Armenia: Between a mountain and a hard place

Tsitsernakaberd is a memorial dedicated to the victims of the Armenian Genocide. It is situated on a hill overlooking Armenia’s capital city, Yerevan. Every year on 24 April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians gather there to remember the victims of the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

The genocide memorial sits on one of three hills along the Hrazdan River that carry the name Tsitsernakaberd, and was the site of what was once an Iron Age fortress. Construction of the memorial began in 1966 (during Soviet times) in response to demonstrations the previous year when one million people claimed the right to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Genocide.

The memorial complex has two sections: massive basalt slabs bending in grief over an eternal flame memorializing the victims of the tragedy, and a granite stele, symbolising the survival and spiritual rebirth of the Armenian people. The shape of the 12 tall, inward- leaning basalt slabs recalls the traditional khachkar – the carved, cross-bearing, memorial stele covered with rosettes and other botanical motifs that are characteristic of Medieval Christian Armenian art.

In the distance looms Mt Ararat, a snow-capped, dormant volcanic cone that rises in Turkey. Mt Ararat is revered by Armenians as symbolizing both their national identity and their fragmentation as a nation. It is the national symbol of the 1991 Republic of Armenia, featured in the centre of its coat of arms. In Armenian mythology Mt Ararat is the home of the Gods, much like Olympus in Greek mythology.

The great irony for Armenians is that Mt Ararat is inaccessible, lying as it does on the other side of the closed border with Turkey. However, according to a recent report in Le Monde Diplomatique (Les ratés de la réconciliation turco-arménienne, by Vicken Cheterian, 26 January 2012) secret negotiations have been going to try to normalise the situation. In 2007, mediated by the Swiss government’s department of foreign affairs, a series of diplomatic initiatives took place resulting in the signing of two protocols in late 2009. The first was about establishing diplomatic relations and the second about opening the frontier.

Apparently, the question of the Armenian Genocide is not the sole obstacle. Turkey supported Azerbaijan during a war that took place 1988-94 in that country’s enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. But Armenia supported Nagorno-Karabakh’s majority ethnic Armenians. Today Turkey wants dialogue with Armenia to lead to concessions over Nagorno-Karabakh, while Armenia hopes to improve relations between the two countries without conceding changes on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Diplomacy: “the art of letting someone have your way.” Turkey insists on Armenia recognizing or turning a blind eye to Azerbaijan’s demands with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh so that the two protocols can be ratified. Armenia is thus caught between a rock and a hard place: it does not want to be seen to abandon ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan, but it would very much like to open its border with Turkey.

Mt Ararat has lain dormant since the third millennium BCE. The name derives from an ancient tradition linking it with the Biblical Mountains of Ararat where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the great flood (Genesis 8:4) – itself a symbol of survival and reconciliation. It would be ironic if the border were to remain closed, especially in 2015 during the centenary of the Armenian Genocide.

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