Armenia Fails to Learn Conflict Lessons

Yerevan has not been able to lessen dependence on its combative neighbours.

Armenia Fails to Learn Conflict Lessons

Yerevan has not been able to lessen dependence on its combative neighbours.

Friday, 7 August, 2009

The August war shocked Armenia, which found its route via Georgia to its Russia markets blocked by the fighting, though it has failed to use the last year to diversify away from its economic reliance on Tbilisi and Moscow.

For the five days of the war, Armenia’s export routes via Georgia - which take three-quarters of its goods - were paralysed. The railways did not work, and the Georgian ports of Poti and Batumi stopped operating.

Since Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey are closed, and its short border with Iran is mountainous and remote, the war showed quite how vulnerable the country is to a downturn in Georgian-Russia relations. Within little more than a month, President Serzh Sargsian was in talks with the Turkish prime minister about normalising relations.

Turkey, which supports ally Azerbaijan, has kept its border with Armenia closed since the Karabakh war, when Armenians seized control of Nagorny Karabakh and declared it to be an independent state.

“You can still feel the echoes of this war, since the opinion appeared in Armenian society that the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border was possible, but somehow nothing came of it,” said Andranik Tevanian, an economist and political expert in Yerevan.

The so-called football diplomacy, named in honour of the Turkey-Armenia football match that provided the occasion for Turkey and Armenia to hold talks, has come to nothing and the opposition now in Yerevan say Sargsian missed a valuable change to allow the country to diversify.

“It is important to seize the moment in politics. Sometime steps, taken at just the right time, can lead to places that those taken wrongly won’t lead,” said Stepan Safarian, a political analyst and member of the opposition Heritage party.

“The dead-end, which appeared in the August war, could have played a major role in ending the blockade of Armenia. However, the moment was lost, and we returned to the beginning.”

Part of the reason the talks failed is that Azeri politicians complained about Turkey holding talks with the Armenians, leading the Turkish ambassador in Baku to announce in March that Turkey would do nothing against Azerbaijan’s interests.

“Announcements that the opening of the border would negatively affect Turkish-Azerbaijan relations are just media propaganda, which serves the interests of certain organisations and structures. Turkey’s policy towards Azerbaijan is unchanged,” the ambassador was quoted as saying.

Internal opposition in Armenia itself also helped scupper hopes of a rapid deal with Turkey. Turkey has still not recognised that the mass slaughter of Armenians in the last years of the Ottoman Empire was genocide, and until it does, nationalists will object to any relations with Ankara.

“It is not right that one side sets all these conditions for years, and the other side sets no conditions. The Armenian side has to have preliminary conditions for the resolution of the Armenian-Turkish conflict,” said Tevanian

“Turkey must recognise the Armenian genocide. Without recognition of the genocide serious progress in relations is impossible. Only after this would opening the border serve the interests of Armenia.”

But if the Armenian opinion is that the opportunity of securing better relations with Turkey has been lost, then politicians in Karabakh still believe the war might be their big chance. Shortly after Russia drove Georgian troops and civilians out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it recognised the two territories as independent states.

The Armenian rulers of Nagorny Karabakh, which has not had its independence recognised by a single country, hope the precedent set could help them secure true independence.

“Precedents are set, opening new possibilities for the Nagorny Karabakh Republic to achieve international recognition of its independence against the will of Azerbaijan,” said Masis Malian, head of the Nagorny Karabakh Public Security Council.

Gayane Mkrtchian is a reporter with online journal and is a member of IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network. Naira Hayrumian is a freelancer in Stepanakert.

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