Progress by Protocol

Armenia and Turkey move towards peace via “football diplomacy”.

Progress by Protocol

Armenia and Turkey move towards peace via “football diplomacy”.

Wednesday, 9 September, 2009
Armenia and Turkey are close to sealing a deal to end their mutual animosity, although both sides must yet convince domestic audiences brought up to distrust each other.

On August 31, the two countries’ foreign ministries and mediator Switzerland issued protocols that “provide a framework for the normalisation of the bilateral relations within a reasonable timeframe”, the culmination of a year of “football diplomacy”.

The protocols will now be discussed for six weeks, and submitted to the parliaments for ratification, raising the prospect that the Armenian-Turkish border could be open by the end of the year.

The six weeks expire on the day the two countries play a second-leg football match in Turkey, which Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian may choose as the occasion to sign off on a deal. The talks started in earnest at the first leg of the match last year, giving the process the name of “football diplomacy”.

“Both sides will make their best efforts for the timely progression of the ratification in line with their constitutional and legal procedures,” the document said.

The deal could radically change the strategic and political balance in the south Caucasus, where since 1991 Armenia has relied on Russia for support and trade, while Turkey has backed its rival Azerbaijan.

Armenians’ control of Nagorny-Karabakh, which has declared independence but which is internationally considered part of Azerbaijan, has complicated ties between Armenia and Turkey, as has Turkey’s refusal to recognise that the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire starting in 1915 were genocide.

The wording of the deal suggests that the two sides have put aside their long-term demands on Karabakh and the genocide question to focus on their mutual interests.

“There is no reference to Nagorny-Karabakh in the document. This is important. It’s a diplomatic victory for Armenia,” said Ruben Safrastian, an expert on Turkey in Yerevan.

“It is possible that there will be difficulties in the Turkish parliament, but the [governing] AK party will manage to get the document through since the government and the general staff have taken their decision in principle to improve relations with Armenia.”

Sergei Minasian, the deputy director of the Caucasus Institute, meanwhile, said Turkey intended to increase its influence in the region by repairing ties with Armenia.

“In Turkey there are issues more important than Karabakh and Azerbaijan. Its reputation is more important. Via its politics of dialogue with Armenia, Turkey will receive a carte blanche in more important directions, with America and the European Union,” he said.

“Armenia has managed to drive a wedge between Baku and Ankara in a way that has not been seen in the whole of post-Soviet history.”

The protocols specify that a sub-commission would be set up to study the historical questions between the two countries. This has sparked criticism in the Armenian diaspora and in Armenia itself, where many see it as a way to allow Turkey to avoid recognising the killings of 1915 as genocide.

“The sub-commission on the historical dimension [is] to implement a dialogue with the aim of restoring mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations, in which Armenian, Turkish as well as Swiss and other international experts shall take part,” the governments’ statement said.

The prospect of opening diplomatic relations with Turkey has already split the governing coalition, which the Dashnaktsutiun party left earlier this year, and party spokesman Kiro Manoyan said President Sarkisian had made a mistake in moving forward on the talks before Turkey had recognised the genocide.

“Up to the beginning of April 2009 it seemed the negotiations were moving forward without any preconditions on either side. And then, Turkey started to publicly demand that the Karabakh issue be resolved as a precondition to sign an agreement with Armenia establishing diplomatic relations,” Manoyan said.

“Armenia and Armenians lost a whole lot more political leverage, national dignity and self-respect.”

Dashnaktsutiun’s departure from the coalition meant that the government, for the first time since independence, did not have the support of any of the three parties that operate in the important Armenian diaspora: Ramgavar-liberal democratic; Hunchak-social democratic; as well as the nationalist Dashnaktsutiun.

Some analysts say this may reflect the pragmatic nature of Armenia’s approach to the talks, which stems from the country’s self-interest, rather than from the principles of the Armenians in the diaspora.

“The omission of any reference to the Nagorny-Karabakh issue is an important recognition that there is no direct linkage between the Karabakh peace talks and the current Armenia-Turkish diplomatic efforts to normalise relations. The Karabakh talks are a separate ‘second track’, moving at a much slower speed and driven by a very different set of issues and concerns,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the Armenian Centre for National and International Studies.

Tatul Hakobian is Yerevan correspondent for the Armenian Reporter, a newspaper published in the United States.
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