BY ANNA ASTVATSATURIAN TURCOTTE
Over the last two years I’ve been traveling the country and internationally to talk about my childhood, escaping Azerbaijani violence in Baku as Nagorno-Karabakh was fighting for its independence from Azerbaijan’s brutal regime. In almost every community I visit, both Armenian and non-Armenian, there is an element of surprise, both on the part of the audience but also for me, learning about the community I visit. The audience’s questions are always enlightening of what triggers that specific community, what drives their interest in my topic and how they engage in their work for the Armenian Homeland or globally. This exchange of ideas, this two-way education, is the reason I take personal vacation time from work and fly away from my children for days at a time to do this. I want to educate people who want to learn about what it was like to live as an Armenian in Azerbaijan, hiding and running for our lives. I want to tell them of the hatred that still exists and of the rabid, almost unbelievable anti-Armenianism that’s being taught right now to the children of Azerbaijan. I also want to describe the rich and vibrant history of the Armenian Artsakh who against all odds achieved the unthinkable.
In almost all instances that experience is positive. Recently, when visiting a very vibrant Armenian community, I presented to a large hall full of people happy to hear me. But the first question that followed my presentation was presented in the form of a statement that shook me to my core.
“You know, I think the best solution for Karabakh conflict is to take all of the Armenians out of it, ship them out, empty the country and give the lands back to Azerbaijan. Just be done with it.”
I’m not the type to be easily shaken by a public outburst in the audience. I’ve had my share of anti-Armenian and misogynist hecklers in the past. In the present American political climate, I’ve faced criticism of prejudice against refugees and immigrants. It all comes with the territory and I’m well aware that when you become a public person, you take the good with the bad, and everyone is entitled to their opinion, whatever it may be. I was and am aware of these sentiments in certain pockets of the Armenian Diaspora. They are casually voiced at fundraisers for development of Artsakh; hesitations to donate because “what if we have to give this land back?” Other times they will base their pessimism, cynicism and lack of involvement on “corruption and backwardness.” All those things are understandable.
But this statement was something else. It is easy to brush it off as a statement of one crazy guy in the audience who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But he is not the only one, sadly.
To empty Artsakh of all Armenians, ship them out and give the land back to Azerbaijan is disturbing on every level.
Firstly, let’s examine the decision itself to empty Artsakh. Diaspora Armenians, a group to which this gentleman belongs, have a tendency to take ownership of Armenia, the Homeland, even if they’ve never lived there, never visited or have family connections. I think that’s excellent. This feeling of belonging and owing a duty to and owning the Homeland is what makes Armenia strong. We, and I consider myself to be a Diaspora Armenian, are the watchful eye, observer and protector of the Homeland outside of its borders. We are the global network ready to come to its aid, financially, politically and socially. But let’s be clear: we do this from afar. The citizens of Armenia and Artsakh are the true owners of its future. That is the essence of Sovereignty and Self-Determination. I see this over and over and over again. There is an expressed sense of superiority to the people of Armenia, and apparently Artsakh; a presumption to make decisions for them, as opposed to allowing them to decide what is in their own interests. Yes, nothing is done in a vacuum, but aside from the tired complaining of the corruption in Armenia , which by the way is the normal by-product of post-Soviet transition, there is a tinge of snobbish elitism that comes across some of the commentary on Armenian issues from the Diaspora that I have a hard time ignoring or tolerating. In the two decades of Armenia’s and Artsakh’s independence the people of the Homeland have carried the heavy weight of freedom through blockade, destruction, hunger and cold, carrying this weight on their own backs. They are entitled to respect; they are entitled to choose what is best for their country. Our appropriate response is to assist their decisions.
Second element of this multi-dysfunctional statement is the “shipping out.” Do you know who ships people out and empties the lands of Armenians? Turkish and Azerbaijani governments. Armenians were emptied from Western Armenia, Baku and Nakhichevan, murdered and pushed out like cattle, men, women, children. Are we ready to do this to the Armenian people of Artsakh? Apparently the logistics of where these 150,000 Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic would go and how they will live after they are “shipped out” aren’t important to this gentleman. He might not be aware, or perhaps doesn’t care, that refugee resettlement isn’t easy. What’s paramount to him is the inconvenience and annoyance that this conflict causes these pockets of the Diaspora, many of whom, I am ready to argue, have never set foot in Artsakh or read about its history and people. Let’s! Let’s abandon the fight for independence, the war that was won by Armenians of Karabakh, the two decade progress they’ve made in developing the infrastructure of their democratic government, the hundreds of millions of dollars of construction and development projects Diaspora invested in Karabakh. Let’s forget the thousands that died there, both Artsakhtsi and Diaspora men and women that fought for Karabakh and continue to die on its borders defending their ancestral homes. Let’s take these people that live there, their Homeland, and make them refugees, just like our grandparents during the Genocide, just like my family and friends fleeing Baku.
Indeed, this statement made to me was the extreme, but a variation of this is heard far too often in some Diaspora communities, and even in Yerevan: to back away from what has been achieved, the progress that’s been made because things aren’t coming together packaged in a neat, convenient and quiet box with a pretty bow on top.
For any Armenian to give up on Artsakh now, when Artsakh proves itself day in and day out as a democratic, functioning and peace-loving country, is shameful and illogical. To give up on Armenians of Artsakh, when Azerbaijan dictatorship jails its opponents, journalists and human-rights advocates while parading its anti-Armenianism and violence in broad daylight, proving its essence to the world, would be unthinkable. To give up on Artsakh as Azerbaijan is firing and shelling both on Artsakh and on Armenian borders is unforgivable.
But let’s talk about the last element of this asinine statement, giving the Armenian Artsakh “back to Azerbaijan.” I want to get one thing straight before delving into this “giving back” business. Even when Artsakh was considered to be completely within the Azerbaijani republic of the Soviet Union, it was always Armenian. It was placed within Azerbaijan by Joseph Stalin. That is the source of Azerbaijan’s claim to the land. Even after this deliberate artificial inclusion of Artsakh within Azerbaijani borders, it remained autonomous. It had and continued to have an overwhelming majority Armenian population. That same population conducted a referendum in to secede from Azerbaijan and rejoin Armenia. That referendum was lawful under Soviet law.
Finally, land. Ever since setting foot on the American soil as a Baku refugee and meeting and reading about the Armenian Diaspora here, I have been told over and over again about the beauty and the pain of the Western Armenia, where most of the Armenian-Americans come from. The 100- year fight for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide is never without the mention of Armenian lands and Armenian property. I have been to countless events and memorials, seen countless maps depicting the Armenian Empire and photographs of ruins of the Armenian cities, big and small, with crumbling churches and desolate countryside. There is always talk about returning to the Homeland, returning the lands and the property and the churches. And after a 100-year fight for this Homeland, and with a free and independent Armenia and Artsakh in existence, we are willing to turn our backs and hand the other Homeland, Artsakh, over to our enemies, as a cavalier afterthought. These same enemies that would not stop with Artsakh; that would instead keep going West to destroy all Armenia as we know it. Are we, the Diaspora, so comfortable with the notion of losing our Homeland that we don’t know what to make of it when we actually win it back, as in the case of Artsakh?
All this talk of the Homeland, everywhere I go, got me thinking. What is the Armenian Homeland? Is it only where your roots go, or is it a bigger, an all-encompassing entity that makes us all Armenian? My roots are in Khndzoresk, Karashen, Nakhichevan, and Gandzak. But my Armenia, my Homeland, it is wide, diverse, stretched out and fragmented, beautiful yet sad, built up yet torn apart, populated yet desolate. As members of the Armenian people, we should not be concerned with where this Homeland is, but what should be most important is that there is an Armenian person somewhere who calls it home and we should unite, put away our personal limitations and fight for this Armenian Homeland. If not us, then who?