Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Wallowing in the Past

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 28, 2015 --  

The world must remember the Armenian genocide. Armenians must put it behind them.

One hundred years after Turkish nationalists began deporting and killing Turkey's Armenian citizens, painful memories still haunt Armenia. Stripped of its territories of what is now eastern Turkey, the remaining bits of one of the world's oldest nations is now smaller than the state of Maryland. Not only is it small, but it's in a bad neighborhood — tucked into a troublesome corner of the world bordering Iran and the former Soviet states of Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Painful memories of what happened in Armenia a century ago have been heightened by the 100 year anniversary of the start of the Turkish campaign against its Armenian citizens. Armenians call it a genocide, despite Turkish protests, and claim over 1 million Armenians were killed. Around the world, people from the Armenian diaspora are holding rallies to remember the tragedy of a century ago.

For people of Armenian ancestry living in the diaspora, the commemorations are a way of keeping in touch with their roots. For those living in the modern state of Armenia, this is hardly necessary. The history of the genocide is woven so tightly into modern Armenia's consciousness that it dominates other parts of the culture.

In the capital of Yerevan, the center of remembrance is the Tsitsernakaberd memorial and genocide museum, a site of religious significance where exhibits are labelled with a single unquestionable point of view. Exhibits offer no doubt of the brutality of the Turks and the victimhood of the Armenians. Not far away, a giant statue of a dark and dour woman holds a sword in front of her as she faces the Turkish border just ten miles away. “Mother Armenia,” as it is called, is a foreboding presence.

Without a doubt, Armenia's paranoia about Turkey and what happened years ago holds the country back. There is no open crossing between Turkey and Armenia despite 100 miles of border separating the two. Armenians gaze over the closed border at one of its holiest sites, Mount Ararat just a few miles into Turkey, which is the most direct route to European and other Western markets. Yet no goods pass. This border was closed shortly after modern Armenia's independence, during a war where Armenians seized a small Armenian-populated territory from Turkey's ethnic cousins in Azerbaijan.

Because of its historic animosity with Turkey and this more recent war, Armenia has been driven further into the arms of its former imperial overlords in Moscow. Armenia allows Russia to host a large military base near its border with Turkey (which is still a NATO country), and maintains close ties with Russia which it sees as a protector against its historic enemy. The scarcely reformed country retains a much more decrepit Soviet look and feel compared to its neighbors of Georgia and Azerbaijan. High unemployment and limited opportunity mean many Armenians leave to find work abroad in Russia and other former Soviet states.

This has led to a division between those living in the western Armenian diaspora and those living in modern Armenia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Many in the western diaspora trace their roots to the western provinces (now in Turkey) where the genocide took place a century ago. They live in places like Los Angeles and Montreal and are generally prosperous. Those living in Armenia itself live in poverty in a dour system reminiscent of the Soviet Union, or in Russia and other former-Soviet states where they labor and send remittances back home to their families.

Armenia's obsession with the genocide and its victimhood is terrible for its future, because it forces it to continue its status as a satellite of Moscow. The idea that Turkey might invade modern Armenia if not for its Russian military alliance sounds completely crazy to Western ears. Why would Turkey even care? Yet this fiction prevents Armenia from fully embracing what could be its greatest asset — a half million comparatively rich Armenian-Americans who could be its partners in development and modernization, much like Jewish Americans have served the role for the state of Israel.

The analogy with Israel offers many similarities. Both Armenia and Israel are very old nations with a strong sense of identity, tiny modern territories, a history of genocide and lots of enemies. But that's where the analogy ends. Israel historically looks to the United States as both a strategic ally and an economic partner, and has created a dynamic economy with a high standard of living. Armenia, meanwhile, looks to Russia for both of these roles, and looking to Russia as your economic partner has rarely led to anything good. Unlike the Jewish diaspora, the Armenian diaspora largely sits on the sidelines. They may come for a visit, but few Armenian-Americans would consider moving there.

Yes, what happened to the Armenian people in Turkey 100 year ago was a terrible tragedy which deserves commemoration. And, yes, no matter how much it angers Turkey, it is accurate to call it a genocide. But Armenians need to focus less on Turkey admitting it sins, and more on building a modern state with a Western-oriented economy.

Stagnating as a satellite of Moscow while wallowing in the past is no recipe for the future. The alliance with Moscow and hosting of a Russian military base may guarantee that a highly dubious invasion from Turkey will never come. But it's also a great way to ensure that an independent Armenia remains poor, weak, and a vassal of a foreign power.

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