Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Killing the Messenger.....

The ICG report on Turkish-Armenian relations has elicited considerable comment from the Armenian press - including the diasporan press. Some of the criticisms have been to the point, directly engaging with the solutions offered in the document through rational argumentation and critique. Others, however, have utilised a technique well-known to wishful thinkers throughout history: if you don't like what you hear, kill the messenger. Rather than engaging with the proposals, these commentators have preferred to tarnish the professionalism of the ICG researchers by accusing them of, basically, working for the Turkish government and other vested interests.

One such example is the recent op-ed article by Harut Sassounian, entitled "Think Tank Report on Armenia: You Get What You Pay For". It starts by listing a whole slew of mainstream - and mostly quite respected - institutions, going from one-time hotbeds of neo-conservatism (like the American Enterprise Institute) to fairly moderate outfits like Brookings and the Council on Foreign Relations, that are accused of pro-Turkish bias. It then continues to enumerate the pro-Turkish and Turkish individuals that populate the ICG board and senior advisors, adding that the Turkish foreign ministry is one of the ICG's major donors.

The implication is, of course, that the ICG report was made-to-order. And, considering the fact that there are no Armenians or other individuals who might argue in Armenia's favour, Sassounian's article further implies that we can all sleep tight: any kind of proposal that would come out of this joke of a think-tank would have to be "outrageous" and "extremely detrimental to Armenia's interests." Somewhat conveniently, those suggestions that do not fit our narrowly conceived nationalist utopias are sent straight to the rubbish bin, without any further debate or contemplation. The certainties of yesteryear are preserved, and the struggle can continue.

For years, decades, we Armenians – especially those of us in the diaspora – have taken a rigid definition of the ‘Armenian Cause’ for granted. While there can be no doubt as to the characterisation of the 1915 events as Genocide, one particular, ethno-nationalist and territorial approach to its political and ethical consequences has been turned into a value in and of itself. A blatant lack of open discussion has led to an obfuscation of the different interpretations one could make of ‘justice’ in the Armenian case. Should the ‘Armenian Cause’ be material in nature, incorporating demands for restitution, or should it be merely a moral quest for truth? If it is material, would it indeed have to incorporate demands for territorial restitution, and, if it is not, could it limit itself to monetary compensation, or perhaps even symbolic gestures? And, if we do agree on the goal that should be set, what would be the best way of attaining it? Striving for recognition by third parties - as before? Direct engagement with Turkish society? Engagement with Ankara? War, massacre and conquest? What should be the role of the diaspora in this cause? And the role of the Republics of Armenia and Karabakh?

All these are questions that deserve answers going beyond the repetitions of empty and not-so-empty slogans that imbue us with a false sense of certainty. What is a matter for particular concern is the fact that these slogans, and the 'Armenian Cause', have not been adapted to the single-most important event in Armenian history since 1918 - the creation of the Republics of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in 1991. "Pahanjatirutyun" - being consistent in our demands - has been used as a passe-partout argument suppressing any genuine debate on the matter. Those who have presented an alternative viewpoint - participating in TARC, or otherwise engaging directly with Turkish society - have often been marginalised as 'traitors'.

Too many of our commentators in the diaspora and Armenia proper have continued adhering to a world-view that turns Armenia - a weak and fragile state except perhaps in the minds of those who revel in wishful thinking - into a vehicle for a utopian nationalist ideology. Rather than striving for the security - that is, the well-being and prosperity - of its population, the Republic of Armenia has simply been seen by too many as a vehicle for our pie-in-the-sky demands - as I said, "Pahanjatirutyun" - even if they are but complete pipedreams and put the Republic at odds with what is still its largest direct neighbour.

Stateless peoples can afford their utopias – because, in the end, they don’t have a state to lose. They can afford to pursue goals that seem largely unattainable, because, in the absence of sovereign statehood, the ensuing conflict will largely remain outside the realm of inter-state politics. Borders cannot be blockaded, national armies cannot be defeated, capitals cannot be conquered: instead, oppressive states are faced with minority insurgent groups that are far more difficult to suppress than a well-defined, well-delineated neighbour - especially if these groups are in diaspora.

Once achieved, however, the independence and sovereignty that come with a minority’s exercise of its fundamental right to self-determination do not stand on their own. They are accompanied by the same kind of responsibility that comes with property: that of the bonus paterfamilias – the good housefather. Independence must be maintained, prosperity nurtured. In the end, nations that achieve statehood must have a fundamentally different attitude to those aspiring to it. They must see statehood as their ultimate common good, as their dominant collective cause. The survival and prosperity of the sovereign state must trump all other ideological considerations. ‘National causes’ – particularly ones aimed against neighbours – become a luxury, subject to power relationships and the ultimate Macchiavellian virtue of prudence.

In the 18 years since independence, the nationalists among us have failed to adapt their ideology to the requirements of a sovereign, independent, prosperous and genuinely pluralistic Republic of Armenia. Instead, they have continued defining its core principle – the ‘Armenian Cause’ – through a mindset of statelessness. They have continued to see Armenia as a springboard towards the realisation of a territorial utopia – by not only supporting Artsakh’s legitimate struggle for self-determination, but by also laying claim to territories in all of Armenia’s neighbours except Iran. They have continued to propagate the idea of an (ethno-)national ideology, despite of the notion’s totalitarian and fundamentally anti-democratic nature, precluding any form of debate and introspection.

And killing the messenger instead of debating the message is precisely one symptom of such rigidly absolutist thought. If you adhere to any of ICG's suggestions after the institution has been declared a Turkish stooge, you in effect adhere to Turkey's standpoint - debate closed. This is the clear implication of Mr. Sassounian's article.

For all his faults - and he had and still has many - Levon Ter-Petrossian was absolutely right when he declared in 1997:

“What do they mean by a national ideology? Only one thing which the whole nation should accept. A whole nation accepts one single ideology only in totalitarian systems, only in ideologized states. If there is democracy, no one can impose any ideology. Today, every ideology in Armenia is a national one to me, because each of them projects the best way of solving the national issues in itself. If a nation is forced to accept a national ideology, that is the end of democracy.”