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22 September 2023

Words of Wisdom - Armenian Academic and Former Minister Gerard Libaridian Shares His Views on Peace in Karabakh

The Armenians of Karabakh can still sign up to a “manageable” agreement on integrating into Azerbaijan, argues Gerard Libaridian, but they need to stop a sense of self-denial in failing to recognise that they won’t get everything they want.

Words of Wisdom - Armenian Academic and Former Minister Gerard Libaridian Shares His Views on Peace in Karabakh

Image: NAASR video/Youtube

On Wednesday, we posted some insightful snippets taken from an extensive talk by Dr. Gerard Libaridian, made on September 12 in Belmont, Massachusetts, as part of the NAASR/Gulbenkian Foundation Contemporary Armenian Issues series. Libaridian’s voice is an important one—he’s a U.S.-Armenian academic who served from 1991 to 1997 in high positions within the Armenian government. He has argued for nearly 30 years that many on the nationalistic side of Armenian politics have been their own worst enemies, failing to argue magnanimously from a position of strength in the 2000s and remaining oblivious to their delicate geopolitical position post-2020. 

In this week’s talk, he reminded listeners that—like it or not—Armenia lost the Second Karabakh War but that many Armenians have been playing a dangerous game in pretending that they didn’t. He pointed out that it was unwise to expect any sort of outside assistance given that, despite professed support from four key members, the UN Security Council couldn’t even manage to pass a resolution to call for the opening of the Lachin road. And it’s similarly important to remember that even Armenia’s geopolitical friends assert Azerbaijan’s claims to territorial integrity, so any maximalist hopes for a quasi-independent entity for the Armenians of Karabakh should be recognized as a pipe dream. All this, argues Libaridian, really ought to have hit home in 2020 when peace treaty offers from Baku were more generous than what’s on the table now. Yet the Armenian side still thought it was in a position to say what it did and didn’t want without recognizing its position of weakness. Even now, Libaridian judges that Ilham Aliyev’s offers are still “manageable,” but “every time we set goals that are unrealistic, we tend to lose more,” and he worries that many Armenians are still perilously unable to realize that a rapid peace treaty is in their ultimate interests. 

Who is Gerard Libaridian

Gerard Jirair Libaridian was born in 1945 in Beirut to an Armenian family. He moved to the U.S. and, following a PhD at UCLA, spent more than 20 years as a university lecturer teaching courses, including some on Turkish-Armenian relations. He went to Armenia in 1991, initially as an academic, but in the chaos of the times soon found himself as chief advisor to the newly independent country’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrossian. Later, he became Deputy Foreign Minister and Armenia’s chief negotiator with Türkiye. He has called himself an “Accidental Diplomat” during this period and reflects on the vast difference between academia, where one can take four months pondering over a paper that barely a dozen people will read, and politics, where instant decisions must be made. In a great example, he cites being phoned at 3am to hear of a C130 Hercules plane taking Iranian Generals home from Moscow at Novruz 1994 that had been shot down by the Karabakh Armenians in what was presumably a terrible accident. He had three hours to decide on an official line of reaction.

Libaridian returned to the US in 1997, becoming a professor of history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and from 2007, the director of the university’s Armenia Studies Programme. 

In talks and academic papers alike, he has since argued forcefully that Armenia’s politicians have taken to using a historical sense of the people as victims as a way to avoid taking more responsibility themselves. As such, they have made the past into a kind of emotional prison. Thirty years ago, he suggests, the events of 1915 were mainly an issue raised in diaspora circles. However, the less legitimate a regime in Yerevan, the more they have talked about genocide, so over the last two decades, 1915 has become integral to the Armenian sense of self, along with a renewed demonizing of Turks—including Azerbaijanis. 

Libaridian underlines how important it is for Armenian politicians to move away from focusing on the “genocide question” to concentrate instead on 21st century realities. He should know. He was the last Armenian politician to make an official trip to Baku. Hopefully, following this week’s events, more Armenians in Karabakh will heed Libaridian’s words, and before long, many more Armenians should be visiting Baku both as politicians and as fellow citizens of Azerbaijan.