His name arouses passions, especially in light of the recent discussions between Armenia and Turkey on the normalization of diplomatic relations. The publication of Gerard (Jirair) Libaridian’s latest book “Armenia-Turkey: Statehood, History, Politics” (in Armenian) gives us the opportunity to better understand the permanence of his discourse on Armenian-Turkish relations and the difference between the interests of the Armenian state and those of the nation.
A political and diplomatic advisor to Armenia’s first President Levon Ter-Petrosyan from 1991 to 1997, Jirair Libaridian held several key positions in matters of foreign policy, national security and conflict resolution. His experience and knowledge of the issues have led many to seek out his insights on these matters. As a co-author of a recent White Paper on Armenia’s post-war policy options, his positions on the failures of Armenia’s elites since 1998 regarding the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have earned him deep enmity among some circles, both in Armenia and in the diaspora. This is based on his observations that the balance of power is not favorable to the Armenians vis-a-vis Azerbaijan and Turkey, and that there is no alternative to the normalization of relations for Armenia with its neighbors. Libaridian’s position appealed to the Turkish nationalist establishment, which only further marginalized him in Armenian circles.
Since his retirement, Libaridian has been presenting online lectures and giving numerous interviews in the Armenian media, as well as publishing articles, which will be the subject of a five-volume publication in 2021-2022.
Co-founder and former director of the Zoryan Institute, Libaridian was one of the first to shed scientific light on the question of Artsakh when, in 1988, he edited “The Karabagh File“. His two essays on the construction of the state in Armenia and the assessment of his work alongside Levon Ter-Petrosyan constitute rare references available in foreign languages that lay out Armenian political thinking.
He dedicates his book to the figures of the 1988 Movement, those who brought a new impetus to Armenian political thinking. To understand Libaridian, one must take into account a single paradigm: the valorization and construction of Armenian statehood at the expense of nationalist ideology and the traumas of the past. This is a very difficult exercise in the context of Armenia, a country that is surrounded by two neighbors who are fundamentally hostile and openly driven by Pan-Turkish ideology. The young diplomats who accompanied him in this ideal include Rouben Shougarian, an eminent figure of Armenian foreign policy thinking, who unfortunately passed away in 2020, and Vahan Ter-Ghevondian, the current director of the Matenadaran manuscript museum.
As an actor and witness on the front lines of the chaotic 1990s, Libaridian offers Armenian readers a compilation of scholarly articles, opinion pieces and interviews that together form a common thread.
The first volume of a five-volume series, his book offers Armenian-language readers a number of texts that are often previously unpublished and reflect a constant in Jirair Libaridian’s political thinking: realism in international relations, the need to demystify the relationship between the past and the present. The book allows him to offer a presentation and contextualization of each text he has selected.
Like a Good Neighbor
There is no alternative to a policy of good neighborliness. That is Libaridian’s message in short.
In his 23 articles, essays and interviews, organized in six distinct parts, Libaridian attempts to decipher the first phase of Yerevan-Ankara relations in the midst of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He recalls his personal experience as President Ter-Petrosyan’s emissary to Turkey during the terrible winter of 1992-1993, when Armenia desperately needed Turkey to allow the transportation of European wheat over its territory; the previous route went through Abkhazia, which was in a war of its own with the Georgians. Libaridian reveals that the two neighbors had managed to come up with an agreement to establish diplomatic relations without preconditions. Turkey and Armenia thus agreed to put aside the question of the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide or the thorny questioning of the 1921 Treaty of Kars, which established the current border. In his book, Libaridian recalls that Yerevan and Ankara had practically reached an agreement in 1993 with a view to establishing normal diplomatic relations, but the capture by local Armenian forces of the Karvachar region, a buffer zone between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, frustrated the process.
Facing immense domestic pressure, especially by nationalist forces, Libaridian diverted his concentration to addressing the question of the Genocide, which remained a serious sticking point in the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. To do this, he does not hesitate to present the two competing historiographies and the Armenians’ and Turks’ representations of 1915, its causes and consequences. This allows him to develop his flagship idea: the internationalization of the recognition of the Genocide has certainly given relative satisfaction to the descendants of survivors and victims, but it has not made Armenia any safer, nor facilitated the recognition of Artsakh’s independence. In other words, prioritizing the recognition of the Genocide at the expense of establishing relations with Turkey is actually counter-productive to the interests of Armenia, he argues.
Drawing up an inventory of research on the Genocide and debates between Turkish, Armenian and international historians, Libaridian is keen to present the Armenian Question through the triangle of 1) the Ottoman state which saw the question of reforms as a threat to its territorial integrity, 2) the Armenians, animated by revolutionary inclinations but not secessionism, and 3) the imperialist European powers, each playing their part not without cynicism. It is impossible to understand the Genocide without taking into account this triangular relationship and these three dynamics.
But Libaridian goes further. He learned from Hrant Dink, whom he pays tribute to in this book, that understanding others is better than hate. Hence, the need to explain the unspeakable, justify the unjustifiable, by getting into the minds of the young Turkish leaders who carried out the attempted extermination of the Armenian nation.
In this sense, Libaridian’s approach is debated. Where his detractors criticize his naivety, at worst his betrayal, of the national interest, he responds with the need to shed the weight of the myths that pollute our relationship with the real world. For this, he goes back to the origins of the Armenian Question and its instrumentalization by the Great Powers of the time. What have we gained from the Treaty of San Stefano of 1878 or the Treaty of Sevres of 1920, he asks. Likewise, what have we gained from the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide? In other words, what is the price Armenia must pay for this strategy? Libaridian takes France as an example, a country friendly to the Armenian people and Armenia, but whose recognition of the Genocide in 2001 was not accompanied by the recognition of Artsakh. We could conclude as follows: if we are not able to protect the living, what is the point of protecting the memory of the dead? In the same way that we have not focused too much energy on seeking to honor the memory of our dead, we have not sufficiently taken into account the reasons which led such and such a state to recognize or not recognize the Armenian Genocide.
We come back to the famous phrase of Khrimyan Hayrik, returning from the Berlin Congress in 1878, where he had pleaded the cause of his martyred nation to the Great Powers. This venerable patriarch of the Armenian Church and national figure had gone to Berlin to secure reforms in the Armenian vilayets of the Ottoman Empire by attracting the pity of his interlocutors. It was misunderstanding the language and the codes of diplomacy to think that the “only universal language was that of tears.”
Put an End to Fear
What Libaridian tells us is that systematically opposing Armenian and Turkish interests is not necessarily productive. Didn’t Armenia have an interest in having a pacifist neighbor on its borders with the prospect of joining the European Union? We have often heard this fashionable speech in the early 2000s from Western influencers sensitive to Atlanticist neoconservatives and hostile to Russian imperialism in its “near abroad.” While Libaridian does not develop this sensitive subject, it repeatedly evokes the idea that Armenian elites have used a strategy of manipulating fear for decades. In his eyes, the fact is that the problematic relationship of the Armenians and Armenia with Turkey, dominated by the Genocide, has translated into a permanent fear of Turkey and the Turks. This fear has formed the basis of a traditionally anti-Turkish political positioning, affirmed and encouraged by various internal and foreign forces; the pro-Russian inclinations of Armenian politics represent only the flip side of this coin. Thus, traditionally, Armenia and the Armenians have been regarded as natural allies of Russian interests in the region. Considering Azerbaijan’s inclination toward Turkey and Georgia’s attraction to the West, Armenia’s role becomes even more important for Russia.
So it is this fear that has erected our representation of our identity and our representation of reality. The hangman/victim dichotomy has reinforced our inability to strategize or develop realistic policy. Libaridian returns to Turkish denial by explaining that the latter is essentially motivated by the fear of material and territorial reparations. He believes that, just like Turkey, the United States or the Indonesians who carried out the extermination of entire populations do not feel obliged to make restitution. For Libaridian, there is something irrational in this discourse of Armenian elites on pan-Turkism. And to underline this contradiction: how can one be afraid of Turkey while at the same time declaring slogans of revenge and demanding the liberation of Western Armenia? Critical of the approach of the three “traditional” Armenian parties of the diaspora, Libaridian recalls that the members of the Karabakh Committee had a real vision for the future of a free and independent Armenia. Unlike the political forces of the diaspora, they did not fear that independence could throw Armenia into the clutches of pan-Turkism due to a loss of Russian protection. On the other hand, he recalls that the Russians did nothing to protect the Armenians of Azerbaijan who were massacred during the pogroms of Sumgait, Baku and Kirovabad between 1988 and 1990. He is of the opinion that the Armenian elites made a strategic error with serious consequences by entrusting their destiny to Russia alone. This approach deprived Armenia of true sovereignty.
Can an Independent Armenia Exist and Endure?
Can an independent Armenia exist and endure? This is a crucial question that Libaridian does not fully answer, arguing that it all comes down to will. Of course, the danger of annihilation is always present. For the time being, Russia is still the guarantor of our physical security, to the detriment of Armenian sovereignty.
The three decades of the development of the political thinking of Gerard Libaridian follows a common thread. If the 1915 Genocide remains fundamental to national identity, it must not condemn Armenia to make bad choices. He denounces what one could qualify as the “Armenian Syndrome of Sevres”, which pushed the Armenian leaders to distort the representation of the real world and ignore the reality of shifting power relations. Armenia bears its share of responsibility for its misfortune, just as it failed to make an honorable exit from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, at the cost of painful concessions. It is necessary to read the premonitory article by Libaridian, published just a few weeks before the outbreak of the 2020 Artsakh War, in which he discusses the untenable nature of the status quo and the unfavorable development of the regional and international geopolitical situation.
What deserves further elaboration by Libaridian is probably the complexity of Armenia-Diaspora relations. Libaridian does not return in this book to the tension between the Levon Ter-Petrosyan administration and the ARF that led to the banning of this political party on the territory of the motherland. He is content to criticize the divisions of the diaspora and their maximalist politics without taking into account the absence of political participation, however complex, of Armenian forces in the diaspora in the service of the development of the state. Thus, 30 years have been wasted, 30 years that have undermined the capital of trust and goodwill between the two parts of the Armenian world.
On the other hand, one cannot throw all the responsibility for the misfortunes of the nation solely on Armenia’s post-1998 leadership. There were also failures in Armenian diplomacy during the post-war years of 1994-1998, leading to an inability to negotiate from a position of strength.
The author argues that former President Robert Kocharyan had encouraged the international recognition of the Genocide because of a lack of knowledge of history. In his eyes, only the knowledge of history and the present in a critical perspective can save us from ourselves and our demons.
Libaridian argues that we have to move past the good-versus-evil logic in our policies toward our neighbors. Thus, Azerbaijan, for example, is our opponent or even enemy at this point, but they do not have to be our eternal enemies. In the same way, Turks should not be our eternal enemies, either. It is this eternalization that creates myths, and this inability to escape such myths leads to the failed policies that we suffer from. These are not new statements; Levon Ter-Petrosyan made them throughout his presidency and long after. It remains to be seen what motivated this speech. Some will see in it the hand of the United States and NATO, always ready to invite Turkey, a major pillar of the Atlanticist grouping, to get closer to Armenia at the expense of Russia. This realism that Libaridian advocates, prompt dialogue and openness, is in resonance with this American policy. Whatever one may say, Moscow and Washington remain strategic rivals in the region.
This book will not find the most favorable reception in Armenia. This is evidenced already by numerous criticisms, some of which border on defamation or even anti-diaspora racism. But whether one is opposed or seduced by Libaridian’s thinking, one cannot deny one essential thing: his work as a historian and diplomat has always been at the service of the ideal of a sovereign Armenian state, in resonance with the thinking of Rouben Shougarian. So whether we like it or not, we have much to learn from Libaridian, as well as from Turkey and Azerbaijan. While Armenia can claim civilizational depth, Ankara and Baku have used statecraft to conduct effective diplomacy and entrench enduring, reliable alliances.
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