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Saturday, July 31, 2021

I should worry less about what will happen to Armenia. I just wish the people of Armenia had the same choice.


My wife says I should stop thinking so much about things I have no control over, such as the fate of Armenia.

She repeated this insistently the other day after I mentioned Tatul Hakobyan for what probably seemed like the hundredth time since we heard him speak at St. Sarkis Armenian Church in Charlotte a few weeks ago.

Hakobyan is a journalist and author from Armenia whose new book chronicles his experience covering last year’s six-week war in Artsakh. His view of the outcome is summed up in the title, Valley of Death: 44-day Catastrophe.

Hakobyan’s account leaves no doubt that the loss of much historic Armenian territory in the region commonly called Nagorno-Karabakh, including the strategically vital city of Shushi, leaves Armenia itself in greater peril than at any time since the 1994 ceasefire with Azerbaijan.

“We lost everything Armenians built there in the last 30 years,” Hakobyan said.

His book goes into greater detail.

“We lost what we had liberated during the two-and-a-half years-long First Artsakh War at the cost of 6,000 lives,” he writes. “In six weeks, leaving behind more than 4,000 lives and up to 10,000 wounded, we lost more than 8,000 square kilometers of land with the roads, schools, churches and buildings built on that land during the past three decades, including many architectural monuments.”

I’m 6,000 miles from the battlefield but still shocked by the magnitude of this defeat. I stayed on high alert while reading Hakobyan’s book, hoping to find some indication that the situation wasn’t really so dire. I couldn’t find a single loophole, which left me feeling even more miserable than I already felt.

Much of what Hakobyan witnessed as he shuttled across the war zone belied the Armenian government’s insistence that its army was successfully resisting the combined Azerbaijani-Turkish onslaught and preparing to push the invaders back to Baku.

Hakobyan saw the wreckage left by Turkish drones, and the mounting bodies of Armenian soldiers. Perhaps most heart-rending, he saw many young volunteers who had come to fight but who were left wandering dazed and leaderless.

“We sent an entire generation into a death trap,” he said.

Hakobyan conducted his reporting the old-fashioned way, on the ground and under fire. He was prepared to flash his reports to the world in a most modern method—posting them to Facebook— but the world wasn’t ready to read them.

The tragedy is that Armenia never got the chance. Who knows what lives or land might have been saved if his message had gotten through?

Born in the nearby village of Noyemberyan, Hakobyan was able to traverse the chaos of war because he knew the land and many of its residents and local officials. His reporter’s identity card usually served to satisfy security checks.

But continued access depended on obeying the censorship strictures of martial law, which forbade reporters to contradict official accounts. As a result, Hakobyan’s most telling reports were filed to his hard drive rather than to the Internet. Valley of Death is largely composed of these previously unpublished posts.

Hakobyan became increasingly agitated as the Armenian government turned aside Russia’s initial attempts to broker a ceasefire. When Hakobyan tried to evade the censors, his Facebook page was logjammed by accusations that he was a liar, a defeatist and even a Turcophile.

It’s clear to me that he’s none of the above. It’s equally clear that the person most responsible for the disaster is Armenia’s most egregious liar, the charmingly incompetent Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

Pashinyan’s charm is undeniable if no longer irresistible. A former journalist himself, Pashinyan led the country’s so-called Velvet Revolution in 2018 and was carried to the prime minister’s office on a wave of public adulation. He soon came to personify the historical truth that successful revolutionaries rarely make successful leaders.

In fairness, Pashinyan inherited a mess. The corruption he’d railed against was real and its corrosion reached into every aspect of government and society. Yet even Pashinyan’s most ardent acolytes refused to consider its effect on Armenia’s defenses.

As a result, Armenians went to war blindly believing that the bravery of Armenian fighters would bring victory just it did when Armenia wrested Artsakh from Azeri control three decades earlier.

Armenia had maintained supreme confidence in its ability to defend Artsakh all that time, refusing to consider concessions that might lead to a permanent peace settlement. Pashinyan became the latest Armenian leader to rebuff demands backed by international mediators for Armenia to return Azeri villages seized as a buffer during the first war.

His defiant rhetoric was popular at home and in the diaspora. He insisted that Armenians would consider any incursion in Artsakh an existential threat and react accordingly. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan was building a first-class arsenal of modern weapons and an equally powerful web of allies. Its ceasefire violations became increasingly common and brutal.

The proof that it didn’t take a genius to see war coming is that even I had it figured out: “Azerbaijan clearly wants Karabakh back and is positioning itself to take it,” I wrote in 2014.

It’s impossible to believe Pashinyan knew less than I did about Azerbaijan’s intentions or its capabilities. It’s also impossible to believe he had failed to take stock of his own nation’s defenses. He had to know that his army wasn’t equipped or trained to back up his bluster.

Yet in truth, so much of what happens in Armenia puzzles me.

Hakobyan was among many who believed the defeat would quickly lead to Pashinyan’s ouster. Yet shortly before the author stopped in Charlotte, Pashinyan’s party was returned to office with a solid majority. Apparently Armenians thought the other two-dozen choices on the ballot were even worse.

Maybe they were, which is truly sad but so is almost all the news from my ancestral homeland these past months.

Hakobyan notes that it still is possible to drive from Armenia to Artsakh but Azeri flags now line part of the route. Azerbaijan’s troops continue to push the cease-fire bounds, not only in Artsakh but against the boundaries of the Republic. Some were standing on Armenian soil as Hakobyan spoke.

Worst of all, Armenian soldiers continue to die.

Why is this happening? Azerbaijan and Turkey don’t have to test Armenia because the war was test enough. They are testing Russia. The ceasefire agreement signed in November calls for Russian troops to remain in place for five years but that’s a best-case scenario with no real guarantee.

As Hakobyan correctly points out, Russia has never been our reliable friend or protector. The lesson should have been driven home in 1915 and again in 1920. Armenians may be willing to believe the outcome will be different this time because they see no alternative: No allies came to Armenia’s aid during the war and none have stepped forward since.

Incredibly, the Biden Administration is actually preparing to help Azerbaijan reload. Among the fictions offered to satisfy legal constraints, the state department certified that a hefty new round of military aid is "necessary to support U.S. efforts to counter international terrorism; or is necessary to support the operations readiness of the United States Armed Forces or coalition partners to counter international terrorism; or is important to Azerbaijan's border security.”

Given America’s indecent but intransigent support of Turkey and Azerbaijan, it’s hard to argue with Hakobyan’s premise that another war could lead to greater disaster. He’s obviously correct in urging that Armenia take advantage of whatever respite is provided by Russian peace keepers to strengthen its defenses and modernize its weapons.

We part ways, however, over his recommendation that Armenia attempt to negotiate a long-term settlement with the victors. This would almost certainly mean accepting Turkey’s conditions that Armenia drop its demand for recognition of the Genocide along with forfeiting claims to Armenian property and territories lost in the last century.

And that would be just for starters.

Hakobyan concedes that sitting across a table from Turkey’s President Erdogan would be stomach-churning for any Armenian but he bolsters his argument by citing historical precedents for humility in the face of defeat. He notes that even the staunchly nationalist Dashnaks were willing to negotiate with Turks in an attempt to save the first Republic.

He’s right of course, except that it didn’t work. Turkish troops invaded Armenia in 1920 barely a month after their government signed the Treaty of Sèvres recognizing Armenia’s sovereignty.

In fact, Turks have never honored any agreement with or regarding Armenians and have never respected Armenia's borders. Why would they? Treaties and borders are Western constructs suited to nation-states, not empires.

Erdogan may claim the title of president but he dreams of being the new sultan, or perhaps caliph. There’s no reason to think the hapless Pashinyan would somehow outfox the foe who humiliated him.

I want the struggle for justice to continue, not only for Artsakh but to protect the artifacts and monuments of Western Armenia—and yes, to restore those historic lands to the Republic. 

I know I’m not alone and so does Hakobyan, who suggests that Armenians in the diaspora who cling to the Armenian Cause exert too much influence on Armenia’s government.

He believes our thinking is dangerous because it prevents Armenia from finding common ground with far more powerful neighbors who clearly aren’t going anywhere. That view seemed to be shared by companions who joined him on his American tour to promote his book and his work at the ANI Research Center.

“We all have dreams,” said Arsen Kharatyan, a former foreign policy advisor to the Armenia’s prime minister who translated The Valley of Death into English. “But they aren’t always the same dreams. We have to have a painful discussion about that with the diaspora.”

I’m willing to listen to their argument because I understand Armenia’s dilemma but I don’t think our very different perspectives can be reconciled any more than I think Armenia's enemies can ever become its partners.

Perhaps it really is best for me not to think about it at all.

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