Better Policies. Better Future.

From stateless thinking to the Forum of independent minds

Published by the Armenian Reporter

Any strategic thinking in international politics starts from asking the right questions. In Armenia's case these questions have so far at best been asked on individual level yet without institutionalized consistency.

Advocacy groups in Washington would do their job with tangible success only as far as what has been perceived as the newly independent republic's immediate needs. It was either well-organized stop-gap measures that at some point made Armenia second in the world per capita recipient of US assistance and gained it a most favored nation status-the first positive example of lobbying for; or time and effort consuming lobbying against-the introduction and preservation of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, the adoption of the Humanitarian Corridor Act and repeated attempts to pass a Genocide resolution on the Hill.

The miraculous passage of the direct aid for Nagorno Karabagh in 1998 was both a promising sign of the growing sophistication of Armenian advocacy and the result of a well-calculated political trade-off, when an exemption in Section 907 allowed TDA, OPIC and ExIm Bank to do business in Azerbaijan. Armenia's successful qualification for Millennium Challenge Account in 2000-2001 was probably as good as it could get for our country especially after the program was frozen following the very much questioned presidential election in 2008.

Decline of democracy building and absence of strategic thinking in Yerevan made it impossible for US-Armenian relations to become systemic. On the other hand, America's laid-back criticism, not to say lenient acceptance of the process and results of the 2008, 2012 and 2013 national elections in Armenia did not help to raise the bilateral relations to a new level either.

Enter a Forum
Policy Forum Armenia is not only a new Washington-based Armenian think-tank, but, first and foremost, a new mind-set. This is a group of outstanding professionals posing strategic questions about Armenia's future and unified by the need to address its past without prejudice. More importantly the PFA is in a constant, institutionalized search to prioritize Armenia's foreign and domestic policy issues, re-inventing the almost extinct ability to perceive itself as an independent country.

The closed-door seminar at the Atlantic Council on Armenia's relations with the West held on July 2, well attended by high-ranking representatives of the State Department, DOD and NSC as well as academic and think tank communities clearly demonstrated that several years of hard-work and sophistication yielded tangible results. It should be noted that a similar event on Armenia-NATO relations sponsored by the PFA and the Atlantic Council last summer was also a successful attempt to break away from the prison of traditional thinking and graduate beyond the current modality of US-Armenian relations.

This year's seminar was preceded by the preparation and introduction of a detailed position paper, where emphasis was put on asking the right questions about the future of Armenia's independence rather than on seeking hasty answers. It is also noteworthy that in the previous case an analytical review was produced after the event summarizing and building on expert opinions expressed during the seminar itself. In both cases it will not be an overstatement to say that the PFA raised the discussion on Armenia in Washington to a completely different level at the crucial time for our country.

The three perfect failures
This is not only the time to act, but also the time to re-think Armenia's sovereignty. One can describe the foreign policy of Armenia in recent years as a chain of perfect diplomatic failures.

The signed but not ratified Zurich protocols are probably the first and most telling example why the failure was perfect for each and every participant of football diplomacy. All countries, including the mediators that participated in the Turkish-Armenian normalization epic, looked good internationally. The only exception was Azerbaijan, which was perceived as the main obstacle for successful completion of the deal. Yet it did not have to look good but strong. Therefore the failure was perfect for Azerbaijan as well.

The successfully completed but eventually not signed Association Agreement and DCFTA can be characterized as another perfect failure of Armenian foreign policy.

The third perfect failure is currently in the making. It takes shape in Armenia's constantly delayed participation in the Eurasian Union. The circumstantial twist of geopolitical choice imposed from without would most probably continue to drag the country into playing a peripheral role of a second-rate member in an organization with an unclear geopolitical future.

Crimea and Karabakh: a study in contrasts
Perfect failures are usually accompanied by selective misinterpretation of major international events. The current turmoil in Ukraine is particularly dangerous for countries, which have deceptively similar problems.

For Nagorno Karabakh, the danger of capitalizing on the Crimean referendum is that its own argument for self-determination risks being belittled. According to Richard Giragossian and other leading experts in the Black Sea/South Caucasus region, there are several reasons for this. They can be summarized as follows:

First, there was no clear and present danger for Crimea's security. The events there were largely instigated by a most aggressive twist of Russia's near abroad policy. Ukraine's attempt to sign the Association Agreement and DCFTA with the EU, and its decision not to join the Customs Union with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus were the main reasons behind Moscow's sudden concerns about the Russian speaking population in Crimea. In contrast, the underlying cause of Nagorno Karabagh's struggle for self-determination has always been physical security and a dire need to protect the region from external aggression and ethnic cleansing.

The second important difference can be found in the very modality of the referendum. The Crimean population, distinct from nearly all other cases of self-determination, never sought any degree of national independence. Instead, the people voted to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. Against that background, Karabagh's current embrace of Crimea as an inspiration is more likely to devalue and belittle the essence of its own quest. Such a dangerous twist of wishful thinking would only harm Karabagh's case before the international community and weaken its position at the negotiation table. Russia itself is very reluctant to draw any parallels between what happened in the Crimea and other territorial/ethnic disputes in the FSU.

Third, the Crimean referendum itself was never really a question of "national" self-determination. It can rather be defined as "regional" self-determination, with no attempt to use Ukrainian laws, political negotiations and constitutional process for this purpose. In contrast to the Crimean example, Nagorno Karabagh's political choice of the early 90s to use the existing legal framework and the Soviet Constitution to achieve independence, make the national referendum there significantly different.

It is high time to think about small but manageable steps aimed at the preservation of Armenia's sovereignty and strengthening its security. They have to replace wishful thinking and the short-term comfort of perfect failures. To do that not just a new policy, but also the new mind-set is needed. Along with courageous outcries of concerned individuals both in Armenia and Diaspora this presupposes the forum of free thinkers unified through institutionalized network.

Rouben Shougarian, former Ambassador of Armenia in the US