ԱՄՆ «Virginia Tech» համալսարանի ասպիրանտ Նարեկ Սէֆէրեանի հետ զրուցել ենք Սյունիք կատարած նրա այցի նպատակներից։ Զրույցի ընթացքում շոշափել ենք նաև հասարակության շրջանում տիրող տրամադրությունների մասին որոշ հարցեր։
Today is Armenia’s independence day – the thirtieth anniversary, in fact, of this latest manifestation of a place called Armenia on the world map. It has not been an easy three decades, and the last twelve months and more have been marked with a pandemic and a devastating war and its aftermath, among other challenging phenomena.
For the past two weeks now, I have been in Kapan, in the province of Siunik in the south of the country, doing fieldwork for my dissertation. So far, I have conducted about a dozen interviews and had numerous conversations with locals about Siunik and the experience of the new geography of the province and the country since last year. That’s the over-arching theme of the dissertation. Although I do not have many substantial conclusions to draw as of yet, one common theme that has appeared is indigeneity. It is a prevailing part of Armenian discourse that the Armenians are the original inhabitants of this land, their historical homeland.
I have been exposed to numerous news stories, documentaries, long-form articles, and other media products about racism in the United States over the past year and more, ever since George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. It’s not that I had been unaware of racism in America, but I now find myself more educated about the various social, political, cultural, and legal facets of this complex and multi-layered phenomenon. Many questions remain for me, popping up amidst mixed and conflicted thoughts and feelings as I try in particular to tie in the narratives I’ve come across with the experience of the Armenian community in the United States.
At the outset, I have to emphasise that I am not American at all. I have spent quite a few years in this country, but always as a student – an observer and a learner in more ways than one. So my perspectives are that of an outsider.
I remember one of the first times I devoted some thought to the conceptualisation of race in the United States. It was the 2010 census. I filled it in as everyone was required to do so. There were a few basic questions, and then a long list of options for “Race”. It seemed like such a lop-sided form to me. What kind of data would come out of it? As far as I could tell, it would compute how many people were in a given space at that prescribed moment, how old they were, and then lots of variations in how they could label themselves. What purpose could that latter bit serve in public policy?
It is April 24 soon – Armenian Genocide commemoration day.
Every year, the public remembrance of the victims of a horrific crime during a tumultuous period becomes political in many places Armenian communities call home, not the least of which in the United States.
The White House has been issuing statements annually on April 24 for more than a quarter of a century now, but always avoiding the term “Armenian Genocide”. The massacres and deportations are duly and solemnly condemned by each president. However, calling it by that explicit term – genocide – would be detrimental to relations with Turkey, because the government in Ankara has long held either denialist positions or has pushed forward modified arguments about the broader historical context, general widespread suffering and chaos during the First World War, and so on. It is comparatively rare in Turkey nowadays to hear outright denial of killings, dispossession, and the exile from Anatolia and Asia Minor of Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and other communities in 1915 and later. But describing it as genocide remains taboo in most Turkish circles.
There have been reports that President Biden will invoke “the g-word” this year. Congress, for its part, has acknowledged the Armenian Genocide on a few occasions, most recently in October, 2019, when relations with Turkey were at a low. Almost all state governors or state houses have made various proclamations or passed resolutions on the Armenian Genocide during the last few decades, as have many city-level governmental bodies throughout the United States. However, there is no sustained, federal Armenian Genocide policy position consistently adopted and expressed by the legislative and executive branches in Washington. It remains a challenge at the forefront of the impressive and moving efforts undertaken by the Armenian-American advocacy and activist community.
The broader question lingers: why even acknowledge the Armenian Genocide? What’s the point of any public or national commemoration in the US or elsewhere? It happened more than a hundred years ago. Yes, it was tragic, it should be condemned, the community has every right to hold memorial services. But what makes it a live public, political issue?
I think that is a reasonable question. Here are four reasonable responses.
In Turkish public discourse, “Sèvres Syndrome” refers to the looming legacy of the agreement signed in a suburb of Paris in 1920 which envisioned carving up the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Although it gives off an impression of being conspiratorial at first blush, political leaders in Turkey do have a basis in bringing up the notion of foreign powers planning to dismember the country. For over a century, the Eastern Question was on the agenda in the corridors of power in London, Paris, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and elsewhere. Geopolitical rivalries about this and other matters came to a head with the First World War, with mixed outcomes for all the empires involved. The Republic of Turkey – forged out of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 – has far less reason to suspect aspirations regarding its territory today, Kurdish separatists notwithstanding.
A sovereign Armenian state was foreseen by the Treaty of Sèvres, to include vast swathes of modern-day eastern Turkey. By contrast, Lausanne did not even involve any Armenian delegates during its negotiations, given the inroads made by a resurgent Soviet Russia and the consequent collapse of the infant Armenian republic in the Caucasus next door. As a result of the tumultuous first quarter of the 20th century (among other eras), hindsight and the notion of “historical justice” and “the restoration of historical justice” is ingrained in Armenian public discourse, even featuring in the country’s declaration of independence from the USSR. Nothing could be more emblematic of such a sentiment than Sèvres, which, unlike in Turkey, is shorthand for a missed opportunity alongside insufficient support or intervention from any of the Great Powers, the United States, or the West in general.
On September 27, fighting over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus broke out on the greatest scale since the cease-fire of 1994. Amid an unstable situation developing in the former Soviet space at the cusp of eastern Europe and the Middle East, the University of North Texas and the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech held an online discussion about the facts on the ground, the key local and regional players including Azerbaijan, Armenia, the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Russia, Turkey, the EU, and the United States, as well as the role of civil society and development efforts in the face of the conflict.
Too often the Karabakh conflict is reported in the Western media with great emphasis on oil and gas pipelines. While energy infrastructure is indeed a significant component of that complex issue, the rhetoric from the political leaders and from common voices in the region hinge overwhelmingly around national identity, historical narratives, and symbolism.
For example, the President of Azerbaijan complained in his interview on Al Jazeera English that towns and villages in the region have been re-named in the past decades. Now we see that the Azerbaijani armed forces claim to have taken over the village of Mataghis/Madagiz and Ilham Aliyev’s official Twitter account very soon proclaims a new name for it, rather – “I reinstate the historical name … Sugovushan”.
It is difficult to avoid drawing parallels between the political developments that took place in Armenia in 2018 and the ongoing events in Belarus. There are significant overlaps, but also substantial differences.
One major difference is in the leadership. Nikol Pashinyan had a long track record as a journalist, opposition activist, and politican, a visible part of street protests that had characterised politics in Armenia since the mid-2000s. He and his team had quite clear methods and tactics in 2018, drawn from years of experience.
I do not know enough about Belarus, but, from as much as I can follow, it seems that the movement is more sporadic, led by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who was unexpectedly thrust onto the scene because of political machinations targeting her husband. It is a different dynamic, even though – quite clearly – both in Armenia in 2018 and in Belarus in 2020, a large proportion of the population expresses the same demand of changing entrenched political leadership.