Peace talks led by the Kremlin, between Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were held on 24th June 2011 in Kazan with the objective of securing agreement on the basic principles of a Nagorno-Karabagh conflict settlement. The talks broke down with no progress – 2 days later Azerbaijan launched a military show of force in Baku.
The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan resulted in a cease fire in 1994, and since that time the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group have been trying to reach a settlement on the position of Nagorno-Karabagh. The cease fire left Armenia occupying 20% of Azerbaijan – which includes historic Nagorno-Karabagh land plus areas adjacent to Armenia and the connecting Lachin/Berdzor corridor, previously recognised as Azeri territories.
Whilst the peace talks have continued, the “line of conflict” which represents the border between the Nagorno-Karabagh Republic (NKR) and Azerbaijan has been patrolled by opposing armies. Regular sniping and exchanges take place which has resulted in deaths on both sides. At some points along the line the distance between the two sides is as little as 50 metres.
Both sides blame each other for the break-down of the peace talks signalling that there is still a lot of work required to get the 2 sides to achieve a compromise. Whilst peace has been discussed since the ceasefire, the military firepower of the Azeris has increased.
On 26th June 2011 President Ilham Aliyev stated “Our state budget has grown 16 times. Accordingly, our military spending has increased 20 times to 2,582,959,470 manats ($3.27 billion), but even that is not our limit. Today Azerbaijan’s military spending exceeds Armenia’s entire state budget by 50 percent. By their volume the military expenses will continue being a top priority in Azerbaijan’s budget until Armenia withdraws from the Azeri lands and a peace agreement is signed with this country,”
He also stated “I am completely sure that our territorial integrity will be resumed in any possible way. Therefore, we should be even stronger.” He also added “The war in Karabakh is not over yet”
Azerbaijan demonstrated its military power on the same day when it paraded through the streets of Baku, with 6000 servicemen, 400 pieces of military hardware including S-300 surface to air missiles, anti-mine carriers, unpiloted planes, combat helicopters and fighter jets.
The day before the Azeri Karabagh Liberation Organisation (KLO) held a meeting which resolved that “the futility of the Kazan meeting has once again demonstrated the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries’ pro-Armenian position. Hence, there is no point in continuing these negotiations.” And demanded that the Azeri authorities “immediately start a war against Armenia”.
It is to be expected that the politics of peace, includes threats of war. However with the number of incidences of deaths on the “line of contact” remaining unabated , and the likelihood of peace receding, the future of the region is balanced on a “hair-trigger”.
I hope for the sake of the 144,000 Karabagh Armenians, and for the Azeris, that this is simply sabre rattling – the South Cauacasus, and the world does not need war to break out again here; the consequences do not bear thinking about
There have been a number of reports about the “flaparratti” or “twitchers” – these are the extremist end of the bird watching fraternity. Members of this community whose sole aim seems to be to spot, record, document and brag about the number of bird species that they have observed. It is not clear what the point of this is – nothing comes of this activity, no wider good, or mutual benefit to others, socially, or otherwise.
Many people, although it does seem to be predominantly men, spend a good proportion of their time ( claiming to be busy) on what are generically referred to as hobbies. Hobby is a quite old-fashioned term, and does feel firmly stuck in the quaint Enid Blyton world of bright sunny days, and ginger-beer. A hobby is something a child does to fill in time between going to school, and encourages them to do something regardless of how pointless it is. The hard-core hobbies of yesteryear were typically stamp collecting, train-spotting, coin-collecting, card-collecting, bird-watching to name but a few. Hobbies which involve collecting something, or ticking off lists, is something of a double-whammy of pointlessness, and brings into question why people are deriving satisfaction from this, and why they feel that they want to commit their life to activities which have no obvious value to anyone other than to keep one’s personal “hamster-wheel” spinning round, and to waste personal time in between doing useful things.
I don’t doubt that the rationale for such behaviour is as a release from the stresses and strains of modern life, that it allows someone to relax and do something which is not too taxing, and more interesting to them. But what is this saying about people in the 21st Century where very intelligent people can put value to one side, jump into the “hamster wheel” and peddle aimlessly for hours at a time, in a completely selfish and self-indulgent act, where success is having collected a few more items, increased the size of a list, ticked a few more boxes, documented something that no one is interested in, removed a weed that will grow again etc. In these times we either have a surfeit of intellectual capacity which is being completely drained onto trivia, or the daily drudge of life is turning people into mindless zombies where a higher level of satisfaction is gained by an aimless pursuit.
In this circumstance is it a surprise that there is an increasing level of depression, suicide, mental health problems, stress, and sexual impotency deriving from long-term helplessness, and feeling of inadequacy. In a dystopian, Orwellian future, then this numbing of the spirit, and flaccidity of the proletariat, enables the people to be controlled – they will not have a sufficient cohesive spirit to come together to oppose the government and the establishment. A conspiracy theorist would suggest that this is what they want.
This is all rather far-fetched, you might say, and I, also might say. After all, if on a Saturday afternoon you were washing your car, mowing the lawn, counting your stamps, planting seeds, re-sequencing your coins etc, then you will be left alone, this is mainstream – go into the centre of the town and protest against spending cuts, police oppression etc then you are considered a malcontent who should be controlled, arrested, kettled…..or silenced….remember the lead-up to the Royal wedding?
There were 2 events in London on June 11th 2011 which in different ways made some comment on the subject of how to dress in public, or not as the case may be. Having spent most of the day watching many people in various levels of undress, I came away not entirely sure what the real point was.
The first demonstration was the “Slut walk” which is one of many around the world. This was in response to a an ill-judged comment by a Canadian police officer who said ” women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victmised”. There have been a number of worthy articles about women reclaiming the right to be a “slut” and arguing a point from a historical derivation of the word – this is fatuous. This is similar to arguing for the right of men to reclaim being called “gay” – meaning “happy” and “jolly”, not its current 2011 usage. This may have some linguistic, and academic, validity but is just being deliberately obtuse. I doubt that most sensible women would welcome being referred to as a slut.
So, not wishing to disappear into an intellectual debate on the word it is a matter of opinion as to what constitutes slutty dress-wear. One persons slut, is another persons, unique dress sense – but there will be commonly understood boundaries, and context plays a big part. A simple example of the importance of context would be that a bikini, is perfectly acceptable wear on the beach, but would be considered unusual on the high street…albeit still not slutty. Slutty, is a difficult term – I sense the intent was about being overly provocative, in a sexual way with little indication of self-respect.
The majority of the banners on the march were around the premise that, regardless of what a woman wears there is never a justification for rape. Apart from men who are rapists, then everyone would agree with this – I didn’t sense much of a debate. So, I’m not quite sure who they were trying to address – they were “preaching to the converted”. Most demonstrations tend to have some level of debate or controversy surrounding them, which prompts many sides to the discussion, with the intent of getting something changed. That was not the case here – so its not entirely clear what the objective was.
There is an underlying concern I have which is the suggestion that somehow it is being addressed at the wider male population. This is where the debate becomes very difficult. There were some signs that stated that “I dress for me, not for you” – implying that dress is merely personal and there should be no expectation that a third party has a right to react to how anyone is dressed – this is naive.
There is the full range of people from those who dress purely functionally for carryng out the day’s tasks, through those who are trying to be noticed, to attract a partner, to those who are being provocative ( not necessarily sexually) or trying to make a statement – who specifically want a reaction. The scale is very subjective, but it would be disingenous of people who, in the eyes of the mainstream, are in the zone of trying to capture attention, and who maintain that they are dressing purely functionally. This is where some of the debate stems from. This is still not a rationale for rape, in the slightest – but would be the subject of a separate debate on why the individual is attracting unexpected attention.
It is a fact of life that we are sexual beings, we are not just some higher animals, who operate solely on some meta-intellectual level where sex is part of a separate domain. This is a culturally suppressed condition. For the majority of people, the thought of sex, being sexually attractive, looking for sex, underpins a large part of what we do. Clothing is a big part, in modern society, of defining what is sexually attractive and stimulating and there is almost no end to the range of fetishisms, or styles that represent a stimulus. In this situation then, how people dress is part of the message that they are trying to send to the rest of the population on how sexually attractive they wish to be – that applies to all of us, not just women. That does not justify a crime, but it does mean that the amount of attention that someone gets is a function of how they are dressed and for most people, being found to be attractive is a positive event, not a negative one. This becomes an issue if the environment in which this happens is intimidating – in which case the individual does have a part to play in being aware of the circumstances, and taking precautions – that’s just common sense.
I do feel that on this subject there is never an open debate because men are afraid of being branded as potential rapists by women who feel that they have a right to occupy a sexually inert bubble. This is just not the real world. We all have to recongnise that our actions ( verbal and non-verbal body language) do impact on other people – that’s human psychology; a general expectation that this can be switched on and off, at someone elses will, is misguided.
The later event on the 11th which was a naked bike ride through central London had no discernible point other than to demonstrate that it could be done ( although it is an annual event in many countries). It seemed to be largely a fun day out, and confused and surprised the tourists, and brought out a number of “fair weather” photographers. A good proportion were completely naked although a number covered their “modesty” in a variety of different ways.
What the event did reinforce was that being completely naked in public, albeit out of context, is not particularly sexually attractive or offensive, and whilst in some ways could be considered to be the most provocative of undress choices, is actually, completely the opposite….there is no tease, nothing left to the imagination!
In summary, whilst nothing justifies rape, we all have to take accountability for ourselves and how we dress is part of this. We all have a right to dress in a way which may be considered by some to be sexually provocative, but then we all have to accept that this may arouse some attention, in some circles – what is appropriate in any given circumstance is down to a lot of common sense, and good judgement on behalf of the individual – and we all have to be adult and accept our responsibilities in that respect.
On my second visit to Armenia a year ago, I asked the innocent question of my Armenian friend – “What does it mean to be Armenian?” – after a pause, her response, was “It’ll take a lifetime to find out”. I had already established that there was something particularly special about this nation, and this response intrigued me more, and my curiousity and inquisitiveness drove me to try and answer this question. This article, endeavours to summarise what I have concluded so far – and comments will be very welcome in helping me to develop my understanding.
The most fascinating and inspirational aspect of the Armenians is that despite the fact that most live outside of the Republic of Armenia there remains a strong cohesive link as a dispersed nation. The national and ethnic identity is very stong, and the Armenian Diaspora is very generous in providing funds to rebuild the Armenian state. The parallels with the Jewish Diaspora, and their desires in the early 20th Century to re-establish a homeland, are interesting, if not completely over-lapping.
Armenians trace their lineage back to Hayk, the great-great grandson of Noah, whose Ark rested on the top of Mount Ararat, following the Great Flood. A word derived from Hayk is still used by Armenians to describe themselves – Haya ( Hayastan). This connection gives them a biblical context to their roots and a very strong sense of history and importance.
Mount Ararat represents a very iconic part of the Armenian legacy and for the majority of this nation’s history, it has sat within the borders of Armenia. This changed following the Genocide and World War 1 leaving West Armenia, and Mt Ararat, in modern-day Turkey. This strident symbol of the Armenian heritage towers over Yerevan and the the local regions, providing an artistic and emblematic feature in the landscape.
Armenia has one of the most ancient Christian traditions in the world. It’s origins are traced back to the missions of two of Christ’s disciples, Thaddeus, and Bartholomew in the 1st Century AD. This was followed in the 4th Century, when it was the first country to be converted to Christianity by St Gregory the Illuminator. This established the Armenian Apostolic Church.
In the following century the language was codified with a unique series of letters in an alphabet defined by St Mesrop Mashtots. This is still being used today, giving form to a language which is also unique in the world.
This early history has established a people with strong lineage and ancient religious links together with a connection to Mount Ararat. This defines the location and feeling of a right to a homeland which is an important part of being Armenian.
In the subsequent history, the Armenians were subsumed for most of this period by invading peoples from Mongolia, Persia, and the Ottoman empire. The control of the Muslim and Turkic peoples over the centuries strengthened the resolve of the Armenian Christians to maintain a clear identity within those communities. During the long period of Ottoman rule the Armenians gained relative autonomy which allowed their identity to evolve and develop.
In the 19th Century Eastern Armenia (predominantly Armenia today with Nakhichevan) was incorporated into the Russian Empire, with Western Armenia being in the Ottoman Empire. As the Ottoman Empire started to crumble, and there was confrontation with the Russian Empire, the Young Turk government saw the Armenian community with some suspicion. This led to the mass genocide of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915. With the exception of the Jews, no other nation has been subjected to such a human and cultural genocide with the destruction of churches, and other cultural symbols. The treaties following World War 1 saw Western Armenia being consumed by Turkey, including the iconic Mount Ararat.
The genocide of the Armenians reinforced the bond between them. The fact that the genocide is still not recognised throughout the world ( unlike the Jewish holocaust) is the source of much disdain. Whilst many people fled the Armenian homeland, creating the Diaspora, the reasons why they fled, the injustices that gave rise to it, and the wish to re-instate a proud nation that once existed before this crime, pervades the wider Armenian population.
The thread through all of this history is the development and evolution of a rich tradition, and culture, based around the religion, social and community values. When visiting Armenia, one gets the sense that because the country is predominantly ethnic Armenian that the cultural values are more consistent and embedded, thus it continues to reinforce that unique Armenian spirit.
In conclusion an Armenian is someone who has a strong personal, and emotional resonance with the historic lineage to Hayk, Ararat, homeland, history, language, alphabet, religion, and the genocide and feels, in their core, that they are part of an ancient and special cultural tradition. As this is not confined to the current geographical location, those who are part of the Diaspora are as equally an integral part of this nation, and feel the pull, as much as those who are citizens of the current day Republic – that’s what, I believe, it means to be Armenian.
Buried in the backstreets of Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabagh, Vera Grigorian of the Union of Relatives of Warriors Missing in Action works tirelessly to continue to promote the cause of those families who still have no closure on the whereabouts of their loved ones still missing from the Karabakh war. Thousands of people still remain unaccounted for after 17 years since the cease fire, and this remains an issue in the signing of any peace agreement. There is some suspicion that the men are being held in captivity by the Azeris.
The Union has established, in its Stepanakert Centre, written documentation, and video material which is available for anyone to use for their personal research. Mrs Grigorian proudly shows all of the books she has written on the subject over the 12 years that the Union has been established, as well as pictures of the various senior political figures she has met in that period.
Mrs Grigorian, herself, is personally suffering from her son being missing-in-action. Each and every day she sees his photograph, and some of his belongings, in the displays at the Centre. At my visit, the emotion was clearly still very raw, and this fuels her passion to continue with this cause. She fully understands the plight of all the other mothers, and families, waiting to find, and mourn their lost sons.
Whilst Mrs Grigorian, is a Karabakh Armenian, the pain felt by mothers is not confined to one side in the war, and she has extended this humanitarian cause, and joined with Azeri mothers who, equally, have missing sons and husbands. When this was explained to me, I was even more certain that I was in the prescence of a very special lady. Where politicians are failing, she is bridging the gap on a human level; for me, a very poignant and emotional moment.
She asked where I was from. She was trying to recall the name of the person who had previously visited her from England. She pulled a book off the shelf which contained pages of testimonials and a few photographs – including that of the last person from England to visit her in 2001. As visits from this country are rarities, she requested a photograph of me with my interpreters….and in return I took one of my own.
She explained that there was more she wanted to do, down to providing English translations around some of the displays but she just did not have enough funding to pay for the translations.
In the time I was with Mrs Grigorian all of our dialogue was through an interpreter ( thanks to Susanna Petrossian) but her passion, and emotion required no understanding of the words. This was an inspirational encounter for me, and I felt immensely privileged to meet such a brave and determined lady – I left, wishing to help her in some way.
In the late 20th century, Armenia was a small satellite of the Soviet Union, and had benefitted from the support that such a connection had provided. It was much smaller than the great country it was centuries before and had cruelly been split into two following the First World War; the population having been severely massacred following the genocide of 1915.
As the Soviet Union started to collapse, ironically, exacerbated by the demands for independence by the Karabakh Armenians, the funds were withdrawn and the Armenian based industries, and infrastructure, were paralysed; twenty years later, large areas of the country have atrophied leaving it crumbling. Many people left the country to seek work in Russia and elsewhere; the remaining population are struggling to make life successful, and many villages depend heavily on market gardening and a strong, resilient spirit.
The neighbouring state of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) occupies a twilight world of having a separate existence, unrecognised, within the recognised borders of Azerbaijan. Strangely, the only entrance into this zone is through Armenia, which sees it as an extension of its land, without formally recognising it. This leaves the people of Artsakh in a form of “suspended animation”. If it was not for the chartitable concern of the Armenian Diaspora ( several millions of people who have ethnic loyalty to this homeland who live throughout the world) many road, building, cultural and educational establishments would not exist. Investment, funding, and other benefits of statehood are not accessible to this area which is home to 140,000 people. They are destined to struggle, and are not afforded their human rights until the politicians decide that this situation needs resolving.
The Armenian people have a strong resolve, and a great loyalty to their tradition, heritage and homeland – the generosity of the Diaspora bears out this unique position. Religion is a major part of the lives of the people, and a strong humanitarian instinct, celebrating family, friends and neighbours in a way that puts to shame more econmically richer nations.
Over my 4 visits to Armenia and Artsakh, the warmth and generosity given to me by strangers who have nothing to gain from this hospitality has been humbling. It is in the core of their culture that they show great respect and selfless regard for their fellows.
The land is rich in great beauty and vast areas feel untouched by human occupation, although sadly there are areas where the cumbersome infrastructure developments of the Soviet period leave ugly scars. The religious heritage ( and Armenia is proud to be the first nation to adopt Christianity in 301AD – and had apostolic visits in the 1st century) is evident throughout the land with many churches and monasteries which have borne witness to the various invasions that Armenia has been subject to in that period.
Armenia has many great musicians, poets, writers, inellectuals and chess players who have contributed to the world’s culture, and this is seen at times, arrogantly, by the rest of the world as a fascination; this is a big mistake and being open to this rich contribution would be more prudent.
Despite some major hardships there is a vibrancy and a humanity which is a joy to experience, and the spirit of the people is a major inspiration. It is sad to see such a great nation in a difficult state, where some of the basic amenities are not widely available, and there is widespread economic poverty. They may be too proud to shout out for support, such is their spirit; however a respectful and considerate intervention seems appropriate.
At present they do not have a loud voice on the political stage, however they do sit on a major conflict point which involves oil, and the crossroads between Christianity, Islam, and the currently fractured Turkish empire. We would be best served by not ignoring this potential “tinder box” now, rather than waiting before it’s too late – it has been smouldering for 20 years, and there is nothing substantial that is addressing the smoke.