April 24 is the day one hundred years ago that hundreds of Armenian intellectuals were rounded up and slaughtered. This day launched the Armenian Genocide, the roots of which began with the pogroms of 1895 by Abdul Hamid II, Caliph of Islam (See this NYT backgrounder here). It certainly is a humbling time and place to be teaching history.
Yesterday we walked to Republic Square and saw the huge set up for the “System of a Down” concert, and enjoyed Yerevan’s famous singing fountains:
Young people fill the streets at night to take part in patriotic folk dancing on Northern Avenue to raise money for crippled soldiers in the ongoing war with Azerbaijan. There are free Armenian folk dance lessons at the foot of the cascade – this one is a war dance:
My 8th grade students are downtown this weekend as well, interviewing people about their connection to the genocide. Some of the questions, like “if Turkey admitted to genocide and paid reparations, would you forgive them?” were controversial, to say the least. Students reported answers such as “the only good Turk is a dead Turk,” and “You should be ashamed for asking such a question.” People cried recalling family stories.
Putin, along with dignitaries such as the French president, will be here. There is increased security everywhere – Republic square will be shut down for the memorial, and police dogs have been sniffing the crowds this week.
Armenia is on edge, and Putin’s visit symbolizes many of these anxieties – 1) the simmering conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh is heating up, 2) the benefits of joining Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union are uncertain, 3) Western countries are unwilling to acknowledge the genocide in order to keep Turkey as a NATO ally. Armenia is again caught in the crossroads of empire on the anniversary of their unimaginable suffering.
While Russia is Armenia’s greatest ally, it also arms the Azeris in their war with Armenia. Nagorno-Karabakh is heating up again. In the last couple months, high schools here have again begun “shooting classes” as part of the curriculum. Sniper fire continues along the border, killing civilians and soldiers alike. We drove along the M-6 highway to Tbilisi last week, where we passed a couple settlements close to the border that had been abandoned during the 1988 war. “There is only sniper fire here once a year,” reassured our driver. However, along the Karabakh region, there are metres of sand banks protecting traffic in some areas.
For Putin, this is a significant public appearance and plays to his conservative base who see Armenia as a Christian ally among Muslim nations. (Meanwhile Turkey is only happy to incite this religious divide, by reminding the Pope that the Hagia Sophia will most likely be converted to a mosque.)
But the underlying religious narrative of “Russia is our greatest ally” falls apart when considering their support for Azerbaijan, and their desire to build a natural gas pipeline through Turkey (to avoid Ukraine) and draw it away from NATO.
The effects of joining the Eurasian Economic Union are still to be seen. If all post-Soviet states sign on, it could serve as a platform for diplomatic ties with the Azeris. One thing is certain however – more economic sanctions on Russia will almost certainly hurt the Armenians, who have some 3 million citizens sending paychecks here from Russia.
Unfortunately for Armenia, isolating Russia’s networks of propaganda and mafia businesses seems to be the best course for the west. I recommend listening to the latest Munk debates in Toronto, where Anne Applebaum and Gary Kasparov make the case for isolation (The WSJ columnist/historian and chess champion have the definite upper hand, while their opponents make the cheap move of claiming to have all the “facts.”) It is a lively and wide ranging debate, with discussions of western involvement in the Russian civil war, attempts to negotiate with Stalin, etc.
Applebaum discusses the new type of Russian propaganda which aims to sow confusion rather than a consistent message by creating conspiracy theories, broadcast contradicting information, and straight out lie. One example is the Russian media response to the Malaysian flight shot down over the Ukraine – among the many conspiracy theories, one claimed that the people on board were already dead before taking off.
While I haven’t watched Russian news here in Armenia, there are some clues to its influence. Our driver here thinks Gary Kasparov is a villain because he was born in Baku, and does not recognize his Armenian heritage. Another thinks Georgian president Saakashvili is an idiot who started a war with Russia and was deluded into thinking he could win. Discussions about corruption often devolve into emotionally defensive rationalizations – corruption is rampant everywhere in the world, it just goes by different names – like lobbying and Super PACs. This is probably true, but serves as ammunition for the Russian status quo, and keeps the Armenian oligarchs loyal to their Russian counterparts.
Finally, Armenians are on edge because they require international recognition of the genocide to fully heal. But Western powers like the US prefer to make Turkey happy in hopes of drawing it closer to Europe. This means Washington does not use the “G” word (they need their military base in Incirlik), but Russia does. When France recognized the genocide, Turkey was quick to recall its ambassador and threaten total diplomatic rupture. The EU’s genocide recognition was a way to avoid a repeat of France’s ruptured ties.
One wonders how Russia will use their largely sympathetic portrayal of the Armenian genocide as a political tactic. Armenians have figured prominently in Soviet history – most notably the Mikoyan “MiG” jets, and General Bagramyan, the architect of the Kursk offensive that drove the Nazis back across Ukraine during the “Great Patriotic War.”
Armenia faces two versions of revisionist history – Turkish/Azeri, and Soviet. It is difficult to understand why the Turks and Azeris hate Armenians so much. One can understand the nationalist fervor after the Russo-Turkish war in the 1890s, but why did Azeris kill their neighbors in Baku after 70 years of coexistence under Soviet rule?
Azeris claim that Yerevan is historically theirs. Aside from leaving out whole centuries of Armenian rule in their museums, they claim that the architect Tumanyan deliberately wiped out Islamic cultural influence in his design of downtown. This is a classic conspiracy theory tactic of pointing to non-existent evidence.
By arming the Azeris and recognizing the genocide, Russia might be trying to remind the post-Soviet republics that life was better before 1991. Analysts have been discussing the possibility of Russian “peace-keepers” in Karabakh. Russia continues to conduct massive military exercises, including in the the South Caucasus, ie the disputed Georgian border. Since Armenia has joined the EEU, Russia has been building highways to the Georgian border, and requested transit to their bases in Armenia:
Since the exercises are taking place in the mountainous part of the Northern Caucasus and are focusing on the skills needed to conduct military operations in the mountains, Moscow appears to be signaling that it does not plan to stop with the annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Frequent media reports about Russian plans to construct new highways from Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia to Georgia appear to be intentional leaks.
Putin’s visit to the genocide memorial thus raises a question about Armenia’s spiritual path – will it continue to draw strength from its independent religious past, or will it give over some of its independence for the sake of protection and economic stability from Russia?
During the genocide, the Russians acted as messengers to the west, relaying requests for assistance from Etchmiadzin (the Armenian “Vatican” near Yerevan). They felt some moral responsibility, since the Turks claimed that killing Armenians was justified given their allegiance to Russia. But Russia remained largely bystanders during their own time of upheaval and revolution. During Soviet rule on the other hand, the Kremlin was careful to fund Armenian historical projects, museums, and archaeological excavations.
The Armenian Genocide, unfortunately, is being used for pragmatic reasons. For Russia, it is a way to claim a moral high ground. Meanwhile the US sacrifices conscience (even though Obama calls it “a great atrocity”) for better ties with Turkey.