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.