Armenian Youth Challenge Diplomat on Semantics of Turkish-Armenian Protocols
SHERMAN OAKS, CA– In the florescent-lit Merdinian School Auditorium stood the diplomat from Armenia — a seasoned employee of the the Republic of Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He stood face-to-face with a crowd of some 200 inquisitive Diasporans.
The diplomat in the spotlight on Thursday, December 17, was the Republic of Armenia’s Consul General to Los Angeles, the Honorable Grigor Hovhannisyan — scholar, political tactician, seasoned strategic communicator, Fletcher Graduate, and former United Nations employee in foreign lands like Lebanon, Israel, and the African Congo.
Standing under the shadows of photographs of Armenian heroes and cultural icons, Hovhannisyan was asked to explain his employer’s position as he was scrutinized and criticized by those gathered.
As if in an interrogation room, the young diplomat’s tall figure cast shadows on the faces of those gathered in Sherman Oaks. His job was to defend his government’s contemptuous intention to push forward with the ratification of fence-mending agreements with Turkey — agreements that jeopardize the legal claims of the Armenian people to their historic homeland occupied by Turkey after its annihilation of the territories indigenous Armenian population.
Clearly, the audience knew this man was not the government of Armenia, but only the messenger of Armenia’s Foreign Ministry. Though they knew to differentiate between the message and messenger, the febrile crowd — including members of the Armenian Youth Federation– was there to see how Armenia would explain itself and how it would explain the proposed Armenia-Turkey Protocols.
Asking the questions were both young and old, US-natives, and emigrants from the Homeland, all interested in the real answers, the justifications, and the explanation of why Armenia was lurking in the dangerous waters of irrational diplomacy. The Consul General said he would try to explain the Protocols from the point-of-view of his government.
The meeting of the minds and attempt at dialogue was organized by the ARPA Institute, which promotes cooperation and understanding between the United States and Republic of Armenia through analysis, research, and outreach in education, economics, policy, health, and technology.
The 15 members of ARPA’s Board of Directors had reached out to the Consul General and leading experts on the Protocols to ask them to shed some light on these complex set of bylaws that are set to rule dialogue between Armenia and Turkey and normalize relations between the two nations.
The panel organized by ARPA was moderated by Dr. Richard Hovannisian, UCLA Professor Emeritus of Modern Armenian History. Joining Prof. Hovannisian and Consul General Hovhannisyan were Dr. Razmig Shirinian, a political science professor at College of the Canyons and the University of Laverne, and Dr. Joseph Kechichian, a former UCLA lecturer and RAND Corporation analyst, and current CEO of the Middle East Policy Council.
Words exchanged during the town hall meeting were pregnant with reasons and camouflage as this was the first time an official representative of the Republic of Armenia had come face-to-face with the public-at-large to defend the beleaguered documents.
The Consul General spoke briefly about the history of the protocols, their relevance to Armenia’s short-term and long-term future, as well as the “rift” or estrangement between the Diaspora and the Armenian government.
“We have to understand that the protocols came as a total surprise not only to the Diaspora, but to everyone, including Armenians in Armenia,” said Consul General Hovhannisyan. “Negotiations of that type and caliber do normally take place in an atmosphere of utmost secrecy. Only very few people are involved in those things.”
Some attending the meeting said the Consul General was both defensive and anxious throughout the night. This was the first meeting in Southern California between a representative of Armenia and the public after the much-publicized visit by President Serge Sarkisian before the protocols were signed by Armenia and Turkey under the watchful eyes of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“I was in Yerevan in a meeting with the diplomatic corps when the Foreign Minister revealed the protocols,” said the Consul General, explaining how he had come to find out about the document. “When I got back to Los Angeles, I did not have enough of a background on these negotiations and the issues on the table.”
Hovhannisyan told those gathered that the Republic’s first administration had kept dialogue with Turkey a secret. He said it wasn’t until the current administration that the public was informed about the diplomatic dialogue. He said revelation of the document was an ‘eye opening’ experience to him and his colleagues, and they had not been prepared to address questions by friends and local Armenians about the Kars Treaty and the recognition of Armenia’s and Turkey’s borders.
“I was unprepared, which is no credit to our diplomatic service,” said the Consul General very frankly. “But this is how it works, especially when we’re talking about top secret negotiations.”
The Consul General reiterated what Pres. Sarkisian has stated repeatedly and offered no new justifications or explanations about the protocols. Hovhannisyan also reiterated the President’s claims that the Protocols were indeed initiated by Armenia and included many conditions that the Armenian government put on the table.
Speaking about the process since the revelation of the Protocols, the Consul General said public policy must be debated openly in a civil society, and no one can argue against the dialogues taking place throughout the Diaspora.
“The Diaspora is part of global Armenian civil society,” said Hovhannisyan. “We should think of ways on how to make that happen.”
Many of those attending the town hall meeting at the Merdinian School asked about why the plans for the Protocols and the so-called “Roadmap” to normalize ties between Armenia and Turkey were unveiled on April 22nd.
“It was really unfortunate that the Roadmap coincided with the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide,” answered the Consul General. He also said the Armenian government is organizing an inter-ministerial committee that will organize a large international, global event dedicated to the 95th anniversary of the Genocide.
Hovhannisyan also negated fear that the validity of the Armenian Genocide would be questioned as part of the proposed Historical Commission. He said the commission was not designed to debate the veracity of the Armenian Genocide but to settle the consequences and property claims. He also reiterated that the Protocols are in no way related to the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status, contradicting comments being made by many Turkish and Azeri officials.
Levon Abrahamian of the AYF asked the Consul General why is the Republic of Armenia continuing the ratification process of a dangerous agreement when the Protocols would prohibit Yerevan from securing Karabakh’s self-determination.
Hovhannisyan passed the question on to Dr. Kechichian, who affirmed to those attending that the Protocols, as they are written, will bar Armenia from “interfering” in the affairs of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which is considered by Turkey as the territory of Azerbaijan.
“These are legal terms,” said the Dr. Kechichian. “All bilateral agreements are international agreements in one way or another, so let’s leave it to the experts who know the difference between international and bilateral agreements.”
Hovhannisyan was also asked to speak about economic benefits of the Protocols. He said that Turkey would not benefit as much as Armenia economically, because Armenia’s market is small and has a lot of room to grow and prosper. Hovhannisyan’s primary argument was that the protocols, ardently supported by Armenia’s economic elite, would in fact break the oligarchy’s tight grip on Armenia’s economy.
He justified the protocols for “more predictable and better” trade routes, and Turkey becoming an easier access way to Europe for both importing and exporting Armenian products to Europe.
“Unfortunately the economy is not run by Nobel laureates in Economics, but by the politicians,” said the Consul General. “Economic theory says for a country like ours, open borders and zero tariffs is the way to go.”
Dr. Shirinian chimed in about the Consul’s statement on economic benefits and explained that Turkey is a powerful, dynamic economy with a powerful private sector.
“Turkey’s private sector will collide with the centralized oligarchic economy in Armenia, and that will be damaging to Armenia,” said Dr. Shirinian. “Turks are intelligent about this. They are smart about this. I think, eventually, they will empower the oligarchs and oligarchic economy in Armenia, because that will diminish and further weaken the private sector in Armenia, which is almost non-existent.”
Professor Richard Hovannisian said the opposite may be true in Armenia’s case, noting information he learned from an Indian student in an undergraduate seminar at UCLA.
“His thesis was — and I don’t know if I agree with it–but its an interesting one,” said Dr. Hovannisian. “His view is that opening the borders is a good thing, because it will destroy the oligarchs and may destroy the Armenian economy in part. But, it will force the Armenians to become competitive and to create kinds of exports, intellectual export, because Armenia will never compete in crude production and other kinds of production. But it can compete in intellectual production.”
Dr. Hovannisian’s student explained his theory by using India’s example, where India stopped protective tarrifs and went into the high-tech industry, which brought India out of the economic doldrums.
“I don’t know if that comparison can be made for Armenia or not,” said Dr. Hovannisian. “Again, my Indian student says the following: ‘Don’t worry so much about the Protocols. When and if you have the strength, you can tear up any protocol.'”
Too little, too late, was the message from many who attended the ARPA town hall and heard Hovhannisyan.
“Much of the frustration and confusion about the Protocols could have been avoided if there was dialogue between the Armenian government and the Diasporan public before the actual drafting of the Protocols,” said Arek Santikian, Chairman of the AYF. “Even though the Consul General finally did show up to speak to the community, it is too little too late at this stage of this very emotional issue.”
Santikian and other members of the AYF said the Consul General became overty defensive when he was questioned about the fate of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh when and if the Protocols are ratified.
“The Consul General immediately said he had, himself grabbed a gun and went to protect Karabakh when he was 18,” recalled Santikian. “Whether or not that statement is true doesn’t matter, because the question asked was ‘why is Armenia moving toward ratification of the Protocols when Turkey is insisting that resolution of the Karabakh conflict is tied to the passing of the Protocols.’ Unfortunately, this question, along with many more, the Consul General did not answer.”
Santikian said he was also appalled when he heard Dr. Kechichian repeatedly tell those gathered that the Diaspora needs to “leave it to the experts” and to “relax, and calm down.” These statements were made according to Santikian several times when panelists brought up the fact that the Protocols had made Diasporans very tense and emotional.
“Dr. Kechichian is correct in stating that decisions should not be made in highly emotional states,” said Santikian, “but he is wrong to tell the community to ‘leave it to the experts’ or to ‘relax, and calm down.’ The Protocols have become a very emotional topic and will continue to be. The topic of the Protocols has turned into this decade’s ‘Karabakh’ and removing emotions from its discussion is not realistic.”
Santikian said Dr. Kechichian’s comments about emotion were no doubt out of line and disrespectful to the community that came out to hear what the diplomat and dignified experts in academia had to say about the Protocols.
“We welcome the fact that the Consul General finally decided speak to the public about something as important as the protocols,” said AYF Chairman Santikian. “But we are still very much concerned over his refusal to actually answer any of the community’s questions or to address their concerns directly.”
Santikian said the Consul General left the audience unconvinced of his government’s purported altruistic intentions for signing the protocols.
“Mr. Hovhannisyan seemed very uneasy and contemptuous throughout the event and was very much on the defensive with his answers,” Santikian explained. “I would have liked to see him actually answer the questions that came from the youth rather than working his way around them.”
Lecturer Dr. Razmig Shirinian, who holds a PhD from the University of Southern California, spoke clearly against the Protocols, saying that they would harm Armenia. Dr. Shirinian offered those gathered at the Merdinian School a theoretical explanation as to the geopolitical effects of the Protocols. He explained Turkey’s powerful role within the entire region and how Turkey is using its role to its advantage to push its overall agenda through the Protocols.
The College of the Canyons and University of La Verne professor also shed light on Armenia’s lack on Armenia’s submissive and hasty political decisions. Dr. Shirinian pointed out that Armenia’s approach to the Protocols should be chrono-political, meaning seeing the documents through the lens of the nation’s past.
“Turkish geopolitics forgets about the past and stays with the present,” explained Dr. Shirinian. “This is what essentially Turkey is pushing for. Turkish political norms involves three aspects that Turkey has employed since 1988. Notice the date, 1988, the beginning of the Karabakh Liberation Movement.”
The three aspects of Turkey’s political norm, according to Dr. Shirinian, are for Turkey to have zero problems with others nations, to normalize relations with others in the region, and to have security relations with neighbors. These aspects were designed to ensure that Turkey maintains its powerful role in international politics.
Dr. Shirinian said Armenia needs to have “think-tanks” much like Turkey has. He said organizations like this can greatly help Armenia with strategic planning when it comes to economic, political, and social issues within the country.
Also speaking was political analyst Dr. Joseph Kechichian, who said it was too late for Armenia to turn around and pull out of the proposed Protocols. He said terminating the process would hurt Armenia in the end.
The former UCLA lecturer also spoke of the need to define the Armenian Diaspora’s role within the Armenian Nation, both presently and in the future. He stated that the Armenian government should have consulted the Armenian Diaspora before drafting the Protocols. Had the Diaspora been consulted, said Dr. Kechichian, there would not have been room for misunderstandings and consultations would have shown the world the unity within the Armenian nation.
Dr. Kechichian also talked about the international laws as they pertain to the Protocols. He clarified the difference between “treaties” and “protocols” by saying that the Armenian government can pull back from the Protocols whenever it wants, as long as the Republic of Armenia does not sign a treaty. Dr. Kechichian explained that a treaty binds each signatory country under international law, and that signatories must abide by them or face severe consequences.
“These Protocols will lead to treaties down the line,” said Dr. Kechichian. “My warning is whether or not this [Armenian] government or a future government, 50 years down the line, will continue on these bilateral agreements, these agreements will become international treaties, because every single bilateral treaty by definition becomes an international agreement. We must be able to make sure that if the government of Armenia signs any particular treaty, it is aware of the consequences of any or all preconditions.”
Asked when the government is going to ratify the Protocols, Consul General Hovhannisyan said Armenia’s Constitutional Court is currently checking the Protocols’ validity.
“Our president has made a statement recently that has instructed our Ministry of Justice to propose a legislative package that would go to our Parliament in case Turkey is procrastinating,” said Hovhannisyan. “The Armenian Government would use legal leverage as a counter to Turkey’s procrastination.”