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Outside View: Armenia’s last best chance

Outside View Commentator

Middle East Times
April 28, 2006

YEREVAN, Armenia—Armenia, the great regional power that extended from sea to sea in the first century before Christ and for ages played a central role in the history of Western Asia, has been reduced to a land-locked rump in modern times.

Millennia of foreign conquest and domination, occupation and genocide, have delivered to today’s world a nation that is long on culture and civilization, but short in statecraft. The catastrophic dispossession of the Armenian homeland by the rulers of the Ottoman Empire; the subsequent Bolshevik-Turkish pact partitioning Armenia and effectively tendering Karabagh, Nakhichevan and other integral parts of the Armenian patrimony to Soviet Azerbaijan; and Armenia’s inclusion in the Soviet empire may form the basis of an explanation, but they do not excuse Armenia’s current smallness.

The nation’s historic losses and intermittent statelessness are only prologue. The real story is in a failed leadership that seeks to rationalize the steady decline of the Armenian factor in world affairs by reference to external adversaries and geopolitical limitations.

In fact, the major constraint is the insecure myopia of a semi-feudal, soft-authoritarian regime with a parochial mindset that makes a mockery of Armenia’s ancient values and, in the very name of democracy, smothers human rights, civil liberties, free speech and assembly, and the rule of law. Of course, Armenia is not alone in this demeanor.

In the 15 years of the country’s newly rediscovered statehood, authority has never been transferred from incumbent to challenger by free and fair elections. They have always been forged -- unfortunately always by the administration. The sitting presidency is no exception to this deplorable rule of illegitimate government.

For Armenia to reclaim its democratic advantage in the region, to become a competitive contributor to peace, development and security, and to realize its strategic credentials at an increasingly critical crossing on the global map, it must transform itself both at home and abroad.

Fresh Elections: In view of its series of falsified elections, and most recently the constitutional referendum held last November, Armenia requires an electoral transformation. Our American, European, and other international partners have the capacity to make this happen through the empowerment of Armenian citizen and society alike. This is the expectation of the Armenian body public. An orchestrated theft of votes and conscience is alien to the long-standing Armenian quest for rights and redemption. Armenia must satisfy the highest possible criteria for electoral legitimacy and accountable governance.

Rule of Right: The supremacy of rights with due process and an equal application of laws needs in short order to become the foundation of the state. From corruption and conflicts of interest to responsibility for grave crimes and other misconduct, all citizens must face the same standard of justice -- starting from the very top and going all the way down the hierarchy. The self-confidence of an independent judiciary, elusive as it may seem, is pivotal on this score. Raise their salaries and strictly hold them to the law.

International Standing: Armenia’s democratic transformation, much like Georgia’s attempt, will find its reflection in international affairs. The republic’s sovereignty is a supreme value and the most meaningful means for pursuit of vital national interests. Armenia must become a bridge of balance and understanding in the wider region, intersecting as it does Western civilization and Eastern tradition, the CIS and the Middle East, and the future linkage between its southern neighbors and the trans-Atlantic hemisphere. Official Yerevan should take its rightful place in the regional security system and, in dialogue with NATO, the European Union, Russia, China, and other centers, strive within the next decade to achieve security and energy independence—or at least diversification.

Turkey: In all of history, no bilateral agreement, concord, or treaty has ever been negotiated or entered into force between the sovereign republics of Armenia and Turkey.

A brave new discourse and enlightened statesmanship must guide the initiative to normalize the Turkish-Armenian relationship in a multi-track process that takes into account, not escapes, the historical record and hammers out solutions to a comprehensive agenda of outstanding issues, including but not limited to establishment of diplomatic ties without preconditions; political, economic, and ultimately security-related cooperation; the restoration of rights of the dispossessed; the guaranteed voluntary return of deportees or their progeny to their places of origin; respect for and renovation of the Armenian cultural heritage; and delimitation of boundaries directly between the parties involved.

As it stands, however, Turkey continues to enforce a blockade against Armenia, an act of war and a material breach of the pact which Turkey’s Kemalist regime and Soviet Russia signed in 1921 and on which Ankara relies for assertion of its eastern frontier. Without resolution of this strategic connection—rather the absence thereof —neither Turkey nor Armenia can ever join the EU, and no enduring settlement will ever be found in the case of Mountainous Karabagh and its struggle for liberty, democracy, and self-determination.

Karabagh and Azerbaijan: There can be no true movement on this regional conflict as long as

  • Armenia and Azerbaijan remain in essentially undemocratic hands and thus without civic mandate;

  • the republican entity of mountainous Karabagh, which declared its independence according to a plebiscite held in 1991 under the Soviet Constitution and relevant norms of international law, is excluded from the peace process;

  • Azerbaijan refuses to cease and desist from its xenophobic rhetoric and its outrageous desecration of Armenian religious treasures, including an entire cemetery of medieval "khachkars" (cross-stones) finally and fully destroyed in broad daylight by uniformed soldiers in Nakhichevan last December; and

  • the Turkish-Armenian divide stays intact and insurmounted.

Short of this, the consequences of the war unleashed by Azerbaijan against Karabagh in 1988, resulting in thousands of casualties, hundreds of thousands of refugees and scores of reciprocal expulsions on both sides, must be approached on the humanitarian level. A pilot program to demilitarize a local segment of the conflict zone, allowing for the conditional return and restitution of both Armenian and Azerbaijani refugees, might under the circumstances be the only rational avenue for the initial cultivation of mutual confidence and gradual reconciliation of peoples. In all events, for the long-term development, prosperity, and equity of the region, Azerbaijan, Karabagh, Armenia, and Turkey must abide by the same supervisory regime and terms of engagement as they relate to demilitarization, repatriation, opening of frontiers, transportation and communication, and potential peacekeeping.

An old nation with a young state, Armenia does indeed face a constellation of contemporary challenges, foreign and domestic, which must be overcome creatively and fundamentally. Neither wishful evolution nor artificial revolution will carry the day. Only a peaceful, system-wide, citizen-driven transformation—anchored in a correlation of the national will and international imperatives—can shift the paradigm and provide the land of Ararat with one ultimate opportunity to close the democratic deal, to turn swords into shared interests, and to redefine its identity, place, and promise in the new era.

Freedom and justice in the world begin at home.

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