Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Chess Victory, Karabakh Speculation, and an Armenian in Istanbul

There's been sufficiently interesting enough news on the Armenian front that I think it is time once again for a blog entry. I don't just do these for any old reason after all! First I am glad to announce that it looks like Armenia has won for the second time in a row the Chess Olympiad. They led for most of the tournament except for one day when Israel took the lead; Armenia was just recently tied with Ukraine for first but it seems that it has taken the lead and is securely in first place for the gold medal. Too bad Armenia never won any of those at the recent Olympics! It is great to know despite being such a small country up against world powers it can still manage to win, pretty incredible when you consider the task at hand.
Meanwhile, in the realm of Armenian foreign policy things continue to bump along mainly behind the scenes since the September football diplomacy visit. The main feeling of the opposition is that the President and his crew are preparing to "sell-out" Karabakh in exchange for economic gain and legitimacy in the eyes of the west. There have been various voices in Armenian society declaring that not an inch of land should be surrendered to the Azeris, even though the whole purpose of the buffer zone was as a bargaining chip in negotiations. More recently, head of the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan Hayk Demoyan put forward that resolution of the Karabakh conflict should be built on equal concessions- meaning trading some of the occupied territories like Aghdam for the de jure Azeri but formerly Armenian-populated territory of Shahumyan north of Karabakh. There's a lot of talk about the Madrid Principles which are now being seen as the road map to a peace settlement, however it seems that many tweaks and alterations are being considered and negotiated for a final settlement. We continue to get schizophrenic as always news out of the lead western negotiators- some express optimism and I even heard the phrase that settlement is possible by the end of this year, but at the same time seem to make it clear that no real progress is possible in the coming months. I don't think I can call the negotiation process anything more than an extremely complicated morass.
There are numerous modalities to fixing the Karabakh problem- none of them easy and makes the current status quo look almost attractive for all involved. Logistically at this point the thought of returning Azeris to live amongst Armenians in Karabakh after two decades of bad blood- especially considering the way the word Armenian is anathema in Azerbaijan where hatred of Armenians is more or less a state-sponsored business- is a nightmare. Neither side, especially Azerbaijan have not prepared their people for peace and the prospects are beyond dim for a long-term future together. Yet they are neighbors and this stalemate can't continue. Azerbaijan appears dead set on Karabakh as being anything but completely part of Azerbaijan, a pretty tall request considering Karabakh has had no tie with the nation for two decades. Azerbaijan has forced Karabakh to become dependent elsewhere and it makes no sense to suddenly force Karabakh back into a country which has disdain for its people. Also ridiculously Azerbaijan continues to refer to Karabakh Armenians as occupiers despite them having always been the majority population in that land. I understand this term being applied to the territory around Karabakh but not to Karabakh itself. It makes one wonder what a "non-occupied" Karabakh would look like in Azerbaijan's opinion. Having followed the peace process for a decade has left me with nothing but a headache. I don't know how, if, or when things will change but I have absolutely no expectations thanks to what has become like "the boy who cried wolf". The current issues under negotiation seem to be the status of Lachin and if a referrendum will be allowed in Karabakh to determine its status in the future. Of course things like this can be promised, but without a set date for a vote there are no guarantees it could ever happen. The negotiators are walking a fine line and they have to be careful not to give up too much because it could result in all being lost. At the same time things can't continue like this forever and Armenians will have to remember what the buffer zones were originally intended for and have a society-wide discussion on what is to be done. One has to hope that the President don't have to force an agreement down the throats of his own people, as he seemed to do with his election. Oh and did I mention that there are rumors that Kocharian could return to the scene as the ANTI-Sargsyan, teaming up with the hard-line Dashnaks for a "no surrender" movement on the Karabakh front? Whether Sargsyan is in on this ploy is unknown, but it could be used as a way whether Sargsyan is a willing accomplice or not to return Kocharian to the political stage by forcing a governmental compromise in order for Serzh to keep his job. There's really no reason to even speculate about what's going on behind the scenes within the Armenian government because the truth is I just don't know and literally anything is possible.
In other news Foreign Minister Nalbandian is in Istanbul for a meeting with officials there towards the normalizing of relations between Turkey and Armenia. One development I've heard coming out of there is that it seems Turkey has finally uncoupled relations with Armenia with the Karabakh conflict, a vital step forward if true. Turkey had formerly said it would not begin relations with Armenia until Karabakh was settled, something we've always concluded is a morass, meaning that Gordian knot would have to be untied before the border opened with Turkey. With the developments in the region though we know all parties involved wants Turkey and Armenia to begin relations as soon as possible so with this new pragmatic view and the knowledge that Karabakh isn't being solved anytime soon that uncoupling is necessary for any movement. Turkey has been trying to placate Azerbaijan while warming to Armenia. A big story which came out of the Armenian-Turkish negotiations recently was the announcement that Armenia had agreed to a historical commissions to settle the genocide issue, a favored idea of the Turkish leadership but abhorred by the Armenian diaspora. The Armenian government refuted this notion and President Sargsyan said that such a commission would not be needed. While I am happy to see rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey I am worried about what Turkey might be trying to pull here. It is no secret that they have long dreamed of creating a rift between the diaspora and Armenia, namely on the genocide issue which the diaspora spearheads, and it is (true?) (false?) declarations like these which gives the impression Armenia is undermining the diaspora on the genocide front. I don't know who leaked or fabricated what but it is a tricky situation to be sure. Perhaps to combat these ideas, Nalbandian said in Turkey that Armenia will never urge the diaspora to stop efforts towards recognizing the genocide. I think that, without undermining them, Armenia can take a backseat when it comes to the genocide while letting the diaspora handle it. I doubt this will satisfy Turkey though who obviously have been telling the Armenian leadership behind the scenes to make the diaspora stop- clearly forgetting that the movement long predates independent Armenia itself. The diaspora was born without an independent Armenia and cannot be controlled by it, no matter how much Turkey with its misinterpretations and incorrect notions about the diaspora wishes it. Regardless, times are still interesting when it comes to Armenia's foreign relations and I suspect there will be more intriguing developments to write about sooner than later.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Geocache Armenia!

As diasporans, besides the many charitable and humanitarian projects we undertake in Armenia, we are always looking for fun and adventurous activities to introduce there. These include strivings to make Armenia an international location for birdwatchers, various ecotourism projects like hiking trails, skiing, and rafting, and introducing other western institutions to Armenia like boutique hotels. As diasporans we are almost automatically drawn to doing something for Armenia though our distance usually restricts that to sending money and moral support. I was talking with a friend this weekend who just spent almost a year in Armenia and the conversation both turned to her experiences in Armenia and on an unrelated note my new hobby of geocaching. Suddenly the idea struck me that instituting the hobby in Armenia would be a perfect compliment to other things of interest to do there and could be a small way of doing something for Armenia (with help) from a distance.

For those of you who don't know, geocaching is a novel "sport" which puts a twist on some age-old practices. The major website for the hobby http://www.geocaching.com/ allows you to enter in your town and see a map of the area with the locations of hidden geocaches marked. Each cache has its own page with information about it and the coordinates. You enter that into your GPS device and make your way out to the cache- which typically is made up of at minimum some sort of notebook or log sheet on which you sign your screen name. The smallest ones are tiny and only contain a piece of paper but the larger, more interesting ones are tupperware containers or ammo cans. The larger ones are better because besides a notebook people put in trinkets or toys which can be swapped by people who find the cache. Geocaches certainly aren't anything fancy but there is a surprising satisfaction which comes from hunting and finding them, sometimes hidden in nature or other times in very public areas but just out of notice. Once you've found the cache, signed and traded, you replace it and log it on-line with notes about your find. You can read the experiences of others there as well.

When I first started I of course looked up Armenia and believe it or not the hobby has reached the Caucasus. There have been a total of four geocaches placed in Azerbaijan according to the official website though one on the Baku beach has not been seen in over three years and is considered lost. The ones at the Fire Temple of Ateshgah and the Mardakan Arboretum near Baku also appear to be long gone, it is not rare that caches are accidentally found and thrown away as trash or just plain stolen. Only the cache at the Mud Volcanoes near Gobustan 40 miles south of Baku has been found recently so Azerbaijan only has one viable cache. The nation of Georgia has had two caches placed, the first one by an Austrian team of heliskiiers high in the Caucasus Mountains at the ski resort of Gudauri. It was temporarily disabled in August due to the Russian-Georgian War, Gudauri is far north of Gori and east of Sourth Ossetia, but is now back on line and apparently waiting to be found- though it never seems to be found probably because of its remoteness. The other is naturally located in Tbilisi and appears to be up a hill with a nice view of the city.

As for Armenia, it can already claim the distinction of having the most active caches in the South Caucasus because all three of them have been found recently and are not likely to have been destroyed or lost as in Azerbaijan. One cache is dedicated to a view of Ararat from Yerevan and based on the clues it is located in a "modern housing subdivision" on Leningradian Street. The other two are hidden in the Erebuni ruins complex, as you can see one of them as pictured here is labeled in Armenian and English to warn people who might stumble upon it what it really is and to not trash it. While it is hard to determine much about the people who place these caches the Erebuni ones seem to have been placed by someone living in Yerevan while the other was left by a visitor.

What I find most fascinating about geocaching is the dedication and expanse of the hobby. A check of the website’s map shows that geocaches can be found everywhere from the northern shelf of Alaska to Antarctica. I’ve looked up countries far more remote than Armenia such as ones in the heart of Africa and have found there aren’t just a couple geocaches in those places but numerous! Therefore Armenia only having three at this point is terribly understated for such a huge hobby and feel something interesting could be instituted in Armenia without much work. While obviously most residents of Armenia don’t own the necessary GPS device to participate themselves (unless an alternate method of finding the cache more like steps of a treasure hunt as opposed to just the coordinates is also put on the cache’s site allowing people to find it without one) it could become something for tourists to do at the various sites they visit. The fact that some visitors to Armenia have already participated is proof that people geocache while they travel in Armenia and perhaps if it had more caches it would bring in more people with this hobby to visit.

A place I thought would be perfect for geocaching is along the Janapar trail in Karabakh (http://www.janapar.org/). While people are walking the trail they can seek up caches hidden along it, trade things with other hikers and see who has been there before them. Caches can be hidden at places of interest along it as a way of getting people to seek those places out and enjoy them which they might have otherwise just passed by if their attention wasn’t drawn to it by the cache. I am not in Armenia so can't implement geocaching in Armenia myself but hopefully some of the readers will. It is so easy to do that I don’t feel like I’m asking much of them at all, just sign up at http://www.geocaching.com/, buy a cache container and get started! My favorite thing people use as the 'cache' are .30 ammo cases because they are metal and durable. I am sure there are lots of those in Armenia and while probably not sold in stores there like in America I bet someone at Vernisage must have things of that nature. I have included the picture of the current map of Armenia where all three caches can be seen marked off around Yerevan. Wouldn’t it be nice to make Armenia a geocaching haven of the Caucasus with many more marked off? I hope anyone interested in possibly hiding a cache in Armenia who wants to learn more will leave a message and we can get started. Come on let’s Geocache Armenia!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


I didn't intend to write here about the American election results but after hearing President-elect Obama's speech I couldn't help but be moved to write something spontaneously:

It's quite something.
Before I get ahead of myself, this victory by no means fixes our myriad problems. There will be lots of difficult times ahead and it isn't going to be easy on Obama- sure people are cheering now but as he said tonight he will have to do a lot of things many people disagree with. I almost fear the fever pitch built up around him that expectations are basically unmeetable. However I have come to feel the past 8 years have been nothing short of a rape of our nation and the most poisonous time since Watergate and Vietnam and while there will always be a segment attached to the Bush wing of the Republican party I sincerely hope in the coming years we can move past the horror and pain of the opening years of this century and onto something brighter. There's no doubt we need it.

Barack Obama. That's our new president's name? That's certainly going to take some getting used to, especially since I've long had all 43 of their names memorized and it certainly doesn't come close to resembling them. Is that a bad thing? An unfortunate aspect of this campaign and so many past ones is that this candidate was not eligible for office due to an innate part of his being. Whether because the candidate was Catholic, female, or this time around a Muslim or someone with a funny name... they've all been seen as not "American" enough or not presidential. Guess what, no matter how we look back on the birth of America through our vantage of hundreds of years later, we have never been a homogenous country and we've been made up of immigrants since day one. I am so sick of these idiots who try to say something about you disqualifies you from anything- whether it be your name (Barack or Hussein or Obama) or your religion (like Islam, and while Obama is not Muslim no one until Colin Powell finally spoke up found anything wrong with the "he's not Muslim he's a good person" explanation). There is insidious fear which permeates our nation. Fear is a reaction above all else to the unknown and breeds prejudice. Nothing erases prejudice, as a poster on the school wall said as I stood in line to vote, like familiarity. Is it naive to think having one of these "different" people as the face of our nation for the coming years might help to bring that much needed familiarity? As one of those "different" people who has at least a couple of those 'disqualifying' factors going against him (weird name, anyone?), I don't see anything wrong with hoping. I was actually inspired seeing those long lines everywhere waiting to exercise their right to vote. There just wasn't this sort of feeling in the past two national elections- I waited in line almost an hour and a half this year at the same polling station where I went right up and voted without a line at all four years ago. After the electoral messes of the past two elections I felt like America was giving up on the process, I certainly was rather disillusioned, but to see the dedication people poured into this cycle was absolutely inspiring. Yes, it is premature to say, we will return to politics as usual at some point, likely soon, but at least for tonight I feel like we're a new nation, and just a bit prouder.

Our generation has a rendezvous with destiny. Here's to a hopefully healing, safe, and almost assuredly a fascinating four years.

And one last message to those of you who think Obama's a Muslim, or that if he was a Muslim he somehow would not be an American, or that he's a traitor who hates America, or that if someone don't have the same complexions of our past presidents that person isn't presidential material, or that certain backgrounds disqualifies our right to call ourselves an American:

"We are a nation of many nationalities, many races, many religions--bound together by a single unity, the unity of freedom and equality. Whoever seeks to set one nationality against another, seeks to degrade all nationalities." -FDR

Monday, November 3, 2008

What's Going On Over There?

It has been nearly two months since "soccer diplomacy" and then... nothing happened. I mean nada, zip, nothing. I had absolutely nothing to write about because it seemed as if nothing was going on. Now was nothing really going on, of course not, I knew behind the scenes there was a flurry of activity but there was nothing public to discuss. The only thing of interest I can remember from the past two months was the forcing out as parliament speaker of Tigran Torosian and Levon Ter-Petrossian suspending his opposition campaign due to what he described as the entering of a sensitive time regarding the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Suddenly with last weekend's meeting in Moscow between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan a public development has finally been made showing the progress of what was going on in secret during the two month lull in developments. During his visit to Armenia not even two weeks ago the Russian president announced he'd like to hold a summit in Moscow between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders, the speed with which it was organized and took place in the usually slow-and-steady world of diplomacy shocked many, making it clear we are likely entering a rapid stage of more public developments.

It was clear from the advent of soccer diplomacy that the world powers had taken a new interest in Armenia and the Cacasus and that it was time to sweep away the various inconveniences of the region including the Turkish blockade of Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It has long been in the US's interest to settle at least the Turkish blockade because that would lessen Armenia's reliance on Russia while Russia has likely wanted to maintain it to maintan that dependence, especially in light of strong Georgian-US ties. A widely held belief is that the Russian-Georgian War changed everything in the region and the world powers are trying to figure out where they will go from here. No one has obviously ever explained their rationale to me so I can't say for sure but Russia most likely wants to strangle Georgia, which has now been discredited to the west as an unreliable transit route for the all-important gas and oil pipelines. With Armenia blockaded though it remains an impossibility to use any place but Georgia, so almost ironically it now becomes vital for Russia to sacrifice the very thing which kept Armenia reliant on it in order to further its goals of making Georgia regionally irrelevant. It seems the goals of the West and Russia now converge after years of opposition and they are prepared to start anew another push for Karabakh peace and regional stability.

That said, the West can't be too happy about Russia taking the lead by inviting the presidents to Moscow for peace talks. It seemed like Russia was losing its grip for good on the South Caucasus until August's conflict and now suddenly it back as a major force and trying to prove itself as the regional powerbroker after years of inactivity by the west on that front. This was bolstered by the signing yesterday of the first declaration on the peaceful resolution of Karabakh by Armenia and Azerbaijan's leaders since the 1994 ceasefire. The more I learn about foreign affairs and hear about all the backdoor dealing it becomes nearly impossible to know what everyone's best interests are and what positions they are actually promoting since if one knew everything it'd be clear to see how complicated everything is, but at least on the exterior I think I have a handle on what is going on there with what I just wrote. The most difficult thing when it comes to conflict resolution though is not just getting the presidents to agree it is the facts on the ground. For example when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, people always treat it as some big puzzle which like a math problem has a correct answer which just makes everything lock into place and work. It is as if people think if only we had that one genius who can finally come along and tell us the right answer everything would be good. A peace agreement is not just one that suits the leaders but one which navigates the various affected groups and finds a way to pacify each not completely but to the degree that none of them rises up in revolt against it. This is a problem we have with Karabakh. Kocharian removed NK as a negotiator many years ago and while the return of NK to the negotiation table has been a long alluded to event, it appears we are no closer to that happening. A peace being decided upon without NK imput cannot likely be imposed upon it unless Armenia plans on abandoning NK if it does not comply with Serzh's decisions. This is pretty unthinkable, especially since Serzh notoriously comes from that very place, but it is clear a settlement agreement without NK is not tenable. Others alledge Armenia's corrupt government officials are merely negotiating the price which they will be paid by Azerbaijan in return for a surrender of it, though I have an almost impossible time fathoming a Nagorno-Karabakh in which Azerbaijan is allowed to march right in and reclaim control after 20 long years. I am not sure if either side knows what a mutually-agreed peace will actually look like right now.

While details on what a peace agreement will mean is basically a mystery, it seems we are dealing with something ambiguously related to the principles of a decade ago which cost LTP his job. Serzh can sign whatever he wants, but there are many disaffected groups within Armenia who might unite to make sure what he wants doesn't come true. There are interesting rumors like that Serzh has spent his time in office distancing himself from Kocharian but now Kocharian is mad about Serzh's handling of Turkey and Karabakh as are the Dashnaks, who have threatened to leave the governing coalition if a peace is agreed to which they don't like. Rumors of late have Kocharian possibly finding his re-entry into public politics as a leader of those groups opposed to compromising on Karabakh, likely finding his way into the Prime Minister's chair as has been rumored he eventually would since day one a la Putin. Meanwhile one can't forget that Kocharian put Serzh in office so while it appears Serzh is currently operating against Kocharian and has been purging his government of Kocharian hold-overs, for all we know Kocharian has been directing the whole thing. As I've said I have no idea what is going on behind the scenes and I am open to the idea that the reality is either one of the scenarios mention or maybe another one all together. Whatever the case though with Russia courting Azeri gas pipelines as it has long been by the west for oil, Armenia finds itself in a tough situation with very little to offer these big countries in return. Time is working against Armenia in many ways and many think waiting some more years to solve this issue will leave Armenia with almost no cards in its deck against a stacked Azerbaijan. A resolution is needed, and sooner than later, but at what cost?