When your back is against the wall

Posted on December. 30. 2022

BY Stepan Piligian | The Armenian Weekly

This past week, my wife and I were in New York City to celebrate her birthday. It has become a tradition of sorts to take in a show and visit the museums along with the required shopping. Our favorite museum is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When you enter this iconic structure along 5th Avenue and Central Park, there is a massive hall which serves as the main lobby for tickets, coat check and the gift shop (the term shop is slightly understated since it resembles a small mall). The MET has hundreds of galleries to enjoy the art of our global civilization. Walking the endless hallways can be tiring on your legs especially with the stone floors. Unless you are in certain galleries, there are very few benches to pause and refresh. There are, however, an abundance of open walls. It is quite common to see people resting against the vertical surface giving their weary legs a respite. During our visit, I joined the fatigued, and I strangely thought about Armenia. Perhaps it was the sight of the beautiful khachkar that adorns the central hall where the magnificent Christmas tree is displayed or maybe it was the metaphor that comes to mind. As I joined several people with their backs against the wall, there were a variety of postures. Some were collapsing to the floor almost sitting on the horizontal surface rendering the wall irrelevant. Others were slumping in a halfway position almost simulating a chair. Others were upright using the wall as support to revitalize their weariness. I felt a connection with the latter but recognized that each was making the best of a challenge. Once the strain I felt in my back and legs was relieved, I considered what people do when their backs are against the wall.
We are a people who have tasted the bitterness of oppression and humanitarian abuse. This is a circumstance of history based on the geography and the political dynamics of the region for centuries. The question we should ask ourselves is how we have or should respond to this reality. Our situation today feels unique because we are living in that experience, but the repetitive trends are evident: a small nation abused by larger regional entities. Given our history, it is easy to fall into a “victim” mode and rationalize our fate as out of our control. This has led us to minimize our self assessments when calamities happen. What I learned from that resting moment at the MET is that having your back against the wall need not be a negative experience.
We cannot change the geographic position of Armenia. It has been a crossroad of conquering and conflict for several millennia. What we can control is our response. Should we spend our precious time blaming others and lamenting our fate or should we optimize our resources and respond? It deeply saddens me that in our most pivotal moment, our leaders tend to shut out others or the opposition resorts to throwing rocks of rhetoric. It has become more about power and control rather than national success. When Pashinyan retained power after the 2020 elections, my hope was that he would design a power sharing coalition with the opposition, despite his electoral victory. It was interpreted as a mandate when it was simply a rejection of the opposition. This would have been a wise investment based on the external threats to our nation. Every ounce of resources spent responding to the internal opposition is an ounce not spent on preparing for the enemy. Instead, we ventured into an internal political struggle that wasted precious time. That missed opportunity was tragically clear in the fall of 2020 and still has not significantly influenced policy and preparation. We withdrew RoA troops from Artsakh and seemingly abandoned “self-determination” for vague notions of “security.” Azerbaijan and Turkey have responded with brazen attacks on the territorial sovereignty of the republic and now the suffocating blockade of Lachin. They are abusing the Armenians in a manner tragically reminiscent of the horrific Genocide. Yet, we claim to yearn for Artsakh. While Artsakh suffers the humiliation reminiscent of the Ottoman Turks, we intellectually advocate for Artsakh. Speaking to the average Armenian about Artsakh, one will hear frustration about Russia, the West and just about any politician that voices a concern. We are behaving like victims, blaming the nearest distraction without optimizing our own efforts.
How many of us are in the streets of our host countries demanding the rights of the peaceful Artsakh Armenians? How many of us have taken the time to respond to the call for grassroots activism and contacted Congressional leaders on Section 907 and the illegal blockade? Isn’t it easier to blame the duplicitous Russian “peacekeepers” and the empty rhetoric of the West? Are we looking to ease our conscience or make a difference? Why would a foreign country sanction Azerbaijan when Armenia and the Armenians look frail in their attempts? Let’s be practical. Russia only cares about maintaining its control in the South Caucasus. Do you really believe that they will shed a tear if emptying Artsakh of its indigenous Armenian population becomes the political price for their self-interest? What do we expect from the US when they will not invoke Section 907 after multiple offensive violations by Azerbaijan in a clear violation of the act? Europe is consumed with their addiction to Azeri fossil fuel but will offer us beautifully worded rhetoric. How can we expect military support from the West with the CSTO treaty in place? Armenia needs additional partners, but their actions are modest.
In the two years since the 44-day war, how much has the Armenian military improved? Have we acquired defensive drone technology? Is not defending ourselves against these barbarians a fundamental responsibility of the government? Perhaps we have, and it is simply not for public consumption, but history tells us otherwise. How can we ask others to stand for Artsakh when we have taken a step back?
I learned a lesson in the museum last week: having your back against the wall does not have to result in negative consequences. It is a choice we all make. Sometimes in our darkest hours, the light of hope appears. As a nation, we are still more consumed with what others think of us than our own security. This national political self-esteem problem is a product of the oppression and atrocities we have experienced. This is our burden to overcome. The spirit of Artsakh changed our thinking about our future. Armenia’s independence was a gift from the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Artsakh was liberated with blood and sacrifice. Its loss would have a devastating impact on our political thinking. Have we truly internalized that? The people of Artsakh have, but not as a global nation. In 1918, Armenia was confronted with a similar “back against the wall” reality. The country was devastated by the Genocide and found itself isolated by a political vacuum. The Turks with a professional army were advancing from the west and north to take advantage of the vacuum and finish what Talaat had started. Is it not reasonable to assume that the political fear and despair they felt was similar to today? The circumstances from a humanitarian perspective were more dire, but the suffocating of Artsakh and genocidal intent is analogous. Despite the odds, our leaders and population rallied and delivered a miracle in 1918. The Catholicos at that time refused to leave Holy Etchmiadzin stating that if we cannot defend the See, he will die there. Does Armenia really believe that by placating Azerbaijan, the homeland will be secure? There is talk of disarming the Artsakh defense army. This is not coming from the people of Artsakh but from those who have contributed to its isolation. This would be shameful and genocidal and will have a disastrous impact on our future. Political analysts have urged pragmatism about Artsakh’s future. I will simply say that Aliyev has never honored an agreement. As a nation, they have no integrity. Where is our dignity, our sense of self-respect and commitment? Erdogan and Aliyev advocating peace with Armenia reminds me of Talaat telling the deported Armenian villagers that they are simply being moved for their safety. A few Azeri soldiers and civilians block the Lachin road, and we look to the Russians as if we are completely inept. Where was the Armenian army on the RoA side? Why do we continue to tolerate the humiliation of border attacks, territorial encroachments and blockades?
We’ve heard it is fear of giving the Azeris justification for attacking. Was there a justification for 2016, 2020 or September 2022? They will do what they want as long as there is no response. Aliyev wants Artsakh, “Zangezur” and eventually all of Armenia for their pan-Turkic racism, and we are concerned about not enabling military action? Our lack of responses has led the Azeris not to fear the Armenians. This is a change from 1991. We wait for the “morality” of the West or the “defense treaty” with Russia to save us. Aliyev feeds off the weaknesses of others.
A nation that lives in its own shadow will always be subjected to a victim mentality. This is why I have been so inspired by the struggle of Artsakh. It has been a game changer in our thinking. It has been an inspiration of what can be accomplished with little beyond a vision, yet here we are today reluctant to fully commit the global nation to its future. Artsakh defended itself 30 years ago to prevent a genocide. Our passive measures of the last 10 years seem to suggest we have lost sight of that possibility. What has happened to our “Never Again” mentality as a people? Never is an absolute term and has no room for misinterpretation. Have our public demonstrations of “Never Again” or “Genocide Ignored Will Be Repeated” become just a slogan? Truly, our backs are against the wall, but for some, the brilliance emerges in the darkest moments. How will we respond at this moment? Are we subordinates to the Turks dependent on the charity of others? The blame game has run its course. It would be an utter shame for this matter to be resolved before we apply the full capability of our nation. We all need to take this personally.

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