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Armenia in a Region of Change
Armenia in a Region of Change

ARMENIA AND TURKEY: SEEKING TO BRIDGE THE DIVIDE


by Richard Giragosian

More than six months after the visit of Turkish President Abdullah Gül to Armenia, the outlook for a possible breakthrough in Armenia's frosty relations with its estranged neighbor seems more distant than in the days that immediately followed "football diplomacy." The September 2008 visit to Yerevan by Gül was significant, as the first-ever visit to Armenia by a Turkish head of state. The visit was also more than historic, as it marked the public exposure of a process of engagement, consisting of months of cautiously tentative meetings between Armenian and Turkish officials.

The secret round of preliminary talks allowed Armenian President Serge Sargsyan to extend his formal invitation to his Turkish counterpart. But it was the public disclosure of those talks that suggested that both sides seemed ready for dialogue after years of Turkey's refusal to extend diplomatic relations or open its border with Armenia.  In fact, the process of secret diplomacy provided not only the framework, but also the foundation for the two countries to find common ground, at least in theory.

The secret talks held in Switzerland also benefited from a distinct advantage of timing, comprised of three significant elements. First, Armenia's negotiating stance has been largely driven by its desperation for a foreign policy success, to endow the embattled Armenian leadership with a new degree of legitimacy in the wake of a deep domestic political crisis, as well as to divert attention from its own deficiencies in democracy. In addition, the Armenian position was firmly tied to a policy of moderation and flexibility, with no preconditions for normalizing relations.

The second advantage of the timing of the secret talks stemmed from the fact that the Turkish approach had evolved substantially, reflecting a new, much more innovative willingness to offer the Armenian side tangible benefits. Such a newfound Turkish willingness was also based on its own calculated compromise, as affirmed by its recognition that its earlier policies regarding Armenia had not worked. Within this context, Turkey's new sense of foreign policy options in dealing with Armenia has overcome its earlier dependence on Azerbaijan, whereby Ankara was forced into a weak position subordinate to Baku.

In addition to the private diplomacy, there were also signs of optimism from both sides prior to the Turkish president's visit. Turkey relaxed its air space quota for Armenia in order to ease access for humanitarian aid flown into Georgia via Armenia. And, in August, President Gül extended a reconciliatory message to Armenia. Turkey is "no enemy" of Armenia, the president said and pointed out that the conflict between Georgia and Russia affirms the need for "early measures to resolve frozen problems in the region and ... prevent instability in the future." The Turkish president went on to state: "This is our understanding on all problems. We are no enemy to anyone in the region," before reiterating the Turkish proposal to set up a regional forum for stability in the Caucasus.

There were also overtures from the Armenian side as well, including an Armenian decision to unilaterally suspend its visa regime with Turkey to facilitate the arrival of Turkish fans for the first-ever match between the two countries' national soccer teams.

An earlier and far more significant overture came earlier last summer, when Armenian President Sargsyan signaled his government's readiness to accept, in principle, a Turkish proposal to form a joint historical commission, which would theoretically also examine the veracity of the Armenian Genocide.

Although the Armenian president later repudiated reports of his comments on the commission, Turkish officials continue to express their belief that the Armenian government will eventually concede the issue and agree to form such a commission. Such a move would, however, pose a new danger—it would only question the accuracy of the genocide itself, a move that would clearly be unacceptable. Armenian public reaction, both within Armenia and throughout the Diaspora, would be certain to reject any move to sign up to the Turkish offer of a joint commission. In fact, many Armenians still feel that negotiations with Turkey, in any form, must be linked to the establishment of normal diplomatic relations and the opening of the closed Armenian-Turkish border.

But in the months following Turkish president Gül's attendance at that World Cup qualifying match in Yerevan, optimism over any breakthrough in Turkish-Armenian relations has diminished considerably. While such optimism may have been somewhat exaggerated by unrealistic expectations on both sides, both Turkish and Armenian officials have tried to rekindle hopes for a possible normalization of relations and an opening to the long-closed border between the two countries.

In comments during a trip to Washington, Ahmet Davutoglu, a senior foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, asserted that Turkey remained committed to establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia, adding that both countries have entered a new "era of mutual confidence." He further stressed that "we are not enemies with Armenians and do not regard them as a threat."

Davutoglu went on to say that he expected the Armenian Diaspora to support the process between Turkey and Armenia and vowed that "we want to establish good relations with all Armenians in the world, no matter whether they live in Los Angeles or in Paris." But he also warned that "we expect them to support the process, not impede it," promising that "we are waiting for Armenians with open arms."

The concerted attempt to reiterate Turkey's desire for moving forward with Armenia was echoed by Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian. In an interview with the BBC's Turkish Service, the Armenian foreign minister announced that there was no obstacle in normalization of Turkey-Armenia relations and declared that "first, we expect diplomatic relations to be established and borders to be opened," adding that "we want an intergovernmental commission to be set up to discuss all the problems between the two sides."

Despite the exchange of such positive statements, there seems to be a genuine lack of movement since the Turkish president's bold visit to Armenia. Linked in part to the fact that expectations on both sides were dangerously high, this lack of movement was only magnified by a perception that neither the Turkish nor the Armenian side was ready to follow up the Gül visit with a more concrete demonstration of what comes next.

Against this backdrop of diminishing expectations and waning optimism, neither the Gül visit nor the subsequent flurry of media statements seems sufficient to ensure that the process of Turkish-Armenian engagement will endure. But the real promise and opportunity inherent in this engagement was never limited to merely official meetings or public statements. Rather, the significance of this Turkish-Armenian breakthrough has always been rooted in the process, not the publicity.

But there is an external factor that may actually force Turkey and Armenia closer together, or that at least may pressure them to meet at the negotiating table. This new factor stems from Russia's stated interest in pushing Armenian-Turkish engagement forward, mainly because it is now in Russia's interest to maximize the Turkish-Armenian opening for its own purposes.

More specifically, Russian policy has long been opposed to any significant improvement in relations between Armenia and Turkey and the closed border was seen as a helpful way of maintaining Russian dominance over Armenia, as demonstrated by the continued presence of a Russian military base and Russian border guards in Armenia. But Russian policy shifted dramatically in the wake of the August war in Georgia, with a possible Armenian-Turkish rapprochement only serving to bolster the Russian strategy to more completely isolate, marginalize and surround Georgia. Nevertheless, Russia will only remain supportive as long as the future direction of Armenian-Turkish relations continues under its control.

There are also added benefits for Russia from the issue, however, such as the possible sale of electricity to eastern Turkey from the Russian-owned energy network in Armenia. There was also a diplomatic coup by Moscow seizing the issue from the Americans, as the Armenian president publicly invited his Turkish counterpart to Armenia while on an official visit to Moscow.

Exaggerated expectations?

Russia is not the only external player in this new drama. For many years, the Armenian Genocide issue has been a persistent and pertinent issue in US-Turkish relations. But many in Armenia see America's new President Barack Obama as the key to a new sense of leverage over Turkey, capable of pressuring them to face their past and ending the US government's previous qualms over the use of the genocide word.

In the wake of stridently pro-Armenian rhetoric during the Obama campaign, Armenia's confidence has only deepened now that President Obama has taken office. And Armenian-American lobbying groups have now launched a renewed and reinvigorated effort to ensure passage of a Congressional resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide.

For the Armenian government, the self-assured efforts of the Diaspora lobby seem to have only emboldened its position toward Turkey, even despite the historic visit to Armenia by the Turkish president last September. Most recently, speaking at a press conference on January 21 in Yerevan, Foreign Minister Nalbandian reflected this optimism, confidently asserting that Armenia and Turkey were "very close to normalizing relations," but rejecting any suggestion that the delicate diplomatic process would be harmed by any move of the Obama administration to endorse Armenian Genocide claims.

At the same time, the Armenian foreign minister also reiterated that Armenia's approach toward Turkey was based on "an unconditional normalization" of bilateral ties. But he also challenged Turkey, arguing that "our position is unchanged and we expect the same approach from Turkey," and going even further by contending that Ankara should demand no preconditions for opening its border and extending diplomatic relations with Turkey.

Much of this Armenian confidence is due to the Armenian-American Diaspora, which actively and openly supported the Obama campaign, officially endorsing him as early as January 2008 and later mobilizing volunteers in many key electoral states, such as California, Michigan and New York. The Armenian-American media throughout the country also played a significant part, expressing a clear preference for Obama and calling on their readers to vote for him.

Armenian-Americans also raised money for the Obama campaign, including multimillionaire Kirk Kerkorian, whose Lincy Foundation donated $1.5 million to the Democrats' Denver 2008 Convention Host Committee. Tens of thousands of other Armenian-Americans also donated smaller amounts to the Obama-Biden campaign.

But while Armenian expectations from the new American leadership remain very high, in many ways, Turkey has assumed an even more essential role for the United States in recent weeks.

In fact, it is the set of the Obama administration's stated policy priorities, topped by its withdrawal from Iraq and a planned expansion of operations in Afghanistan, which has enhanced Turkey's strategic position.

Turkish society stirs, but in the safety of cyberspace

Just two months before the first anniversary of the assassination of prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in Istanbul, an online petition stirred Turkish society by renewing attention to the Armenian issue. The petition also sparked a new emotional response from mainstream Turkish society, similar to the public outpouring of grief in the wake of the killing of Dink, who was murdered in January 2007 by ultra-nationalists for his bold insistence on challenging the Turkish state to address the Armenian Genocide issue.

Galvanizing the Turkish academic and political elite by reopening the very meaning and message of the late journalist, the online petition offers an apology for the massacres of Armenians in what it defined as the "great catastrophe" of 1915. Posted online on a special website (www.ozurdiliyoruz.com), the petition continued to gain support as thousands of ordinary Turkish citizens felt compelled to sign on for several months.

Initiated by a group of some 200 academics, artists and writers, the petition, which is entitled "I apologize," has triggered a flurry of debate and intense reaction. It has also sparked a virtual war of words between Turkey's most senior leaders, as the prime minister was quick to criticize the petition, arguing that he found it "unreasonable to apologize when there is no reason."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan went on to decry the petition as an "irrational" and "wrong" step that only risked creating more controversy and trouble unnecessarily. For his part, President Gül also weighed in on the issue, but differed openly with his prime minister, countering instead that "everyone can express their opinions freely."

Although the Armenian reaction to the petition has been generally positive, some Armenians expressed a desire to avoid enflaming the debate within Turkey. One Yerevan resident, Rouben Mehrabyan, Ph.D., welcomed the petition as "a move forward" and said that he was "surprised" that the Armenian issue had fostered such a vibrant exchange among the Turkish elite.

Mehrabyan's surprise was rooted in the fact that while "most Armenians in Yerevan are eagerly expecting an opening of the border, for us, the Armenian Genocide is a vital issue, but it is encouraging that it is also an important issue for some Turks."

Unlike Mehrabyan, others in Armenia held different perspectives on the broader issue of Turkish-Armenian relations. According to Ani Avetisyan, a staff member working for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF)-Dashnaktsutiun's parliamentary faction, despite the fact that the need to reopen the Turkish-Armenian border has been a much discussed and debated topic in Armenia, the burden is still on Turkey, as "it was Turkey that closed the border in the first place and must now take the next step toward normalizing relations with Armenia."

Avetisyan also conveyed her hesitation, however, adding that Turkey's possible move to open the closed border with Armenia "does not preclude it from closing it (the border) again." She further questioned Turkey's intentions by stating that "the benefits of opening the border were as significant for Turkey as for Armenia" and viewing the move as a "bid to improve Turkey's image before the European Union."

The intent of the Turkish intellectuals in launching the online petition had little to do with a fear of controversy. In fact, they explained that through the petition, their goal was to challenge the official denial and encourage deeper discussion of the events of 1915 within Turkish society itself. As Dink long advocated, the intent was focused more on the internal debate within Turkey proper, and had much less in common with genocide recognition beyond Turkey's borders.

In fact, the petition carefully avoided using the controversial genocide label and reflected no demands for any apology or recognition by the Turkish government. For example, one of the lead organizers of the petition, Cengiz Aktar, clarified the reasoning behind the effort as an attempt to demonstrate that it is the responsibility of all Turks to think and talk openly about the events of 1915 and stressed "our aim is to empathize with the grief of our Armenian brothers."

A generation awaits progress with guarded optimism

For many of Armenia's younger generation that came of age during Armenia's early independence in the 1990s, there is a strong sense of optimism and hope for the start of a new chapter in Turkish-Armenian relations. Articulating this positive view, Maria Baraghamyan, who herself has been actively following the online petition, believes that there is now a "real chance to bridge the divide between Turkish and Armenian youth."

An active member of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, Baraghamyan supports the petition as "evidence of the need for knowledge" and "an honest attempt to examine the past" among Turkish youth. She also sees this latest move as offering each side "a two-way advantage," as a "first step toward moving faster and closer to other issues such as opening the border and normalizing relations" between Turkey and Armenia.

Perhaps more importantly, the young Armenian woman holds out hope that "the petition may also open the door for young Armenian and Turkish people to be able to come together and discuss many issues as a way to break down stereotypes and build a new future of neighborly relations."

On the Turkish side, some of the more notable intellectuals driving this effort include Milliyet columnist Hasan Cemal, the grandson of the notorious Ahmed Djemal Pasha, one of the three top "Young Turk" officials that ruled Ottoman Turkey in the waning years of the empire and who was assassinated by an Armenian gunman in Tbilisi in 1922. Interestingly, Cemal met with the grandson of his grandfather's Armenian assailant in Yerevan during Gül's visit to Armenia.

The petition opens with a brief explanatory statement stating that "my conscience cannot accept the ignorance and denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and—on my own behalf—I share the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers—and I apologize to them."

Those words, as well as the intent of the petition's authors, triggered more than a condemnation from the prime minister, however, as some 60 Turkish former ambassadors also weighed in on the issue, labeling it "an act of betrayal" of the country's national interests, arguing that "such an incorrect and one-sided attempt would mean disrespecting our history."

And as the first-ever such petition, it has also led to an intense reaction among some of Turkey's more nationalist politicians, who have added their condemnation of the act as an "insult to the Turkish nation." In one such statement, the leader of the opposition Nationalist Action Party, Devlet Bahceli, stridently responded to the petition by arguing that "no one has the right to insult our ancestors, to present them as criminals and to ask for an apology."

Despite the heated reaction, petition supporters like "Hurriyet" newspaper columnist Gila Benmayor reiterated that she was "not betraying anyone" by signing the petition, but "merely telling the Armenians that we share their grief," and adding that "the time has come for change." Other prominent signatories include Cem Ozdemir, the ethnic Turkish leader of Germany's Green Party.

While the petition continues to demonstrate the new "awakening" within Turkish society, it also serves as an important prerequisite for any step forward toward the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations. And such promise is the most fitting tribute to Dink, whose death continues to inspire many on both sides of the closed Turkish-Armenian border.

Originally published in the May 2009 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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