By Armen Sahakyan
A benefit of being in Washington, D.C. is seeing foreign policy hashed out first-hand—not just in the halls of Congress or the administration, but at think tank-sponsored events that bring together experts to provide insights on everything from U.S. policy on China to the Middle East, or anywhere in the world, for that matter. These events attract all sorts of folks—ambassadors, U.S. government officials, researchers, students—who come in and offer their views, ask questions, or just plain listen. The issues discussed and the positions advocated often help shape, directly or indirectly, how the government deals with these concerns.
The ANCA Leo Sarkisian interns got to see a snapshot of how the think tank event world works on June 20 at the “Averting Conflict in the Caucasus: Is Russia a Partner or a Spoiler?” debate, sponsored by the World Affairs Council and Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
The guest speakers were former U.S. Ambassadors to Armenia and Azerbaijan John Evans and Richard Kauzlarich. Everyone in the Armenian American community knows Evans; his principled statements reaffirming the Armenian Genocide led to his recall from his position as U.S. ambassador. Kauzlarich served as the U.S. envoy to Azerbaijan from 1994-97, amongst his other responsibilities at the State Department.
The discussion pertained to Russia’s role in the greater Caucasus region: Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, as well as Northern Caucasian Russia. Although the discussion by the former ambassadors touched upon the Georgia-Russia conflict and North Caucasus states, the main topic ended up being the Nagorno Karabagh Republic (NKR) conflict—not surprising given where these two senior diplomats had served.
I won’t go into the specific arguments for each of the ambassadors, but will instead focus on the discussion that followed. The ambassadors, to their credit, held a collegial and balanced dialogue regarding the situation in the region. And then, all hell broke loose in the question and answer session.
An Azeri diplomat went into a diatribe of false and old claims regarding the so-called “occupation” of 20 percent Azeri lands, Armenia’s unconstructive approach in the negotiations process, and the removal of Armenian forces from the “occupied territories.” These provocative words raised the tension in the room, and set the path for the rest of the discussion—now about Karabagh.
Next up was Armenian diplomat Andranik Hovhannisyan, who debunked the Azerbaijani diplomat’s allegations with remarks of his own. The moderator, concerned she was losing control of the panel, tried to cut the Armenian diplomat short, but Hovhannisyan stood his ground.
Aram Avetisyan from the NKR Representative’s Office took the microphone and asserted the point that Armenia cannot negotiate with a country that constantly threatens war, exponentially expands its military budget, and does not lose any opportunity to spread anti-Armenian propaganda.
Gradually, the discussion curved from Russia’s role in the Caucasus to the Artsakh conflict. That was my opportunity to ask a question regarding the reinstatement of Karabagh in the negotiations process. Azerbaijan’s mission has been to deprive Karabagh a seat from the negotiations table to secure the upper hand in the peace talks. Of course, the premise is absurd. The Nagorno Karabakh Republic is a co-signer of the ceasefire of 1994. How could it not be included in the discussions that decide its own fate?
And so the questions continued, with the speakers talking about the need for Armenia and Azerbaijan to come to a consensus, and work with international mediators, to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
What struck me, though, is how important it was to have pro-Armenia voices participating at this event—to counter the Azerbaijani government’s lies. If the Armenian Embassy, NKR office, ANCA, and other concerned Armenians had not been there, the Azerbaijani diplomat’s remarks would have set the tone for the discussion.
These discussions are a forum for such issues like the importance of the international community’s clear and forceful condemnation of all past and present Azeri aggressions against Armenia, and the need for the formal reinstatement of Karabagh back into the Minsk Group peace process. These forums are an opportunity to ask experts why Azerbaijan always tries to keep the tension high on the front lines and provoke military action, all the while professing they are committed to a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
And we don’t have to limit ourselves to events in Washington, D.C. The World Affairs Council—and groups like them—have chapters all around the country, not to mention event possibilities at local campuses. Joining these groups and working with campus political science departments is a great way to spotlight issues related to Armenia, Karabagh, and the Armenian nation.
The ANCA Leo Sarkisian team did its part on June 20, asking key questions on policy concerns and helping debunk Azerbaijani propaganda. Now it’s time to get back to our communities and work with our local ANC’s, AYF’s, and ASA’s to continue in the same spirit both on and off campus.
Armen Sahakyan is in the Class of 2013 in Bloomfield College, New Jersey. He is currently an ANCA Leo Sarkisian Intern in Washington, D.C.