The Middle Way of Serge Sargsian
by Emil Sanamyan
This was first published in the December 2009 issue of Stepanakert-based Analyticon journal.
Bodhisattva Prabhapala is invited by the Devas in the Tushita Heaven to come down on earth to save all beings. (Description from http://home.swipnet.se/ratnashri/buddhalife.htm)
"I am not one of those people who argue that it doesn’t matter if relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan remain unresolved and borders closed and that this [status quo] does not interfere with our development,” Serge Sargsian, then still prime minister and emerging presidential candidate told me in an interview in October 2007.
They do, he said, but "at the same time, I believe that these challenges cannot bring us to our knees; I don’t want to sound pretentious but this is the heart of the matter.”
In subsequent months, as presidential candidate in a bruising electoral contest and then as president-elect in its deadly aftermath, Sargsian tried to position himself as a compromise-minded moderate in contrast to confrontational styles of his predecessor Robert Kocharian and main election opponent Levon Ter-Petrossian.
Now, as the second year of Armenia’s third president is drawing to a close, Sargsian appears to have embraced the philosophy of "dignified compromise” in a foreign policy dominated by disputes with Turkey and Azerbaijan.
In Buddhist philosophy, the middle (or third) way is the path between the two extremes, one of fully rejecting the material world and another – fully indulging in it.
This thinking seeks to avoid the two extremist worldviews that perceive the world as either eternal or facing an inevitable annihilation.
When transposing these concepts to Armenia’s political landscape, the two extremes between which Sargsian is charting his course are Ter-Petrossian’s visions of doomsday Armenia and Kocharian’s wishful notion of "Armenia of our dreams.”
Reflections of this choice can be seen in specific policies embraced by Sargsian administration with regard to Turkey and Azerbaijan.
New approach on Turkey
Like his predecessors, Sargsian made establishment of relations with Turkey as he put it "In Spite of the Genocide” an early priority.
But unlike Ter-Petrossian, Sargsian did not completely drop the campaign for genocide recognition from Armenia’s agenda. And unlike Kocharian, Sargsian says the legacy of genocide would be best addressed through engagement with Turkey rather that by trying to mobilize the sympathetic support in the rest of the world.
Last October, while making the case for the Armenia-Turkey protocols to anxious and critical leaders of Diaspora in America, Sargsian sounded much more like Ter-Petrossian. In particular, seeking to justify the agreement Sargsian strongly linked prospects of Armenia’s development to Turkey’s good will rather than Armenians’ own determination as Kocharian normally would.
Not surprisingly, Ter-Petrossian has on the whole welcomed agreements with Turkey. And while Kocharian has not publicly reacted to the protocols, sources familiar with his position say that he is opposed to them but has not made his opposition public not to undermine Sargsian in his continued stand-off with Ter-Petrossian.
But whatever the intricacies of the new approaches, like its predecessors’ it has so far failed to produce a breakthrough from the seemingly perpetual diplomatic dance with Turkey.
New rhetoric on Karabakh
On Karabakh too Sargsian has adjusted his policy language away from Kocharian’s and closer to that of Ter-Petrossian.
Ter-Petrossian’s approach was to distance Armenia from taking a position on Karabakh settlement. Even as Armenia refused to either annex Nagorno Karabakh or recognize its independence, Ter-Petrossian administration as matter of policy said that it was up to Karabakh Armenians to determine their status.
Under Kocharian, Armenia was more straightforward: Karabakh can not be subordinated to Azerbaijan and only "horizontal” relations were possible, officials would say. Moreover, Armenia would recognize Nagorno Karabakh in response to Azerbaijan shifting the Karabakh issue from OSCE mediation to the United Nations.
By contrast, today Armenia talks of a solution that would be based on "self-
determination” by Karabakh Armenians. When asked by The Armenian Reporter last October about the change in policy language, Sargsian in fact did not rule out Karabakh’s subordination to Azerbaijan even as he implied it was impossible.
Nevertheless, Azerbaijan has long argued that Karabakh Armenians’ right to self-determination could be exercised as part of Azerbaijan. By not explicitly dismissing this notion, Sargsian, like Ter-Petrossian, leaves open such possibility.
Sargsian also leaves open the possibility of recognizing Karabakh but only as response to Azerbaijan’s military aggression, a more remote possibility than another diplomatic initiative like, say, an Azerbaijani appeal to the International Court of Justice.
Here too, verbal exercises disguise the reality that any comprehensive solution or even a significant shift from the status quo is far from imminent.
Third way advantages…
Even as Sargsian calibrates his approaches away from Kocharian’s "extreme” closer to although by no means in line with Ter-Petrossian’s "extreme,” the third president’s "middle” approach demonstrates its advantages such as initiative, flexibility and, as a result, unpredictability.
On Turkey, Sargsian pledged not to agree to a historical commission but he, in effect, did. He said he would not go to Turkey unless the border was open or about to open. That visit was three months ago, and the border is as closed as it was before.
Now, Sargsian is talking about rescinding Armenia’s signature from the protocols unless they are ratified by the Turkish parliament in the next few months; and he might just do that. Or not.
On Karabakh too, while Sargsian’s rhetoric has been much more conciliatory, he did not endorse the Madrid principles after they were published in July.
Moreover, Armenia’s position in the talks appears to have hardened in the last few months, with Sargsian shifting the agenda of talks back to Karabakh’s status as was the case under Kocharian.
Early on in his presidency, Sargsian brought renewed emphasis to key notions of preservation of relative peace and prevention of escalation to war, reflected particularly in his speeches at the United Nations and at the Munich Security Conference.
Those arguments again contrasted with those by his predecessors that appeared to offer a stark choice between permanent warfare and permanent separation.
It is unknown if Sargsian or his advisors consult Buddhist philosophers. More likely, occupying a mid-point position between revived Ter-Petrossian and therefore adjusting away from Kocharian’s course must have appeared as a sensible move politically.
In Buddhist tradition, realization of the middle way depends on "the Noble Eightfold path,” that includes "right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration."
It remains to be seen if the third president is up to the task and can uphold and balance this more than a handful of rights while keeping wrongs to the minimum.
While the approach may be seen as more practical or realistic on the whole it also carries more obvious risks. Political initiatives – such as Sargsian’s on Turkey – tend to heighten domestic expectations and generate counter-initiatives abroad.
In the end, effectiveness of Sargsian’s "middle way” like his predecessors’ will be judged on whether it avoids disasters and produces results for Armenia.
- Emil Sanamyan is Washington editor for The Armenian Reporter.