Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Trip to Shamshadin- wait, where's that??

    When I was offered the chance to head up to the region known as Shamshadin in Armenia's far northeast, I got out my guidebook to see it close up. Turns out, the book didn't even have an insert map of the region like it did for most other areas. This got my curiosity going, if nothing else, and I set out for this enigmatic region to the north. To be honest, while I have long had a fairly complete knowledge of Armenian geography, the name Shamshadin wasn't one I was even familiar with, a name which captures a sense of romantic mystery.

The endless hills of Shamshadin

    On the far side of a remote mountain we carefully surmounted via switch-back roads, Shamshadin is far removed from the radar of most of Armenia, and that goes for tourists and development projects too. This was something that my companions on the trip, the tireless Norwegian honorary consul Tim Straight and Armen Hakobyan, country director of the Jinishian Memorial Foundation, were journeying to address. The ride through Shamshadin's beautiful rolling hills alone was a sight making the trip well worth it, despite what my guidebook might think.

Shamshadin's hills have a magical way of reflecting light
    Our first stop was to see a piece of wild land which the owner hopes to turn into a fishing retreat. There was much work to be done, some of it underway, and a lot of potential at the site. Next we visited the mayor of the nearby village of Navur, who to our surprise now has his office in a much nicer building than the humble place Tim first met him not long ago. The conversation was to check the status of potential international development projects such as a milk co-op and potentially opening a meat curing plant. I got the idea he had heard promises in the past from visitors which never came to fruition, a natural skepticism which was healthy but will also hopefully be proven wrong soon. Next we went to Berd, which I had long known and wanted to visit as the home of the lovable Berd Bears. It was great to see that the organization has been running smoothly without Tim's constant influence, this despite the fact they had been pushed out of their offices in favor of a campaign headquarters for a doctor running for mayor. The election was only a few days off and the candidate was running a free clinic for residents to get check-ups. While this was obviously a less than subtle way of winning over votes, it was certainly a preferable one to the typical 'pay-for-vote' bribery schemes. As for the Berd Bears, they have been receiving orders from all over the world and have the potential to really put Berd on the map while serving as a symbol of the city. Also while in Berd we visited a potential bed and breakfast which was in such good shape that it is ready to start accepting visitors. I found it very homey and hopefully Anahit's B&B at Garegin Nzhdeh Street #14 can be the start of a wider network for visitors to the region.

View from the future Tavush B&B
    We saw a couple other potential B&Bs which still needed work, notably Silvard's in the village of Tavush. We got there just in time to hopefully save a beautiful second floor balcony with amazing views of the surrounding hills from being bricked up. We got a kick out of the animals around the property, especially the "Guard Duck" who stood as sentinel over his domain. Some of the work we saw at Silvard's was promising, and while the accommodations might remain at a standard only suitable for more adventurous travelers, that's quite fitting for the hiking/sporting/curious type of traveler which Shamshadin attracts. Afterwards we headed to the village of Chinchin and met with its biggest advocate, 20 year old Mariam Yesayan, who has overcome disability to become a spokesperson and activist for her village. She's appeared multiple times on Armenia's CivilNet.TV, and as it turns out we arrived just in time to give her a ride back to Yerevan for another appearance! I had the honor of delivering to Mariam a gift all the way from Pennsylvania, sent by one of her fans who saw her work and was inspired by it via Facebook. You can see videos of this and much more from the journey at Tim's YouTube page (videos numbered 1-14):


Grazing in the mist
    Our last visit was to a b&b in Varagavan, the same town where I got locked inside a graveyard I was exploring but that's neither here nor there. Varagavan with its Nor Varagavank church based on one in historic Western Armenia, is located just a few kilometers from the militarized border with Azerbaijan. Being so close to this volatile place highlights exactly why Shamshadin is so important and can't be ignored- it is the front line. A weak border depopulated of its people creates a vulnerable situation for Armenia as a whole. Of course Karabakh is vital, but by being the only focus of the conflict it gets far more attention than the forgotten front lines in places like Shamshadin and the eastern shore of Lake Sevan. Here are also brave people living within earshot of artillery fire on a regular basis, trying to make a life for themselves in such an uncertain and remote area. It should be mentioned that there were many other worthy villages we could not visit due to constant cease fire violations, especially lately the situation with Azerbaijan makes it too dangerous to even visit. A kindergarten was shot up earlier this year in one of them. Seeing the area and hearing these stories made me realize the stakes and kindled a passion to do more for this area. A blog entry isn't much, but its a start, and the magic of social networking is that it can spread. That's exactly how the word about Shamshadin and its products like Berd Bears have already gotten started and will continue to bring in help for this region. So enjoy these amazing views of Shamshadin and don't forget it, there are some wonderful people there waiting to welcome you.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Who was F.B.T.?- or: My Love Letter to Books, to History, and to the History of Books

A book can have the power to stick with us. Once it has served its immediate purpose and told its story, it can come to represent much more. With age it can become a reminder of the time in our life when we first read it. It can also serve as a tangible connection back to that time- for we have changed but it has not. Most of all, unless we trade it away or throw it out, a book tends to have a shelf life beyond almost anything else we use in our lives. Even if it just takes up a small space on our shelf and is otherwise forgotten, it still might physically remain with us for the rest of our life. So it's funny that when buying a book we rarely think about just how long it might live with us, or even after us.

Last year I decided to purchase a book of the poetry of Rupert Brooke, a young World War I era poet. I had discovered Rupert through a reference to his work in F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel This Side of Paradise which I had recently read. I loved Fitzgerald's book and I ended up loving Brooke's poems as well. First some background on Brooke: This great talent- scholar, writer, activist, an associate to the likes of W. B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, and even Winston Churchill, was cut down on his way to fight in the war he glorified in his best known poems- not in battle but of blood poisoning following an insect bite. However the fact he died on a Greek island in the Aegean only served to bolster his reputation as an almost mythic figure, an Adonis once called "the handsomest man in England".

Brooke died on the edge of his fame, his series of five sonnets about the war were widely circulating in England, striking a chord with a rush of patriotism which accompanied the outbreak of war. The sonnets culminate in his best remembered lines:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.

This sort of sentimentality would eventually cause Brooke to fall out of favour as the savage waste of the war became horribly clear, but in that early phase of hope and excitement it was all the rage. Soldiers carried Brooke's poetry to the front lines and in the trenches with them, reading it for inspiration and as a noble reminder of why they were out there. It is with this background in mind that I recount my own tale in all this.

After purchasing and thoroughly enjoying a modern republication of his poems, I randomly decided to see what, if anything, might linger on eBay of this once renowned poet whose reputation has since abandoned him. One of the results intrigued me, it was a book of his poetry published in 1915 in the wake of his tragically premature death aged 27 (which happens to be my own current age). Though I already had a modern printing of the book, the idea of it with its plastic cover didn't quite hold up next to this history-infused book almost a hundred years old. Also, it had zero bids and was dirt cheap so what was there to lose? Nobody even outbid me and I got it for a shamefully low price, likely barely even covering the shipping cost.

The book came from a seller in England, and as soon as I got it I noticed that Inside the cover had been scrawled the initials "F.B.T.", the date "Jan 15, 1916", and the hopelessly cryptic word "Tanqueray". I was pleasantly surprised to see this link to the past within my new book- despite knowing its age this evidence of provenance complete with a timestamp somehow made it easier to appreciate its journey through history. The initials and date were obviously those of the original owner, but who could that be? And what on earth did that other word mean? I felt a bit like the explorers who returned to the site of the Lost Colony on Roanoke Island might have, finding that all the settlers had vanished and nothing was left but the opaque word "Croatoan" carved into a tree. It seemed the initials would remain a tantalizing peek into the past and nothing more. However, I still had one advantage that the Roanoke Island explorers did not- the internet.

I searching for the mystery word Tanqueray, the only real piece of evidence I had to go on. Perhaps it would turn out to be the name of a place or an otherwise forgotten word which had a less opaque meaning at the time. To my surprise I found it instead to be an uncommon last name. Of course the last name of the initials was also T, so perhaps I had the book of one "F. B. Tanqueray" in my hands? I turned to findagrave.com, which is a great resource for turning up names collected from cemeteries, especially military ones, across the globe. A search of the last name Tanqueray turned up a mere four people- one of whom was "Frederic Baron Tanqueray, killed July 1, 1916 in the Battle of the Somme"- six months after the date in the book. Was he F.B.T.?? It certainly made sense, and was an absolutely spooky discovery. With just some scribbles in the cover of my book to go on, I was able to discern exactly who might have owned it ninety-five years prior. Not just his name either, but a considerable biographical sketch and even a photo were found on this site.

I wrote to the bookseller with much excitement regarding my discover to see if he could add anything more. He had been collecting books for decades and unfortunately did not know where or when he had found this one, but that he often traveled around making purchases from shops and sales, including in areas not far from where Tanqueray was raised in Bedfordshire. This led to many other unanswered questions: How did Tanqueray originally get the book? Did he have it with him on the battlefield? Did he die with it in France? If so, how did it get back to England- and from there back into circulation? His biography helps to shed a bit of light, as it reveals Tanqueray was with his regiment at the front through the winter of 1915 into the spring of 1916. He signed the book, presumably upon receiving it, right in the middle of this period, so perhaps it was his family or a friend who sent it to him at the front. Tanqueray went home on a quick leave later that spring, so perhaps he had finished with the book and brought it home with him to England, leaving it there upon his return to France and his rendezvous with death. Did his parents treasure the book as a memory of him until their deaths in 1929 and 1932? Did one of his siblings keep it after that? Had its significance been forgotten a generation or two later and it was given away? Or did it leave the family in a different way all together? Of course this is all speculation, and the book is not prone to giving up any more of its secrets, but at least some of these guesses are highly probable. One last fact I know is that unfortunately he wasn't his family's only sacrifice to this cruel war, three of his first cousins were also killed in action.

Touch any old book and there is sure to be hidden stories within it that will never be known. Being that these stories have all passed into obscurity without a trace, it is impossible for us to appreciate what each book has seen. It was only because somebody a century ago wrote both his initials and his last name within it, and that a resource like the internet now exists, that I was able to discovery the hidden history within what is now my book. His little act of inscription has allowed for Tanqueray to be remembered again and for his story to be told via a medium he couldn't have imagined. It has brought me closer to this stranger across the century which separates us. While it is now my book, this makes me all the more cognizant that nothing is really ours, at least not for good. At some point in some way it will leave me, and like Tanquerey, I can't imagine who its future owners might be or how it will come to them, but I hope they appreciate it in the same way I do... and that someday they might give a thought to the book's litany of forgotten former owners, whose ranks by then I will have joined.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Unearthing Hattie May Wiatt

Philadelphia is a corrupt place. Or I should say was a corrupt place (ok, is!), as city politics in the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th most likely make any of the past decade's shenanigans pale in comparison. One of the most notorious, and yet very much forgotten, examples is the numerous burial grounds which were cleared out of the city in the name of progress. While some had truly fallen into states of sad disrepair, this was often latched upon by corrupt politicians and greedy developers as an excuse to wholesale remove those cemeteries for their own gain. Some ended up being turned into hardly-used playgrounds or failed shopping centers, and yet major Philadelphia landmarks like Pat's & Geno's and Temple University also sit atop what a mere half century ago were cemeteries.


The main focus of my attention has long been the Temple location, formerly known as Monument Cemetery from 1837 until its destruction in 1956. As Philadelphia's second rural cemetery after historic Laurel Hill Cemetery, it was the (not so) final resting spot for numerous notable Philadelphians and home to a large obelisk monument dedicated to Washington and Lafayette from which the cemetery got its name. It is of specific interest to me because it was the burial site of some of my relatives including a great-great-great-grandmother who died in 1915. At that point the cemetery was already past its prime and over the following decades it languished mostly neglected and ignored. As its Broad Street neighbor Temple University continued to grow it was hungry to expand, and this eyesore cemetery was the perfect opportunity for it. As was routine by now, Temple got the politicians involved who paved the way for the cemetery to be condemned. While it wasn't the most shameful of the cemetery closures (that would be the city's Lafayette Cemetery, whose movement ended with some of the bodies dumped in a creek), the treatment of Monument was no less scandalous in other ways. While the bodies were exhumed and removed to unmarked graves at Lawnview Cemetery outside the city, the many ornamental monuments were criminally dumped into the Delaware River to act as a foundation for the Betsy Ross Bridge (Don't believe me? See The Cemetery Traveler blog's recounting of his visit to this creepy site along the Delaware).

What I find most disturbing of all, is that one of the graves which were violated was one who could be called the very founder of Temple University. And no, I don't mean Russell Conwell, the official founder of Temple who grew the school out of his Broad Street church (and yes, his body was moved from Monument when it was closed onto a memorial garden on campus). What I mean is a little girl in his Sunday School, Hattie May Wiatt, who in essence was the spark which made it all happen. You see, around 1883 Hattie May could not attend Sunday School most weeks because the room at church was too small. Finding Hattie outside one Sunday, Conwell brought her inside and cheered her up by saying hopefully one day a bigger building would be built to fit all the children. Hearing this, Hattie resolved to save her pennies to make this happen. When she died not long after, the victim of diphtheria at just age 5, a small purse was found under her pillow containing the 57 cents she had saved. At her funeral, her mother gave the money to Conwell, which he took to the church and, telling her story, announced it as the first gift towards the new Sunday School building. He changed the money into pennies which he offered for sale, bringing in $250 and most pennies returned to him. The movement took off, and inspired by Hattie May's generosity, the congregation not only built a bigger Sunday School but an entire new church. The "Wiatt Mite Society" named for her managed to raise the money against all odds and the church was built right on Broad Street. Hattie's pennies were accepted as the first down payment on the property, and though it was still called Grace Baptist Church, this new church also became known as The Temple. It was out of this church, bought with Hattie's pennies, that Temple University grew, along with hospitals and other institutions. Conwell declared that this congregation of thousands was born out of Hattie May's small investment. He said "she is happy on high with the thought that her life was so full, that it was so complete, that she lived really to be so old in the influences she threw upon this earth."

A forgotten part of of Hattie May's story which makes it even more tragic that I uncovered from the cemetery record is that her baby sister Annie died just five days after her of the same disease. This extra detail makes an already tragic story even more unthinkably so for her family, but somehow was completely forgotten as the story was passed down. Also neglected was Hattie and Annie's grave, which when it was dug up to be moved did not get any special treatment as Conwell's did. Their grave had already been moved once within Monument Cemetery by the family in 1904, and two years later their maternal grandmother was buried with them. When Monument closed in 1956, their remains were moved to a mass grave at Lawnview Cemetery. While Hattie's original grave marker might have been sent to the bottom of the Delaware like the rest of Monument's, Hattie was fortunate in a way because someone saw to it that her new grave in Rockledge outside the city limits was marked to some degree. A small brass plaque was placed on her grave and a limited number of others, though it says nothing except the last name of those buried below. Hattie's happens to say "Ball", as it was her grandmother's last name. So while her grave isn't marked with her own name, it is marked... or is it?


The destruction of Monument Cemetery began with its highest pinnacle

I took a visit out to the Monument mass grave at Lawnview, and found that almost all of these brass plaques have sunk completely below the soil level over the past 50 years. One wouldn't know a single person is buried there, as it appears to be nothing but an open grassy field. What is the use of having one's grave marked if the marker is completely underground? Hattie is buried in the Susquehanna Lawn, Section 76, Grave 7. After some advice from a groundskeeper and surveying of the site on my own, I learned that the lower the grave number the closer it is to the fence where Lawnview runs up against neighboring Montefiore Cemetery. Each section is actually a row, the number of each is indicated by stones which are now mostly buried too. Through a mixture of digging up section markers and some counting, I determined the approximate location of Section 76 and walked it down to the fence. While there were no visible markers in the immediate area except for a recently placed one dedicated to celebrated Civil War nurse Anna Maria Ross, I got the idea to just start thrusting my shovel into the ground. I started hitting markers deep below the surface and dug them up one by one until I was greeted with the dirt-encrusted outline of a B, followed by an A and L. Soon I had totally uncovered the Ball plaque and knew I had just found the forgotten grave of Hattie May Wiatt, apparently I was the first to do so in years if not decades.

I have to ask, why has a little girl with a tragic story who still managed to change the face of North Philadelphia, been allowed to lie so ignored and forgotten? Temple University owes its very existence to her, and yet I had to dig up a plaque which doesn't even contain her name from deep under the soil. The Ball plaque is now exposed once more, but it seems it is only a matter of time until it is reclaimed by the earth. Doesn't Hattie May deserve something more fitting? I hope that with this blog post at least her story can be told, one of triumph out of tragedy if there ever was one, and that perhaps Temple University will come across it and realize what injustice they have shown to their adolescent foundress. After all wasn't it Ben Franklin, namesake of yet another defiled Philadelphia cemetery, who said: "Show me your cemeteries and I will tell you what kind of people you have"..
The end?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Did Azerbaijan Deserve to Win Eurovision?

From a musical perspective, many commenters on Twitter seem to think no, and I have to agree but admit it is a catchy song. But does the nation of Azerbaijan deserve to host Eurovision 2012? The answer to that is hell no. Lest you think this is sour Armenian grapes, which didn't get into the finals for the first time ever, well I'm mad at it for its extremely weak choice of song and saw its impending failure a mile away. What I'm talking about here though is Azerbaijan's downright ignominious Eurovision history since it joined in 2008.

For those who didn't know, Azerbaijan's 2009 Eurovision behavior started raising eyebrows immediately after it aired and the drama continued well into 2010. Those who saw the Azeri Eurovision stream noticed that the number to call Armenia was not showed as it was with all the other countries. This wasn't a huge hurdle to voting, because they were in a numerical order so it was easy to determine what number was for Armenia- but not showing the number to vote for Armenia was of course a breach of the rules. Lebanon was famously kicked out of Eurovision a few years before for not being able to affirm that it would air Israel's performance on its broadcast.

That was tame compared to the bizarre circus which followed though. As the BBC reported, a number of the 43 Azeris who did manage to cast a vote for Armenia despite the number being obscured were met with knocks on their door from the authorities. That's right, all because they voted for Armenia in what is almost universally lambasted as a ridiculous continental sideshow, citizens of Azerbaijan were accused of being "unpatriotic and a potential security threat" for their vote in the contest. Not denying what happened, "the Azerbaijani authorities said people had merely been invited to explain why they voted for Armenia", not intimidating or scary at all right? The article notes "Civil rights campaigners say freedom of expression is increasingly suppressed in Azerbaijan under the presidency of Ilham Aliyev", who now two years later has been seeing the biggest protests yet against his rule as a general authoritarian despot without a taste for dissent.

I also admit having no idea who "French-Syrian businessman Omar Harfouch" is, but according to this article from "The Eurovision Times" (umm that exists?) he accused Azerbaijan of cheating even worse than all that:

Azerbijan exerted pressure on jurors of several countries, paying bribes through Azerbaijani embassies in these countries. He also stated earlier that Azerbaijan had sent money to its embassies so the personal could vote for their country and influence the televote espacially in smaller countries. According to Omar Harfouch, the bribes total sum amounted to $20 million.


As I said I don't know who he is, and cannot indict Azerbaijan on the claim of one person, but it does seem to match their over-the-top Eurovision fervor. That's the worst part about all these post-Soviet countries who have joined recently, they aren't so much "in" on the Eurovision joke amongst the old guard and treat it like its the Olympics. Armenia does this to a degree as well, but Azerbaijan is by far the worst offender of conflating national power and pride with ones ranking at Eurovision. If anyone would take it serious enough to funnel its oil millions to Eurovision judges, it would likely be Azerbaijan.

What will be interesting is to see how Azerbaijan will fare with the challenge of hosting an international competition. I don't know the number of hotel rooms in Baku, but one would have to assume they will need a lot more to accommodate the influx for Eurovision. It has used its oil wealth to fuel a building boom which means it would certainly be in a better position than Armenia to meet the demand, but that is far from a guarantee that it actually can. Perhaps it will take a break from its multi-billion dollar 'defense' budget aimed at resuming war with Armenia for such a purpose? Is it too bold to suggest that winning Eurovision means the NK conflict won't be able to heat up at least another year as Azerbaijan preps for the European spotlight?

What is most interesting however is the outstanding question of Armenia. After all, in 2004 NATO exercises which were supposed to be held in Azerbaijan were canceled due to Azerbaijan refusing to allow the participation of the Armenian delegation. It was the first time these exercises ever had to be canceled and caused strain on the Azeri-NATO relationship. Azerbaijan has a well-known "no Armenian" policy within its borders, whether it regards the ancient Julfa Armenian khachkar cemetery it was videotaped destroying in the past decade, Armenian sports players (even members of third-party nations who are of Armenian descent), and just regular Armenians wherever they might be from who request a visa to visit. Foreign travelers to Azerbaijan often return with confusing stories about having the Armenia section of their Lonely Planet travel guide ripped out before being allowed to enter. I do think in the past year there was finally an officially sanctioned Armenian sports team who was able to attend a competition held in Baku, but on the whole it is clear Azerbaijan's attitude towards Armenians anywhere within its borders is chilling.

It's hard to say what will come next, but I am hoping there isn't a repeat of Georgia's boycott to perform in Russia. Armenia should seek to perform in Azerbaijan like all other countries come what may. Instead of preemptively refusing to participate, it should seek to and let Azerbaijan sort it out. If it wants to refuse Armenian participation as it usually does then it will have to pay the price, which is why I highly doubt we'd see a repeat of such behavior from Azerbaijan. Hopefully everyone can sober up and treat each other like humans, but Eurovision will definitely require extraordinary protection for any Armenian participant like it hasn't seen for a long time. It'd really be ashame for Armenia to miss out on Eurovision, regardless of where it is held, (that is unless it tries to be represented by a song like Boom Boom again!) We'll see what happens...

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

ChatRoulette Social Experiment

In the internet's ever growing number of creepy offerings, the latest is the new site ChatRoulette, a totally anonymous way to chat face-to-face with total strangers. It is basically the evolved form of Omegle, which would throw you into an anonymous chats with said total strangers. Now with CR's addition of video- the potential for creepiness is raised exponentially. I used Omegle a few times when it was new and had an interesting discussion with someone claiming to be in France. We talked about all manner of things and I started to form a bond with them... until suddenly they disconnected in mid-sentence. Whether by accident or on purpose is unknown, but I felt a tinge of sadness as they were cast back into the emptiness of cyberspace, taking the mystery with them. A real illustration on the nebulous nature of our internet age, no?

I learned about ChatRoulette today in an article on my favorite blog Gawker (who invited me to an art opening party two weeks ago at their headquarters, thanks again!) It posted screenshots of the people they encountered during a quick jaunt through the site to form a collage of what they aptly describe as an Alexander Payne-esque reminder of the tedium of life. Ahh yes, just like Gawker's Richard Lawson to pull such a poignant line from this glorified trolling outlet. This inspired me to make one too. I was typically 'nexted' with great speed by my newfound companions for having my camera off, giving just enough time to grab a screen shot of the glimpse into internet mundanity with which each room greeted me. Like Gawker, what I found was an interesting cross-section of people all looking genuinely bored, a fascinating social experiment and commentary on the state of today's internet world. Unlike Gawker, I also ran into not one but 3.5 separate instances of a guy jerking off into the camera in that brief time, so viewer discretion is advised to all you budding social psychologists. My collage of the Lonely Faces of Five Minutes on Chat Roulette (click to enlarge, of course):



Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Armenian President Meets His World of Protest

Looks like my previous post's title, "A World of Protest", was quite prophetic as soon after an around the world tour of diasporan cities was announced for President Sargsyan. While it was billed as a "listening tour" to get the ideas of the unhappy diaspora about the protocols, there was never any indication he actually meant to take the ideas into account, merely hear them and then reassure them why those fears are unfounded. The diaspora wanted its strong opposition heard though, and so protests broke out at every stop (and in a few places he wasn't visiting). First up was Paris, where protesters blocked the President's attempt to lay flowers at the Komitas genocide monument along the Seine. The numbers I heard was approximately 300, which is not a large amount at all based on the Armenian population of Paris, but it was a vocal minority for sure which got its message across. The trip got off to a bad start as Parisian policemen roughed up the demonstrators in shocking youtube videos, dragging them away from the statue to a holding area. The president eventually got to lay his flowers, to boos and jeers from the held-off crowd.

His next stop was New York, where the local ARF and AYF staged their second protest after having protested Foreign Minister Nalbandian a week earlier. The number of protesters at this one I heard quoted for this one was about 800, give or take, with people coming from other east coast cities as well. Luckily it was not violent, though apparently there was at one point a surge towards the hotel doors by a group of protesters when they discovered Serzh had sneaked in the back door. As a small delegation of AYF leaders led by Sossi Essajanian pled with the hotel authorities to be allowed to deliver a letter to the President unsuccessfully, a meeting with invited leaders of diasporan organizations was held upstairs. All comments were off the record, but it is known that many of the groups such as the Diocese, Armenian Assembly, and Knights of Vartan had already pledged their support to the protocols and so made speeches saying as much. It sounds like there was some healthy debate which took place, but of course I wasn't there so it's impossible to say what happened. Representatives of the ARF made speeches which apparently very cogently yet respectfully summed up their opposition to the protocols, but one opponent went much further. Chairman of the Armenian National Committee Ken Hachikian made a venom-tipped speech which was almost immediately circulated throughout the community. The speech, which in my opinion comes off as pretty arrogant grandstanding, lays into not just President Sargsyan but makes thinly veiled jabs at diasporan organizations who support the protocols like rival lobby group the Armenian Assembly. He ended with a grand threat saying the President was making a grave mistake, and that he better back away now "before you bring great harm to our country, to our people, and to your presidency."

Next up was Los Angeles, a city with such a large Armenian community that it was a given that huge protests would meet him there. The protest organizers reported that over 12,000 people picketed outside President Sargsyan's Beverly Hills hotel, though I saw lower numbers as well. Whatever the case anger simmered and apparently a gala reception held for privately invited guests that evening was said to have been poorly attended. A band of AYF members took a cue from the Paris protesters and tied themselves to the Montebello genocide monument for two days to keep the President from laying flowers there as well. Sargsyan eventually skipped this part of his visit to avoid a repeat of the scene in Paris. Even after he was gone the AYF did not give up by holding a hunger strike outside the Armenian consulate for most of the next week until the protocols were signed. They kept the world updated with a constant stream of photos and videos of their activities, a sign of how more and more sophisticated such activities have been able to become. Apparently there was a large protest in the next trip's stop of Beirut, but news of what was exactly going on was far less forthcoming probably due to a less 'netroots' and internet sophistication in that part of the world. A picture of a bloodied protester did make the rounds, indicative of some clashes which occurred with police.

The last location, Rostov-on-Don in Russia, seemed to be quiet as no real news came out of it. I'm sure net sophistication is even less there though so it is hard to tell how much of the lack of news is due to a lack of protest and how much is due to word just not getting out. Either way, if there were truly large protests something would have been said so it is safe to assume not much happened there. From there Sargsyan visited the capital of Moldova to meet with President Aliyev of Azerbaijan for a meeting on Karabakh. While Karabakh being solved is not a precondition for opening the border, it is an important part of the agreement since Turkey is concerned about Azerbaijan's great discomfort with the protocols. Interestingly, the western representatives said the meeting was constructive and that the parties are getting closer, while Azerbaijan angrily declared the meeting made absolutely no progress and that Armenia was not being a constructive partner. If I may analyze what this means, I think the west is content with Armenia's proposed concessions while Azerbaijan is not being forthcoming with making enough of its own. If anything is going to solve the Karabakh conflict, it will be world pressure related to recent geopolitical considerations in the region and a continued push from the west in conjunction with work on these protocols.

Yesterday was the big day when Foreign Ministers Nalbandian and Davutoglu would sign the protocols. Major representatives of the US, Russia, France, the EU, and Switzerland met at Zurich University for the signing but not everything went according to plan. The Turkish side hoped to reassure Azerbaijan in a speech made after the signing that Armenia would withdraw from Karabakh before the protocols went into effect. This of course went against the promise that relations would start without preconditions and therefore the Armenian delegation refused to show up. Later Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that both sides had problems with each others' speeches but a close reading of the events of the day make it clear that it was Turkey who had to send Armenia a revised statement, which apparently was still not agreeable and so they just agreed to not make any speeches. Three hours later, Clinton drove Foreign Minister Nalbandian to the signing ceremony which lasted 10 minutes. That is only the beginning though, as now the protocols go to the parliaments for passage and the ball is in Turkey's court. Just this morning, Prime Minister Erdogan made the statement which they probably wanted to make at the signing ceremony but were prevent from doing, that "as long as Armenia does not withdraw from occupied territories in Azerbaijan, Turkey cannot take up a positive position." It will be interesting to see where things go from here, because Armenia already has a furious diaspora on its hands which will only be inflamed further by this statement. Turkey will not have an easy sell at home as many Turks do not see an opening of the border with Armenia as necessary for the country, not to mention Azerbaijan, who it is surely trying to reassure by making this statement. I tend to think that the main ideas of how to proceed next are roughly planned out, so it is possible that both sides have roughly agreed on the next step and this was just a message for Azeri consumption, but you never know. The signing drama shows that everything is unpredictable and can fall apart at any second. Let's just hope that all this work will be worth it.


Monday, September 21, 2009

A World of Protest

I'm writing after a weekend of protest, which is to be sure followed by more in the weeks to come. As it stands, we are less than a month from Soccer Diplomacy II, the expected return visit of President Sargsyan to Turkey for a football game after the Turkish President visited Armenia for one last year. In the past year, while many have dreaded what this means for Armenia all along, more and more people- mainly diasporans- have grown worried as negotiations seemed to stall and even backtrack. This seems to be because as Azerbaijan became vocally angry at Turkey, Turkey changed its conciliatory tone with Armenia and take a hard line on what preconditions would need to be met by Armenia before this can go forward. These conditions included a solution to the complicated Karabakh conflict, which Armenia rightfully saw as a dagger right at the heart of Armenia-Turkey negotiations since talks have been stalled for over a decade on that front with no movement in sight. On August 31, after months of silence (outwardly at least) Turkey and Armenia suddenly announced they had agreed on protocols which would serve as a guide for the negotiations and would be agreed upon in six weeks, coincidentally (or not) the exact amount of time before the football game and Sargsyan's visit to Turkey. From there, both parliaments will have to ratify the protocols to bring them into effect- something which should be relatively easy for Sargsyan at least as his Republican party dominates the parliament. In Turkey there is a viable number of opposition forces in the parliaent, who of course are making their opposition to the protocols known, but whether Gul and Erdogan will have the political capital to push this through (along with planned reforms aimed at the Kurdish regions of Turkey) remains to be seen.
As the battle lines have been drawn in their respective countries, they too have been thrown in the Armenian diaspora. In the past few days the Armenian Assembly, AGBU, and Diocese have officially released a joint statement supporting the negotiation process with the stated hope and expectation that the issues important to Armenia will not be ignored or discounted during it. The Armenian National Committee and ARF-Tashnag, however, stated its opposition to the protocols from the very first day of it being announced and held a protest rally on Saturday outside the office of the Armenian Representation to the UN. More such protests are planned against Armenian representative offices in California over the coming weeks. A hungry strike was also instituted by members of the party itself in Armenia. A press release by the ANCA states their concerns, including their belief that Armenia is being forced to make serious concessions to Turkey in exchange for opening the border, vital to Armenia's economic survival in the coming years. They also fear one of those concessions is creating a subcommittee on discussion the Armenian Genocide issue, which they believe means it will be finally swept under the rug on an official level, making it impossible to pass another bill of recognition anywhere in the world ever again. They also decry Armenia recognizing its official border with Turkey, in their opinion ceding away land captured during the genocide, along with the potential ceding of "buffer zone" territory in Karabakh due to vague references to the conflict in the protocols.
The lines are drawn, the governments seem set on making this happen, the west is set on making this happen, but the diaspora has always been known as a major force within Armenia. What will they do if this goes through? Will they have enough leverage to enact some sort of genocide, or eventually will this be swept away in the wave of changes occurring halfway around the world from them?

If I might share my personal opinion on this matter, it is hard to say who is right. Both have valid points, though what seems to be at work is the age old confrontation between idealism and pragmatism. It seems to me that the Tashnag side is taking things a bit too far in their doomsday speculation as to what the protocols will lead to, which in the opinions I hear from them is along the lines of Armenia offering up its independence on the altar of good relations with Turkey. The cynic in me wants to say Armenia offered up its independence long ago, to Russia, but on the flip side does not an open border with Turkey give Armenia more freedom from Russia (and Georgia)? While Armenia must be careful not to be overwhelmed by Turkish goods and influence coming from that open border (which is already happening with a closed one), one has to realize that it is inevitable to a degree, a small country surrounded by superpowers cannot be fully independent and Armenia has been in that position for centuries.
Next issue is Armenia's recognition of its border. According to the Tashnag side this means ceding away claims for good to land that was largely Armenian-populated during the genocide. This is a revival of the "Greater Armenia" notion in which Armenia is entitled to large swaths of land in eastern Turkey which is now almost completely populated by Kurds. This is a longstanding issue amongst members as the diaspora, and one which is hard for me to figure out. While yes, it might feel good to not relinquish the Armenian unilateral claim to those lands, but where does that get it? If Armenia and Turkey continue to have no political relations, that means they will never negotiate any sort of deal. Seizing land without a negotiations would take an act of war, meaning the only practical way of returning that claimed land would be through Armenia making war on Turkey, which I think everyone sees as complete folly regardless of their views. In my opinion, officially recognizing the current borders of the nation of Armenia doesn't mean that perhaps, somewhere long down the line, some deals could be made over small portions of land such as Ani, or at least a sort of joint sharing plan which would make Armenia a shareholder in Ani's future, but that is only if the groundwork is laid by these protocols. Unfortunately as hard as it is to hear, those Wilsonian maps of Greater Armenia will never happen, at least not in this century, that is something you can be sure of, so is this concession which needs to be made in exchange for some things from Turkey really that hard of one to swallon? I recognize many of you will answer yes, to which I will ask if you are aware that Armenia has recognized its current borders officially since joining the UN in 1992? And that every foreign minister, prime minister, and president who has been asked about the issue since I've been following news has each said unequivocally that Armenia recognizes its current borders and has no claims on Turkey? This is nothing new, let us at least get something in return by formalizing what Armenia has long said for nothing.
Finally, the Tashnag fear is that by signing these protocols Armenia is complicit in helping Turkey deny the genocide. As long as the Armenian Genocide memorial remains in Yerevan no one can rightfully say that. Yes, it will make passing resolutions in the diaspora more difficult, but I suppose it all depends on whether you think Turkey recognizes the need to come to terms in some way with this past, which I can assure you will haunt it for years to come whether or not protocols are signed. Turkey needs a face-saving vehicle to do any sort of recognition, as the republic's very foundations are built upon the genocide and the denial of it for 90 years. It will not be easy, but I believe (whether we like it or not) Turkey will either come to terms with its past in some way through negotiations or not at all, as it is quite clear that we cannot force it into doing anything- as international recognition only makes Turks more angry and more set against denying it. And in the end, who is it that we want to recognize the genocide, the whole world (yes), but really it is Turkey.

I am the first to admit, there is a lot of doubt and uncertainty involved in these protocols. There are so many different opinions and voices on what these vaguely-worded protocols mean, and perhaps that is by design. There are very few set statements because Armenia, Turkey, (and Azerbaijan)'s complicated pasts and present will not go away with the stroke of a pen in a couple weeks or a "yes" by their parliaments. Perhaps this situation is too complicated to ever be solved, perhaps Turkey and Azerbaijan and the west are all playing a game in which they are trying to lure Armenia into a trap to devour it. Whatever anyone says, they aren't wrong because all this remains to be seen. We need to enter with trepidation, but we must do so because this is something which needs to be tried. There is no way around it. Since this is all a complicated dance, we have heard a lot of conflicting views from the parties themselves as there are numerous constituencies which need to be appeased. This won't be easy, but nor do I think we are being practical if we just see this as an elaborate ruse to trick Armenia and destroy it. It isn't wrong to oppose these protocols but it is wrong to let your imagination wander to the extremes of this debate. What I have not heard from the Tashnag side is that: if not these protocols, then what? What is next for Armenia? Possibly another Russian war in Georgia, leaving Armenia completely cut off from the rest of the world? Another 20 years of a stifling blockade which international pressure clearly cannot make Turkey break? Will such agreements really reverse all gains in Karabakh in seconds, and will not making any agreements really contribute to keeping Karabakh secure? There are numerous questions to ponder, likely too many questions for most casual observers of Armenia to consider and so the simple slogans and labels become a refuge, but this is something which must be attempted. Because if not this, what is next for Armenia?