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Decade of Turmoil: Reflections on Armenia and the Armenians

Consul General Armen Baibourtian, right, and Prof. Dickran Kouymjian
Consul General Armen Baibourtian, right, and Prof. Dickran Kouymjian

By Dickran Kouymjian

Archbishop Vatche, Very Reverend Mushegh, Father Raphael, Reverend Minassian, Mr. Consul General and Mrs. Baibourtian, distinguished clergy and guests, ladies and gentlemen. What a wonderful occasion! Many of us have mixed memories of getting a visa for Armenia, arriving at the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco or another city to get a visa for Armenia, wondering if the FBI was photographing us from the building across the street, or if we would get in trouble with the American government for traveling there. Now it a simple formality conducted between members of the same family. Surely this is part of today’s celebration.

Today’s banquet should inspire us to reflect on Armenia and the Armenians, homeland and diaspora, citizenship, responsibility, and above all history, the historical context of our lives, the lives of our parents and grandparents, and of future generations of Armenians. So much has happened to Armenians in recent years that even we, a people who have always respected history and interpreted our lives in historical terms, cannot assess fully the meaning of what has passed. It is at moments such as this, when we come together to commemorate and celebrate, that we offer ourselves the excuse to look at the past in larger terms.

I think back a decade ago to those relatively tranquil days of June 1987 in Armenia when I was finishing my term as a Fulbright professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Erevan State University. The call by Mikhail Gorbatchov for restructuring and transparency, perestroïka and glasnost, had already caused a stir in Armenia. A major petition had been circulating with hundreds of thousands of signatures asking for the union of Karabagh to Armenia; the ecology movement was expanding, reflecting the general concern in the population about the nuclear plant at Medsamour and the pollution from the large Naïrit chemical complex in Erevan itself; and growing nationalism in institutions like the Matenadaran, the Writers Union, and especially among university students were contributing to a major debate about Armenian leadership and the control of the country and various unions by a small elite.

The stagnation of the Brezhnev period, denounced in the Soviet Union, was still felt in Armenia through the First Secretary of the Communist Party, Garen Demirjian and the crony system he supported, but open criticism was rampant and signs that things were changing included the resignation of Vartkes Petrossian as head of the powerful Writers Union, caused in part by the protest against his most recent novel, The Bloody Shirt, by the students of the Polytechnic University, who were alarmed by its suggestion of dialogue with the Turks. But I emphasize, in Armenia during the summer of 1987 things were still calm, “normal” in the language of those days.

However, in the fall everything seemed to accelerate. The ecology and Karabagh movements got intertwined and in early 1988 engendered a series of ever larger, but peaceful, demonstrations, which confused Moscow, astonished the world, and even surprised Armenians by their solidarity, clarity of purpose, and determination. Who could have imagined the outcome would have been the barbarous pogroms of Sumga¥t and Baku precipitating a mass exodus of populations and leading to war. Who can forget the betrayal of Armenian hopes by a Gorbatchov who refused to accept the consequences of the very “transparency” and “restructuring” he so aggressively initiated, a leader who could not or would not take the necessary decisions to stop the killing and referee an honest settlement between Azerbaijan and the Armenians over Karabagh, and who finally tricked the Armenian people through its own intellectuals into stopping the protests, into putting an end to the greatest popular, anti-government movement in the history of the Soviet Union.

Martial law was declared and Soviet tanks occupied Armenia’s capital. Then at the very end of that year 1988, the earthquake struck, unexpected and violent, merciless in its effect on the body and spirit of a nation just as it was collectively doing everything it could to show that through a united effort truth and justice could be made to prevail. Gorbatchov himself, the architect of the future down-sizing of the Russian Empire, came from the UN in New York to Erevan. But Armenians greeted him shouting “Karabaghe mern *!” and the great Communist leader was taken aback by a people who, in the throes of tragedy and death, refused to forget that Karabagh was theirs. Working with local KGB agents, who had things carefully planned, Gorbatchov quickly had all the members of the Karabagh Committee, Armenia’s hope for a new future, arrested and imprisoned in Moscow in the worst manner of Soviet totalitarianism. Catastrophe, trauma, war, death — Armenia was devastated and occupied by Soviet tanks. There was war in Karabagh and a total blockade of the country. The nation’s elected leadership was discredited, the people’s leaders in prison. What difficult and uncertain days they were. But time never stopped.

Soon there were renewed proposals for a compromise on Karabagh; due to the pressure of western governments, the members of the Karabagh Committee were released and allowed to return to Armenia. There were parliamentary elections and Karabagh Committee representatives were swept into office. Levon Ter Petrossian was elected president of the Parliament. Finally, there was the dramatic dissolution of the Soviet Union undertaken fearlessly by a naive Gorbatchov, and, in the following year, 1991, the declaration of Armenian independence. Levon Ter Petrossian was swept into office as the Republic of Armenia’s first democratically and popularly elected president. Quickly the new Armenian Republic accepted the legacy of the old First Republic of 1918 and adopted its symbols: the Tricolor flag and the national anthem.

Armenian, however, continued to suffer war, a massive blockade, lack of power, fuel, food, even fear that together Azerbaijan and Turkey would overrun it while the Great Powers stood by.With Russian complicity, much of Karabagh fell to the Azeris. Finally, unexpectedly, the Armenians of Karabagh captured Shushi and the Lachin corridor: a clear victory by the embattled underdog and the turning of the tide. More conquests followed, leading to a cease-fire in May 1994. Armenians could at last settled down to the simple every day miseries of survival, penury, darkness and cold, unemployment, and inflation, but also attend to rebuilding and looking to the future of an impoverished, but independent and democratic, country.

Throughout all of this we contributed in our way to the transformation and stabilization of Armenia. Numerous aid organizations were established, many continue to provide humanitarian help; the American University of Armenia was founded with the help of the University of California and the vision and energy of American Armenians, particularly Mihran Aghbabian and Louise Simone; joint ventures were started; and help was generously given to put the medical and health sector on a sound basis. We witnessed the proliferation of Armenian Embassies and Consulates around the world, like the one in Los Angeles whose second anniversary we are celebrating today. We rejoiced in the leadership and friendship of young and competent Armenian diplomats: Shugarian, Arzoumanian, Nanagulian, Ter Ghevondian, Sarkissian, and our own Armen Baibourtian.

Today, as Armenians we must remain vigilant, mostly against our own complacency and arrogance. Nation building, as we have found out, is immensely difficult. For many new countries it has proved almost impossible. Even for Armenia we have all remarked at the regression in many sectors of life. But we have avoided civil war, when, during the same years other former Communist states, unfortunately could not: Yugoslavia for example, or closer to home, Armenia’s neighbors, Georgia and Azerbaijan experienced disruption and devastation through internal conflict. Was Armenia saved from civil war because of good leadership? Surely in part, yes, though all of us can think of moments of poor leadership. Was it saved because of luck? In part, yes, even though Armenians think of themselves as a particularly unlucky people with massacre, genocide, and earthquake only part of the tragic side of their own twentieth century legacy.

Now at the end of the second year of the history of the Armenian Consulate in Southern California, the third year of cease-fire in the Karabagh, the six year of the Republic of Armenia, the seventh year of self-rule, and the tenth year of the transformation of the Armenian nation, we must look ahead with specific notions and ideas. What has been hardest for all of us, Armenians in Armenia and Armenians in the diaspora, is the giving up of our old dreams. How comfortable we were in our vision for the future when Armenia was still a “dependent” state, lacking the ability to decide for itself. How glorious the future independent and democratic Armenia would be, we thought, constructed in our minds in the most perfect manner we could imagine with our democratic notions of liberty, equality, fraternity. How sure we were that when self-determination came, Armenians would be united in purpose and outlook, that the country would prosper through diligence and intelligence, and quickly become the Switzerland of the Caucasus. Little of this has yet to come true, and so many have become disillusioned. But such great ideals are seldom fully realized by any nation, at any time. Man, unlike any other species, is able to formulate plans and ideals, and is inspired by the struggle to achieve them. This is the human spirit and it is surely the Armenian spirit. In the midst of an imperfect reality we must still hold on to the idea of a perfectible one.

The recent elections in Armenia have taught the Armenians in the homeland, something that Armenians in the democratic west have know for a long time. Despite everything, through elections, that is through the peaceful exertion of constitutional rights, a country can change its leadership or put pressure on the leadership to respect its wishes. Armenia now has a political system that is the envy of most post-Soviet Republics precisely because of the hotly contested election. There is a strong opposition and the process of alternation that we are so used to in the United States, with Democrats following Republicans, is surely to follow in Armenia if Armenia is to develop into a normal democratic nation.

The experience has matured Armenians. Change can occur through non-violent means and though many of us fear change because we have gotten used to the system as it is, we have also learned how easy it is to adjust to change. Let us not forget that for many Armenians His Holiness Karekin I, Catholicos of All Armenians, was regarded not too long ago as an agent of a political party, and a threat to the Armenian nation, whereas now those same Armenians herald him as the champion of a revived spirituality in the church and nation. The lesson here is for Armenians to be careful and open to other Armenians who appear to have a different vision than their own, because inevitably one day it will be the turn of others to administer. In a healthy nation, everyone must feel enfranchised and useful. In a democracy, opposition parties serve to control the excesses of those in power. We have seen this over and again in the United States, France, even young countries like Israel. Armenia has been fortunate in having a president, who, I believe despite everything, understands this very well. We, too, must constantly remind ourselves of this reality.

We have also seen in recent months a new flexibility in the attitude of Armenia toward the diaspora. As diasporan Armenians, we too have understood that what we thought should happen so easily and naturally in terms of diasporan-Armenian relations is in fact very complicated. Fear is a terrible thing and Armenians in the homeland have lived under fear. But as fear declines through accomplishment and empowerment, self- confidence rises. With self-confidence people feel less threatened; they become more open. This is precisely what is happening in Armenian-Diasporan relations. And at occasions such as this it is our duty to note that.

Ten years of momentous history are behind us. Have mistakes been made? Yes, by us and by Armenia’s leadership. The more interesting question is: Who has not made a mistake? Have we learned from these mistakes? Yes. Have we corrected our errors? Only in part and slowly. Will we make the same mistakes again? Yes, as surely as we are human. Is this in part because of ignorance, selfishness, self interest, laziness, and fear of change? Most certainly!

Armenia has survived civil conflict. In Erevan there is a stable government. Dialogue has reopened. The people in Armenia now understand democracy better and see that through elections, parties can be voted out of power. There is an opposition that can rally close to half the vote, creating something close to the party system in the United States. There is talk of compromise again. Furthermore, a change of government took place and new faces have appeared. The relationship with the diaspora is becoming one of closer ties and better understanding on both parts. The mistakes are becoming history and slowly Armenia and Armenians are trying to learn how not to repeat them.

In time others will be entrusted with the burden of caring for the country; new figures will come to the fore. New heroes will replace those of yesterday. Former enemies will become friends. New parties will try their turn at governing and with some luck Armenia will strengthen its democratic institutions step by step, with minimal conflict, and without blood shed.

We have come together today in secular communion with Armenia, distant geographically, but so close spiritually. It is not enough for us just to look back at history and record how it happened in these past two or six or ten years. Rather should we not also, each of us, ask and re-ask ourselves the question: What is my relationship to Armenia? What does the homeland expect of me? What do I expect from it?

And should not such questions lead immediately to the more creative ones: What should Armenia expect of me? What should I expect of it? And is not the answer to both questions simply that Armenians living on the land and we leaving with the spirit of the land want to know that “we” and “they” can speak to each other, that there exists a “we” and a “they” who listen to and understand each other.

Through such inquiry and reflection, I believe it is certain that the relationship between the diaspora and Armenia, the “we” and the “they,” will evolve into a permanent dialogue between the “we” and the “we”. Getze Spiurke! Getze Hayastan!