Hovhannes Nikoghosyan Well, it happened at last. Armenia and Turkey, with the mediation of Switzerland, initialed two protocols, in addition to the “road map” announced on April 23, which are to lead us to full normalization of bilateral relations and, hopefully, to historical reconciliation between two nations. The way to this was quite difficult. Many became nervous of continuous silence on both sides. And all of a sudden the Web sites of the Armenian, Turkish and Swiss foreign ministries, in the depth of night, at a quarter past midnight on Sept. 1, posted the joint statement.
The United States brokered these protocols with great efforts that should be much-applauded. “Phone diplomacy” by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in August and Vice President Joe Biden in April proved to be effective, at the hands of Swiss mediation, to bring the sides to agreements. While pushing the process forward, U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, the co-chair of the friendship group with Turkey, even blackmailed Turkish President Abdullah Gül on Aug. 28, saying if the dialogue between Armenia and Turkey is suspended, then the issue of genocide recognition will once again be on Congress’s agenda.
Before and after this news, it has been evident that laboratory-based political theory is not applicable to explain the puzzle of an Armenian-Turkish “road map” toward reconciliation. Now the full timetable of the process is described in the annexed document to the protocols. There is no doubt that both parliaments will ratify them as far as the incumbent administrations hold absolute majority in the legislative. As soon as that happens, the protocols enter into force and the “common border [will] open in two months.” At least in Armenia, the discussions will go far beyond the parliament's walls due to known reasons. The so-called radical opposition will no doubt criticize Armenian President Serge Sarkisian, and he, with the hands of his political allies, will try to draw an image of effective diplomacy.
Up to now, plenty of experts and politicians from both countries have shared thoughts on the issue. When they argue, as usual, that the other side “should” do this or that, I cannot resist the temptation to ask a simple question: Why should they? First of all, one cannot find an Armenian who does not hate the Treaty of Kars with every molecule of his skin. But unfortunately, they fail to realize that the policy of wishful thinking (i.e. “toasts”) eventually ends up with another “paper ladle” of Catholicos Mkrtich (Father) Khrimian. A similar case in Turkey, where every Turk suffers from the so-called “Sevres syndrome.” But besides that “should,” we must understand that the realities are a bit different. In this regard, we must only welcome the spirit of Protocols “confirming the mutual recognition of the existing border[s]” under international law, and President Sarkisian for having the political courage to agree upon this.
But still, what was the core reason of Turkish inaction in this so-called “soccer diplomacy”? And why have they brought the process to a comatose state since late at night on April 22 by publishing the signed trilateral “road map,” if the document itself was agreed on much earlier and signed on April 2, as argues David Phillips, a notable figure in this story. Even the timing for April 2 was chosen right – the very eve of U.S. President Barak Obama’s visit to Turkey, who, as a result, failed to use the so-called G-word. So far some experts and even high-level Turkish authorities used to say the Azerbaijani factor is a huge one that was mistakenly not taken under consideration earlier in Turkey and that makes the successful process nearly impossible. The only “trump card” was mentioned to be oil-and-gas politics. Those April days’ culmination came on the stage with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev refusing to participate in the second forum of the Alliance of Civilizations held in Istanbul (April 6-7). Aliyev said in an interview then: “…before finding a way to solve the [Nagorno] Karabakh issue, if Turkey cuts a deal with Armenia, we could cut off the natural gas flow to Turkey.” But, in short, thinking realistically, the pipelines that have been pumping Caspian hydrocarbons via Turkey since 2006 cannot be dismantled and redirected in another direction. Thus, as soon as that became urgent, the Azerbaijani factor was dropped aside for a moment and the protocol on the establishment of diplomatic relations obtained quite positive wording, “…reiterating [the] commitment to the peaceful settlement of regional … disputes and conflicts.” The phrase “peaceful settlement” clearly contradicts with the official war-like rhetoric of Azerbaijan and can be seen as a point inscribed by the Armenian side. Thus, the “stand-by” situation that we have had since April 23 was a gesture from the age-old Turkish diplomacy to halt the process for supposedly gained future benefits. Supposedly they reached them.
And here we reach the “genocide” issue.
Until recently many used to think that the legal recognition of Armenian “genocide” has a purely emotional nature. But in mid-August all news headlines read: “U.S. Federal Appeals Court rejects Armenian genocide case.” Thus, descendants of victims cannot sue foreign insurance companies for unpaid claims any longer because the U.S. government doesn't legally recognize the genocide. Ken Hachikian, the chairman of one of the most influential U.S.-based Armenian organizations, ANCA, was quoted in writing in his letter to U.S. President Obama using quite harsh wording: “You bear direct responsibility, Mr. President, by virtue of your failure to keep your ... pledges to recognize the Armenian genocide.”
Since April 2005, the issue of a joint commission of historians – to examine the genocide issue – never slipped from the agenda. Both former President Kocharian and acting president Sarkisian have always refused to even discuss this option. The most recent statement by president Sarkisian popped up on Aug. 30 in an interview with the BBC: “We are saying, yes, a genocide took place, and apart from that, whether Turkey will recognize that or not, it is proof, which has been recognized...,” answered Sarkisian in a manner of a politician that is firm and strict in such stance. However, some 24 hours later the point was subjected to a certain metamorphosis:
“[The sides agree to] implement a dialogue on the historical dimension with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations.”
This point in the protocol means nothing else but a “discussion” of the “proof” that the president was talking about earlier. In the annexed document a particular timetable is agreed upon this case, as well as others.
How could that happen?
It is now and then inevitable and undeniable that the secret meetings beginning in January 2007 and the half-hidden process going on today are much mediated by the United States and cannot be broken just because of harsh statements on either side. Recently I had the honor to attend an off-the-record meeting on European security issues in Yerevan and one of the discussants, a high-ranking official from the ruling political elite asked the speaker in quite tough language: What still needs to be done from the Armenian side that hasn’t been done up to now, to seek further real steps from Turkey. There is no room left for Armenia to “play” with Turkey, the person added. The author of these lines is quite agreed with this notable person, but still cannot be optimistic about the ongoing process.
Under the circumstances of four-month silence (since April) many people in Armenia became less optimistic in supporting the president, who faced great challenges by initiating the so-called “soccer diplomacy” and then seemingly failed and deceived. Any foreigner needs to know that despite the non-democratic essence of Armenian authorities, there are two major issues where any incumbent administration will fall short to go against public opinion for a long time: the Armenian-Turkish reconciliation issue, which is largely understood by the public only in the dimension of the 1915-1923 genocide; and the Nagorno-Karabakh peace-deal issue. Probably this was the case when President Sarkisian was quoted to have said on July 28 in Yerevan: “I will accept the invitation only if the agreements are observed and visible steps are taken, i.e. I will go to Turkey if the border is open or if we are on the threshold of Armenia’s de-blockading.”
In any case, taking into account the factor of active mediation of the United States, probably it will be announced on resuscitation of the Millennium Challenge Account program for Armenia.
Cutting the long story short, the spirit of these protocols must be only welcomed and applauded by Armenian and Turkish societies and the international community. Closed borders and the absence of at least diplomatic relations between neighbors is not the fashion of the 21st century. In the meantime, this is not the best time to relax. According to international law, protocols have no binding character and the fulfillment of obligations described there is completely upon the political goodwill of the sides.
But let's be optimistic and pack for the return-match at Bursa football stadium on Oct. 14. As one of my friends texted me, “[Armenians are] going by car, money for petrol sharing in half.”
* Hovhannes Nikoghosyan is the director of the Yerevan-based “Professionals” Foundation.