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Why Armenia is ultimate litmus test for future of US foreign policy

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Why Armenia is ultimate litmus test for future of US foreign policy
A young Armenian woman, her face painted in the colors of her national flag, protests in front of the Turkish Embassy in Washington DC. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

There’s little Americans dislike more than getting mired in complicated conflicts halfway across the world. Yet as we mark today, Nov. 9, 2021—the one-year anniversary of the ceasefire that ended the latest round of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan—we ought to stop and ponder one profound question: Does doing the right thing matter anymore?

It’s not merely a philosophical conundrum, or a bit of empty rhetoric. As anyone who has paid even a bit of attention to the recent news from Afghanistan, say, or Taiwan, or Idlib knows, ours is an increasingly interconnected world. Isolationism, even when desired, rarely works. So a central challenge of foreign policy in the 21st century is being able to distinguish friend from foe.

As a former Armenian ambassador to the United States, I am well aware that diplomacy is often a game of weighing imperfect realities against each other and making sometimes difficult compromises in service of national interests. But sometimes it’s simpler than that. Sometimes all you have to do to figure things out is listen to what people are saying and watch what they’re doing.

Here’s one easy example. Suppose you had two nations trying to establish rapprochement after a bloody conflict. And suppose you heard the president of one side refer to the other as “dogs,” a “wild tribe” of “barbarians” who “cling to other countries like a leech” and “have no moral values.” And suppose, also, that this president also held POWs and civilians captive—long after the war had ended—in a clear and blatant violation of international law. Would you assume that president’s protestations of peace were sincere?

A statue of Heydar Aliyev — father of the current president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev — graces the departures hall at Baku’s Heydar Aliyev International Airport. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

You hardly have to be an expert in international relations to answer this question. The quotes and actions above come courtesy of Ilham Aliyev, the Azerbaijani despot who, since seizing power in 2003, has turned his country into a benighted kleptocracy while reportedly amassing a personal fortune estimated at upwards of $900 million, including at least half a billion dollars worth of real estate holdings in Great Britain (according to the recently released Pandora Papers). Had he just been a petty Caucasus despot, Americans might have been forgiven for ignoring him. But Aliyev has now aligned himself with a much more consequential and menacing patron, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Having failed to gain membership in the European Union—its dismal human rights record and increasingly shaky democracy being key factors in scuttling its bid—Turkey has now turned eastward. It seeks to reestablish a caliphate of sorts, a zone of influence and trade stretching from the Balkans in the west to the areas populated by Turkic peoples in Central Asia.

To achieve this, it seeks a “land bridge” whose shortest path goes through Armenia. Armenia would be glad to offer trade routes and partnership but this is not the Azerbaijani-Turkish design. Seizing this land somehow is their goal.

And even though Azerbaijan made significant territorial gains at the expense of the Republic of Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, it now threatens Armenia itself. This, on top of continuing intimidation of ethnic Armenians along the borders of besieged Artsakh, encroachment on sovereign Armenian territory, desecration and arbitrary alteration, and outright destruction of Armenia’s early Christian heritage in the captured territories.

Grigor Hovhannissian was Armenia’s ambassador to the United States from 2016 to 2018.

All this puts Armenia—a small but scrappy Christian nation of just under three million trying to carve out a democratic space for itself on the edges of the Muslim-dominated Middle East—in direct conflict with not one but two dictatorships.

It’s a conflict we neither provoked nor desire. Consider the astonishing fact that the ruling party, on whose watch Armenia suffered a devastating war and territorial losses, won reelection in June. The government remains committed to seeing through the controversial ceasefire deal, and argues for a new era of peaceful coexistence of nations in the region.

That’s what the people of Armenia want: to continue to build their democracy and to arrive at a fair and sustainable solution to the thorny situation in Artsakh. It is a message that aligns with the perspective of young people in Armenia, in the large Armenian diaspora in the US and elsewhere, and all around the world; it is a vision for tomorrow.

What do the people of Azerbaijan want? It is rather hard to say, because no one is asking them. The Aliyevs have no plans of letting go of the resource-rich country they are busily plundering.

Which brings me back to the United States. Unless Washington stands firmly with the people of Armenia, the Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance will prevail, which will mean a less secure, more corrupt, more volatile region. We don’t ask for military intervention. What we ask for is help in putting these threats to democracy and peace back in their place, a kind of realpolitik predicated, improbably perhaps, on just doing the right thing.

Veteran diplomat Grigor Hovhannissian, Armenia’s ambassador to the United States from January 2016 to October 2018, has also served as consul-general in Los Angeles, ambassador to Mexico and deputy foreign minister. Hovhannissian, 50, has a master’s degree from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He is currently chairman of the board of Armenia’s Ararat Bank.

Ambassador Grigor Hovhannissian