In the summer of 2017, I received a wedding invitation from a very dear friend of mine — Gianluca Marciano, an accomplished Italian opera conductor, who informed me that he was getting married to an Armenian woman, Tatevik Shahinyan, in the month of August that same year.
Feeling naturally excited, I quickly contacted my Georgian friends, and set up a programme for going from Tbilisi to Yerevan by road in a convoy of cars. I then turned my attention towards the task of applying for an Armenian visa and that is when I got a shock! There was no Armenian Embassy in Islamabad ! Intrigued, I searched deeper, only to find, to my great astonishment, that there were no diplomatic relations between Pakistan and Armenia!
It was one of the most bizarre discoveries I had made in the last several years of my life, because we had grown up knowing from our childhood that Pakistan and Israel had no diplomatic relations, and none were even intended. But Armenia?
At my request, Ms Tatevik even approached the relevant Armenian government officials, with a strong personal recommendation, but I received a greatly disappointing reply that Armenia will not issue a visa to a Pakistani. That refusal resulted in me missing the wedding of my dear friend, and also a much desired sight-seeing tour of the beautiful country, which I had planned with my friends after the wedding. My friends in Georgia were also saddened by this strange turn of events, but there was nothing that I or they could do.
That was the start of my deeper research into the whole case of a strange estrangement between the two countries, which have neither any direct conflict between each other, nor have they ever faced each other off in a bilateral dispute in the international arena. So what has caused this chasm between them?
During the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Artsakh (also known as Nagorno-Karabakh), an ethnic Armenian territory that was granted to the newly formed state of Azerbaijan as a result of a non-perspective political decision of Joseph Stalin during the Soviet reign, Armenia supported Artsakh and therefore, the countries have no direct diplomatic relations.
Armenia has no direct diplomatic relations with Turkey either. But Turkey was the first country which recognised independence of Armenia in 1991 and the citizens of both states can easily get an e-visa or visa on arrival.
Pakistan is the only country in the world that does not recognise Armenia as an independent and sovereign state. Why not?
Let us look at the geo-political state of play that impacts this estrangement. Pakistan and Afghanistan had supported Azerbaijan during and after the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Pakistan has maintained very close relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan as well. Azerbaijan supports Pakistan’s stance against India on Kashmir. Because of the visibly pro-Turkey and pro-Azeri stance taken by Pakistan, Armenia responded by siding with India against Pakistan on the same Kashmir issue, which hardened the stance about Armenia on the Pakistani side. Because of that pro-India stance by Armenia, Pakistan has responded by taking a pro-Turkey stance on the issue of the dispute between Turkey and Armenia over the claim of Armenia on the issue of first genocide of the 20th century reportedly committed by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
But there is also a claim by Azerbaijan against Armenia in the matter of the alleged Khojaly Massacre, in which Pakistan takes the Azeri side. It is also worthwhile mentioning Armenia’s claim on the alleged massacres of Armenians in Sumgait in 1988, reportedly planned by Azeris that actually led to the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
All these complex permutations have resulted in a kind of stalemate between Pakistan and Armenia. The people of the two countries have co-existed during the last 400-600 years but have not had a chance to get to know each other, which is a sad state of affairs. The rich and centuries-old cultures and traditions of both countries are also mutually unknown. No efforts seem to have been made by either to initiate any steps to end this estrangement. On Pakistan’s side, it is most likely the apprehension that a direct recognition of Armenia will result in straining of its traditionally close relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. On the Armenian side, there is probably a feeling that there is no hurry to open up any discussions with Pakistan.
But taking a political stance and recognising a country are two separate issues and shouldn’t be mixed up. For instance, Pakistan has a festering old conflict with India, but both states recognise each other’s independence and sovereignty and this is also true in case of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. However, the real dilemma is that Pakistan remains the only country in the world that doesn’t recognise Armenia as a sovereign state despite having no direct conflict at all, thus hindering interaction and cooperation between the people of the two countries throughout many centuries of co-existence. Yet, a few Pakistanis have visited Armenia. For example, Syeda Ghulam Fatima, was invited to the capital of Armenia, Yerevan, as a finalist of Aurora Prize, an annual global humanitarian award established to recognise modern-day heroes and the exceptional impact their actions make on preserving human life and advancing humanitarian causes in the face of adversity.
At a recent gathering of people from diverse countries, during the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2018 in Davos, Switzerland, I happened to be present at a breakfast meeting arranged in honour of then Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. During a question-answer session, a young Armenian lady, Sona Mirzoyan, asked a direct question of the Pakistani PM about why Pakistan and Armenia do not have diplomatic relations. Mr Abbasi was visibly surprised by this unexpected question, and because he was obviously not briefed by the Foreign Office, could not answer the question properly.
During our conversation, Sona Mirzoyan mentioned that, “The vast majority of Pakistani people, even at the governmental level, are simply unaware of the issue and when I state the fact the Pakistan is the only country in the world that doesn’t recognise Armenia’s independence, they get surprised. It really hurts me personally, as being a global shaper and an active participant in various international events, I have made friends with many good Pakistani people. It is just not fair that ordinary Pakistanis are not able to travel to Armenia and Armenians to travel to Pakistan. We must make the issue known, so as to deal with it. And my ultimate wish is that the diplomatic relations between our countries will be established by 2020.” she said.
In this time and age, when the world has become a global village, where everyone is connected through technology and the exchange of information and news is instantaneous, this chasm between the people of the two countries now needs to be addressed with positive steps by both sides. Both countries have produced outstanding individuals in the fields of Science and Arts, and it would be a befitting way to initiate a people-to-people contact, that can pave the way to removing the misgivings being harboured at the state level. I am quite sure that the Turkish, Azerbaijani and Armenian people, at the diaspora level, have already got the people-to-people contacts going.
After all, who knows, one day, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey might resolve their disputes amicably, and at that point, both Armenia and Pakistan would be hard-pressed to explain the reasons for their estrangement!
A simple start in the form of a Pakistan-Armenia Cultural Forum could provide a platform for the people of the two countries to at least get to know each other in this 21st century. This forum could be followed by a student exchange programme, through which people of both countries could come and express and share their ideas about pre-reserved topics. Over time, that might attract policy and decision-makers from both sides to initiate a formal dialogue on the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations. With the Belt and Road Initiative by China, it would make sense for both countries to start talking to each other.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 3rd, 2018.
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