In every office there are images of Mount Ararat, which rises in Turkey, a symbol for Armenians of longing, pride, the hope of return and the suffering of the Armenian genocide that began in 1915 and involved the Ottoman Empire’s killing of more than one million Armenians.
The House of Representatives, defying familiar Turkish warnings, this week passed a resolution recognizing that genocide. President Barack Obama never recognized it publicly, despite a promise to do so as a presidential candidate in 2008. Realpolitik won out over his principles.
Turkey, which insists there was no organized campaign to slaughter Armenians, is not Armenia’s only problem. Comrade Stalin loved to tinker with nationalities and borders. Decades later, this caused friction between Armenia and Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union collapsed. The disputes culminated in war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region a quarter-century ago. Today, Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan is closed. Its border with Turkey is closed. Only the borders with Georgia and Iran are open.
Yet I found Armenians in upbeat mood! What do physical borders matter these days? The nearly three million citizens of Armenia are in constant touch with the many more millions of Armenians in the diaspora, who are sending money home. With a strong tech sector, Armenia sees itself as a start-up country. It’s looking forward more than back.
The country’s bloodless revolution in 2018 has not delivered paradise, but it has eliminated fatalism. People feel they have the freedom to try what they want.
Weeks of mass protests against corruption and cronyism brought down the old Armenian political class, much as massive demonstrations in Beirut, Baghdad and Santiago in recent weeks have brought down or shaken the governments of Lebanon, Iraq and Chile.
The spirit of 1989 has not been trampled underfoot by Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, after all. People prefer agency to the dead hand of unaccountable rule. They prefer the rule of law to arbitrary arrest. That’s why they are in the streets of Hong Kong.
Liberal democracy is not, as Putin has insisted, “obsolete.” It just needed a jolt.
Armen Sarkissian, the Armenian president, told me in an interview that old systems would not work. “We are living in a quantum world because more than half of life is virtual,” he said. The notion of democracies functioning through elections every few years is outdated. He called Armenia “one of the first labs” to find new “rules or behavior” for a world where every individual has a voice that “is exercised and expressed daily.”
On the Armenian genocide, and Turkey’s denial, Sarkissian said this: “Recognition of something that you have done wrong in ordinary life, in your family, with your friends, recognition is a strength. It’s not a weakness. If you take Turkey recognizing the Armenian genocide, that will also be recognition of the fact Turkey is on its way to become a tolerant state.”
One enduring lesson of 1989 is that the truth will out. Even the Trump White House will one day discover this.