Armenia: Turkey Accord Rings Alarm Bells

Armenians do not share world’s joy over protocols, fear Ankara has a hidden agenda.

Armenia: Turkey Accord Rings Alarm Bells

Armenians do not share world’s joy over protocols, fear Ankara has a hidden agenda.

Saturday, 24 October, 2009
Armenia’s diplomatic and border agreement with Turkey, signed in Zurich on October 10, comes against a background of strong misgivings at home and even stronger concerns among the powerful Armenian diaspora.

The two protocols that were signed set a timetable for restoring diplomatic ties and reopening their joint border and are subject to approval in the two parliaments.

The deal was mediated by Switzerland and signed in the presence of senior officials from several countries including United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“We believe strongly that this is in the best interests of both Armenia and Turkey. We recognise how hard it is, and what courage it takes to move forward in the face of very strong opposition in both countries,” Clinton told journalists later.

That was an understatement. Many Armenians say the government betrayed the memories of up to 1.5 million Armenians killed in Turkey in 1915 by making peace with the successor of the Ottoman Empire.

Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan spent the first week of October travelling around the main centres of Armenia’s ten million-strong diaspora, seeking to persuade them of the importance of the deal.

“I am convinced that your support and your desires are directed at making our visits interesting and successful, and will give me the possibility of expressing my sincere opinion to our brothers and sisters abroad, of finding out their opinion, and of course, take into account both their opinion and the fact that the majority of Armenians live outside Armenia,” Sargsyan told the country on the eve of his trip.

But his appeal was not successful. In Paris, the police clashed with Armenian demonstrators when they tried to clear a space so that Sargsyan could lay flowers at the memorial to the 1915 victims. There were also large protests in New York, Los Angeles and Lebanon, where protesters chanted “no to the protocols” and “president, don’t betray us”.

The opinion of Hakob Petrosian, an Armenian living in Cyprus, was typical. He said Sargsyan might consider himself president of all Armenians, but those in the diaspora felt betrayed.

“Sooner or later, Turkey would open its border so as to become a member of the European Union. He should have waited,” Petrosian said.

The opinion is common inside Armenia as well, and analysts said Sargsyan’s decision to force through peace with Armenia’s large, wealthy neighbour could backfire on the president.

“Many Armenians think these protocols are badly thought through, and contain a number of diplomatic and political time bombs. In such a situation, the opposition parties with support from a significant part of the population could become a major force. This could provoke a new political crisis in Armenia,” said Shushan Khatlamajian, a respected Armenian analyst.

The Armenian government said the protocols did not imply that it was abandoning its demand that Turkey recognise the deaths of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War One as genocide. Turkey denies that genocide is a correct description.

“With these protocols, Armenia is not accepting any obligations, is not making any unilateral promises. Armenia is signing these protocols with the aim of creating conditions for the establishment of normal conditions between the two countries,” said Sargsyan in a television address on the eve of the ceremony.

But Armenians, as always when the genocide question is discussed, were distrustful.

“The genocide, which killed millions of Armenians, the mass resettlement of Armenians across the whole world as a result, and the mistrust between the two peoples created an emotional, rather than a rational assessment of these events,” said Gagik Baghdasarian, a Yerevan schoolteacher.

Armenia’s business elite, however, had no hesitation in welcoming the move, which will give Armenian producers and importers a whole new market to trade with. Turkish goods have entered Armenia for years, but only via Georgia, meaning they have been more expensive than they need be.

The Armenian parliament’s economics committee said that, by even a pessimistic estimate, the national economy would expand by three per cent because of the move, while exports would increase by almost a third.

“If the border is opened, the economy of Armenia will get new possibilities, we will receive access to new markets, the possibilities of communication will improve and we will be able to integrate further into the world economy,” said Finance Minister Tigran Davtian.

But the doubters are not convinced by the argument, saying that economic ties could undermine Armenian independence, since the country’s businessmen are in no position to compete with their counterparts in much larger Turkey.

The opposition Dashnaktsutiun party, which has battled for recognition of the 1915 deaths as genocide for nearly a century, said Armenia lacked methods to protect its own producers, who could be swallowed up by competition from over the border.

Dashnaktsutiun is particularly strong in the diaspora, which is an important source of financial help for Armenia and also lobbies for its interests abroad, and some opposition politicians fear the protocols could undermine global Armenian unity.

“The Dashnaktsutiun party decisively intends to block the ratification process of the Armenian-Turkish protocols. To achieve this, it is prepared to use all possible political and constitutional methods,” said Hay Dat, head of the party’s political office.

Kiro Manoian, head of the party’s office for political issues, pointed to a statement made by Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Turkey would not open the border until there was a resolution to the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh. Karabakh, which is ruled by Armenians but internationally considered part of Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan, has long been a block to relations between Ankara and Yerevan.

“Turkey does not intend to open the border with Armenia, and is using all its force to avoid recognition of the genocide,” Manoian said.

A number of Armenian analysts agree with him, and point to press reports that a three-hour delay in the Zurich signing ceremony was caused by Armenia’s insistence that the Turkish foreign minister remove a veiled reference to Karabakh in a speech he was due to make.

“The delay in the signing of the protocols revealed Turkey’s strategy, to play with Armenia and to create new conditions before every issue can be resolved. This causes me concern, although the Armenian side is holding to its positions,” said Ruben Safrastian, director of the Oriental Institute at the Armenian National Academy of Sciences.

Movses Hakobian, defence minister in the government that rules Nagorny Karabakh, said he was not concerned.

“I have an Armenian education and reading these protocols I have no fears for the Nagorny Karabakh republic. As defence minister, I do not want to comment on the actions of the president of Armenia. I can just say that the Nagorny Karabakh problem cannot be resolved without Karabakh’s participation,” he told A1+ television.

However, ordinary residents of the unrecognised state were not so confident.

“Today it is clear that the Turkish authorities are linking the protocols’ ratification in parliament with the Karabakh question, and are aiming to gain territorial and political concessions from the Armenians… There is no doubt that the Turks are trying to focus their interest on territorial concessions in Karabakh. This is a real threat for us,” said Masis Mayilian, chairman of Nagorny Karabakh’s public council for foreign politics and security.

Naira Melkumian is freelance journalist in Yerevan. Karine Ohanian and Gayane Mkrtchian are members of IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network.
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