Viewpoint: Armenia's last best chance
Raffi K. Hovannisian

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May 1, 2006

YEREVAN, Armenia -- Yerevan-Armenia, the great regional power that
extended from sea to sea in the first century before Christ and for
ages played a central role in the history of Western Asia, has been
reduced to a land-locked rump in modern times.

Millennia of foreign conquest and domination, occupation and
genocide, have delivered to today's world a nation that is long on
culture and civilization, but short in statecraft. The catastrophic
dispossession of the Armenian homeland by the rulers of the Ottoman
Empire; the subsequent Bolshevik-Turkish pact partitioning Armenia
and effectively tendering Karabagh, Nakhichevan and other integral
parts of the Armenian patrimony to Soviet Azerbaijan; and Armenia's
inclusion in the Soviet empire may form the basis of an explanation,
but they do not excuse Armenia's current smallness.

The nation's historic losses and intermittent statelessness are only
prologue. The real story is in a failed leadership that seeks to
rationalize the steady decline of the Armenian factor in world affairs
by reference to external adversaries and geopolitical limitations.

In fact, the major constraint is the insecure myopia of a semi-feudal,
soft-authoritarian regime with a parochial mindset that makes a mockery
of Armenia's ancient values and, in the very name of democracy,
smothers human rights, civil liberties, free speech and assembly,
and the rule of law. Of course, Armenia is not alone in this demeanor.

In the 15 years of the country's newly rediscovered statehood,
authority has never been transferred from incumbent to challenger by
free and fair elections. They have always been forged - unfortunately
always by the administration. The sitting presidency is no exception
to this deplorable rule of illegitimate government.

For Armenia to reclaim its democratic advantage in the region, to
become a competitive contributor to peace, development and security,
and to realize its strategic credentials at an increasingly critical
crossing on the global map, it must transform itself both at home
and abroad.

Fresh Elections: In view of its series of falsified elections,
and most recently the constitutional referendum held last November,
Armenia requires an electoral transformation. Our American, European,
and other international partners have the capacity to make this happen
through the empowerment of Armenian citizen and society alike. This
is the expectation of the Armenian body public. An orchestrated theft
of votes and conscience is alien to the long-standing Armenian quest
for rights and redemption. Armenia must satisfy the highest possible
criteria for electoral legitimacy and accountable governance.

Rule of Right: The supremacy of rights with due process and an equal
application of laws needs in short order to become the foundation of
the state. From corruption and conflicts of interest to responsibility
for grave crimes and other misconduct, all citizens must face the
same standard of justice - starting from the very top and going all
the way down the hierarchy. The self-confidence of an independent
judiciary, elusive as it may seem, is pivotal on this score. Raise
their salaries and strictly hold them to the law.

International Standing: Armenia's democratic transformation, much
like Georgia's attempt, will find its reflection in international
affairs. The republic's sovereignty is a supreme value and the most
meaningful means for pursuit of vital national interests. Armenia must
become a bridge of balance and understanding in the wider region,
intersecting as it does Western civilization and Eastern tradition,
the CIS and the Middle East, and the future linkage between its
southern neighbors and the trans-Atlantic hemisphere. Official Yerevan
should take its rightful place in the regional security system and,
in dialogue with NATO, the European Union, Russia, China, and other
centers, strive within the next decade to achieve security and energy
independence - or at least diversification.

Turkey: In all of history, no bilateral agreement, concord or treaty
has ever been negotiated or entered into force between the sovereign
republics of Armenia and Turkey.

A brave new discourse and enlightened statesmanship must guide
the initiative to normalize the Turkish-Armenian relationship in
a multi-track process that takes into account, not escapes, the
historical record and hammers out solutions to a comprehensive agenda
of outstanding issues, including but not limited to establishment
of diplomatic ties without preconditions; political, economic and
ultimately security-related cooperation; the restoration of rights
of the dispossessed; the guaranteed voluntary return of deportees or
their progeny to their places of origin; respect for and renovation
of the Armenian cultural heritage; and delimitation of boundaries
directly between the parties involved.

As it stands, however, Turkey continues to enforce a blockade against
Armenia, an act of war and a material breach of the pact that Turkey's
Kemalist regime and Soviet Russia signed in 1921 and on which Ankara
relies for assertion of its eastern frontier. Without resolution
of this strategic connection - rather the absence thereof - neither
Turkey nor Armenia can ever join the EU, and no enduring settlement
will ever be found in the case of Mountainous Karabagh and its struggle
for liberty, democracy and self-determination.

Karabagh and Azerbaijan: There can be no true movement on this
regional conflict as long as a) Armenia and Azerbaijan remain in
essentially undemocratic hands and thus without civic mandate;
b) the republican entity of mountainous Karabagh, which declared
its independence according to a plebiscite held in 1991 under the
Soviet Constitution and relevant norms of international law, is
excluded from the peace process; c) Azerbaijan refuses to cease and
desist from its xenophobic rhetoric and its outrageous desecration
of Armenian religious treasures, including an entire cemetery of
medieval khachkars (cross-stones) finally and fully destroyed in
broad daylight by uniformed soldiers in Nakhichevan last December;
and d) the Turkish-Armenian divide stays intact and insurmounted.

Short of this, the consequences of the war unleashed by Azerbaijan
against Karabagh in 1988, resulting in thousands of casualties,
hundreds of thousands of refugees and scores of reciprocal expulsions
on both sides, must be approached on the humanitarian level. A
pilot program to demilitarize a local segment of the conflict zone,
allowing for the conditional return and restitution of both Armenian
and Azerbaijani refugees, might under the circumstances be the only
rational avenue for the initial cultivation of mutual confidence and
gradual reconciliation of peoples. In all events, for the long-term
development, prosperity, and equity of the region, Azerbaijan,
Karabagh, Armenia and Turkey must abide by the same supervisory
regime and terms of engagement as they relate to demilitarization,
repatriation, opening of frontiers, transportation and communication
and potential peacekeeping.

An old nation with a young state, Armenia does indeed face a
constellation of contemporary challenges, foreign and domestic,
which must be overcome creatively and fundamentally. Neither wishful
evolution nor artificial revolution will carry the day. Only a
peaceful, system-wide, citizen-driven transformation - anchored in a
correlation of the national will and international imperatives - can
shift the paradigm and provide the land of Ararat with one ultimate
opportunity to close the democratic deal, to turn swords into shared
interests, and to redefine its identity, place and promise in the
new era.

Freedom and justice in the world begin at home.

Raffi K. Hovannisian, Armenia's first minister of foreign affairs,
is chairman of the Heritage Party and founder of the Armenian Center
for National and International Studies in Yerevan. Acknowledgement
to United Press International