Friday, May 29, 2009

Going in circles with Turkey

Lack of preconditions undermines Armenia’s position
by Emil Sanamyan
Published: Friday May 08, 2009

Turkish derwishes whirling. 18th cent. painting.

, - President Serge Sargsian admitted in his April 17 press conference that eight-month-long negotiations with Turkey may not result in a breakthrough after all. At the same time he appeared willing to continue the diplomatic effort until the return World Cup qualifying soccer match between Armenia and Turkey in October.

While President Sargsian said he would only travel to Turkey if the Armenian-Turkish border was open or "about to open," no new decisive circumstances are likely to emerge in the next four months to push Turkey or Armenia to change their policies to allow for headway in talks.

The April 22 statement by Armenian, Swiss and Turkish foreign ministries - which according to the Turkish press came after much lobbying by the U.S. State Department - only codifies this status quo: the parties agreed to continue discussions along several issues in a so far unpublished "road map," but without a clear timeframe and without Turkey dropping its preconditions.

Third failure

President Sargsian's attempt to engage Turkey is likely to end in failure just as those of his two predecessors' did as well.

The administration of President Levon Ter-Petrossian tried to launch a new relationship with Turkey "without preconditions." With the country facing a series of seemingly insurmountable crises, relations with Turkey were seen at the time as almost the only route to salvation.

In the end, Mr. Ter-Petrossian proved unable to either subdue diaspora activism on the Genocide issue or restrain Armenian military success in Karabakh, to be able to satisfy Turkey's demands for normalization of relations. The country survived regardless, and stumbled forward.

Turkey's decision to talk to the administration of President Robert Kocharian came after Armenia caught Turkey's attention by threatening to veto the OSCE summit from taking place in Istanbul in 1999, and in the context of publicity surrounding the 2000 push for an Armenian Genocide resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives.

President Kocharian agreed to talk to Turkey first by indirectly supporting an informal Track II initiative - the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) - and then through direct talks between foreign ministers. But those efforts, also conducted on the basis of no preconditions by Armenia, also brought little progress.

The most recent round of talks - initiated by President Sargsian - came amid the rise of a U.S. administration comprised of known supporters of Armenian Genocide affirmation and as Turkey drew politically close to Armenia's ally Russia.

For now, the only noticeable success of the Sargsian administration in this regard has been procedural: Turkey no longer insists on talking to Armenia in the presence of Azerbaijan and does not consult Azerbaijan on the talks. (This has visibly irritated the easily irritable Azerbaijani leadership.)

The on-again off-again Armenia-Turkey talks have also helped build up some reservoir of mutual respect.

But factors encumbering progress in relations continue to prevail over arguments for change.

After addressing immediate concerns related to Russia's role in the Caucasus and the Obama administration's position on the Armenian Genocide, Turkish leaders have returned to preconditions linking relations with Armenia to unilateral compromises (by Armenia) in bilateral relations and on Karabakh.

Skewed priorities

The fundamental reason Turkey can treat Armenia the way it does is on the surface. Turkey has more than 20 times the population of Armenia, 17 times the territory, and 10 times the armed forces, and can simply afford to ignore Armenia's concerns so long as they are not also raised by great powers.

Additionally, Turkey's priorities appear tangible and clear, Armenia's not so much.

First and foremost, seeking to become one of the world's most important countries, Turkey wants an end to the embarrassing campaign of Armenian Genocide recognition. It is no accident that each new bout of high-level Armenia-Turkey talks follows a new spike in the Genocide affirmation campaign.

Turkey also wants Armenia to surrender any claims, real or financial, that stem from the mass violation of the basic rights of Ottoman Armenians. This is what Soviet Armenia did in the Kars treaty of 1921 but independent Armenia has not embraced.

Finally, though less insistently, Turkey wants Armenia to commit to compromises over the Karabakh conflict that would satisfy Turkey's "co-nationals" in Azerbaijan.

What does Armenia want as part of normalization? Nothing, Armenia has declared repeatedly, "there are no preconditions."

That leaves having diplomatic relations and an open border with Turkey as Armenia's priorities.

But that makes little sense from the point of view of real Armenian concerns and interests with regard to Turkey and in Karabakh. Additionally, such posture undermines Armenia's negotiating position with Turkey.

Why "preconditions" make sense

Diplomatic ties and open borders alone do not imply "normal" or even non-hostile relations. There are countries in the world that share an open border while engaging in a direct confrontation.

At the same time, it would be quite reasonable for Armenia to want Turkey to condemn past violence against Armenians, stop discriminating against Armenians today, and protect the Armenian cultural heritage remaining on Turkey's territory. And it would be reasonable for Armenia to so state as part of a normalization process.

Moreover, a less biased Turkish position on the Karabakh dispute could serve as an indication that Turkey no longer condones genocidal policies against Armenians and is finally ready to accept a viable Armenian state on its border.

It is understandable that such policies will take time for Turkey to warm up to. But with these issues absent from bilateral conversations, talks inevitably shift to what Turkey wants – an end to recognition campaigns and a pledge not to make any Genocide-related claims.

Since an Armenian government can never deliver on these demands, even if it tried, this leaves conversations going around in circles. Even those Turkish officials who genuinely want a normal relationship with Armenia have a hard time justifying a change of policy toward Armenia without Armenia reciprocating in any obvious way.

Arguments that a border opening would be mutually beneficial are not persuasive: Armenia is a small country that can be bypassed at relatively low cost, and the impoverished regions bordering on Armenia carry little weight in Ankara’s decision-making process.

Preconditions have become a dirty term in Armenia’s political lexicon. In fact, they are a common way to outline one’s priorities in any negotiation.

By obfuscating their own priorities, successive Armenian governments have only confused their own public as well as Turkish interlocutors and have not helped advance an already complex diplomatic effort.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this commentary was published in the April 2009 issue of the Stepanakert-based Analyticon journal. It has been edited and updated to reflect some of the more recent developments.

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