Barçin YİNANÇ Turkish ambassadors who met in Ankara last week had their most heated debate on the issue of Armenian claims of genocide and relations with Armenia.
The envoys posted in the West raised the alarm bells that in the time leading to the 100th anniversary of the 1915 events, the decisions to recognize the World War I-era killings of the Armenians at the hands of the Ottomans as genocide will come in the form of a gaining snow ball. Naturally discussions focused on how to deal with the powerful Armenian lobby.
Hawks reigned until now: One group maintained that by now it has become impossible to deal with the issue with a handful of brochures trying to prove that Turks never committed genocide. The key to the problem is in Armenia according to this group. In order to crack the unity between the diaspora and Armenia, Turkey has to quickly normalize its relations with Yerevan. The “let's talk to Armenia” group reinforced its argument by pointing to the irrationality of keeping the borders closed while Turkish goods are entering the Armenian market via Iran and charter flights between Yerevan and Istanbul multiply each month. Furthermore, it is becoming harder and harder to explain to the international community the Turkish position of putting preconditions to normalize relations while Armenia asks for unconditional establishment of diplomatic relations.
According to the opponents of these views, there is not an Armenian genocide problem. This is just a tool used against Turkey by some countries. The initiatives for recognition should be dealt on a bilateral basis. Just as Turkey succeeded to postpone the resolution in the U.S. Congress it should do the same with other governments by using its weight and strategic importance. Turkey underestimates its importance according to the second group. Moreover, recognition issue is the raison d'etre of the diaspora; improving relations with Yerevan will not stop them.
In the discussions that included Turkish Armenians the second group did not even refrain from criticizing Hrant Dink, whom it portrayed as someone working for the recognition of Armenian genocide by the Turkish nation while however opposing foreign intervention. I must add that those telling me about this anecdote emphasized that none of the ambassadors would obviously be of the view that his murder is justified.
Change in Yerevan: The difference of opinion within the Foreign Ministry is actually not new. The first group has always been in the minority ever since this divergence emerged as Armenia officially became Turkey's neighbor after the demise of the Soviet Union. The strategy of political and economic isolation of Armenia has so far been the main policy of successive governments.
The railway project between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan launched yesterday at a ceremony attended by the leaders of the three countries is an important element of that strategy. Armenia is excluded from the project just as it is from the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum natural gas pipeline linking the three countries. But interestingly the ground breaking ceremony comes at a time when secret negotiations are taking place between the two countries' top diplomats and the signs for reconciliation are stronger than ever.
Obviously this raises the question of whether the group in favor of reconciliation is gaining ground. Right now it is too early to say that. Not that the first group gained prevalence, actually it is the prevalence gained by the Armenian opposition leader Levon Ter Petrosyan that triggered the dialogue between Yerevan and Ankara following the elections. Prior to the elections, Turkish diplomats were not very optimist about Serzh Sargsyan. Most expected that when elected, he would continue his predecessor's line, which was not promising enough to start a genuine dialogue.
What motivated Sargasyan to be more flexible on starting the secret talks seems to be the fact that he sits on a government whose legitimacy is seriously challenged. He probably read well the message of the people who gave strong backing to Ter Petrosyan, known to be more flexible when it comes to relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan.
Window of opportunity:
Hence if today there is talk about the possibility of the Turkish president's visit to Armenia, we owe that to the change in Yerevan. It remains to be seen whether the Turkish side will use this window of opportunity properly.
Turkish policy on Armenia and Armenian claims of genocide will depend on which of the groups in the ministry will be successful in convincing the government. The ruling Justice and Development Party would rather opt for the group in favor of reconciliation. But in the absence of a government, this group does not stand a chance.