Armenia's war for territory is spinning out of control

Georgie Anne Geyer

February 23, 1993|By Georgie Anne Geyer

WHILE THE American electorate focuses on domestic economic matters and steers away from foreign affairs, in certain tragic corners of the world events are occurring that confound the human mind.

If one looks at the case of Armenia today, one can hardly believe what one is seeing and hearing. Armenia is "returning to the Dark Ages." Armenia is "dying" as a nation. "We're past the crisis stage," says Harut Sassounian, executive director of the United Armenian Fund. "The country has collapsed."

Indeed, the little nation of 3.3 million people sandwiched between Turkey (a historical enemy), Azerbaijan (a slightly less noxious enemy) and Georgia (a collapsing non-enemy) is in what appears to be the final throes of misery.

Armenians sit without heat this brutal winter because Azerbaijan has embargoed oil supplies. There is little food and almost no light. Criminal "mafiosi" have taken over the country; packs of starving wild dogs roam the empty streets attacking and sometimes eating people.

All of the poisoned situations that have arisen in the Caucasus and in neighboring Central Asia since Mikhail Gorbachev and his reforms suddenly freed oppressed peoples to "be themselves," often seem so confused as to prevent real analysis. But Armenia's unfolding tragedy is quite clear -- it stems from a fault of Shakespearean dimensions: grandiosity.

Armenia was no Tajikistan, or Kirgizstan, or even Azerbaijan. Armenia was one of the richest and most successful republics within the old Soviet Union. With advanced industry, a thriving agriculture and one of the most able peoples on the face of the earth, it could by now have been a little paradise to serve as an example to other new countries striving to emerge out of communism.

The Armenians also had their great and singular history to lead them along this new road. At one time, the Armenians, an Indo-European people and Christian, were powerful enough to challenge the Roman Empire.

But while this unusual people survived every conqueror, from the Persians to the Byzantines to the Arabs, their terrible time of suffering came in 1915, when the Ottoman Turks slew, according to most estimates, more than 1 million Armenians in one of the real attempted "genocides" in modern history. This terrible moment of their history left them with an abiding sense that persecution -- and even destruction of their entire "nation" -- could come at any moment.

But when the Armenians began to win their independence as the Soviet Union's central control began to collapse in 1987 and '88, instead of digging in economically and establishing workable new political institutions, they embarked upon a mad, grandiose crusade to win back the 90 percent Armenian area of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Now, Nagorno-Karabakh is a piece of land a little larger than Rhode Island. As with so many divisions in the former Soviet Union, it was deliberately placed by Joseph Stalin inside Azerbaijan, which is Moslem, in order to split up and thus control ethnic minorities.

After 1988, "Karabakh" became the fanaticized rallying cry for all of Armenia. Mass rallies were held to "win back Karabakh!" Armenian volunteers from the diaspora (3 million Armenians live in the West alone) flocked to the Armenian capital, Yerevan; some came from the unsavory Armenian terrorist group Asala. Instead of moving toward genuine self-sufficiency, Armenia plunged into war against Azerbaijan's 7 million people.

As one seasoned analyst of the area said to me at the time, "One would have thought having one Turkey on her borders would have been enough for Armenia."

At first, the Armenians were winning -- but, given the odds and their isolated geographic position, that was never to be. Today the atrocities committed in "Karabakh" by both sides rival those of the Serbs in Bosnia. Azerbaijan is suffering greatly from the war -- scalping people is a major form of "fighting" -- and Armenia is in danger of actually perishing.

Armenians sometimes say that the only worth they have in that part of the world is the right of their historical territory, and that that right defines their dignity. But those ancient and atavistic ideas are what is above all carrying even a people like the Armenians backward in time -- instead of forward.

These struggling new countries can be successful in today's world. They can be like Singapore, or Taiwan, or Liechtenstein. But to do that, they have to give up the kind of grandiosity and "glory" that is leading Armenia down the road to destruction.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist on foreign affairs.

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