PART I:Armenia & Israel
The world hovers on the edge of war, not only in Israel-Palestine, Syria, Ukraine, but in Eurasia’s ground zero, where Armenia and Azerbaijan are always on the cusp of a new outbreak of their unresolvable conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave in the centre of the post-Soviet ‘republic’ of Azerbaijan.
Oil-rich Azerbaijan is lavishing its petro-dollars on beefing up its armed forces, assisted by–guess who?–Russia and Israel. It seems only a matter of time till a full scale explosion happens. It almost did in April, 2016, when Armenian forces in Karabakh shelled civilian settlements and attacked Azerbaijani forces in retaliation for an Azerbaijani helicopter firing on Armenian military positions. 18 Armenian and 12 Azerbaijani troops were killed. Given Azerbaijan’s growing military teeth, it is unlikely the Armenians started this.
This is yet another intractable dilemma resulting from the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union. Soviet borders were not carved out in the 1920s with western-style sovereignty in mind, and now many make no sense at all within the western legal framework.
To compound its loss of Karabakh (visualize the western corridor through East Germany to West Berlin), Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic (the size of Delaware) is orphaned on the other side of Armenia. Like both Armenia and Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan is totally landlocked, and has no link with its motherland for two decades. What is the secret that keeps it going? For that matter, what keeps pesky Armenia, flouting international law, wedged between hostile Turkey, tiny Georgia and Iran, going?
The parallels between Armenia and Israel, Armenians and Jews, are remarkable, and provide answers. They span geopolitics, religion, tribalism, economics, culture and a history of tragic dimensions. They account for both ethnicities’ triumphs in the face of determined enmity, but also their failure to find peace among nations.
The most stark parallel is the seizure of neighbouring territories with no intention of returning them, and (almost) universal condemnation. The 1988 war resulted in 40,000 deaths, 230,000 Armenians and a million Azeris displaced, and the 1994 ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, followed by fruitless peace negotiations.
Armenia has not yet implemented four UN Security Council resolutions on withdrawal of its armed forces from the Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts, stubbornly insisting Karabakh is Armenian land.
Sound familiar? Though Israel’s actions are far worse, having occupied all its neighbour’s territories, and spent decades adding settlers from Russia and the US, who have no historic bond to the territories and no intention of giving up their free accommodations.
Both countries achieved ‘independence’ only in the 20th century, despite their ancient and larger-than-life histories. The reason being their key locations on the map — both at crossroads which have seen invasions and occupations over the millennia which at various times have tried to stamp these stubborn tribes out or at least make them integrate.
The 19th–20th century version — for the Armenians, the Ottoman Turks and the Russian communists — for the Jews in Europe, the Nazis, in Palestine, the British. Both tribes survived their occupiers and overlords, and have maintained their fierce pride and independence.
Armenia claims to be the oldest Christian state (301 AD), and, of course, Judaism claims to be the cradle of all monotheisms. The strong fusion of religion and ethnicity has kept these small tribes united in the face of annihilation.
Being at a crossroads means constant cultural stimulation and the need to keep one step ahead of one’s nemeses. Armenia’s location is of less strategic importance today than Israel’s, and Armenians are not key world players economically, so they don’t capture headlines in the West, but their current position is just as perilous as that of Israel.
Armenia’s natural affinity is with fellow Orthodox Christian Russia, which threatened Ottoman hegemony in the region and then Turkish independence in 1920. This is what prompted the expulsion and mass killing of up to a million Armenians and destruction of their millennial architectural treasures by the Turks starting in 1915. A similar mass pogrom of Jews in Europe took place starting a few years later, also prompted by WWI, Jews being seen as a threat to German culture.
The Russian communists were welcomed by the Armenians–anyone was better than the Turks. Though the Russian revolution aimed to dismantle the old tribalisms and create a new generic Soviet Man, the Armenians blossomed in their soviet republic founded in 1921. The wily Anastas Mikoyan was the only soviet politician who managed to remain at the highest levels of power within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev.
The even wilier (mostly communist) Jews created their state in 1948 with the help of the the Soviet Union, but quickly sold out in the Cold War, jumping on the anti-Soviet bandwagon, and found their place in the sun–at least for now.
This perceived betrayal of its Soviet sponsors poisoned the otherwise elite position that the talented Soviet Jews had in their soviet motherland, and as the lure of the West took hold, Soviet Jews were resented and restricted, in a vicious circle that encouraged them–with US support–to emigrate, a key element in the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Armenia has a population of 3.2m, Israel 8.5m. Armenia has a diaspora of 8m, Israel — 13.2m. Both diasporas are the secret of their success, providing both economic and political support for the ‘motherland’.
Armenia suffered much less emigration following the collapse of the Soviet Union than did other ‘republics’, and there is steady population growth and even repatriation of the diaspora. There are Armenians scattered virtually everywhere around the world (Russia, France, Iran, the US (500,000), Georgia, Syria, Lebanon, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Poland, Ukraine and Brazil. About 1,000 Armenians reside in the Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, a remnant of a once-larger community.
40,000 to 70,000 Armenians still live in nemesis Turkey (mostly in and around Istanbul), but none in neighbouring Azerbaijan, which lost 20% of its territory to tiny Armenia in the early 1990s, and ‘ethnically cleansed’ its large Armenian population.
The prize, the ancient Armenian enclave Nagorno-Karabakh lies at the heart of Azerbaijan, creating an insoluble problem which is really no one’s fault, yet another poisonous legacy of the US obsession with destroying the Soviet Union, where such ethnic chauvinism was strongly discouraged, and where borders were not important.
Genocide and/or holocaust
Shushi Karabakh after the 1920 massacre
Interestingly, Armenia and Israel have at best cordial relations, though you might expect greater empathy for fellow sufferers. The problem is on the surface a linguistic quibble. Jews, or at least Israel, insist that ‘holocaust’ is their cross to bear, and refuse to use even the ‘g’ word for Armenia’s tragedy.
The Armenians were left defenseless in 1915 after the Russians withdrew from Ottoman territory they had briefly occupied, hoping to keep as spoils. Their tragedy inspired Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer of Polonized-Jewish descent to coin the word “genocide” in 1943* with the Armenians and Jews in mind, and to propose the Genocide Convention after WWII (from the rooted words genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and -cide (Latin for killing)).
Perhaps the Israeli refusal to use the ‘g’ word–let alone the ‘h’ word–for others is chauvinism or just wily geopolitics. Armenia is much less important than Turkey. To commemorate the Armenian 100th anniversary in 2015, Pope Francis described it as the “First genocide of the XX century”, causing a diplomatic row with Turkey. The Pope calling on the world to recognize “the truth of what transpired and oppose such crimes without ceding to ambiguity or compromise.”
Pope Francis boldly decided to travel to Yerevan in June 2016 to honour the Armenians and affirm his call for Turkey to own up to its history. At the same time, he urged Armenia and Turkey to seek reconciliation and to shun “the illusory power of vengeance,” and called for meaningful peace talks with Azerbaijan that would end the state of war between them.
Turkey and Azerbaijan insist there was no mass slaughter at all. Israel, Britain and United States still refuse to add even the ‘g’ word to their political lexicon as relates to Armenia, a shameful political sop to both Turkey and Israel. Turkey is a much needed Muslim member of NATO, and Israel is at the heart of western imperialism. Armenia just has to grin and bear it.
*Lemkin had proposed a convention outlawing mass slaughter to the League of Nations in 1933, based on the Armenian experience. He escaped German capture in 1941 and emigrated via Sweden to the US, losing 49 relatives to the Nazis.
PART II: Azerbaijan and Palestine
Part I considered the remarkable similarities between Armenians and Jews. They both were socialist, then capitalist, adapting as the need arose. Both suffered genocides and achieved independence as fallouts from the upheavals of the 20th century.
Which brings us to their remarkable ‘achievement’: to (almost) single-handedly occupy their neighbour’s territory, against all odds–and hold on to it–against international opinion, Armenia for close to 25 yrs, Israel close to 70 years. Armenia taking 20% of Azerbaijan, Israel 100% of Palestine. They both insist history bequeathed them those lands, and their tragic ‘holocausts’ justify their violation of international law to ensure their safety.
Both countries have lived this occupier lifestyle on a war footing ever since, and yet prosper even as their nemeses wallow in poverty and suffering.
The world mostly admires these plucky aggressors and has little time for either the Azerbaijanis or the Palestinians. It seems there is little solidarity in the Muslim world, or at least little effective solidarity.
True, there is a Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, but, so far, it is more just an irritating buzzword than anything with real bite. Trade with Arab neighbours is minimal, but not with other Muslim countries.
This is sad, as Israel’s founders argued Jewish settlers could live peacefully with the Muslim inhabitants, and would bring western high tech investment and education, providing a win-win situation for Arabs and Jews.
The Armenians made no such empty promises. But the result in both cases has been very much win-lose. The prospects for peace in both conflicts without a radical rethink is zero.
Israeli crocodile tears
Israel and Armenia have minimal diplomatic and economic relations, despite the fact that Armenians have almost as much claim to Jerusalem as Jews, dating their heritage in Jerusalem back a thousand years. Devout Armenian Christian Israelis will be there until the second coming.
During her visit to Armenia in 2012, the Israeli Minister of Agriculture Orit Noked stated, “We are like each other with our history, character, with our small number of population and having communities abroad.” But no mention of the main similarities: their common genocidal histories and their common bizarre way to make sure they are not repeated.
Israeli interests have meant cozying up not to their Armenian brothers, but to Armenia’s Palestinians. Although Azerbaijan has not opened an embassy in Israel, Azerbaijan is one of the few Muslim countries besides Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan to develop bilateral strategic and economic relations with Israel.
Economics trumps religion. Along with Russia, Israel is Azerbaijan’s main source of military hardware, supplying Azerbaijan with battlefield aviation, artillery, anti-tank, anti-infantry weaponry, and military training. In 2016, current Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman supported the position of Azerbaijan in the 2016 Armenian–Azerbaijani clashes by calling it “absolutely justified”.
Only Israelis and Turks can come to Azerbaijan visa-free. According to a 2009 US diplomatic memo made public through Wikileaks, Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev once compared his country’s relationship with Israel to an iceberg: “Nine-tenths of it is below the surface.”
Economic secret: no oil
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia’s GDP fell nearly 60%. Most major enterprises – chemicals, electronics, machinery, processed food, synthetic rubber, and textile – were bankrupted. To make matters worse, the 1988 Spitak earthquake killed more than 25,000 people and made 500,000 homeless.
But the diaspora kicked in, and intelligent leadership (a functioning democracy, unlike neighbouring Azerbaijan) initiated reforms and the development of new sectors, such as precious-stone processing and jewellery making, information and communication technology, and tourism. One study ranks Armenia as the 41st most economically free nation in the world, out of 170 (Israel is 35th and Azerbaijan 91st).
Most import was the rediscovery of agriculture, which went from 20% of the labour force to 40%. Israel, too, prides itself on its kibbutizim and its claim to ‘make the desert bloom’. Apart from grain, Israel is mostly self-sufficient, though only 2.6% are employed in agricultural production, and Israel has destroyed more farms than it has created.
Neither Armenia nor Israel have ever been coveted for their raw materials. Armenia has lots of mountains, and therefor minerals, but the vast majority of energy is produced with fuel imported from Russia, including gas and nuclear fuel (for its one (Soviet) nuclear power plant); the main domestic energy source is hydroelectric.
Its lack of oil is a hidden blessing, yet another parallel with Israel.* Azerbaijan has been blessed/ cursed with oil, one of the world’s largest reserves, for centuries, developed by Sweden’s Rockefeller, Ludwig Nobel, in the early 20th century.
Back then, it was owned by Nobel and financed by the Rothschilds, with no benefit to Azeris. Stalin came to organize the workers in 1902, and wrote, ‘I’m working for the Rothschilds!” The workers won their demands of a 9-hour day and a 6-day week, but only after 13 were gunned down. Stalin was sent to Siberia to cool his heels. 15 years later his vow to “overthrow the Tsar, Rothscilds and the Nobels” came true.
Azerbaijanis benefited from the oil in Soviet times, but no more and no less than all other Soviets. Their standard of living rose as the Soviet Union prospered, as did that of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Nakhchivan. They all got gas for heating and cooking from the Baku fields, and with open borders and a planned economy, there was no awareness of artificial borders, no serious ethnic problem.
1991 witnessed an eerie return to the pre-Soviet days of foreign exploitation and brutality. Azerbaijan has wallowed in corruption and a brutal dictatorship ever since, supported by scheming US politicians and greedy oil companies (British Petroleum the worst).
Even worse than the oil itself, is BP’s new pipeline slicing Azerbaijan in two, just as much a loss of genuine sovereignty as the loss of Nagoro-Karabakh, but done using “soft power” and in the “national interest”. BP stole much more of Azerbaijan’s land that Armenia did, and Aliyev thanked them.
In Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London (2012), James Marriott documents his trip along the pipeline route from Baku to Tbilisi, Ceyhan and Europe. His courageous Azeri guide, Green Party chairman Mayis Gulaliyev, deflected an attempt to arrest them for their interest in the pipeline. Similar stand offs took place in all the pipeline ‘host’ countries.
Marriott discovered that most villagers, who have 800 barrels of oil/ gas hurtling under them on their way to Germany every second, have no gas for cooking, many with no electricity.
The corruption, disruption to civilians, loss of personal freedom and environmental devastation that the pipeline and oil ‘wealth’ have brought are shocking (not just for Azerbaijan, but Georgia and Turkey). None of the wealth reaches the people, and has been squandered by a leadership that consists of the dregs of Soviet power. Though Azerbaijan ranks higher than Armenia in GNP per capita ($16,180 vs $8,140), there is no comparison. Poverty in Armenia is infinitely better than poverty in Azerbaijan.
You can only marvel at the paradox of Armenia and Israel’s economic miracles: better no oil and resourceful, than oil rich and corrupt.
Triumph of the spirit
Both tribes wear their long-suffering history on their shirtsleeves, never letting the world (or the next generation) forget their unjust treatment by oppressors, and their triumph over adversity. This painful legacy has proved the spiritual secret of their success.
Respect, even love, for suffering is at the heart of both religious traditions. Daniel Berrigan counseled Christians, but it holds for Jews: Before you get serious about Jesus, first consider carefully how good you are going to look on wood!”**
Both Armenians and Jews benefit from their religious heritage. Armenians boast that they had the first Christian state (301 AD). Despite the claims by secular Zionists that Judaism is passe, it is the orthodox Hasidim that are increasingly the backbone of the Israeli state, and the Star of David its embodiment, just as the severe but majestic stone churches dotting Armenian lands (where not destroyed by vengeful Turks and Azeris) are a powerful symbol for Armenians everywhere.
The only ‘happy ending’
Which brings us to the question: How can these mythical peoples make peace with the world, their neighbours and themselves?
Simple. By taking a leaf from Pope Francis on Trump’s plan to build a wall with Mexico: “A person who only thinks about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” Or, we may add, “not Jewish”.
Both Armenia and Israel must reach out to their respective self-inflicted foes, the Azeris and Palestinians, and build bridges, work out some kind of union. Reinvent the Soviet heritage of genuine multiculturalism. It won’t be easy, but it is the only reasonable answer that will put an end to enmity and unending war.
*This has recently changed for Israel. It discovered offshore gas, which by international law should belong to the Palestinians, but is now being exploited by Israel.
*Fr Ron Rolheiser, “Nearer to God, the nearer to suffering” Catholic Register, June 26, 2016.