Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Yerevan Sceptical Over Ankara Dialogue Bid

A body has been set up to try to bridge the long-standing rift between Armenia and Turkey.
By Ara Tadevosian

The setting up of an Armenian-Turkish reconciliation commission has been roundly criticised in Yerevan. Described by some as a 'dangerous adventure', the body aims to encourage communication and dialogue between the neighbouring countries.


The group of prominent public figures who comprise the body announced their initiative on July 9 in Geneva, expressing their hope that it would lead to direct inter-government negotiations. The commission has the support of the US State Department which has acted as a mediator in Armenian-Turkish relations since 1999.


Diplomatic ties between Turkey and Armenia are blocked by two main issues. Ankara refuses to countenance any rapprochement until Yerevan recognises Azeri sovereignty over Nagoro-Karabakh - an enclave contested by the two countries since the early Nineties. Armenia, for its part, inisists that Turkey admits responsibility for the Armenian genocide between 1915 and 1923.


Officials from both Ankara and Yerevan have said that were these problems resolved, direct governmental talks could commence. Meanwhile, the border between the two countries remains closed and Turkish sanctions in effect.


"This is the first attempt to open an official dialogue," said commission member Ilter Turkmen, a former Turkish foreign minister. But there remains some confusion over how 'official' the proposed talks actually are. The respective governments have both explicitly distanced themselves from the body.


A few days after the Geneva meeting, the Armenian foreign ministry denied the government had been in any way involved in the commission. Spokesman Dziunik Aghadjanian said that such an initiative "cannot substitute inter-governmental discussions".


The authorities in Yerevan are concerned what effect the body could have on its attempts to secure international recognition of the genocide. Its political opponents are of a similar mind.


"No-one should buck responsibility for the Turkish genocide of Armenians through 'reconciliation'," said the nationalist Dashnaktsutyun party. " Without admitting to this historical fact, there can be no reconciliation. Armenian-Turkish talks cannot be realistic until Turkey owns up."


The views of the Turkish historians on the 1915 mass killings of Armenians range from outright denial that they ever took place to a refusal to accept that the atrocities had been planned.


France's lower house of parliament officially recognised the killings as an act of genocide in May 1998, but the government and the presidency opposed the vote, concerned that it might offend Turkey.


The US House of Representatives shelved a similar resolution last year after then president Bill Clinton declared that it could severely undermine relations with Ankara.


Given Turkish reluctance to come to terms with the crime, Communist party representative Gagik Tadevosian is sceptical a reconciliation body has any value. "If the Turks are going to become hysterical after every mention of the Armenian genocide, how can a commission bring about normal relations between the two countries?"


Other Armenian politicians have described the initiative as a 'dangerous adventure' and questioned the competence of reconciliation commission members. "Clearly, those in the commission are simply representing their own interests," said Arthur Baghdasarian, head of the Orinats Erki party. "They have no authorisation to speak on behalf of Armenia or the Armenian diaspora."


Azerbaijan's '525-gazeti' newspaper has speculated that the body would be used to generate international interest in the genocide issue. The paper quotes Ozdem Sanberk, a former Turkish ambassador to the UK, as saying that it is hoping to move the debate along both in the US Congress and other international legislatures in an effort to get them to eventually recognise the crime.


According to commission member Andranik Migranian, further meetings have been planned in Istanbul and Yerevan. Whether these receive official blessings remains to be seen.


Ara Tadevosian is an IWPR contributor