AND IN OTHER NEWS: Armenia-Turkey Relations at the Forefront

February has been an extremely busy month of Armenian-related developments in social media. From the human tragedy of the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, and subsequent political gestures, to the fast and furious developments regarding the Lachin blockade, and even an unexpected debate over ethnic labels over long dead artists, there’s much to catch up on:

While the world has been following tragedy unfolding in Turkey and Syria where tens of thousands have been confirmed killed by a series of earthquakes, there have been numerous repercussions for Armenians, both humanitarian and political. Prime Minister Pashinyan quickly sent condolences to Turkey in a tweet which gathered a lot of attention due to the countries’ historically strained ties. The tweet now stands at almost one million views. Yet this was just the start.

Within 24 hours, Turkish MP of Armenian descent Garo Paylan exclaimed that an Armenian search and rescue team had just landed in Turkey, joining teams from around the world dispatched to help. It goes without saying Armenia’s own experiences with earthquakes, especially the 1988 in Gyumri, means it understands this disaster well.

Paylan continued to tweet about the Armenian team’s activities from on the ground in hard-hit Adıyaman. Paylan’s actions were perhaps determined by the fact that the Turkish media underplayed this important collaboration.

A few days later, another surprise development. A video spread throughout social media revealed that for the first time in over thirty years, Armenians were permitted to cross the land border into Turkey in a convoy delivering aid. There has been much talk recently of the border opening at least to third party citizens, and such speculation has resumed. The big question on everyone’s mind is this crossing a sign of Turkey’s readiness to open the border , or is it an isolated event during a time of emergency?

This tweet of Paylan’s showing aid received from Armenia went particularly viral with over 30,000 likes. A common sight on social media during these days were posts and tweets from Turks not condemning Armenians but thanking them for their help with hopes for reconciliation.

The rescue team and aid convoy were not the only Armenians headed to Turkey however. Despite no doubt being extremely busy with global diplomacy and rescue efforts, within days the Turkish government hosted Armenian Foreign Minister Mirzoyan in Ankara, where he was greeted by this unlikely site of the nations’ flags together. While there is still more than enough reason for skepticism, such a move looks good internationally. The next diplomatic test will come with the Armenia-Turkey football match next month.

Serdar Kilic, Turkey’s special representative in the normalization process with Armenia, expressed Turkey’s thanks to Armenia multiple times, both individually and together with the other nations of the South Caucasus. Tragedy became a moment of solidarity for nations at odds with each other, and gave a glimpse at what an alternative future could be like for the region based on cooperation rather than animosity.

Speculation turned to the ruined Ani bridge, which has long been floated as a symbolic project of potential restoration to relink Turkey and Armenia. Sure enough, during the visit to Ankara the Foreign Ministers confirmed their intention to reconstruct the bridge and also that third party citizens would soon be able to cross the border. A hopeful sign, though as one user pointed out, “repair” to historical ruins often do more harm than good, or even completely replaces the original with a gaudy looking recreation. Let’s renew without ruining what is left.

The videos of Armenian rescuers crossing the closed border with aid into Turkey stood in stark contrast to the ongoing blockade of the Lachin Corridor in contravention of the ceasefire agreement. The sideshow of mostly young people who look almost forced to inhabit the site has become so routine now that it gets far less attention in social media. Even the protest’s lead propagandist hasn’t posted his once-daily videos from the site for over a week. The death knell for the PR effort seems to have come during a visit by foreign travelers who were brought there, one of whom seems to have said too much, completely destroying the long-standing argument that the people at the site are “eco-protesters” who care about the environment.

Besides visiting the protest site, the tourists bragged about getting to ride around in military vehicles just miles from the Armenian border, as if Nagorno-Karabakh is being transformed into some sort of perverse amusement park. While the Azerbaijani press described them as “world famous travelers”, they seem to be just regular people who responded to the ad seen above. Armenians suffer a blockade just miles away while tourists joyfully wheel around in tanks.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International joined the list of those condemning the blockade. Their original tweet was deleted due to its wording, describing the suffering as occurring “in Azerbaijan”, as erasing the significance of what is going on and who exactly is being targeted.

For many reasons like the blockade and September attack, astronaut Garrett Reisman took to Twitter to encourage a boycott of the International Astronautical Federation’s 2023 Congress taking place in Baku in October. His call was seen over 270,000 times and really got people talking about the long-standing wider issue of why is it ok to host events in Azerbaijan when the consensus is not to host in other aggressive authoritarian states like Russia?

Also of note is this presence at President Biden’s February 7 annual State of the Union Address, where each Member of Congress is permitted to bring along one guest, often somebody of a symbolic nature.

Despite being dead for over a century, the painter Aivazovsky (Hovhannes Aivazian) became the center of a social media dust-up after New York’s Met Museum declared they were “decolonizing” their artists by changing how they identified artists with roots in what is now Ukraine, one of those being Aivazovsky who was born in Crimea when it was actually still part of the Ottoman Empire, and then ceded to Russia. A now-deleted tweet by a Ukrainian art blog celebrated his retitling from a “Russian” artist to a “Ukrainian” one instantly received a wave of criticism, as not only is calling Aivazovsky Ukrainian simply inaccurate, but it erases his strongly-held Armenian identity.

After much on-line discussion, including an article about it in HyperAllergic, The Met walked back their change and it seems they will be coming up with a way to represent him as Armenian. It should be noted that while Aivazovsky was at least a Russian citizen, his usual identification as simply a Russian artist does not give the whole picture either. “De-colonizing” of art is indeed a noble goal, and there will be initial mistakes like this one along the way, but good to see it has resulted in a change which will better represent the artist’s self-identification rather than political borders.

https://twitter.com/USAmbYerevan/status/1628006326633635847
Speaking of Ukraine, the former chargé d’affaires for the US embassy in Ukraine Kristina Kvien is now officially in place as the new ambassador to Armenia. She’s clearly excited to get started and we warmly wish her good luck in this important role.

She has already gotten our attention with her very active approach to social media, which is a departure from the previous ambassador’s style. For example she wasted no time in not just visiting the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, but specifically using the term “genocide”, which very well might be the first time a sitting US Ambassador to Armenia has used the term since John Evans did in 2005, for which he controversially lost his job (of course, times have changed though since President Biden’s recognition two years ago). She’s not just posting about her introductory meetings with Armenian officials, but also her personal reflection on meeting regular people who have been displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh, reiterating that the blockade needs to be opened. It looks like we’ll be getting regular insight into the Ambassador’s day-to-day activities through her social media.

In a major ruling the International Court of Justice ruled on a provisional measure in Armenia’s favor regarding the need to open the blockade, while unanimously rejecting Azerbaijan’s own complaints. Azerbaijani officials put on a brave face, noting the Court didn’t uphold Armenia’s request Azerbaijan end the ongoing protest, but whether or not the protests continue hardly matters in light of the ruling Azerbaijan must allow Armenians unobstructed passage in both directions. What happens next remains to be seen, as Azerbaijan is unlikely to completely flaunt a ruling by the world’s highest court, and yet so far it seems to be doubling down on its already-rejected contention that there is no blockade and there’s nothing further they can do.

There has been much talk in recent weeks from Azerbaijan about the role of businessman Ruben Vardanyan in the NK government, with Aliyev going as far as saying he’ll negotiate with Stepanakert but not Vardanyan. The day after the ruling, Vardanyan was indeed dismissed, which gave Azerbaijani propagandists something to celebrate and deflect from the gravity of the ICJ’s ruling. Yet once again there’s the question of what will actually come next? Will Aliyev follow through with his promise to negotiate with NK? The Armenian government has made it clear that it will no longer be negotiating on behalf of Stepanakert, which makes it even more necessary that NK have a place at the table, but seeing as Aliyev still refuses to even permit the name “Nagorno-Karabakh” be spoken, it’s hard to see how we get there.

One last thing, though the initial earthquake was three weeks ago, the ground is not quiet and another large one occurred on Monday. That latest one caused great structural damage to the Armenian church of Vakifli and other structures there. Vakifli is known as the last Armenian village in Turkey, itself formerly one of many Armenian settlements of the legendary Musa Dagh. The town was already very fragile with a tenuous future, as it has a very small population whose youth mainly have to leave for opportunity elsewhere. The earthquakes have made the situation all the worse with the entire region now in a difficult state, but a fundraising effort has been started to rebuild the church.

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