Armenia is a strange country full of ancient churches and modern grudges.
It is proud of being the first Christian country in the world and, at the same time, nostalgic for the old Soviet Union that gave birth to the first modern Armenian nation-state. Its people suffered a horrible genocide at the hands of the still unapologetic Turks during WWI, but then carried out their own smaller genocide against neighboring Azerbaijan in the 1990’s, snatching and still holding today 20 percent of their neighbor’s territory.
Armenia is a relatively poor country where not only most cultural projects–but also major infrastructure construction such as tunnels and highways–are often funded by Armenians living abroad in the diaspora.
Two thousand years ago Armenia was a vibrant kingdom that grew in size and strength after being the first to convert to the new faith of Christianity in 360 AD. In the early centuries of Christianity, the Armenian and Byzantine empires disagreed over church doctrine and began fighting among themselves. thus ill equipped to fight off invaders from the East. The Armenian empire was the first to be blotted out in the 13th century, followed later by the Byzantines in the 15th.
From then until the 20th century, Armenians continued to inhabit their traditional lands usually living as second-class citizens under an Islamic government, whether persian or Turkish. Even when Russia expanded into the Caucasus, Armenians remained second-class citizens…a merchant class referred to by Anton Chekov as the “Jews of the Caucasus.” In WWI, the Turks saw Armenians living in Turkey as pro-Russia “fifth colonists” and cruelly moved huge numbers from place to place resulting in over a million deaths.
Shortly thereafter, Armenians in the Caucasus embraced the downfall of the Czar and welcoming the coming of Communism. Their support for Communism was repaid when the USSR carved out a nation for them in the 1920’s.
The ill fortune that Armenians suffered resulted in many fleeing to new lives in America and Europe. Those Armenians living in the diaspora maintainclose emotional ties to their homeland and issues such as the Turkish genocide. To those Armenians, Turkey remained the enemy. Armenian terrorist groups assassinated a number of Turkish diplomats around the world in the 197o’s and 80’s.
The break-up of the Soviet Union resulted in an independent Armenia that suddenly became an honorable cause for Armenians abroad to support with financial assistance. Yerevan is filled with museums and monuments paid for by diaspora Armenians. US businessman Kurt Kervorkian paid for major highway tunnel and donations from the diaspora are a major source of the government’s funds. A new fancy shopping mall opened while we were in Yerevan…paid for with diaspora money.
Still, Armenia will remain poor until it mends its relations with its neighbors. For a time recently, it seemed there might be hope for reconciliation with Turkey during an exchange of “football diplomacy.” Those efforts ultimately floundered on Turkey’s insistence that Armenia settle its differences with Azerbaijan first, and Armenia’s refusal to do so.
This unresolved conflict shows no signs of abating and, with Azerbaijan’s growing military might, could be a flashpoint for another nasty regional regional war. Unlike Israelis and palestinians, there seems to be no one in either country willing to take a first step towards peace. If anything, the sides are drawing further apart.
The recent case of an Azerbaijani officer who killed a sleeping Armenian officer with an axe at a NATO training course–and then was pardoned and welcomed as a hero upon his transfer to a prison in Baku– shows how intractable the situation has become.