists it will partner with Russia in that effort. 

While Putin offers assurance that Turkey will have no direct role alongside Russian troops, a joint center to “monitor” the ceasefire is being set up and Turkey is sending fresh troops to Azerbaijan. 

So the fighting has ended with about a third of Artsakh lost—including the strategically vital city of Shushi. Turkey will now be positioned to Armenia’s north and east as well as west. The terms also provide for a corridor between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan, exposing Armenia’s southern flank and potentially blocking its border with Iran. 

It’s an understatement to call this a disasterous deal for Armenia unless you accept Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s argument that it was the only way to stave off a far greater loss of life and territory—perhaps the only way to save Armenia itself. 

A gifted and even inspiring speaker, Pashinyan is a former journalist who came to power by channeling a popular reform movement into a so-called velvet revolution a little over two years ago. 

More people might have rallied behind him once again if he hadn’t raised the white flag over Artsakh in the middle of the night and then vanished. He waited days before trying to make his case by video and social media. 

His position was further undercut by revelations that he acted on his own without consulting key members of his government and made no attempt to achieve consensus with the other parties before signing the agreement. 

Pashinyan’s behavior since has been troubling, including a message he sent to troops that many people interpreted as a call for them to return and occupy the capital. Equally problematic may be his failure to anticipate the scope of the emerging disaster until it was too late. 

The Armenian people will render a judgment on Pashinyan—elections may be coming soon—but fairness as well as prudence requires consideration of mistakes that preceded him. The biggest may be the belief that Armenia’s victory over Azerbaijan during the previous war was a reliable predictor. 

No one questions that Armenian troops fought bravely and well once again despite tremendous odds but success in modern warfare can have as much to do with computer bots as combat boots. 

Military analysts say this may be the first war in which drones were the decisive factor, and Azerbaijan had all the drones it needed thanks to Turkey and Israel. You can see the results in YouTube videos of Armenian tanks and troops being obliterated by swarms of these monstrous mechanized locusts. 

Drones are just one of the glaring insufficiencies in Armenia’s old-tech arsenal, their absence mostly obscured in the public mind until now by the glitzy but ineffective purchase of a few Russian jets and obsolete missiles. 

As American political consultant Eric Hacopian wryly noted, Armenia’s drones are in the Swiss bank accounts of its corrupt former rulers who drained their fortunes from the public treasury. 

As others call for Armenia to search for loopholes in the peace agreement, or even reject it outright, Hacopian urges Armenians to focus on the future by developing their own drones and other defense systems to prepare for the next war. Do you doubt there will be one? 

Russia’s peace-keeping terms have a five-year limit. We know how Turkey and Azerbaijan will use that time. What we can’t know is whether they’ll wait that long to attack, or what bargain Putin and Erdogan will strike in the meantime. 

We can be certain only that Armenia won’t be consulted. 

So I think Hacobian is right, cost be damned. That’s easy to say from this distance but I’m confident Armenians around the world will do what’s required. 

We have the skills and the knowledge to match Armenia’s enemies. We’ll dig deep into our pockets to help pay for Armenia's defense, just as we will help pay to resettle the homeless. 

Despite the war's ugly conclusion, I am optimistic. I believe Armenia’s future is assured by the resilience and determination of the Armenian people.

I have no other choice. The current circumstances make my reflexive realism almost unbearable.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The assault on Artsakh is an assault on all Armenians

 Note:  A version of this post appeared on TheArmenianKitchen.com

Most Americans are probably only vaguely aware of the war in Artsakh, a region usually referred to by the old Soviet name Nagorno-Karabakh. That may be oddly appropriate, as the war itself is a tragic Soviet legacy. 


The small and historically Armenian region was severed from Armenia in the early 1920s by Stalin and designated as an autonomous division within Azerbaijan. That left Armenian Christians, including many Genocide survivors, surrounded by a hostile population of Turkic Muslims. 

The tenuous arrangement endured for nearly 70 years until the Soviet Union began to disintegrate in the late 1980s and Stalin’s successors loosened their grip. This led to a series of massacres of Armenians in Azerbaijan.

Like many other Soviet-occupied territories, Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence when the Communist regime collapsed and voted to join newly independent Armenia. Azerbaijan, however, claimed the territory as its own.

The result was a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan that  ended in a 1994 cease fire, but the end of hostilities settled nothing. Artsakh’s independence remained unrecognized by the major powers while Azerbaijan, flush with oil revenue, rebuilt and strengthened its military while waiting for an opportunity to exert control.

There have been numerous warning signs over the years, including an extended clash in 2016. Now, despite concerns about the potentially calamitous consequences of war in the Caucuses, the world has allowed Azerbaijan to attack once again.

The war has been raging for more than a month and the results are already calamitous for Armenians. Authorities estimate that 90,000 of Artsakh’s 140,000 residents have been forced from their homes since the fighting began, and more are being displaced every day.

Three attempts at a cease fire have now failed. There is little hope that the Azeris will back down while they have the advantage, and their advantage appears to be overwhelming.

Armenia itself, optimistically three million strong, is fully mobilized in defense of Artsakh. The prime minister has called on all Armenians to join the effort, and they are responding to the call.

Azerbaijan, however, has a population of about 10 million. It is fully backed by Turkey, population 80 million, which is providing weapons and logistical support and has pledged to send troops if needed. (Russia, which many Armenians see as a potential savior, has supplied weapons to both sides.)

Azeri ground forces, meanwhile, are bolstered by mercenaries from Syria and Pakistan. They are getting air support from drones supplied by Turkey and Israel. Most distressing, Azerbaijan has attacked Armenian civilians with Israeli cluster bombs, a clear violation of international law.

I know this much because incredibly brave independent journalists have been risking their lives, although much of what they are reporting has not appeared in mainstream newspapers or on television.

A good deal of what does reach us is at best incomplete or warped by politics and profit. War is, after all, always a money-making affair for someone.

We’re fortunate to have friends who keep us informed and encouraged. Among the most valued is author and journalist Lucine Kasbarian, who has done an invaluable job placing the current war in historical context while pointing out the fallacies and failings in media reports.

Her brave brother Antranig is in Stepankert, the capital of Artsakh, filing his own reports while helping journalists cut through the propaganda. 

The best hope for Armenians may lie in a successful plea for international recognition of Artsakh’s independence—really, its right to exist—and in revulsion at evidence of Azerbaijani atrocities against Artsakh’s defenders and citizens.

Armenians across the United States are making great efforts to draw the world’s attention to the truth. The best way to take part is to know that truth by staying informed. 

Here are a few links that may help.

Civilnet.am

News.am

ArmenianWeekly.com

Mirrorspectator.com

massispost.com 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

My daughter got married last year. And the year before—and once again in between. Lucky for her husband, she chose him every time.

I’ve been too busy with weddings to write anything for months. Believe me, it is a lot of work being father of the bride, and it does not get easier the third time.

Here’s the amusing side of all these weddings: We have only one daughter, Mandy, and she’s had only one husband, Ron.

They apparently just like getting married to each other.

The first ceremony took us by surprise, although we knew it was coming. Mandy and Ron had tipped us off that they planned to be married at a date to be announced, and Ron even extended the old-fashioned courtesy of asking for our blessing even though he certainly knew our approval would be immediate and enthusiastic.

Wedding I at the
city clerk's office
The surprise came when my wife and I were visiting family in New Jersey just over a year ago. Mandy and Ron asked us to join them for a day out in Manhattan, where they live and work. She didn’t mention that our destination would be the city marriage bureau.

After a brief ceremony, the four of us took a cab to Chinatown for lunch. I’m pretty sure the ride was the day’s biggest expense.

Is anything in life ever just that simple?

Our dim-sum feast was delicious but it didn’t satisfy Mandy and Ron’s appetite for sharing their happiness. Their solution was to plan Wedding II, which Mandy assured us would be an intimate affair for their closest friends. As it turned out, they have as many close friends as I have gray hairs.

That’s a silly exaggeration, of course. I don’t have nearly that many hairs of any color these days.

Months of planning and hard work culminated in a four-day party in the Catskill Mountains, where Ron has owned a get-away house for some time. They both enjoy a weekend of small-town bliss there whenever they can escape the crush of the city. This time, the city came with them.

Their legion of smart, funny and creative friends took turns riding a ski lift to gather on a grassy mountaintop. There, Mandy and Ron exchanged vows while a jazz band played All Of Me.

It was great fun, if not much like anything my wife and I were raised to think of as a traditional Armenian wedding. Fair enough, we thought, as Ron wasn't Armenian—not yet, anyway.

Wedding II
on the mountain 
But the reception did feature Armenian wine, brandy and coffee. And we enjoyed a pre-wedding family feast of Armenian foods that my wife and I spent days cooking. This led to Ron discovering the joy of eating leftover dolma for breakfast. There is no going back to odar life after that.

Ron had caught enough of the spirit to place little Armenian flags along the dinner table. Better yet, he contributed to the dinner’s most important element by helping me refurbish the shish kebab machine that my late father-in-law made many years ago. Now it will serve a new generation for years to come.

When the festivities concluded, Mandy and Ron set off for the Grand Canyon and other points West. “Two weddings should be enough for anyone,” I joked, but neither one laughed.

“Dad!” Mandy said in exasperation. “We still need to get married in an Armenian church.”

She’d had that in mind all along, as it turned out—and not just any Armenian church, but St. David Armenian Apostolic Church in Boca Raton, which she attended while growing up. “The wedding doesn’t have to be a big deal this time,” she added.

Now it was my turn to laugh: There is no such thing as a small-deal Armenian wedding.

One complication soon became apparent: Mandy and Ron had killer schedules stretching to nearly the end of the year. Wedding III and Honeymoon II would have to somehow straddle Christmas and New Year’s Day.

When Mandy posed the scheduling challenge to the Rev. Father Paren Galstyan, he cheerfully assured her they’d find a date that worked but he raised a challenge of his own. Mandy and Ron would have to attend a series of counseling sessions at which Ron would have to learn pretty much everything about our church.

That was a stumper, as Mandy and Ron live more than a thousand miles from the church and they were likely to arrive with little time to spare. “Don’t worry,” the priest said. “I Skype.”

Clearing up these little details took months. While a suitable date did emerge, the three essential parties couldn’t find common Skype time before Mandy and Ron arrived in Florida just days before the ceremony.

As expected, Father Paren’s cheerfully confident response was, “Don’t worry.” He solved the problem by turning what they thought would be a brief meeting into a day-long cram session on the beliefs, rituals and history of the Armenian Church.

If you don’t think that amounts to much, consider that the Armenian people accepted Christianity 1,706 years ago.  I’ve had a lifetime to learn it all and I still have to watch my wife to be sure when to stand up and when to sit down during a typically brisk two-and-a-half-hour Sunday service.

God bless Ron! He took it all very seriously, and he continued to pay rapt attention through rehearsal. The ceremony came off without a hitch. He and Mandy looked like a truly royal Armenian couple wearing the crowns that identified them as king and queen of their own realm.  

In the end, each wedding was wonderful in its own way but the third was definitely the charm—a true blessing as well as homage to all the generations before us who walked this same path.

Wedding III
Armenian at last!
Father Paren was a blessing himself, employing just enough English to make the ceremony understandable to our many non-Armenian guests. We thanked him especially for making Ron feel very much at home.

 “Is he Armenian now?” my wife asked jokingly. Father Paren looked serious. “He didn’t need all this just to be Armenian. It’s ABC: He’s Armenian By Choice!” 

The rewards of being Armenian may not always be obvious to others but they are very real and important to all of us. Ron has already discovered one of the most important: Sometimes when you are very lucky, there is leftover dolma for breakfast.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Do you ever feel Uprooted? Armenians around the world know what it's like, and we're still learning to deal with the consequences


Hagop Goudsouzian’s first trip to Armenia was clearly a homecoming, even though he had never been there before.

His great-grandparents fled the smothering Ottoman realm in the 19th century and the family settled in Egypt, where Goudsouzian was born. He was living in Canada, focused on his budding career as a filmmaker, when he became riveted by the turbulent events that led to Armenia’s renewed independence in 1991.

Goudsouzian felt compelled to go to Armenia in search of his “forgotten and sometimes ignored” identity. Nearly a quarter century later, he is still exploring the meaning of that identity—and, as his films show, he has plenty of company.

His first foray resulted in the documentary Armenian Exile. He followed with My Son Shall Be Armenian, documenting a trip to Armenia and Syria with other descendants of Genocide survivors. His latest film, Uprooted, completes what he calls his Armenian Trilogy.

Along the way, however, Goudsouzian has explored the bond between Armenia’s culture and its national identity in other films, including this three-part Armenian Echoes series that details efforts to preserve Armenia’s musical heritage.

Goudsouzian’s films, which are available on DVD or pay-per-view streaming on HagopGoudsouzian.com, are marked by unusual intimacy and visual honesty. The viewer becomes part of the filmmaker’s conversations with folks he’s gotten to know and whom he clearly admires for their determination to survive as a people, not just as individuals.

These aren’t travelogues, carefully framed to showcase Armenia’s extraordinary beauty. We meet people with broken teeth but unbroken spirits, villagers who carry buckets of water up rocky hillsides and artists who carry the immense burden of capturing the spirit of a nation that is always so close to extinction.

I was engaged by Uprooted the moment I read the title. I think Armenians venerate their land more than most because they’ve been torn from it as well as torn apart from each other.

As Goudsouzian notes in the film’s opening, Armenia is home to only about a quarter of the world’s 12 million Armenians. How is it possible to sustain a culture when life in the Diaspora becomes the default? Clearly, the homeland must lead the effort. It is an extraordinary obligation for a poor country where mere survival demands great exertion.

Goudsouzian’s work suggests the effort required to perpetuate Armenian culture may be far greater than many of us in the Diaspora realize. We romanticize the homeland by imagining that our spirit springs from its soil, but culture is created and carried by humans. So the human loss suffered over the centuries inevitably drained Armenia’s cultural pool. As a result, Armenians have to repeatedly regenerate their culture in order to carry it forward.

One of the most interesting aspects of Uprooted is its exploration of the blurred line between the Diaspora and the homeland. In a very real way, Armenia is the Diaspora because much of the nation’s population is descended from Genocide survivors who fled East rather than West. One man speaks emotionally of coming from Sasun, now in Turkey, yet he eventually reveals that he was born after his family came to Armenia. What matters more to him is that he feels he is from Sasun, so he is compelled to relate the story of life in that time and place while keeping the memory alive.

I think the most challenging question raised by Uprooted and Goudsouzian’s other films is: What makes someone Armenian? No one offers a definitive answer, perhaps because there is none. But just about everyone acknowledges that the reality of our uprooted and scattered people is that identity can’t be based on birth place, or even language. Yet there must be more than just lineage if the Armenian identity is to survive in any meaningful way.

I know many who believe feeling Armenian is enough, but Uprooted suggests a more active role is necessary. Even if you don’t speak Armenian you can learn an Armenian song, or prayer. Cook something you remember from your grandmother’s table. Tell as much as you know of your family’s story to your children.

We are not like other people who have to search for their roots; we carry ours with us, because we have no choice. If we work at it, we can nurture them to take hold wherever we find ourselves in this world. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The saddest day of the year for Armenians feels even sadder this year than it did last year

My wife and I flew to Armenia last year to participate in the 100-year commemoration of the Genocide, including the canonization of our 1.5 million martyrs. 

It was an unexpectedly uplifting experience.

Of course the sadness was always present, as it is every day for Armenians everywhere in this world. But the sodden heaviness of April 24 became nearly unbearable as I stepped slowly, head down, toward the chamber that holds the eternal flame at the Genocide Memorial.

Then I looked up and saw more Armenians than I have ever seen in one place in my life—and still more coming from every direction. Almost all had walked for miles, and some probably had walked for days.

A few carried banners, many carried flowers but together they carried a clear and loud message to the world: 

We are alive.

Armenia is alive.

I felt privileged to add to this vital testimony with my presence, on behalf of my father. He survived 1915 but didn’t live long enough to stand on the soil of free Armenia as I did.

I was struck by this same message of survival and determination everywhere we went, often wordless but unmistakable and delivered with the confidence that came from knowing that, at long last, Armenians weren’t just speaking to themselves.

Despite Turkey’s frenetic attempts to divert the world’s attention, many nations and leaders stepped forward to express solidarity with the Armenian people. Pope Francis celebrated mass in memory of the Genocide’s victims and called on Turkey to tell the truth. 

The European Union recognized the Genocide and urged Turkey to do the same. The president of Germany also called the Genocide by its rightful name and admitted that his nation had been complicit as Turkey’s war-time ally.

Looking back, I wonder: Did we really believe this would last?

I certainly hoped it would, but Armenians know from painful experience that the world’s empathy is ephemeral. Few crimes against humanity have elicited as much genuine outrage as the Armenian Genocide, yet none has been so quickly discarded.

And that is exactly the word: discarded. Not forgotten, as you might forget to feed the cat or forget where you put your car keys, but tossed aside and left in a muddy rut along a side road of history that can be easily bypassed by demagogues.

Unfortunately, the world has an abundance of them along with a constituency of fools who are easily misled. As a result, the truth of the Genocide is once again under assault—and this time, so are Armenians.

Temporarily quieted but never silenced, Turkey has launched a vicious media blitz using print ads as well as editorial copy written by Turkey’s shills. The common theme is that America’s loyal and truthful ally is being undermined by duplicitous Armenia and its evil Russian overlord.
  
This may seem laughable but it goes beyond the usual topsy-turvy Turkish campaign of denial portraying Armenians as fabulists who dreamed up their own slaughter. This is sophisticated propaganda crafted by American public relations and marketing experts and placed in upscale publications such as Forbes Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.

More chilling, billboards suddenly loomed over city centers in Boston and New York where Armenians planned to gather for this year’s memorial. The images showed Armenians with fingers crossed, a not-so-subtle message that young and old who come together in commemoration each year are liars.

Why should anyone in America be taunted while mourning their murdered grandparents?

Shameful as this is, we are merely forced to defend our honor. Armenians in Artsakh, also known  as the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, have been forced to defend their homes and lives.

Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh
Increasingly over the past year or so, sniper fire and the artillery shells have torn at the fragile ceasefire that ended the fighting with Azerbaijan more than 20 years ago. Then on April 2, Azeri forces opened a large-scale assault that lasted several days. Civilian victims included an 11-year-old boy and an elderly couple. 

Dozens of Armenian defenders were killed, some reportedly beheaded ISIS-style.

You might shrug this off as a border brawl in a region where violence is endemic, but the repercussions could be extraordinary. Any further conflict might easily become a full-scale war involving Armenia and Turkey, which has vowed to back Azerbaijan, as well as Russia, which supplies arms to both sides. There’s also Iran just across the border, with deep religious ties to the Shiite Azeris. 

If you want to know what led to this tangled mess, listen to this talk by Dr. Levon Chorbajian, who knows a million times more than I do. But here’s my short take: Just forget this separatist nonsense repeated so often in the American press. Artsakh is historic Armenia, settled by our Urartian ancestors a few thousand years ago.

The population was still nearly all Armenian when Stalin gave it to the Azeris in 1922. At least the Communists had enough sense to keep a lid on things for 70 years. War was probably inevitable when the Soviet Union disintegrated. But why must it be perpetual?

Putin makes a public show of being a peace maker without a commitment, leaving Armenians to wonder if he would defend Artsakh as well as Armenia itself if the worst came to pass. There’s no good reason for him to delay making a real contribution to a permanent settlement by simply acknowledging his predecessor state’s meddling and admitting that Artsakh never rightfully belonged to Azerbaijan.

It’s clear that expecting the truth from the Kremlin is as much a fool’s dream as expecting it from Ankara, or Washington.

Turkey’s reinvigorated propaganda campaign may actually be the least troubling aspect of its government’s aggression, including persecution of the Kurdish minority just across Armenia's western border. The war on the Kurds has even become cover for Turkey to seize historic Armenian churches.   

Histrionic President Erdogan’s crackdown on press freedom and his prosecution of critics is widely seen as a lurch toward dictatorship and has drawn condemnation from around the world,  

There are significant exceptions in the West, however.   

Among the most alarming is Germany, which is kowtowing to Turkey and offering it  billions of Euros in hopes that it will stanch the flow of Syrian refugees. Given Turkey’s treatment of refugees and its human rights record, this is like hoping Charles Manson is available to babysit.

Yet Chancelor Angela Merkel is so deeply mesmerized by Erdogan—or perhaps so afraid of Syrians—that she has agreed to prosecute a German comedian who poked fun at him. This is outrageous, yet in an odd way Merkel and I agree: Erdogan’s behavior is no laughing matter.

Nor is President Obama’s.

As a candidate in 2008, he promised to recognize the Armenian Genocide. This year he broke that promise for his eighth and final time as president.

Aram Hamparian of the Armenian National Committee of America was quoted as saying administration officials told him privately that offending Turkey now could “introduce uncertainty” into the region at a time when Turkey is playing a pivotal role in important matters. 

This is tragically comic in light of Turkey’s incursion in Syria, its war on the Kurds, its threats to back Azerbaijani aggression “to the hilt,” and its expansion of military bases on Armenia’s flanks. I shudder to imagine the sort of certainty the president is hoping for.

Thinking about this takes me full circle to last April. 

The first person I spoke to in Yerevan was an airport employee who helped us with our luggage. He knew we had come from America, and he saw the forget-me-not Genocide pin on my jacket.

“This is the year,” he said. “I believe it.”

He wanted to believe America would tell the truth, at last. I wanted to believe it too.

A year later, the sadness of April 24 is once again almost too much to bear.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Ben Bagdikian viewed life as an Armenian, and that helped him see more than others

As a journalist, I long admired Ben Bagdikian but thought the lessons of his remarkable career had nothing to do with our shared Armenian heritage.

I was wrong.

Soon after his death on March 11 at age 96, I began reading Bagdikian’s memoir Double Vision in which he recounts his early life as a Genocide survivor and his later accomplishments as one of this nation’s strongest proponents of a free and independent press.

They seem like disparate experiences, but Bagdikian drew a clear connection.

Bagdikian first got my attention in the early 1980s when he was already well into his second career in the news business as a most respected and prescient media critic. His 1983 book The Media Monopoly traced the transition of American newspaper ownership from individual families to a handful of corporations. Not only did these corporations lack a commitment to journalism, many had other business interests and even ties to government that posed serious conflicts.

I was skeptical at the time because I naively thought the news corporation I worked for was a good one. I stuck with the business long enough to see the worst effects of Bagdikian’s premise, as corporations like mine laid off legions of good journalists because they valued the bottom line over the byline.

It should be no surprise that Bagdikian knew more than I ever will about newspapers. He was not only a critic, he was an accomplished reporter and editor at the highest levels. 

His career began on a whim, when he walked into a local newspaper office while killing time before an interview for a job as a chemist. But the beliefs and sensibilities that guided his career took root at birth.

Bagdikian was born in 1920 in Marash in Southeastern Turkey under what were very nearly fortunate circumstances. His parents were affluent and educated. They and his older sisters had been protected from death in 1915 because his father was teaching at an American college in Tarsus.

The family returned to Marash after the First World War and joined efforts to rebuild their community under the protection of French troops. The Bagdikians intended to stay a short while before sailing for America. Ben’s mother had timed her pregnancy so her baby would be born in the United States. She decided that if she had a boy, she'd name him Ben-Hur after the fictional hero dreamed up by an American Civil War general.

Instead of enjoying their promised independence, the Armenians of Marash soon found themselves under siege by Kemal’s army. The family was trapped, and Ben was born as the last vestiges of Armenian resistance were extinguished. Then the French retreated. Armenians who managed to escape the enemy’s swords and bullets were pursued as they trudged into a blinding blizzard behind the fleeing French.

The Bagdikian family’s story of survival is typically miraculous and inexplicable. As they struggled to keep moving through the storm, they watched their neighbors die of starvation and exposure. Children were the most vulnerable, and baby Ben was no exception. Convinced his silent and motionless son was dead, Ben’s father dropped him in the snow as he rushed to help his faltering wife. Luckily for Ben, he started crying and was picked up again.

Ben, of course, remembered none of this. He was four months old when the family reached Massachusetts and his father began work as pastor of an Armenian Congregationalist church. 

Ben never learned Armenian so he never understood the conversations of the old folks who gathered in the family living room. He knew only that his sisters were missing toes that had been amputated as a result of frostbite—until, as an adult, one of them showed him what she’d written about their harrowing escape.

Growing up during the Depression and coming of age during World War II, he was struck by how the Armenian experience fit into a world that seemed insistent on dividing itself into arbitrary categories of those destined to live well and those deemed unfit to live at all. His sister’s memory of being taunted as a giavour by the Turks made a lasting impression.

He remembered it when he heard New Englanders complain about “the foreign element” moving into their towns, and when he heard racial epithets while stationed in Louisiana with the Air Corps, and when he was denied a hotel room because the clerk thought he looked Jewish.

Every journalist has what Bagdikian calls double vision. We try to see people and events objectively, but they are always framed by our knowledge and experiences. Bagdikian viewed the world through the lens of the outsider, focusing always on those who were excluded and in danger of being abandoned like the Armenians of Marash.

He covered wars “from the bottom up,” passing up briefings from generals in comfy hotels to observe the effects of the fighting on everyday soldiers and civilians. He traveled through the Deep South with a black reporter to cover some of the most violent Civil Rights clashes. He lived in a flop house to report on the homeless. He allowed himself to be locked up as a murderer, hiding his true identity from guards and other inmates so he could report on prison conditions.

Bagdikian’s reporting won acclaim but he made a lasting contribution to journalism as an editor, oddly enough after his paper got beat by its main competitor on one of the biggest stories ever.

The New York Times stunned readers and enraged the Nixon Administration in 1971 when it reported results of a secret Pentagon study of strategies and decisions about the Vietnam War. The study known as the Pentagon Papers contradicted many of the government’s public pronouncements about the motives, strategy and progress of the war.

The government got a court order stopping publication after the first day, arguing that national security could be endangered by further revelations. No other paper had the information until Bagdikian got word that the Times’ source, defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg, was willing to give him copies of the documents if he promised to get them into print.

Bagdikian boarded a late flight for Boston and carried back two cardboard boxes crammed with thousands of documents. He assembled a  team of reporters to quickly sort through them and begin writing while he argued with the paper’s lawyers and executives about the need to get a story in print.

The lawyers were certain the courts would come down hard on the paper, and that the administration would punish The Post in other ways, perhaps by stripping the company of its valuable TV licenses. Bagdikian argued that the public had a right to know what was in the documents, and that a journalist’s obligation to the public outweighed any business concerns.

Bagdikian won, and the Post printed what the Times couldn’t. The government did go to court, but Bagdikian’s reporters helped the paper’s lawyers shatter the government’s claim that national security would be harmed if the Post continued its reporting.

The case solidified one of our most important First Amendment freedoms: the right to publish without prior restraint.

Bagdikian's achievements would be a remarkable legacy for any journalist, but his start in life makes them more meaningful to me. He showed it’s not only possible to survive humanity’s greatest crime but to triumph over it for humanity’s sake.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Turkey hopes the world won't notice it is spinning out of control, but Armenians everywhere must pay attention.


Turkey is galloping towards an authoritarian regime full speed ahead.”
  
How many Armenians in America understand the danger of Turkey’s deteriorating internal situation coupled with its apparent willingness to risk a confrontation with Russia?

Flanked by hostile regimes in Turkey and Azerbaijan, the Republic of Armenia is facing mounting concerns and outright threats. Developments have been so rapid that I’m having trouble keeping up, and I really am trying.

In case you’ve been busy trying to figure out if that’s a presidential debate or Saturday Night Live on your TV, here are some highlights from the past few months:

*After ignoring America’s repeated pleas, Turkey finally agreed to join the fight against the Islamic State. It then attacked the Kurds in Syria who were fighting the Islamic State.

*Turkey also renewed attacks on Kurds in its own country—Kurds who are in fact Turkish citizens—using the pretext of a separatist uprising. The crackdown is centered in eastern provinces where Kurds are a majority in former Armenian population centers. News photos from Diyarbakir (my father’s birthplace) show a smog of tear gas settling over rubble. The city’s historic Armenian Catholic church was among those damaged.

*Turkey’s incursion in Syria has brought it dangerously close to Russian forces conducting air strikes against rebels. The Russians support the government of Bashar Assad, who provides Russia with its only naval port on the Mediterranean. Turkey wants Assad and the Kurds out of its way. So far, there have been no direct clashes with the Russians (there's currently a fragile cease-fire), but there’s widespread doubt this can continue. All this comes while Putin continues to seethe over Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet in November.

*Making all this worse, Turkey is convulsing over a series of bombings and terror attacks in Istanbul and elsewhere that have brought tourism to a standstill. Responsibility for the turmoil has been split between Kurds and ISIS, but many observers blame government provocation for the action of Kurdish militants. The government also can't escape blame for the ISIS attacks, as it was crucial in abetting the terrorist organization’s rise by allowing it to recruit in Turkey and giving it border access as its fighters moved into Iraq.

*The Erdogan government has reacted to both the turmoil and widespread domestic criticism by tightening its already firm grip on the press. Last week, authorities seized the nation’s most widely read newspaper, Zaman, and replaced the editors with government trustees. Crowds chanting in support of free speech were dispersed by riot police firing tear gas (see the photo at the top of this column). “The crackdown on expression comes amid a growing sense that Turkey, once seen as a bastion of stability in the region, is being enveloped by instability,” the New York Times reported. The Times story included these chilling words from journalist Asli Aydintasbas, who lost her column in the Milliyet newspaper last year under government pressure: “This pattern is appalling, and Turkey is galloping towards an authoritarian regime full speed ahead.”

*Remarkably, the Erdogan government has managed to escape serious criticism from the West and has even drawn praise from Germany. Publicly at least, America continues to entertain the fantasy that Turkey is an ally that shares our democratic values. Turkey, meanwhile, has taken in as many as two million refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the roiling Middle East but many have used it as a transit point in making their way to Europe. The refugees left behind make valuable bargaining chips: Europe doesn’t want them, and is willing to overlook Turkey’s transgressions if it will keep them away.

What’s most troubling is that Turkey’s behavior seems increasingly irrational and self-defeating, which could lead to greater repression and aggression. The Washington Post offered this observation from Soli Ozel, professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University: 
Turkey now stands completely isolated, trapped in a maze of quandaries that are partly of its own making. It has so alienated everyone it cannot convince anyone to do anything. It is a country whose words no longer carry any weight. It bluffs but does not deliver. It cannot protect its vital interests, and it is at odds with everyone, including its allies.”

The pressing question for Armenia is whether those allies will fight on Turkey’s side if it goads Russia into war. That’s clearly what Erdogan hopes, although it’s frightening to think he’d take the risk.

Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1949, back when we worried that the Soviet Union would see it as an easy target. The treaty pledges every NATO member to defend any other member against an attack. But it also obligates each member to promote peaceful relations and settle any disputes by peaceful means. It’s hard to argue that Turkey hasn’t repeatedly violated those terms.
  
I continue to believe Armenia’s smartest defensive move—genius, really—lies in out-sourcing border patrols to the Russians. Turkey can’t cross the border without tangling with the biggest boy on the block. But Turkey is reportedly building new military bases near the Armenian border in Georgia and Azerbaijan, a sign that it may be willing to test Putin’s patience as well as America’s allegiance.

Russia, meanwhile, has shipped Armenia a fresh supply of fighter jets, missiles and Russian support troops. If that’s sounds comforting, consider what happened the last time the Russians rode to Armenia’s rescue.

The first Republic surrendered to the Soviets in 1920 in return for Russia’s promise to protect its territory. Soon after occupying the capital, the Russians turned over about 80 percent of that territory—and the surviving Armenians who lived there— to the Turks and Azeris.

You don’t have to go back that far for more sobering reminders that Russia always hedges its bets. It has provided more than three-quarters of the weapons for Azerbaijan's armed forces, which have stepped up sniper attacks and raids on Karabagh in violation of the cease-fire there. 

In sum, it’s a dangerous and unpredictable situation changing so rapidly it’s hard to keep track of.  I’ve been paying even closer attention since a friend forwarded information the other day on how Armenians in the diaspora can join the homeland’s army in the event of war. That got my attention, although luckily for all concerned I’m about 30 years and many pounds past being any use in that regard.

What raised my initial question about the awareness of other Armenian Americans is that I’ve heard friends say,  “Don’t worry, Putin has Armenia’s back.” Or, more disturbingly, “Putin is Armenia’s friend.” 

There’s an awful lot I don’t know about world affairs but I’m certain of this: Mr. Putin is nobody’s friend. 

He is a Russian nationalist who will fiercely defend his own turf with no particular regard for anyone else’s. If you doubt that, ask a Ukrainian. Then ask yourself why Putin would feel greater affection for Armenians than for a people who share his Slavic roots and Orthodox religion.

This does not make him an enemy, but he’s an ally to be wary of. Put it this way: He wouldn’t necessarily be your first choice if you wanted to give a neighbor a spare key to your house. Of course, that’s assuming you had a choice of good neighbors to rely on. 

Unfortunately, Armenia doesn’t.