​The Armenians between Baku and Istanbul

by Gerard Malkassian

I arrived in Armenia on the last day of the clashes of 2-5 April between the Armenians and the troops from Azerbaijan. I had, on the same day and the following ones, numerous conversations with Armenians from all walks of life and levels of education. I was particularly struck by the mixture of current worries and old angst. As far as the actual situation was concerned, they often mentioned the resumption of a war that had been interrupted for over twenty years, the remarkable number of victims, the unbalance of forces, the ambiguous role of Russia and the silence from the Armenian political leadership. But it was easy to detect also the oppressing phantom of a bloody past: the fear of losing the last territorial unit inhabited by the Armenians outside the Republic of Armenia, the awakening of the memory of the pogroms of Sumgait, Baku, Kirovabad, until the trauma of 1915 and its disastrous human, moral and political consequences, and all this only a few days before the 101th anniversary of genocide.

Of course, the risk of mixing everything up, yielding to confusion or extremist reactions encouraged by the outburst of uncontrolled emotions, exists. Coupling genocide with the events involving Turkey, this latter with Azerbaijan dand the Upper Karabagh, to the point of calling the Azeris “Turks”, means mixing up data and historical and geopolitical contexts that are totally different from each other. Such overlapping nurtures and is nurtured in turn by the complex of the eternal victim, a yoke that, while blinding consciences, can lead to wrong steps and the praise of redemptive violence – elements that certainly will not help find lasting solutions to both issues.

Nonetheless, in this time of commemoration of 24 April 2015, we cannot help asking ourselves if this ambiguous feeling is totally wrong. Turkey has tied for ages the resolution of the Armenian issue to the one of the conflict with Armenia, the Upper Karabagh and Azerbaijan, as this is Turkey’s closest ethnic and political ally. Let’s admit that Turkey is at least partly right: will we then find the force to assess the moral and symbolic meaning of claiming the Karabagh for the Armenians, in the link with our memory wounded by genocide? Will we be able express our persuasion that the recognition of the Armenian character of the Upper Karabagh is pivotal to the demand of just compensation for the tragic consequences of extermination? Are they totally wrong?

Let’s be clear. French philosopher Paul Ricœur questioned in an article, Perplexités sur Israël (published by magazine Esprit, in June 1951), the conditions of legitimacy of the State of Israel after Second World War. Excluding any kind of religious or nationalist foundation, which would pretend to provide justification for a property right of the Jewish people on Palestine, he focused on a moral motive: the debt of the international community toward the Jewish people, due to its inabilty to keep it safe from the Holocaust – and thus its will to grant a save haven to the Jews.

i believe we could at least partly apply this scheme to the Armenian case. Many express perplexities about the conflict of Upper Karabagh: Picrochole (from the Picrocholic wars in Rabelais’ Gargantua) between neighbouring countries, which struggle for a territory that is just as big as an Italian province or a French «département» (4000 square km) and a population of about 150000 inhabitants. Many complain about the nationalist rage that in the Caucasus was not overcome even after the many massacres. All this is true: the peoples in this area are prisoners of a greatly distorted history, a fruit of arrogance, chauvinism, hate and violence. But nonetheless I would like to hint at two key reasons why the Armenians claims may make sense.

First of all the wish of the Armenian population of Karabagh to get out of Azerbaijan, caused by the threat of a nationalist policy based on the Armenians’ hatred. This element refers to the principle of self-determination, which has never been rejected by the international community regarding the Karabagh. The main point is to prevent Armenians from befalling the same fate as in Nakhitchevan, autonomous region between Armenia and Turkey, that was also handed to Azerbaijan by Stalin, while Turkey was admitted as a guarantor of the decision: the Armenians, who since the beginning of the Thirties accounted for 40% of the total population, were gradually compelled leave their land. We shall not forget that the Armenian character of the region of Upper Karabagh had already been recognised by Stalin, who had granted it the statute of “autonomous region”. At least twice – in the cases of Kosovo and South Sudan – the international community agreed to violate the principle of territorial integrity, when it asserted that the lives of the local populations were threatened by an intolerant and murderous state. The same way, Azeris responded with pogroms when the Armenians broke away, and Armenian civilians were murdered and maimed during the recent clashes. Unfortunately, only few doubt that, in case the Azeris manage to seize Karabagh, their thirst of revenge and hate culture would lead many people to commit atrocities.

Secondly, there is an element of which all Armenians, both inside and outside Armenia, are aware: the Upper Karabagh is the only possible territorial and human restitution as a partial compensation of the catastrophe of 1915 and the fall into the abyss until 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne, besides the formation of the Soviet Union. The international community, first of all the great European, American and Russian powers responsible for the tragic heritage of Armenians and the current situation – cannot ignore such historical-moral burden. Today, when the democratization process in Turkey is buried in the autocratic drift of Erdogan’s, that also damages the promotion of the rights of the Armenian minority and a sincere review of the past, the international community, starting from the European countries, must understand the urgency of an intervention in an already hot area, and send a clear message to Turkey through its Azeri ally.

These considerations urge us to promote the acceleration of the peaceful process of negotiation inside the OECD’s Minsk Group. A reasonable solution should ensure, outside the Azeri sovereignty, both territorial continuità of Armenia with Karabagh – the sole minimum guarantee tha the Armenians can survive in the region – and the return of the Azeris where they represented a relative majority of the population. Territorial concessions from both sides should not be excluded.

Yet, a last question emerges: why incite the Azerbaijan and not Turkey? It is true that Azerbaijan did not take part in the genocidal process undertaken against the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, but we can suggest some possible responses:

- tha same was true about Israel: why hit Palestine and not Germany? Because it was the only possible way of compensation, as the real Jews, and not their phantoms, inhabited already the land they had chosen as their settlement land.

- the ties between Turkey and Azerbaijan are ancient. The governments of both countries repeat the famous slogan: “one nation, two states”. We remember the words of Erdogan, on 3 April, amid the short 4-day war: Turkey will support Azerbaijan “until the end”. They confirm the permanent will of the Turkish government to couple its own Armenian question and the events involving Azerbaijan and Armenia. Furthermore, Baku has not hesitated for many years to be the merciless herald of negationism of the Armenian genocide.

- the century-old rivalry between Turkey and Russia, that characterized this region back since the beginning of the Twentieth century, is resurfacing. These powers confront each other influencing all the conflicts of the surroundings, particularly the one of Upper Karabagh. We cannot let the peoples of the Caucasus – nor particularly the Armenians, who suffered the most from this regional competition – play for this score settlement.

Only the acceptance of such need would enable to make a key step for peace, being the safest way to find a reasonable solution for all parties, which would also provide the international community with an opportunity to get the Turkish leaders to understand the importance of recognising the wounds of the past in order to work out the problems of today, including the massacres Daesh is perpetrating in the region. To do this we need an effort from everybody, starting from Europe and the United States, to compel all parties, including Russia, to accept a logic of authentic compromise. this would make it possible to save many lives and take a step forward to stabilise the region, also with the help of Turkey, according to an enlightened review of the past..

Gérard Malkassian

Analysis by Gérard Malkassian, historian and professor of Philosophy in Paris

26 April 2016

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