BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
This column attempts to explain the reasons for the sudden rapprochement between Russia and Turkey, which also welcome Azerbaijan, and tangentially Iran, into their fold, while a major confrontation was taking place in Yerevan between an armed opposition group and the police.
By setting aside their feud over the downing of a Russian military jet by Turkey near the Syrian border last year, Moscow and Ankara have now formed a “marriage of convenience” stemming from their perceived mutual national interests. This pragmatic decision by the Presidents of Russia and Turkey is intended to maximize their economic benefits and coordinate their foreign policies, enabling them to better withstand pressures from the West.
Russia has been suffering from a faltering economy, mostly due to Western sanctions after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Turkey, on the other hand, despite its membership in both NATO and the European Council, has been shunned from joining the European Union and accused of supporting ISIS in Syria. Moreover, Turkish President Erdogan is outraged that many European countries have been highly critical of his harsh measures against political opponents after the July 15 coup attempt. Erdogan is also unhappy that the United States has not extradited to Turkey the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of masterminding the attempted military coup.
Rejecting the “undue Western interference” in their domestic and foreign affairs, Russia and Turkey have decided to lay the foundation for a new alliance that will bring them out of their isolation from the West. To pursue that end, Russian President Putin met with Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev and Iran’s President Rouhani in Baku on August 8, and Turkish President Erdogan in St. Petersburg on August 9. These four countries signed a series of important economic agreements and discussed significant political issues impacting the region, including the Artsakh (Karabakh) conflict. The next day, Putin met with Armenian President Sarkisian in Moscow to brief him on the results of his earlier meetings.
While Russia’s rapprochement with Armenia’s arch-enemies, Azerbaijan and Turkey, could lead to heavy pressures on President Sarkisian to make territorial concessions on Artsakh, it could also lessen the possibility of unilateral military action by Azerbaijan against Artsakh, without President Putin’s consent. No one should be surprised if this new realignment between Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkey would also revive the defunct Armenia-Turkey protocols of 2009, resulting in the opening of their mutual border in conjunction with a “conciliatory step” on Artsakh by Armenia.
Today’s wily Turkish leaders are following the footsteps of their Ottoman predecessors who skillfully pitted one major European power against the others for decades, and then switched sides when it suited them. Incredibly, Erdogan is cozying up to Russia while remaining a NATO member, thus benefitting from both parties. The United States and other NATO members should not fall for this Turkish trickery. They should warn Erdogan in no uncertain terms to choose either NATO or Russia! Should the Turkish President continue to side with Russia, he could be left with an empty bag when his alliance with the Kremlin collapses!
As dark clouds gather over Armenia and Artsakh, Armenians have been busy settling internal disputes. The July 17 takeover of a police station in Yerevan by a group of 31 armed men who are veterans of the Artsakh War created considerable concern among Armenians nationwide and worldwide. The group, nicknamed Sasna Dsrer, (Daredevils of Sassoun), demanded President Sarkisian’s resignation, release of political prisoners, formation of an interim government, and new elections.
After a two-week standoff — three policemen were killed, several of the armed men were wounded, and scores of demonstrators were injured or detained, including journalists — the remaining members of Sasna Dsrer surrendered. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of protesters held public rallies night after night to express their support for the demands of the veterans’ group.
The true roots of this tragic confrontation go back to the early days of Armenia’s independence. There has been a pent up anger and frustration among large circles of the population for the past quarter century during which over a million Armenians left the country to secure basic necessities for their families. Those remaining behind suffered many deprivations and inequalities, including corruption, fraudulent elections, unfair judiciary, uncaring bureaucrats, and monopolistic oligarchs!
As a result, most Armenian citizens have lost their trust in government. Although an armed attack on a police station is not an acceptable form of dissent, when people are in a desperate situation for a long period of time and see no other alternative to resolve their grievances, they are forced to resort to extreme measures.
While such internal dissension could jeopardize Armenia’s and Artsakh’s security, the protesters are adamant that having unresponsive leaders poses a greater risk. Ironically, all those protesting the possibility of turning over to Azerbaijan the buffer zone around Artsakh have helped strengthen President Sarkisian’s position in making the point to Putin that the Armenian people vehemently oppose any territorial concessions on Artsakh.
If government officials wish to prevent the repeat of further domestic unrest, they must take all necessary measures to show that they truly care about the welfare of the Armenian people. To this end, President Sarkisian recently promised to make drastic changes, including the formation of a “unity government.” Understandably, many citizens are skeptical since they have heard similar unfulfilled past promises.
In 2017, a new Parliament is scheduled to be elected, and a new President to be selected by Parliament members in 2018. Unless the next elections are fair and represent the various segments of the population, there may be more serious disturbances. The burden for freer elections falls not only on government officials, but also on voters who sell their votes!
A democratically-elected government is the only way to gain the people’s trust not only to govern them fairly, but also to properly manage the country’s foreign relations, including the negotiations on Artsakh. Currently, there is a considerable distrust that what is being negotiated behind closed doors in Moscow or elsewhere stems from the interests of the Armenian nation.
To get out of this newly-imposed precarious geo-strategic isolation, the authorities in Armenia and Artsakh have to emulate the long-standing Turkish tactic of “divide and conquer,” looking for opportunities to pit Russia against Turkey and Azerbaijan, thus undermining the possible consensus of Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia and Turkey on the Artsakh conflict!