The Hatsbanian Case and Others


By Edmond Y. Azadian



Sarkis Hatsbanian was a tragic hero. He was born in Turkey but he had a life full of adventure to avenge the Armenian Genocide. He combined his erudition with the spirit of a revolutionary and he sacrificed his life for the cause along the way.

He moved from Turkey to France for his education. As he developed his awareness of his Armenian identity, he decided to weaponize his knowledge to fight the injustices committed by the Turks against the Armenians. As he stated many times in his public comments, he arrived in Armenia from France with a one-way ticket. He joined the ragtag Karabakh army to fight the Azeris and he became one of the legendary heroes of the battle of Kelbajar. Then, like many Karabakh veterans, he engaged himself in Armenia’s civic and political life after the war of liberation. He was articulate and outspoken and a vitriolic critic of the current regime in Armenia, where he ended up in jail as he had gone too far in his actions.

The part of his life which is not fully known to the public was the role that he played as Hrant Dink’s counterpart in Armenia. As much as he hated Turkey’s criminal past, he was very much in favor of cooperating with the progressive elements of Turkish and Kurdish societies.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

He made his share of contributions to awakening the dormant Armenians in Turkey. He led a group of Turkish and Kurdish activists to Tzitzernakaberd on the Genocide Centennial to shed tears in memory of Armenian martyrs. He was also engaged in a monumental intellectual project which would even scare off a well-equipped academy. He found translators and scholars to translate into Turkish the compatriotic history books of many regions in historic Armenia, such as Van, Gesaria and Adana, among others. Many Turks who read those volumes were shocked that such a vibrant Armenian cultural life existed before the Genocide on the territory they inhabited currently.

That was an ongoing project for him when he was stricken by cancer and rushed back to France, where he passed away in January, impoverished and soliciting funds from the public for living and medical expenses.

The opposition in Armenia tried to make his funeral a cause celebre by forcing the authorities to allow his burial at Yerablur military cemetery, where fallen heroes are buried. The authorities, realizing the potential politicization and fallout of the case, authorized his burial there so that he could join his comrades in arms who had fallen during the Karabakh war.

By all accounts, Hatsbanian remains a controversial figure with all the rest of the well-meaning heroes languishing in jails in Armenia today.

Jirayr Sefilian and other militants who are members of Sasna Tzerer group are on trial in Armenia because in their zeal to see the homeland prosper, they broke the law. These militants enjoy great popularity in Armenia, especially when viewed in the context of rampant popular discontent. These cases provide also ammunition to the political opposition to fight the regime. In the eyes of the majority of the people, they are patriots who have been unjustly punished and are honest in their intentions but as poet Gevok Emin said, honest people may also err honestly. The case of those militants is viewed in Armenia on two levels: black or white. No one dares to step into the gray area, where the truth often resides.

There is a misconception with all revolutionaries that after they overthrow a regime, they have a built-in entitlement to rule over the nation. But history has disproved that notion time and time again. The leaders of the French Revolution of 1789, such as Danton, Robespierre and others, ended up sending each other to the guillotine along with an estimated figure of 16,500 other victims who suffered the same fate. The leaders of the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Stalin, after executing their revolutionary comrades, plunged the entire empire into a bloodbath. The same thing happened with Mao Zedong’s revolution in China, which caused millions of deaths during the so-called Cultural Revolution. Cambodia’s Pol Pot was no different. Even after almost 60 years into Castro’s revolution, Cuba is still starving.

Incidentally, there are some historians who maintain that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk might have been the one exception, the hero of the Galipoli campaign who ended up being a nation builder, founding the modern Republic of Turkey. The truth however, is that in actuality it was the German generals who won the battle, only allowing the phony hero to take the credit. Ataturk then recruited Ittihadist murderers as a base for his “modern” republic.

I personally witnessed a tragic example of this historic bloodletting. Following the uprising of the Karabakh movement, when independence was in progress, former advisor to President Levon Ter-Petrosian, Prof. Gerard Libaridian introduced me to one of the brilliant intellectual leaders of the Karabakh Committee, Hampartsum Galstyan, who later became the mayor of Yerevan. At that time, Galstyan assured me that all the leaders of the movement were like brothers and he held his hand in a fist. I was exhilarated but worried. I said, “I hope this time around you disprove history, because all previous revolutions have ended up in terror or bloodshed, most of the time the leaders eliminating each other.”

Lo and behold, Galstyan was the first victim, and no cause or culprit was discovered in his assassination, to this day. Of course, the Karabakh Committee eventually splintered, with each member going his own way.

Therefore, it has become a historic adage that revolutionaries never or seldom become efficient peacetime rulers. The misconception for our heroes in Armenia is there. Because they have honestly fought for liberation of Karabakh, they believe they have won the privilege of imposing their position and views on the civilian authorities. They certainly have won an honorable place in society, but they have to know that comes with a price. A case in point is Samvel Babayan, the former minister of defense of Karabakh who proved himself to be a hero in the war of liberation. But in peacetime, he turned into a villain, plotting to assassinate former president of Karabakh Arkadi Ghukassian. He was tried and jailed but under public pressure, he was released only to be caught in yet another assassination plot and currently is serving another jail term.

When the leaders of Sasna Tzerer were put on trial, there was a public outcry that they were being treated unfairly because Armenia lacked civil liberties as they do in Europe. The editor of the daily Aravot, Aram Abrahamyan, a keen observer of the scene in Armenia, and no apologist for the authorities, retorted in one of his daily columns, “Try to storm a police station in a European or American city and murder a cop and see where you end up.”

In any country subject to the rule of law, citizens are well aware of their rights and responsibilities and they know every infraction has a commensurate punishment. But in our society, especially in Armenia, emotions run high, sometimes stifling reason.

The misplaced hero worship is not new in our history. It was once taken up by one of our eminent satirists, Yervant Odian, in a book titled The Parasites of Revolution. Many persecuted Armenians who had fled the Ottoman Empire had found refuge in the affluent Egyptian-Armenian community. There were many former freedom fighters among the refugees who enjoyed the largess of the community. But there were also some phony ones who had never wielded a weapon but manufactured stories of heroic deeds to win the admiration and the generosity of the people, perhaps not too alike another folk hero, Hovannes Toomanyan’s Kaj Nazar. And many times, they had their way with credulous Armenians. Odian, in his witty style, warned the public against those fake heroes. They try to share the honor of true heroes who are not always braggarts.

People who have put their daily lives in harm’s way for a good cause deserve honor and respect. But they should not take for granted their license to act as they wish, without consideration given to rules. Fighting on the battlefront should not be confused with the right to rule a country. General Antranik was a true revolutionary and he graciously received the respect and admiration of people yet he never gave in to the temptation to assume the mantle of a political ruler.

True heroes know well their place in society and in history.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: