Nagorno-Karabakh is an existential issue for Armenians. We regard it as our historic homeland, and winning control of it in the 1990s was a symbolic victory that restored our dignity almost a century after the genocide.
That’s why many people, both outside and inside Armenia, are wondering if Armenians are willing to give up this part of what we believe makes us Armenian.
The question has new urgency after Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s fateful speech last week, in which he painted a dire picture of the ongoing negotiations with Azerbaijan and the outcomes that Armenia will have to swallow. Armenia, he said, will have to “lower the bar on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh a little.”
I was first thinking of writing about the reactions to the speech: what analysts say, how the media is describing it, people raising the Karabakh flag everywhere, a little about an opposition leader camping outside on a central Yerevan square as an act of protest. But that would be giving all these reactions too much significance.
Armenians have been stunned into inaction by one shocking event after another in the last couple of years. The only reaction that would really matter is if Armenians could agree on the kinds of lives they and future generations will lead. But we have made that impossible.
In our highly polarized society, these kinds of shocks are nothing more than an opportunity for some to cling to power, putting all the blame on their predecessors. And for the latter to try to regain power with cheap insults, calling the current authorities “Turks.” No one takes responsibility. We can’t agree on what happened in the past, so how can we build a future? This lack of accountability has made our diplomacy impotent. And the highest price will be paid by the 100,000-plus Armenians of Karabakh who now face a very murky future.
The number one rule in Armenia’s ideology has been survival, and that is accomplished only by struggle. Given the challenges, that has a certain logic, but it also has blocked the creation of any narratives that wouldn’t just be repetitions of the past. And so far, through two major wars in the last three decades, a repetition of the past is all we have seen. The only difference now is that Azerbaijan has control over the land that we used to. And there are thousands more dead.
Now that is going to be cemented in a new peace deal that our two countries are negotiating. But what Armenia and Azerbaijan have after three decades of negotiating is just diplomacy on paper, suits walking into meetings placing bets they hope will pay off. Real diplomacy, though, requires a long-term political commitment, demonstrated through real policies.
How do we build confidence and trust between our societies? That is the bare minimum, but it’s going to be the work of decades.
“Mankind must remember that peace is not God’s gift to his creatures. It is our gift to each other,” said Elie Wiesel in his Nobel lecture. That’s profound but immensely difficult to achieve. It takes a consistent effort from governments that have a vision for their country’s future, not only during the time they are in power. Do we have that now?