Commentary Magazine


Topic: Armenia

Is Putin’s Next Move Against Azerbaijan?

Azerbaijan is a key American ally. The only country to border both Iran and Russia, it has angered both with its consistent efforts to orient itself to the United States. While many Americans point out Azerbaijan’s democratic deficit, President Ilham Aliyev’s strategy of building up the middle class first has merit: To force reforms prior to establishing a strong, stable middle class would play into the hands of both Iran and Russia, neither of which care an iota about democracy.

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Azerbaijan is a key American ally. The only country to border both Iran and Russia, it has angered both with its consistent efforts to orient itself to the United States. While many Americans point out Azerbaijan’s democratic deficit, President Ilham Aliyev’s strategy of building up the middle class first has merit: To force reforms prior to establishing a strong, stable middle class would play into the hands of both Iran and Russia, neither of which care an iota about democracy.

As much as Azerbaijan orients itself toward the West, neighboring Armenia has planted itself firmly in Russia’s orbit. Indeed, Armenians are perhaps the only people who would willingly vote to embrace Russia rather than the West even if Russia did not lift a finger to influence or force them. Culturally, Russians and Armenians have much in common, and Russia remains Armenia’s chief patron.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh erupted into hot conflict almost immediately upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the regaining of independence by both states. In December 1991, Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh declared their own republic, one of those fictional states that the Kremlin has helped prop up with increasing frequency—for example, Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and more recently Crimea and Donetsk in the Ukraine.

Visiting Georgetown University Professor Brenda Shaffer is right when she writes in the Wall Street Journal that “Freezing lawless regions invites conflicts.” Nagorno-Karabakh has become a center for money laundering, weapons trafficking, and general instability. In sum, it has become the typical Putin proxy.

With the West distracted by events in Iraq, it seems Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh sought to make their move against a pro-Western ally which has moved to become an energy hub outside Russia’s orbit. Clashes began last week, and have escalated over subsequent days.

When it comes to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, there’s a tendency by American policymakers to engage in moral equivalence or simply to seek quiet, regardless of principle. This is wrong on four counts:

First, while Western policymakers see diplomacy as a means to conflict resolution, Russian Present Putin sees international relations as a zero-sum game in which for Russia and its client states to win, the United States and its allies must lose.

Second, whatever the emotional commitment many in the Armenian Diaspora in the United States have toward Armenia and their desire to seek acknowledgement for the events of a century ago, the fact of the matter is that the Armenian government has repeatedly undercut U.S. interests, even going so far as ship Iranian weaponry to be used to kill American soldiers in Iraq.

Third, it’s time the White House recognize that friendship and alliance go two ways. We cannot expect Azerbaijan to so continuously align itself with the United States and promote American interests if we turn our back on its friendship in its hour of need.

And fourth, there is no longer any excuse to not see Putin for what he is. No more Bush-era soul gazing, or Obama-era reset. That Bush and Obama hardly reacted when Russian forces invaded Georgia surely contributed to Putin’s willingness to invade Ukraine. That Obama fiddled and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to appease in the aftermath of that crisis only encouraged Putin to move once again to destabilize the South Caucasus, and its most consistent pro-Western republic. If the United States does not stand up for Azerbaijan, then Putin will understand that we are neither serious about freedom or liberty, friendship or alliance. In such a case, beware Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and even Poland.

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Is Turkish Nationalism a Crime Against Humanity?

I write this with tongue in cheek, but given not only Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declaration that Zionism is a crime against humanity but also because his Turkish constituency has rallied around him, it is important that Turks consider the implication of Erdoğan’s efforts to de-legitimize the State of Israel and the Jewish nationalist enterprise.

Erdoğan combines religious intolerance and partisan anger at the Arab-Israeli conflict to conclude that are Jews unworthy of the same rights as Muslims, and Israel is unworthy of the same status of Turkey. Perhaps it is Turkey that has been born in blood. Certainly, the casualties that have arisen as a result of Turkish nationalism have been far greater.

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I write this with tongue in cheek, but given not only Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declaration that Zionism is a crime against humanity but also because his Turkish constituency has rallied around him, it is important that Turks consider the implication of Erdoğan’s efforts to de-legitimize the State of Israel and the Jewish nationalist enterprise.

Erdoğan combines religious intolerance and partisan anger at the Arab-Israeli conflict to conclude that are Jews unworthy of the same rights as Muslims, and Israel is unworthy of the same status of Turkey. Perhaps it is Turkey that has been born in blood. Certainly, the casualties that have arisen as a result of Turkish nationalism have been far greater.

At its roots, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a dispute over territory where two nationalisms overlap. The same is true in Turkey. Kurds living in Diyarbakir have about as much desire to be part of Turkey as Palestinians living in Nablus have to be part of Israel. While the Israel-Palestinian conflict has claimed thousands of lives, the number of Palestinian casualties does not come anywhere near those of the Kurds in Turkey. And while the Turkish government complains when an Israeli jet destroys a house in which bombs are built or a terrorist lives, never does Erdoğan reflect on the fact that the country which he leads has razed hundreds of Kurdish villages and continues its wanton and illegal aggression across the border into Iraq. If Hamas is a legitimate entity, then certainly the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is. When Erdoğan embraces Khaled Meshaal, should he wonder why the French government allowed senior PKK officials to operate from Paris?

The suffering of the Kurds, however, does not come anywhere near comparing with the plight of the Armenians in the decade prior to Turkish independence. Turks and Armenians can argue over whether the slaughter of Armenians was pre-planned and coordinated and therefore merits the designation “genocide,” but they cannot argue about whether up to a million Armenians perished at the hands of Turkish forces (and Kurdish irregulars operating at the time alongside the Turks). If Erdoğan believes Israel represents original sin and must cease to exist, perhaps he would like to set an example of reversing historical fact by granting to Armenia the lands in eastern Anatolia from which the ethnic Armenian population was cleansed? Perhaps he would like to return Constantinople to its rightful owners? Perhaps it is time he pays reparations to the Cypriots whose country the Turkish army still occupies?

There is a pot and there is a kettle, but in this case, they do not compare. Now, let me be clear: The point of this provocative post is not to question Turkey’s right to exist, nor to try arbitrarily to undo more than a century of history. Trying to reverse history or implement one side’s ‘justice’ quickly becomes reductio ad absurdum. Mr. Erdoğan should recognize, however, how dangerous to Turkey it could be to embrace de-legitimization of states and nationalist causes.

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Uncovering Armenia’s Jewish Past

Earlier this week, the Jerusalem Post published this fascinating account (full disclosure: authored by my wife) of an Armenian Bishop’s efforts to preserve a medieval Jewish cemetery recently found in Armenia:

Bishop Mkrtchyan discovered the cemetery when he and his brother Mayis Mkrtchyan opened the Siranush children’s camp in Yeghegis to provide shelter, food, recreation and education for children orphaned by the war with Azerbaijan. The bishop heard there was a mineral-water spring in the area. He wanted to find it for the children and, as he searched, he came across three tombstones, where he saw writing he didn’t understand… He also sent photos of the tombstones to Professor Michael Stone of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who confirmed the bishop’s suspicion that what he had found was indeed a medieval Jewish cemetery… The bishop’s dream is to build museum, or a culture center about Jews in Armenia, that would focus on education. “Because these two peoples had very ancient connections… and until now it is one of the few peoples with whom we had no problems,” he said with a laugh. The bishop wants people to know what connections existed between Armenians and Jews, stories of how they helped each other during the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, for instance. “These peoples in this region, I think have to support each other… They ended up having a similar destiny.”

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Earlier this week, the Jerusalem Post published this fascinating account (full disclosure: authored by my wife) of an Armenian Bishop’s efforts to preserve a medieval Jewish cemetery recently found in Armenia:

Bishop Mkrtchyan discovered the cemetery when he and his brother Mayis Mkrtchyan opened the Siranush children’s camp in Yeghegis to provide shelter, food, recreation and education for children orphaned by the war with Azerbaijan. The bishop heard there was a mineral-water spring in the area. He wanted to find it for the children and, as he searched, he came across three tombstones, where he saw writing he didn’t understand… He also sent photos of the tombstones to Professor Michael Stone of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who confirmed the bishop’s suspicion that what he had found was indeed a medieval Jewish cemetery… The bishop’s dream is to build museum, or a culture center about Jews in Armenia, that would focus on education. “Because these two peoples had very ancient connections… and until now it is one of the few peoples with whom we had no problems,” he said with a laugh. The bishop wants people to know what connections existed between Armenians and Jews, stories of how they helped each other during the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, for instance. “These peoples in this region, I think have to support each other… They ended up having a similar destiny.”

The whole thing is worth reading. Much is known about the Jewish community in Russia and also in neighboring Iran. While works are plentiful about the Jewish community in Russia and the Soviet Union, there are also good books about the Jewish community in Iran, for example: Habib Levy’s excellent Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran and, for more modern times, Daniel Tsadik’s important Between Foreigners and Shi‘is: Nineteenth Century Iran and its Jewish Minority. Both are useful correctives to the idea put forward by some that anti-Semitism and, indeed, devastating pogroms did not occur in Iran although, at least until recent decades, Jews in Iran did relatively better than some of their co-religionists in other regional countries.

The Jewish community in Armenia–wedged between Persia and Russia–has long been forgotten. Let us hope that Bishop Mkrtchyan is successful in his quest to bring history to light and improve remembrance.

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Is Armenia a Weak Link in Iran Sanctions?

Yesterday, I testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Europe and Eurasian Subcommittee, which was investigating Iranian strategy, influence, and interests in the Caucasus. As always, there’s good news and bad news from the region. Azerbaijan remains a stalwart U.S. ally intolerant of Iranian approaches. Georgia is as well, but after its October election remains very much in play. Turkey’s efforts to subvert sanctions are well known. The greater problem today is Armenia:

  • According to a State Department cable released by Wikileaks, in 2008, U.S. diplomats concluded that Armenia shipped Iran weaponry, which Iran then used to kill Americans.
  • Bank Mellat, a sanctioned Iranian bank, operates in Yerevan, and Iranian businesses dot the city.
  • In October 2011, a member of Armenia’s Nuclear Energy Organization told the Iranian press that Tehran had enticed several Armenian nuclear scientists to work in Iran’s nuclear program.

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Yesterday, I testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Europe and Eurasian Subcommittee, which was investigating Iranian strategy, influence, and interests in the Caucasus. As always, there’s good news and bad news from the region. Azerbaijan remains a stalwart U.S. ally intolerant of Iranian approaches. Georgia is as well, but after its October election remains very much in play. Turkey’s efforts to subvert sanctions are well known. The greater problem today is Armenia:

  • According to a State Department cable released by Wikileaks, in 2008, U.S. diplomats concluded that Armenia shipped Iran weaponry, which Iran then used to kill Americans.
  • Bank Mellat, a sanctioned Iranian bank, operates in Yerevan, and Iranian businesses dot the city.
  • In October 2011, a member of Armenia’s Nuclear Energy Organization told the Iranian press that Tehran had enticed several Armenian nuclear scientists to work in Iran’s nuclear program.

The Armenian community in the United States is fortunate to be both vibrant and organized. It is unfortunate that organizations representing the Armenian Diaspora in the United States and the congressmen who partner with them do not do more to encourage change in the Armenian government’s geopolitical behavior. Certainly, Armenia is between a rock and a hard place. Russia looms large, both culturally and politically, and Armenians are loathe to unravel that relationship in an age when no one believes U.S. guarantees of continued commitment.

Cultural links are also strong to Iran; when I first studied in the Islamic Republic in the mid-1990s, my apartment was in Julfa, Isfahan’s chief Armenian neighborhood. The Armenian community need not drop its advocacy for recognition of the Armenian genocide, but by ignoring Armenia’s pro-Iranian orientation, the Armenian-American community squanders an opportunity to build a true strategic partnership between Washington and Yerevan, a partnership which would certainly be to both countries’ benefit.

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Ambassador to Azerbaijan Finds Democracy Where None Exists

Azerbaijan is an important American ally for a number of reasons. Unlike Turkey, it remains true to its secular principles. Unlike neighboring Armenia—a country which continues to occupy one-third of Azerbaijan—it remains firmly oriented to the West and does not readily do Russia’s and Iran’s bidding. And unlike Iran to its south, its majority Shi’ite Muslim population realizes that empty religious rhetoric is no panacea.

Azerbaijan does have its flaws, however. Chief among them is its leadership’s reticence to reform and failure to make much if any progress in the Azeri peoples’ demands to move toward democracy. Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan firmly in the “Not Free” camp.  Reporters Without Frontiers ranks Azerbaijani press freedom even below that of Turkey and Russia, a depth which censors and security forces must go out of their way to achieve.

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Azerbaijan is an important American ally for a number of reasons. Unlike Turkey, it remains true to its secular principles. Unlike neighboring Armenia—a country which continues to occupy one-third of Azerbaijan—it remains firmly oriented to the West and does not readily do Russia’s and Iran’s bidding. And unlike Iran to its south, its majority Shi’ite Muslim population realizes that empty religious rhetoric is no panacea.

Azerbaijan does have its flaws, however. Chief among them is its leadership’s reticence to reform and failure to make much if any progress in the Azeri peoples’ demands to move toward democracy. Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan firmly in the “Not Free” camp.  Reporters Without Frontiers ranks Azerbaijani press freedom even below that of Turkey and Russia, a depth which censors and security forces must go out of their way to achieve.

How unfortunate, then, that Richard Morningstar, the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, has according to the Azeri press recently praised the “democracy” which has taken root in Azerbaijan’s autonomous Nakhchivan province. More from the Azeri Report. Morningstar last came to notice last spring when, upon first traveling to Azerbaijan as ambassador, he apparently bowed before the statue of modern Azerbaijan’s less-than-democratic former leader.

It diminishes the achievement of democracies to pretend that democratic systems exist where they clearly don’t, and it undercuts the reputation of the United States among broad swaths of the Azerbaijani electorate when our professional Foreign Service officers offer such empty and demonstrably false platitudes.

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RE: On Armenian Genocide Resolutions

With all due respect, I disagree with Max on the condemnation of the Turkish genocide against Armenians. Complicity comes in various shades, the most insidious of which is pragmatic impartiality. Over the past year we’ve learned intimately what bearing witness feels like: strikingly un-American.

True, in the case of Iran, inaction has immediate consequences for the victims of ongoing brutality. With the Turks and Armenians, we’re assessing history. While Max is correct that the resolution “does nothing to help the state of Armenia, which would benefit from better relations with its large neighbor, Turkey,” it does serve as an important public marker of consequence. When the U.S. goes on record as condemning crimes against humanity, it makes it that much harder for a cynical administration to strike a faux-realist pose and accommodate a brutal regime. How nice it would have been, in fact, if this resolution had passed some time in the run-up to Iran’s June 12 election.

There is also the issue of tactical wisdom. Just how pragmatic has our silence on the Armenian genocide been? Turkey did not allow U.S. troops to enter Iraq through its territory; in October of last year, Ankara cancelled Israel’s involvement in joint-military exercises on Turkish soil; Turkey then turned around and scheduled upcoming military exercises with Syria. It remained neutral when Russia invaded Georgia. Turkish leadership is now becoming ever cozier with Tehran. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not come closer to endorsing sanctions on Iran and has said, “We have specifically stated that the question [of Iran’s nuclear program] can be resolved through diplomacy and diplomacy only.”

All this has unfolded against the backdrop of Turkey’s increasingly Islamicized government. And it is worth recalling that NATO’s charter calls for member countries to safeguard democratic freedoms at home. It is illegal in Turkey to call the Armenian genocide by its rightful name.

One last point: The Turks are already animated by a profound suspicion of an all-powerful Armenian lobby working against them in the halls of American power. Actually, they’re not animated by this belief; they’re becoming crippled by it. It’s not a coincidence that cultures marred by human-rights violations also become grievance cultures. There is no simpler way to defer blame for the societal stagnation that results from the quashing of dissent.

With all due respect, I disagree with Max on the condemnation of the Turkish genocide against Armenians. Complicity comes in various shades, the most insidious of which is pragmatic impartiality. Over the past year we’ve learned intimately what bearing witness feels like: strikingly un-American.

True, in the case of Iran, inaction has immediate consequences for the victims of ongoing brutality. With the Turks and Armenians, we’re assessing history. While Max is correct that the resolution “does nothing to help the state of Armenia, which would benefit from better relations with its large neighbor, Turkey,” it does serve as an important public marker of consequence. When the U.S. goes on record as condemning crimes against humanity, it makes it that much harder for a cynical administration to strike a faux-realist pose and accommodate a brutal regime. How nice it would have been, in fact, if this resolution had passed some time in the run-up to Iran’s June 12 election.

There is also the issue of tactical wisdom. Just how pragmatic has our silence on the Armenian genocide been? Turkey did not allow U.S. troops to enter Iraq through its territory; in October of last year, Ankara cancelled Israel’s involvement in joint-military exercises on Turkish soil; Turkey then turned around and scheduled upcoming military exercises with Syria. It remained neutral when Russia invaded Georgia. Turkish leadership is now becoming ever cozier with Tehran. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not come closer to endorsing sanctions on Iran and has said, “We have specifically stated that the question [of Iran’s nuclear program] can be resolved through diplomacy and diplomacy only.”

All this has unfolded against the backdrop of Turkey’s increasingly Islamicized government. And it is worth recalling that NATO’s charter calls for member countries to safeguard democratic freedoms at home. It is illegal in Turkey to call the Armenian genocide by its rightful name.

One last point: The Turks are already animated by a profound suspicion of an all-powerful Armenian lobby working against them in the halls of American power. Actually, they’re not animated by this belief; they’re becoming crippled by it. It’s not a coincidence that cultures marred by human-rights violations also become grievance cultures. There is no simpler way to defer blame for the societal stagnation that results from the quashing of dissent.

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On Armenian Genocide Resolutions

The Turks are wrong — and worse, stupid — to keep denying that a genocide was perpetrated against the Armenians in 1915. There is little doubt that mass killings occurred; to claim that it was not “genocide” is quibbling over terminology. I fail to see what Turkey would lose if it were to admit that genocide occurred. It’s not as if the current Turkish government or its immediate predecessors were responsible. The violence occurred during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. It would be easy enough for Turkish leaders to say, “We’re very sorry that these horrible acts were perpetrated by our countrymen under a previous regime that we repudiate and condemn.” They would thereby get considerable credit in world opinion. What’s the downside? At worst they might have to pay some reparations — but that’s something that prosperous modern Turkey could afford to do.

That said, Washington lawmakers are equally wrong — and worse, stupid — in trying to try to pass resolutions commemorating the Armenian genocide. That’s something the House Foreign Affairs Committee just did, prompting Turkey to recall its ambassador from Washington. What good does such a resolution do? It does nothing to deliver justice for the victims, annoys a key NATO ally, and also does nothing to help the state of Armenia, which would benefit from better relations with its large neighbor, Turkey. This is one of those issues that are driven primarily, I believe, by the well-funded Armenian expatriate lobby (a group perhaps deserving an exposé by Mearsheimer and Walt, if the latter weren’t already so busy uncovering the nefarious influence of the Jews, excuse me, the Zionists). Lawmakers find it easy to go along with what they view as essentially a meaningless gesture to wealthy campaign contributors; but, in the process, they create major headaches for policy makers.

That’s something that Obama, Biden, and Clinton are discovering for themselves. After having supported Armenian genocide resolutions while in Congress, they are now lobbying their former colleagues not to pass a resolution that will make it harder to work with Turkey on pressing issues such as Iranian sanctions. Doesn’t Congress have anything better to do with its time? Like investigating the “scandal” of the college football Bowl Championship Series?

The Turks are wrong — and worse, stupid — to keep denying that a genocide was perpetrated against the Armenians in 1915. There is little doubt that mass killings occurred; to claim that it was not “genocide” is quibbling over terminology. I fail to see what Turkey would lose if it were to admit that genocide occurred. It’s not as if the current Turkish government or its immediate predecessors were responsible. The violence occurred during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. It would be easy enough for Turkish leaders to say, “We’re very sorry that these horrible acts were perpetrated by our countrymen under a previous regime that we repudiate and condemn.” They would thereby get considerable credit in world opinion. What’s the downside? At worst they might have to pay some reparations — but that’s something that prosperous modern Turkey could afford to do.

That said, Washington lawmakers are equally wrong — and worse, stupid — in trying to try to pass resolutions commemorating the Armenian genocide. That’s something the House Foreign Affairs Committee just did, prompting Turkey to recall its ambassador from Washington. What good does such a resolution do? It does nothing to deliver justice for the victims, annoys a key NATO ally, and also does nothing to help the state of Armenia, which would benefit from better relations with its large neighbor, Turkey. This is one of those issues that are driven primarily, I believe, by the well-funded Armenian expatriate lobby (a group perhaps deserving an exposé by Mearsheimer and Walt, if the latter weren’t already so busy uncovering the nefarious influence of the Jews, excuse me, the Zionists). Lawmakers find it easy to go along with what they view as essentially a meaningless gesture to wealthy campaign contributors; but, in the process, they create major headaches for policy makers.

That’s something that Obama, Biden, and Clinton are discovering for themselves. After having supported Armenian genocide resolutions while in Congress, they are now lobbying their former colleagues not to pass a resolution that will make it harder to work with Turkey on pressing issues such as Iranian sanctions. Doesn’t Congress have anything better to do with its time? Like investigating the “scandal” of the college football Bowl Championship Series?

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