Jirair Libaridian

Jirair Libaridian Interviewed by Tigrane Yegavian


(The article below is an English translation of the French-language text of an interview published in March 2023 in Paris, France, conducted by Tigrane Yegavian.)

You have just published in Armenia and in Armenian the second voluminous opus of your five volumes devoted to your thoughts on the challenges and contemporary issues that Armenia has been going through since 1991. Your detractors believe that you are justifying your past. What is your purpose and why such an enterprise?

Why would I need to justify myself? My analyses and projections proved to be right. If those detractors had followed the policies I supported when they were in power, we would have been in a different place at this time. In fact, it is my detractors who need to justify their past policies of extremism and maximalism that led to war and to defeat and to the narrowing of our options and leverages.

Besides, I don’t know why I should take such detractors seriously. Instead of engaging with the argument and reasoning I articulate, they talk about my motivation for publishing these books. Does the motivation decrease the value of an argument, of an analysis? Isn’t it possible that what I write is valid although I may have the wrong reason to publish it?

I have no problem with critics who disagree and argue their point with evidence. I do pity detractors who cannot handle the truth and resort to weird tactics to discredit my approach without being able to negate it. Would you believe that a few years back someone thought he could have people disregard my analysis by writing that my father was a cook; he thought that was a good reason why I could not possibly be right. And that was written at a time when I had a doctorate from one of the most respected universities in the US, and had already earned the title of university professor. Interestingly, that article where that “secret” was published was in the Asbarez newspaper, for which I was considered qualified enough to be its editor some 20 years earlier.

Now, for the purpose of publishing these books. Why do people publish? Does a scholar, a former diplomat need to explain?

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As I have explained in the prefaces of my new series of books, these books bring together some of the most important pieces I have authored, interviews I have given, and their totality will present my thinking about our history, society, policies and challenges. Some of my thoughts, analyses, and approaches had appeared piecemeal at different times and in different places and I thought bringing them together would offer the readers a fuller and more complete sense of my position. Let’s also not forget that I have written both in English and Armenian and my English language pieces are not accessible to most Armenians and vice versa for English language readers with regard to my Armenian material.

Finally, I should add that I get many requests, especially from younger people, particularly since the 2020 war, for this or that article, or a number of articles I have published over time. These volumes solve that problem too by making some of my key writings to anyone who is interested.

I also think that my position represents a segment of the spectrum of the Armenian political spectrum and they contribute to what could be a healthy public debate.

In these 36 sections grouped in six parts devoted to Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, you draw up an implacable and severe indictment of the errors of the Armenian leaders on the question of Armenian-Turkish relations and the management of the Artsakh question. At the same time, you dedicate your book to Levon Ter Petrosian, for whom you worked for 7 years. What criticism could you make of his record?

I think he made mistakes as far as some of his appointments are concerned. He also trusted some of his colleagues more than he should have. Some in his administration took away from his political capital instead of adding to it.

As far as his policies are concerned, I think he was a visionary realist. Otherwise, I would not have been able to work with him, and work so closely, for seven years, and to continue a healthy dialog during all these years since.

It important to note, that since he left the presidency, Ter-Petrosian has been the subject of an organized and sustained campaign to malign him and to deny him the credits he deserves, beginning with some taking credit for the victory of the first war. I think future historians will regard him as one of the most important leaders in our people’s long journey. I do.

Let me remind you also of a significant fact that I have mentioned in my dedication: Levon Ter-Petrosian is the only leader in all of the history of Armenia who was elected directly by the people. Don’t you think that such a leader should be recognized?

It seems that Armenian political thought has split into two: political sovereignty centered on the idea of the state, of independence on the one hand; and territorial sovereignty defended by Haytadism [Hay Tad/the Armenian Cause], centered on the control of historically Armenian territories but under Russian protection. Do you consider this dichotomy relevant? Why do you think this dichotomy is relevant?

I am not sure what you mean by territorial sovereignty for historic western Armenia under Russian protection. But let me assume that you mean unification of historic western Armenia with the Republic of Armenia and the whole unified Armenia as part of Russia in some form or another. And this goal, in your formulation, stands in contrast to the first group’s focus on the current republic, on its people, and the defense of its independence.

The dichotomy, as you call it, is of the essence. Each implies an agenda and a strategy. The first school of thought wants to resolve existing, essential, real problems for a real piece of land and very real people. The second school of thought says it is pursuing a vision for which it has no strategy except for assigning Russia interests and goals which it does not have, a vision where people are abstracted, a vision where the current homeland can be sacrificed for some “higher ideal” or “national vision.” Or Haytadism.

Now, let’s see if Haytadism survives the simple test of common sense.

The ARF [Armenian Revolutionary Federation], the foremost champion of Haytadism, opposed independence in 1990 and 1991, with the argument that should Armenia become independent, it would lose the protection of Russia and Turkey would invade Armenia and complete the work of the Genocide. So, fear of Turkey was the primary problem to be resolved and even independence should be sacrificed to that concern.

Yet, at the same time, the ARF has followed a policy of demands from Turkey, including the most problematic one as far as Turkey is concerned — territorial demands. How does that make sense? I know that it makes us feel good to imagine territorial reparations and imagine a unified Armenia. We are a traumatized people, and we want to see justice done. And yet, the ARF is doing everything to provoke Turkey, even when, from a real political point of view, such demands seem quite irrational when (a) we know that it will not happen and, (b) it harms what we have left.

Can you give a concrete example?

Certainly. Let me tell you a true story, which I may have told before in another context but which deserves to be told again.

Sometime in late 1993 or early 1994, the chairman of the Standing Committee on State Building of the parliament at the time, Edik Yegoryan, now deceased, called President Ter-Petrosian to inform him that a member of his committee, Mekhak Gabrielyan, was proposing to offer the draft of a new bill to the Committee. The purpose of the draft bill was to declare null and void the 1921 Treaty of Kars, the treaty that delineated the border between Turkey and Armenia. That border that has remained unchanged since 1921, and as inheritor state of the USSR, Armenia had recognized that document along with all other international obligations.

Mekhak Gabrielyan, a soft-spoken, gentle deputy and a member of the ARF in the parliament, expected the Committee to begin public hearings on the draft bill, after which he hoped the bill would be submitted to a vote of the full parliament.

The president asked me to meet with the Committee; and I asked Yegoryan to first arrange for an informal meeting of the Committee on a Saturday which I would attend.

When the Committee met, the Chairman asked Mr. Gabrielyan to make his case for the bill he wanted to propose. Mr. Gabrielyan began with an introduction of Armenian history and grievances. The introduction was so long that after twenty minutes I think he had only reached the 5th century Vartanants Battle in his narrative.

I used a moment when the speaker needed to catch his breath to intervene. I told Mr. Gabrielyan that I was ready to be with the Committee all day but that also I was familiar with Armenian history, and it would help if we clarified a couple of points first.

I asked him if, in fact, it was his intention to offer a bill aimed at nullifying the Treaty of Kars. After Gabrielyan confirmed that such was his intention, I asked him what problem he was solving by seeing the Kars Treaty nullified. He was not sure what I meant, so I helped him.

I represent the administration, I said, and I can tell you the problems we are currently trying to resolve: winning a war, avoiding other foreign entanglements, keeping inflation down and making economic reforms work, finding ways to support a social safety net, and the like. “What problem are you trying to resolve with your proposal?” I asked.

As Gabrielyan started mulling over my question, I added: “Is it possible that whatever problem or problems you are trying to resolve, your solution may create more serious problems than the one you are trying to resolve with your proposed bill?”

Gabrielyan asked what I meant, which I was happy to disclose: The Treaty of Kars signaled an agreement between Turkey and Armenia (and three other states) regarding the border between the two states, I explained. If one side, Armenia in this case, says that it no longer recognizes that border without having a new agreement in place, the other side, Turkey, has no obligation to honor that treaty or respect that border. There would be no border to violate. What were the chances, I asked the deputy, that our tanks would reach Van, before Turkish tanks reach Yerevan?

The chairman waited a minute and then asked him: “Do you still think you will want to introduce that draft proposal?” Mr. Gabrielyan scratched his head and said: “This is a more serious issue than I thought.” Gabrielyan did not introduce his bill.

That is a true story and a simple exchange that summarizes the conflict and the difference between the two sides. It is the conflict between these two positions that explains much of what has happened in the last 30 years, at least; it shows how to assess policies, and what we should consider a success and what a failure. That is, when we have a system of accountability for political position and for policies.

As I said, visions and dreams are fine, but not if in pursuing them you destroy what you have. During the public presentation of this book in Yerevan last December, I put it this way: we seem to be caught between a past made of trauma and a future made of illusions. When are our people going to live in the present? Don’t the people of Armenian deserve to live in the present, in their present, with dignity and in peace? Must every generation of young men be sacrificed to the gods of nationalism, heroism, super patriotism and with total disregard for simple truths? And with what results?

Your friend the geo-strategist Gérard Chaliand claims that not all states have the means to be independent. Your political struggle seems to have been directed towards the imperative of Armenia’s national independence. You repeat it tirelessly in your book. Do you think that Armenia has the levers to be really independent in the geopolitical situation that it is in?

I would agree with my friend and express the same assessment in a different way.

All independence is relative and characterized by uncertainty and fluidity; the core question is: to what extent does a state itself define its vital interests and choose the means to defend them.

In this sense, Armenia does have the capability to define its interests but in the last couple of decades it has failed to do so adequately. The result has been that its ability to defend its interests has diminished.

When we think about the degree and quality of independence of a small country, we automatically think of external forces that would threaten that independence. And that is true to different extents. I have argued that domestic factors too matter on whether those running the small state have adopted and implemented policies that maximize the chances of the state to be independent in the way I described above.

This is not a new problem; it goes back to fifth-century Armenia, when the country lost its status as an independent kingdom. I would advise all Armenians to read Movses Khorenatsi, at least its last few pages, the famous “Ողբ” [Lament]. There the historian explains the reasons for the loss of that kingdom, that is, its sovereignty. None of the reasons he offers relate to external threats and bad neighbors. He lists a number of reasons all related to the behavior of Armenia’s elites: princes, clergymen, judges and generals.

We stop dealing with real politics when we separate foreign threats from our own behavior.

You underline a form of political irresponsibility on the part of the Armenian elites in Armenia and in the diaspora who are still impregnated with the national ideology, with reference to the Treaty of Sevres, to the Wilsonian Armenia. Why do you think political Haytadism is a failure?

Very simply because Haytadism ignores the real issues and real options to resolve them. Instead of facing the very difficult realities and choices, Haytadism offers good feelings and nice dreams that carry no responsibility with them.

Asking for what is impossible, feeling good about being right, having justice on your side, and pursuing the right cause is not a recipe that makes you a functioning political force or state. I don’t know when was the last time justice and law and fairness determined the outcome of conflicts. Just about every treaty or law one can mention is exactly the reason why we never got anywhere. Now evoking them expecting to achieve a goal?

Has anyone evoking the Treaty of Sevres offered any strategy on how to revive it? There were reasons why its signatory powers left it for dead and went to Lausanne. Have those reasons disappeared? Has any of those countries or any of our best friends, including Russia, given any reason for us to believe that they might reverse their long-standing interests and strategies in order to use their resources to implement a treaty everyone else — except for Turkey — forgotten?

Such campaigns are not only fruitless; they are also harmful.

You write that the paradigm of fear enslaves political thought in a straitjacket – fear of genocidal Pan-Turkism.

Unfortunately, instead of measuring actual threats, Haytadism offers a generic fear that makes it almost impossible to discern real threats but it helps push Armenia and Armenians toward dependence and …..

For years Haytadists were screaming about the threat of Pan-Turkism, and the certainty of a new genocide; while a few of us were warning about a clear and present danger from Azerbaijan because of the real conflict on Karabakh and the unwillingness of the Armenian side to assess properly the situation and the threat.

Well, Turkey did not attack, but Azerbaijan did and we all know what we lost. That is the cost of ideologically driven extremist positions.

For what do you reproach the leaders of the ARF since the defeat of the 44-day war? For not being in touch with reality and for not taking responsibility?

At this moment in time, I am not sure it will make any difference to reproach anyone, whether the ARF or any other political group. If a political group or leader refuses to draw the appropriate conclusions from the disastrous and fateful 2020 war, then there is something that is fundamentally wrong with them.

The ARF and others like it pursued policies that led to war and defeat. One could feel generous and say that in politics being wrong happens. It happens that a political party or parties adopt and follow a policy that leads to disastrous conclusions. One can say that, even if it was obvious that these policies were going to lead to irrecoverable losses and they were warned many times about such losses.

But to continue the same policies, to continue with the same false assumptions and logic, after the war and the losses is simply incomprehensible. The only explanation is that they are not dealing with normal politics, normal in the sense that parties are there to identify and solve problems in order to keep the people and the state safe and secure. Such parties and leaders seem to have little to do with realities and rational decision making.

Do you think that the leaders of Artsakh, who according to you bear a heavy responsibility for the disastrous fate of their region, have absorbed the lessons of the defeat?

It is painful to say this, but the leaders of Artsakh in the last 30 years — and others who supported them in their unrealistic and maximalist policies — have a major share of the responsibility in the disaster to which these policies led. Supported by political forces in Armenia and so many in the Diaspora, they obstructed reasonable and achievable solutions that would have secured Artsakh’s vital interests without necessarily giving up possibilities in the future.

It is even more painful to observe that the Artsakh leadership too has failed to learn the right lesson from the war. Their choices are far less now; they have lost Armenia as a guarantor of their security, they have their best hope, Russia, unable and/or unwilling to provide them with the necessary security. But they do not seem to have drawn the conclusions one would expect them to draw.

Today a young generation of Armenian diplomats and political leaders is engaged in a process of normalization with Turkey. You were the first to open the way to dialogue. However, could one say that the current context seems more unfavorable to Armenia? In other words, how to talk with Turkey and how to manage to dissociate the question of Artsakh from that of the normalization of Armenian-Turkish bilateral relations?

Normalization for me, above all, is the creation of conditions that will decrease any threat or perception of threat Armenia senses from Turkey.

It does not seem to me that Turkey will delink the issue of bilateral relations with Armenia from that of Armenia’s relations with Azerbaijan. Ankara may undertake some minor steps and offer symbolic gestures, but for the time being I see no reason why it would. Relations with Armenian do have some significance for Turkey; but not more than its relations with Azerbaijan. Relations between Ankara and Baku have many more dimensions than the ethnic affinity that exists between them.

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