Scholars Mull Karabagh and Armenia’s Future


Henry Theriault speaks at NAASR's panel discussion on Nagorno Karabagh on August 6.
Henry Theriault speaks at NAASR's panel discussion on Nagorno Karabagh on August 6.

By Thomas C. Nash
Mirror-Spectator Staff

BELMONT, Mass. — Three professors gave their takes on the Nagorno Karabagh negotiations at a recent panel discussion at the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), with all agreeing the outcome may do more to weaken the republic than strengthen it.

The August 6 forum was designed to showcase their conclusions drawn from a July conference in Stepanakert, which Professors Levon Chorbajian, Asbed Kotchikian and Henry Theriault attended.

Theriault, an associate professor of philosophy at Worcester State College specializing in genocide and its denial, said that coming away from the conference in Stepanakert he had gained deeper insight into the challenges of a small nation facing a country used to getting its way.

“Armenia is facing a very powerful country,” Theriault said, referring to Turkey. “Opening the border is a real double-edged sword. There haven’t been enough studies to figure out what’s going to happen economically. It’s not clear what kind of industries will survive.”

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Theriault added Armenia’s economic vulnerability was only a part of the larger issue of the two countries negotiating from vastly different positions.

“They’re not equal partners,” Theriault said, comparing Armenia negotiating with Turkey to a 6-year-old playing against David Beckham. As he concluded, he noted that the power struggle is similar to the one that has been ongoing for centuries.

“What’s happening now, in my opinion, is a dramatic consolidation of what happened during the Armenian Genocide,” Theriault said. “It’s a consolidation of all the damage that’s been done for the past 500 years [during which the Armenian empire disintegrated]. Armenia is giving up this and that to Turkey without getting anything in return.”

‘A Legitimate Struggle’

Chorbajian, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, has written and edited books on Nagorno Karabagh. He said a July 10 statement issued by the French, Russian and US presidents on the peace talks shaped much of the proceedings.

The statement asked the negotiators to examine the “Madrid Principles” a document created in November 2007, which Chorbajian said could have dire consequences for Karabagh, since he said it would essentially mean giving up all of its territories.

The Madrid Principles primarily call for a return of seven bits of Karabagh-occupied Azeri territory bordering the two areas. No mention is made of returning Karabagh itself to Azerbaijan.

“[The statement] created a gloomy mood at the conference to say the least,” Chorbajian said. “I personally perceive this as a death sentence for Karabagh and Karabagh Armenians.”

“It’s a very disappointing decision these three political leaders have come to,” he added.

Chorbajian also noted that Karabagh being returned to the Azeris would further destabilize Armenia, noting, “This is a very dangerous moment for both Armenia and Karabagh.”

If Armenia were made more vulnerable, he said, the concept of “Pan-Turkism” could play out in the form of an attack from Turkey.

A large part of the issue, Chorajian stressed, stems from Karabagh negotiators being excluded from the talks since 1997.

“I think that people should be banging their fists on the table and raising in every possible form that this is not a legitimate basis for negotiation and that this is a real weakness for the Armenian cause.”

Unlike Northern Ireland, where Chorbajian said a majority of the population would likely vote down a unification referendum despite the struggle to expel England’s control of the region, the nationalist case for Karabagh is solid.

“This is not some kind of renegade rag-tag movement where a group of people want to secede from a legitimate state for their own purposes,” he said. “This is a real, legitimate struggle. The legitimacy of that struggle needs to be hammered home, and it hasn’t been.”

State versus Nation

Asbed Kotchikian, who teaches in the Global Studies Department at Bentley University and edits The Armenian Review, concluded that Armenia’s foreign policy is in defense mode.

One of the larger reasons, he said, was the legitimacy struggle faced by President Serge Sargisian following the troubled 2008 elections in which opposition demonstrators were killed and leaders thrown in prison.

“The [Sargisian] administration feels that it’s weak,” Kotchikian said. “As such, I think there has been more activism on the Turkish front to say to the population ‘See what I’m doing, I’m coming up with a solution to the Turkish issue.’”

Kotchikian added the issues of Karabagh independence and an Armenian-Turkish rapprochement are further complicated by the number of parties involved.

“Do we talk about Turkey-Armenia relations, or do we talk about Turkish-Armenian relations, or Turkey-Armenian relations? I think this is an important point. We have a diaspora which has a vested interest in the overall process. But where does this fall? Is the state of Armenia responsible or accountable to the diaspora? Should the president or the government of Armenia do what is best for the state or what is best for the nation?

“Sometimes these points coincide, but not always.”

A question and answer session followed the panel.

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