Opinion: After thirty years of modern statehood Armenia has little to celebrate, yet if it acts reasonably it can overcome its present predicament

Armenia is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its independence but whilst it has all the attributes of a modern state a lot of its institutions are hollow. There is much that can be done, and if it acts reasonably, Armenia can celebrate its 50th anniversary of independence in twenty years’ time in a much more positive atmosphere, writes Benyamin Poghosyan in this anniversary op-ed for commonspace.eu.

On 21 September 2021, Armenia celebrates the 30th anniversary of its independence. For a nation with at least 3500 years of history, this may not seem a very impressive record. However, since 1045 AD Armenia has never witnessed such a long period of independent statehood in the Armenian highland. Armenia enjoyed a brief period of independence in May 1918 - December 1920, after the collapse of the Russian Empire. However, these two and half years were marked by instability, conflicts, widespread famine, and poverty. Then Armenia was incorporated into the Soviet Union and continued its history as a Soviet Republic until late 1991 when the collapse of the USSR created a new opportunity for Armenia to regain its independence.

Exploring the last 30 years of Armenian history, we discover contradictory realities. On the one hand, Armenia has all attributes of independence and sovereign statehood: membership of the UN, OSCE, Council of Europe, and multiple other international organisations; a national currency; an army; state institutions and embassies. However, many of these attributes lacked substance, and were more like a façade with a hollow content. State institutions were marred by the nexus of politics, business, criminal activities, and rampant corruption; foreign policy had no clear strategy; and defence and security policy were outsourced to Russia. The population's living standards declined drastically in the early 1990s, contributing to the staggering emigration of more than one million Armenians. Despite the impressive double-digit economic growth of the 2000s, Armenia faces widespread poverty (approximately 30 percent according to state data), and the de facto population is now below the psychological level of three million.

However, there was one thing of undisputed pride for Armenians both in Armenia and in the Diaspora. It was the establishment of the unrecognised Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR) in late 1991, the victory in the first Karabakh war, and a significant enlargement of territories under the control of the NKR. Given the traumatic memories of the Armenian Genocide committed by Ottoman Turkey during the First World War, the victory in the first Karabakh war had a huge psychological effect for Armenians, contributing to the gradual overcoming of victimhood.

The 2018 Velvet Revolution seemed to open a new, brighter chapter in modern Armenian history. There was a widespread hope that Armenia would overcome the seemingly unsolvable issues of rampant corruption, weak state institutions, and mafia-style government. There was a genuine belief that Armenia would make a decisive leap towards modernisation and, while keeping its geopolitical alliance with Russia, will forge more intensive co-operation with the EU and the US.

The 2020 Karabakh war and its catastrophic outcomes dealt a heavy blow to Armenia and Armenians. Armenia lost all its gains of the first Karabakh war, thus losing the single most valuable and cherished result of the 30 years of independence. Armenians still live in Karabakh in an area of approximately 3000 square km, which has been transformed into a de facto Russian protectorate. However, no one knows what its future will be. One thing is clear, Armenians in Artsakh are not the owners of their destiny anymore, and need to closely watch the fluctuations in Russia-Azerbaijan, and Russia-Azerbaijan-Turkey relations in order to guess about their future fate. Since November 2020 Armenia itself gave up its role as a security guarantor of Artsakh Armenians, and acted only as a provider of essential financial resources necessary to prevent hunger in Artsakh.

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The staggering defeat in the 2020 war and continuing pressure from Azerbaijan – the incursion into the Armenian territory in May 2021; de facto Azerbaijani control over parts of the sole Armenia–Iran international highway; and demands from Azerbaijan and Turkey to provide them a "Zangezur corridor" to connect Azerbaijan with Nakhijevan and Turkey via Syunik – have disoriented Armenians. People ask many questions with no answers – will Russian troops remain in Artsakh after November 2025 and what happens if not? Should Armenia apply for an international mandate to continue peacekeeping operation in Artsakh? Is the OSCE Minsk Group more dead than alive? Should Armenia normalise relations with Turkey by accepting Ankara’s preconditions? This situation creates a feeling of disappointment, apathy, and hopelessness.

However, the Armenian nation faced more formidable challenges in the past and was able to overcome them. It does not mean that recovery is guaranteed, and Armenians should do nothing and wait for some magic solution. First of all, Armenia should realise that it has partners and friends in the East and the West who are ready to support it. The fatalism and perception that everything is over will lead to nowhere. The second most important thing is the precise threat assessment and evaluation of the security environment. You cannot make the right steps if you do not understand your situation. The third step should be elaborating several strategic goals to be reached within 10-15 years.

These goals are: Armenians should continue living in Artsakh free of the danger of massacres and extermination; Armenia should have a strong economy and army; and Armenia should avoid the false dichotomy of being a weak state with democratic institutions or a strong state with an authoritarian government. There are plenty of strong democracies and weak authoritarian states and vice versa. Any choice should be made based on one crystal clear criteria – which option provides more opportunities to protect Armenian vital national interests. Everything else is irrelevant. If it acts reasonably, Armenia can overcome the 2020 debacle and celebrate its 50th anniversary of independence in twenty years time in a much more positive atmosphere.             

 
source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
photo: Armenians celebrating independence day (archive picture)

 

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