Will our future be a replay of 1921 or 1991?

Once again, the global Armenian nation finds itself at a strategic crossroad. Armenia, Artsakh, and the diaspora are sitting at the intersection deciding which path to take, each of which will have a significant impact on its collective future. Those who sit in the decision-making seat carry the burden for today and for generations to come.

The crossroads are, of course, the “normalization” dialogue with Turkey and the “peace” negotiations with Azerbaijan. Peace with entities that have overtly sought your destruction is a challenge. There is no doubt that everyone benefits from peace. First and foremost, it will be the end of the loss of human life due to conflict. The challenge always lies within the definition of peace.

A study, in contrast, would be on two significant dates in modern Armenian history. After suffering the utter humiliation of genocide, exile, and dispossession, the Armenian spirit rose from the literal ashes to create the First Republic. Some have said that it was an “accidental” republic created by the void of the defeat of the Ottoman Turks and the Russian civil war.

All great events are indeed the beneficiaries of some favorable geopolitical current, but the men and women who defended the Armenian nation against incredible odds in May of 1918 knew it was no mere accident. I would prefer to call it a miracle based on the spirit of remarkable determination and courage against incredible odds.

Late 1920 and 1921 was a particularly difficult time with Azeris—a now Bolshevik Russia seeking expansion—and the emerging Kemalist Turks in the West seeking to complete the genocide in the East. Some things don’t change.

Despite heroic resistance, the infant republic was faced with a decision to lose freedom but survive under the Bolsheviks or simply be subjected to further atrocities under the Turks. They chose survival, but the cost was significant. Many of the hard-fought territorial gains with the blood of Armenians was “gifted” back to Turkey. Eternal Ararat, Kars, Ardahan, and areas of Western Armenia were reoccupied by the Turkish nationalists.

Stalin later awarded Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) and Nakhichevan as autonomous regions within Azerbaijan. Still, other border regions were given to Georgia. The treaty between the parties was signed by the Kemalists, who were not the recognized government of Turkey at the time, by the Bolshevik authorities who had not yet consolidated their power as a recognized government, and Armenian puppet representatives.

Despite the limited options, the Treaty of Kars in 1921 was a humiliating defeat for the Armenians, who lost territory, their freedom, and their dignity. The Soviet-era began, and the diaspora went about building its permanent infrastructure.

With the Azeris salivating for the destruction of Artsakh and Armenia, will 2022 become our new 1921? Turkey, with its olive branch and “no preconditions,” is again eager to serve its expansionist vision with its “one nation-two states” partner. Russia is ever-present in Armenia’s future.

What is the price for Russian support? In 1921, it was freedom and territory to prevent Turkish massacres. Russia believes that it saved Artsakh from further Azeri destruction in 2020. The price was Hadrut, Shushi, and the liberated areas. What is their price for peace in 2022? Is this a replay of the 1921 humiliation?

In contrast to the dark days of 1921, there was a more recent time that should inspire hope and patriotism. The time of 1991 was filled with uncertainty and opportunity. The unthinkable was happening with the crumbling of the Soviet empire.

The people of Armenia and particularly Artsakh had wisely anticipated change. The Karabakh Committee, petitions, demonstrations, and legal requests were all linked to a common theme: a yearning to be free. The people of Artsakh knew what had happened to their brethren in Nakhichevan, Baku, and Sumgait organized by the evil intentions of the Azerbaijani government.

Murder, expulsions, and ethnic cleansing were common practices. I will never forget the words of a young Tavitian scholar from Artsakh at the Fletcher School at Tufts University who stated at a public symposium on Nagorno-Karabakh attended by many Turks and Azeris that the defense of Artsakh was intended to prevent “another genocide.”

They tried living peacefully within the structure of the Azerbaijani rule and witnessed the oppression and decline of the Armenian identity. They attempted to work through the legal and established process outlined in the Soviet Constitution only to be rebuffed by the central government and attacked by the artificial Azeri government.

The years 1991-1994 when Artsakh declared its independence after pursuing every legal and peaceful path were inspiring to all patriotic Armenians. Outgunned and with little infrastructure to support a prolonged conflict, they prevailed because they were defending their homes and their God-given right to be free.

We must separate those years from the diplomatic and political failures that we are currently focused on. It should always remain a time of inspiration. It should be studied and ingrained in our thinking.

It was a time when the Armenians stood up and said proudly, “ENOUGH.” Is that word even in our vocabulary today? We seem to be internalizing the press clipping that Armenia is weak, that it is defeated, and that it is capitulating and abandoning Artsakh.

The Armenians of Artsakh didn’t believe any of this defeatist thinking in 1991. They were focused on not allowing the flame to be extinguished on a 4,000-year presence. They demonstrated the advantage that those defending their homes always have in military conflict. They had everything and nothing to lose.

Do we believe that today when we agree to the vague Azeri “five points” that the Azeris advocate destroying Artsakh? Armenia and Artsakh are more advanced societies in many ways than in 1991, but we need to reach down deep into our souls, as they did in 1991, understand what is at stake and act with courage accordingly.

Our nation has a long history of beating the odds. Our existence as a civilization in 2022 is ample evidence. By the grace of God and the courageous leaders throughout our history, we have prevailed when simple logic would have suggested otherwise.

Courage with leaders is not usually about risking their life. It is about their ability to wisely use the authority you have been granted to secure a prosperous future for your people. Our geopolitical engagements exist to pursue our patriotic self-interests. Accepting the Azeri “five points” is a dangerous game. Pashinyan is operating from a defensive posture.

Azeris make demands, and he responds. What is preventing him from reversing that process? Despite the perception, it seems self-imposed. The Azeris lost the first war yet stayed on the diplomatic and military offensive in the aftermath.

Courage comes from standing up to their thinly disguised pre-conditions, such as accepting Artsakh as part of the “territorial integrity” definition. It is and must be an integral part of “self-determination,” and, because of Azeri crimes, is now “remedial secession.”

Armenia cannot effectively speak for Artsakh when it does not effectively protect its borders, respond to border incursions that violate international law, and allow the continued disgraceful imprisonment of Armenian POWs.

Courage is about maintaining a level of dignity so that you are respected by your citizens and your enemies. When the criminal Aliyev commits unilateral violence at the border of Artsakh, Armenia needs to respond and protect its people. An Armenian response may motivate the Russian peacekeepers to become more active in their role to prevent escalation.

Why are the Armenians reluctant to respond to the barbarians who have used unprovoked attacks without any repercussions? Initiate a response, and perhaps the negotiations with the descendants of Talaat will be more balanced. The people of Artsakh understand this, and I believe the citizens of Armenia do also.

Does the Pashinyan government understand, and what is their vision of Armenia and Artsakh post-negotiations? Will it be 1921 when all neighboring parties divided up what was left of our homeland including sacred Ararat and Ani? Will Armenia continue its policy of placating like a defeated nation? We are a defeated nation only if we choose to be. The 2020 war was devastating, and the loss of life was horrific.

But it was another moment in our struggle. It can be the final chapter if we choose that path, or we behave like 1991 and it can be another rebirth. We must rebuild our defense and intelligence capabilities during this critical time. We have to send a message to the Turks and Azeris that we will not accept terms that will lead to our destruction. We will respond to their attempts to intimidate and show our global nation that we lost a 44-day war but not our dignity and our future.

The geopolitical waters are currently dangerous. Russia is distracted. The West has been boxed out of the ineffective OSCE Minsk Group. Turkey is playing both sides predictably, and Azerbaijan senses a final victory. We have added to their perceived confidence with our feeble responses.

We may view this as unprecedented, but it’s today’s version of Avarayr and Sardarabad where courage inspired decisions that enabled what we have today. It is my view that the Armenian people, be they in the diaspora, Armenia, and especially Artsakh, will not tolerate capitulation to those who have deployed the same methods to seek our destruction.

The current government is the gatekeeper of this chapter in our homeland’s history. Pashinyan has the responsibility to represent the vision of the Armenian people. His electoral mandate does not include a de facto surrender.

It is an eternal responsibility handed through the centuries from monarchies to vassal states to our modern sovereign state. It is time for 1991 to re-emerge in our leadership. In this week leading up to the glorious resurrection of Our Lord, let us pray for the wisdom and courage of Armenia.

Stepan Piligian armenianweekly.com

A Yerevan protest calling for Artsakh’s reunification with Armenia, 1988 (Photo: Berge Ara Zobian/The Armenian Weekly)

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