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.”


Harut Sassounian said...

Kevork Oskanian commits the same sin that he accuses me of committing. He attacks me (the messenger) rather than the message. He criticizes me for not commenting on the ICG's recommendations and then he himself does not say a single word about those same recommendations. I do not criticize those recommendations simply because they are so ridiculous that I do not wish to dignify them by taking them seriously. The reason I attacked the ICG is because its recommendations are lifted from the Turkish government's anti-Armenian propaganda campaign. I don't take the Turkish propaganda campaign seriously either.
On the other hand, I have a lot to say about Mr. Oskanian's comments, but I do not wish to waste my time. Suffice it to say that I disagree with just about everything he says.

Harut Sassounian

Kevork Oskanian said...

I respectfully disagree. At no point in my article are there any attacks on Mr. Sassounian's person, or do I question his well-established integrity - which he does in the case of ICG.

Instead, I attack that aspect of his article and critique the ideology behind it. There is an essential difference between the two.

The point is not just that there is no substantial criticism of ICG's report, rather, it is the fact that the lack of this criticism is justified by the knee-jerk argument that 'they are all in the Turks' pockets'.

That argument just isn't good enough for me.

Richard said...


What do you think about the ICG's report and its recommendations?

Kevork Oskanian said...

I'll try to post a substantial assessment this weekend....

Paul said...

Oskanian is correct to the extent that the Armenian Cause is not the same to everyone. But there are core goals and values in it. Armenian political parties must define it better and show how to achieve its goals, even if thery are long-term goals. One get the feeling, however, that Oskanian wants none of these goals. So he makes "intellectual" arguments about statehood.
As to the ICG report, it was clearly written by Hugh Pope, pro-Turk par-excellence. He is the ICG's Turkey "expert". There is no ICG Armenian and even if there were, he would probably be some bought off Hayastantsi that kisses up to the West. There are many of them for sale. Pope's wife is a columnist for Zaman. The couple has a vacation home in Turkey.
One problem with ICG and similar NGO's is not just that they are all - everyone of them - American oriented and pro-Turkish but that they are able to buy Hayastanstis who need a job - any job - and are willing to kiss up to the West to get one. These people, these Armenian "intellectuals" are constantly told that Armenia is weak and is of no use to anyone, which is exactly what the West WANTS them to think. Even a 5 year old kid knows that Armenia, besides Georgia, is and had been the only way for the West to penetrate the Caspian basin from the West. There is power in that. And the Azeri-Artsakh impasse is the key to complete penetration by the West for obvious reasons of geography.Sadly, I have spoken to some Armenian American academicians (I am American born, and so were my parents), and they have been brainwashed by their establishment professors into believing that Armenia has no power and nothing to offer. These professors inculcate the idea into their naive students that Armenia must essentially become a doormat for the West. Oskanian's belief that the people and groups that make up ICG are somehow benign and may have good ideas displays a certain touching naivete.

Kevork Oskanian said...

And so, again, in order to agree with ICGs comments you would either have to be a friend of Turkey - like Hugh Pope - or a "bought off" unprincipled Hayastantsi.... All of this just proves my earlier point.

Nowhere do I say that the ICG is somehow "benign". I simply point to the fact that, instead of looking at their funding and advisors alone, it might be better to engage with the arguments they're making. Do they stand up to logic? Are there any blatant falsities or inconsistencies within them? If there are, you can start nagging about undue outside influence; if you nag without presenting substantial (rather than circumstantial) criticism), it just proves a lack of self-confidence or a measure of self-delusion that has to be maintained through constant rationalisation.

Paul said...

I read the entire ICG report, about 40 pages. It recommends a joint historical commission to decide whether the genocide occurred. Yes, Sargsian is in favor of it. He said that in a recent Wall Street Journal interview, which only goes to prove how clueless the man is.

First, all the necessary genocide studies have been done. The IAGS told that to Erdogan in a public letter 4 years ago right on its own web site. Turkey rejects all such studies and wants to find one - just one - study that sides with it. When that happens, Turkey and the world will accept that study, or at least consider the genocide to be further in dispute. It is obvious that a "joint" study with Turkish or even "neutral" historians will not come to a unanimous decision - hence no decision. Even if the commission decided it was a genocide, Turkey will disclaim all responsibility because it took place under the Ottoman regime. Of course, massacres were continued under Ataturk, but in order for Armenia to make such an argument, President Sargsian would have to possess some familiarity with Armenian history and have an IQ above 80, neither of which he has.
Hugh Pope of the ICG knows all this, which is why he is enthralled with the idea of a joint study. Does the ICG not know that genocide studies galore already exist? Of course it does. It does not care. Pope does not care. This is precisely the argument that Sassounian was making - that the ICG report was an obvious setup, and to show why it was, Sassounian cited the pro-Turks who are on its board.
We Americans are very familar with think tanks and NGO's amd such (such as CFR) here in the states. Without xcpetin, they are pro-Turkish and mostly all pro-Israeli.
I know of no one in the CFR, for example, who acknowledges the genocide.
Kevork, have you lost your mind, along with Richard Giragosian of ACNIS?

Onnik Krikorian said...

Actually, while I'm sure there is a lot to be discussed which can't be because nobody knows what the details of the road map are, I think it all boils down to two different positions.

You are either for normalized relations with Turkey or you're not.

As for shooting the messenger, yes, it's true and all the arguments against normalization have not been backed up by fact, but rather hysterics about betrayal and the "Armenian cause."

Meawnhile, as historians such as Ara Sarafian say, key documents remain hidden away in Diaspora archives, and as some accounts of the genocide have not been factually proven, I would say a historical commission is necessary.

Regardless, the main point would simply be that if Armenia and Turkey are to come to terms with the past then this would have to be reflected in the school curriculum of both countries.

As it stands, a subjective and nationalist view of history is taught in Armenia and Turkey, and a standardized version would need to be adopted. A group of objective and respected historians would therefore be the right choice.

Anyway, I remember the same knee-jerk reaction to the ICTJ report for TARC and those fears were misplaced as well. Of course, the nationalists were against it only because of territorial claims on Turkey.

Perhaps another question should therefore be considered. If there are such claims, what happens to the many million more Kurds and Turks living there now? Would they become Armenian citizens and form the majority?

Or do the nationalists plan their own wave of ethnic cleansing? Is anyone from LA, Boston, NY, Beirut even, going to go back to those villages and towns anyway? At the moment, few can even cope with living in Yerevan.

Anyway, this is a war of words between those who believe that the past must be resolved in order to live side by side in the future, and those whose objectives can be considered "nationalistic."

Anyway, great piece. It's about time we started talking about the atmosphere of intolerance which objects to anyone who doesn't adhere to an ethno-nationalistic mindset and which prevents any independent thought.

Still, at least we're having this discussion, and such accusative positions such as Sassounian's are more likely to discredit the nationalist view. Engage in discussion. Counter arguments with your own.

But when people can only accuse it shows they have no other argument to offer.

Anonymous said...

Well I think diaspora people are very over-qualified elits who live in theory and dont mind the local conditions of armenia...Like it or not Turkey is neighbour of Armenia. With bad relations with neighbours Armenia can never be a place of prosperity...
(General rule for everyone,not case for armenians)
I advice every diaspora armenians go to Armenia for some time..If they say current situation is Ok..Then no problem...If not,a change is inevitable..Otherwise Armenia will be a place that the people live with donations...

Anonymous said...

Another question that nobody asks..The dependent relations with Russia..As far as I know 70% resources now belong to Russians in armenia...In coming years this will be much more..
What do armenians think to get rid of this dependency?Is there any procject or discussion?