DR. LEVON MARASHLIAN
Normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations is a natural and necessary goal but the road to that good goal President Serzh Sarkisian has embarked on, with the signing of the Armenian-Turkish Protocols on October 10, will undermine Armenia’s long-term national interests, impede efforts to move Turkey closer to recognizing its responsibility, and violate the Diaspora’s fundamental right to participate in the formulation of policies involving the legacy of the Armenian Genocide. A careful reading of the Protocols makes it clear that Armenia is being pressured to sacrifice too much, by paying a terribly high price for an open border—and this at a time when Turkey, America, Europe, and Russia need the border opened as much, if not more, than Armenia does.
Proponents of the Protocols have been repeating like a broken record that there are no preconditions. “No, and again, no,” Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian exclaimed before the National Assembly on October 1. But Nalbandian’s spoken words blatantly contradict the printed words in the protocols. If we exclude the possibility that he and other proponents are lying, the only way to understand their weirdly unbelievable denial is to apply the following twisted logic: from the moment one side accepts the other side’s preconditions, then we can pretend that they are no longer preconditions—now they are mutually accepted terms of agreement. It’s a primitive game. Yet the end result is the same: one side indeed has accepted the other side’s preconditions.
The Protocols contain at least two major, long-standing Turkish preconditions: establishing a history commission and confirming the 1921 Treaty of Kars. The euphemistic wording in the document fails to camouflage the transparent reality. Insisting that there are no preconditions, insults the intelligence of everyone concerned.
Precondition: The History Sub-Commission
In response to accusations that “we are calling into question the fact of the Armenian Genocide, that we are obstructing the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide,” Nalbandian declared: “No, and once again, no.” Nalbandian fails to understand that the process put into motion by the Protocols, the mere existence of a history sub-commission to conduct “an impartial and scientific examination of the historical records and archives,” and the overall tone of the Protocols, signals to the world that the Armenian government considers it acceptable to help organize and participate in an official study during which the other side will call into question the fact of the Genocide. This signal will be exploited.
One of the consequences will be that when independent scholars and Diaspora organizations continue efforts for genocide education and international recognition, their task will become more difficult because the Turkish government and some third parties, some US Congressmen for example, armed with or misled by the impression of progress being made, will have the excuse to say that recognition efforts are not necessary for now, since Armenia and Turkey already are working on resolving the controversy themselves. In diplomacy and public opinion, impression is often more important than reality.
Historians and other experts appointed by Yerevan to the sub-commission will want to discuss consequences of the Genocide and will try to rebuff efforts by the “Turkish side” to negate the veracity of the Genocide. And if the sub-commission does fall into the trap of such a debate, the “Armenian side” likely will prevail inside the meeting room. Nevertheless, the process can still be a victory for Turkey outside the room—so long as the process continues—because Turkey’s central objective probably is not be to reach a consensus in the sub-commission that it was not a genocide, but simply to muddy the water even more, to hinder the pursuit of international recognition as we near the year 2015. Turkey will try, but may not expect to “win” the academic argument in the sub-commission. And eventually Turkey might suffer a little public relations setback if its insincerity is exposed. Still, Turkey will have succeeded in obstructing, perhaps for years, the increasingly successful momentum generated by decades of dedication, sacrifice, sound scholarship, and public advocacy.
The Ottoman government slaughtered and starved the Armenian people to death. Today’s Turkish government seeks to stall and “study” the Genocide’s history to death.
Exploiting the Protocols’ process to delay recognition is not something that might happen. It already has happened. This year, all the factors were in place for President Barack Obama to recognize the Genocide. Then the blow came on April 6 in Turkey: “I want to be as encouraging as possible around those negotiations which are moving forward and could bear fruit very quickly very soon. And so as a consequence, what I want to do is not focus on my views right now but focus on the views of the Turkish and the Armenian people. If they can move forward and deal with a difficult and tragic history, then I think the entire world should encourage them.”
What we now recognize as the Protocols gave President Obama the opportunity to renege on his strong campaign promise. Twisting the knife in deeper, the State Department pressured Yerevan to agree to have the “Roadmap” to the Protocols announced two days before April 24. Widespread outrage was the reaction among Armenians to this cruel humiliation by Washington and the scandalous capitulation in Yerevan.
Precondition: Confirming Kars
“Personally, I am proceeding to solve problems,” President Sarkisian declared in his unpersuasive opening statement to Armenia’s political parties on September 17. Then he asked a question: “If we have closed any door for the solution of any problem, I ask you to tell me what door we have closed.”
The doors the Protocols seem to close are right in front of him. “Confirming the mutual recognition of the existing border between the two countries as defined by the relevant treaties of international law” is a pivotal sentence in the protocols. It is obvious how Ankara and most other interested parties will interpret that sentence. Yusuf Kanli wrote in Hurriyet on September 15 that “for the first time ever in the post-Soviet era, Armenia has agreed to recognize the joint border with Turkey as was defined in the Kars treaty, though there is no reference in the protocols to the Kars treaty.” Such a “recognition by Armenia is no less than declaring it has no territorial claims from Turkey” and that “it has turned a cold shoulder” on the Diaspora’s “land claims from Turkey.” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also said the sentence referred to Kars (and the Treaty of Moscow) when he presented the Protocols to the Grand National Assembly on October 21.
Although this will likely become the conventional wisdom, there may be alternative ways to interpret the Protocols’ sentence. In his address to the nation before the scheduled signing ceremony in Zurich, President Sarkisian, apparently spurred by the widespread protests in Armenia and the Diaspora, announced for the first time an interpretation that gives the impression that he thinks this door is still cracked open: “The issue of borders between Armenia and Turkey is a question to be solved in line with international law. The protocols do not say any more than this.” Did he offer this alternative interpretation because he believes in it, or to lull critics into complacency? In
either case, whatever his strategy is, the way he is executing it is dangerously risky.
This brings to the fore the question of legitimacy versus possibility. It is safe to say that virtually all Armenians want international and Turkish recognition of the Genocide and believe that claims are historically legitimate, in principle. Some believe, however, that it is wishful thinking to expect anything material from Turkey, especially territory, although recognition is essential and feasible. Some believe the maximum is possible. According to a middle-ground view, it is no longer realistic to expect the maximum Turkey owes, no matter how legitimate the claim, but nevertheless, there are alternative, innovative, creative, flexible, unprecedented compromise options that, under certain circumstances sometime in the future, may be palatable for Ankara in view of certain concurrent dividends for Turkey.
Whichever view Armenians may hold, it is a certainty today that the legitimacy of claims is confronted by the appearance of impossibility—yet there are important questions:
1. If it is true that receiving something material can never be a possibility, why is that in 2005 the Turkish National Security Council ordered that access to Ottoman land records be restricted because of concern that these documents may become “material for ethnic or political exploitation”?
2. Why is it that one of the first things Turkey did after Armenia gained independence in 1991 was to demand that Yerevan confirm Kars?
3. Why did Turkey want an implicit reference to Kars in these protocols?
4. Why is that Turkey is not satisfied with the routine acknowledgment of the existing border that Armenia already granted when it joined the United Nations?
5. Why is it that Turkey refuses to have normal relations with Armenia while simultaneously allowing for the existence of a territorial dispute collecting cobwebs in an old file cabinet in a dusty back room, like the over 100 members of the UN that have normal relations and open borders even though they still have territorial disputes?
It is ironic that Abdullah Gul, Recep Tayip Erdogan, and Ahmet Davutoglu appear to understand the historical legitimacy of Armenian claims more than Serzh Sarkisian, Tigran Sargsyan, and Edward Nalbandian.
The closing doors President Sarkisian asked about are the complex possibilities of Armenia securing an equitable degree of justice for the Genocide sometime in the future—admittedly a daunting task. Evidently he does not see these doors because, from a “realistic” perspective, such possibilities do not seem to be in the realm of feasibility. Therefore, since it will never be possible to get an adjustment of the border anyway, he may be thinking, it is better to confirm Kars now, in order to benefit today from an open border.
On the other hand, concerning properties, he mentioned in his April 23 Wall Street Journal interview the idea of putting on the table the issue of thousands of “historic Armenian monuments.” But it seems he does not see that the door hinged to the territorial issue is hinged to other doors, which are hinged to recognition of the Genocide as well as property claims, including his own stated interest in churches and other cultural treasures.
There is reason to believe that the reason behind Turkey’s denial is not only national pride and Turkish identity, but also a concern over the possibility (however slight) of material consequences arising out of recognizing one of the greatest crimes against humanity. Confirming Kars can weaken Armenia’s negotiating position regarding other (non-territorial) issues that are also vital for the Armenian people.
Recognition and Justice are Directly Connected to Armenia’s Future
Protocol Promoters like to say that although we must never forget the Genocide, we need to focus on Armenia’s present and future. Protocol Promoters do not seem to share the belief that securing recognition with restorative justice is directly connected to Armenia’s present and future.
The Genocide is the pivotal reason why Armenia is in the precarious predicament it is in today. Mismanagement, greed and corruption since 1991 are also reasons of course, but the colossal human, cultural, territorial, and material loss suffered as a result of the Genocide is the main factor. The primary purpose of the deportations and massacres and the invasion of Armenia in 1920 and the imposition of the crushing treaties of Alexandropal, Moscow, and Kars, was to eliminate entirely or to cut the Armenians and Armenia down to unsustainable levels, to reduce the Armenian people to insignificance in the region.
The result today is that if Armenia remains constricted by its current resource base, population size, and geopolitical situation, it will remain perilously vulnerable and dependent on foreign aid and remittances from the Diaspora, which probably will not be enough to develop sufficient prosperity to reverse the alarming demographic trend and ensure its national security. An open border may be a net gain for the economy, but will it be enough to produce the degree of prosperity and security to save the country from being independent in name only? All Armenians must hope so, but based on the evidence available today, banking on that hope is a shaky gamble.
Without a major augmentation of its preparedness for self-preservation, Armenia can get along for some time with outside support, but its future does not look bright. To overcome this reality which, again, is mainly a consequence of Turkish policies from 1915 to 1923, to increase Armenia’s chances of survival as a viable state, it is extremely important to find an equitable solution to the Genocide issue. In any event, even if getting justice is an impossibility, it does not negate the fact that it is a necessity for boosting Armenia’s ability to survive with dignity and security.
This issue is also related to millions of personally innocent Turks who are unjustly forced by their dishonest government to be burdened by the albatross of a dishonorable denial. The Turkish people deserve from their government a meaningful atonement for the Genocide. A simple apology, however, would be only a hollow halfway measure which would carry with it little sincerity, and would not be in the spirit of true reconciliation, when Turkey’s refusal to consider restorative justice maintains the consequences of the crime and perpetuates Armenia’s poverty and precarious situation.
International Pressure and National Pride
President Sarkisian deserves some sympathy for the powerful outside pressure he has been facing. But in response to the diplomatic pressure and interrelated physical dangers, especially Russia’s ability to freeze, starve, and otherwise strangle Armenia, was he and Nalbandian (and previous policymakers) armed with the most effective arguments for linking what is good for Armenia with what is good for Russia and other countries?
America, Europe, and Russia expect to benefit greatly from an open border—a nice little Armenian carpet they are getting virtually for free, over which they can carry cargo and energy. Turkey especially will benefit, in many ways. Yet Turkey’s only real contribution to the deal is to open a border that Turkey itself chose to close in 1993, which Turkey would be required to open anyway, as part of its bid for EU membership. Armenia, meanwhile, is being required to forfeit its potential options in the future for augmenting its ability to survive, its honor and dignity, its ability to claim its right to justice for a catastrophic atrocity that U.S. Army General James Harbord, in 1919, called “this most colossal crime of all ages.”
With more skillful diplomacy, coordinated with the under-utilized capabilities of the Diaspora, Armenia’s negotiators might have been able to leverage their country’s position to get a better deal—because at this moment in history, at least for now, Armenia has a monumental moral cause of historic dimensions that is globally respected, and also a piece of real estate that powers in the East and West consider valuable for their own interests.
But Armenian governments have failed, starting with Levon Ter Petrosian, continuing with Robert Kocharian, and now with Serge Sarkisian (whom I favored over Ter Petrosian in the 2008 election, not knowing he would move toward Ter Petrosian’s policy regarding Turkey). Yerevan has failed, for example, to develop the most effective arguments in defense of Armenia’s national interests in general and toward the Karabakh conflict in particular, while its performance in media and public relations has been mediocre.
And now the Armenian people have come to this—the threshold of an ignominious defeat that may be remembered, depended on the outcome, as one of the greatest blunders in all of Armenian history: “By inviting Turkey’s President to Armenia and initiating this whole process, my purpose has been to open a window of opportunity for Armenia and Turkey to normalize bilateral relations, to show that the nation that experienced the devastation of Genocide, and the Armenian state, resolute and faithful to its people’s pain, has enough strength to be the first to extend a hand and to point out the senselessness of moving against the course of world development.” How sad.
Imagine a case of two families in the same neighborhood. It would be so demeaning that the leaders of the descendants of the victims of murder, rape, torture, and theft of their family’s land, heritage, property, precious heirlooms, and even countless numbers of its children, would want to be “the first to extend a hand” to the leaders of descendants of the murderers, rapists, torturers, kidnapers and thieves who continue to deny their ancestor’s crimes, who even claim that the victimized family itself was guilty, who continue living in relative luxury enjoying the fruits of the plundered property, while the victims’ descendants stil
l suffer in a little corner of the neighborhood, in relative poverty, and denied access to the best road in the vicinity.
And that’s not all. As if they did not get enough in the Protocols, Turkish leaders have been adding insult to injury by making not-so-veiled threats that they will not open the border until Armenian forces withdraw from strategically critical regions and until the Karabakh conflict is settled. Yet Sarkisian has been insisting that Karabakh is not a precondition of normalizing relations. In the Wall Street Journal on October 7, Prime Minister Erdogan contradicted Sarkisian, pushing him into an embarrassing position by declaring that “although the Armenians sometimes say this agreement has nothing to do with the Azeris, there is in fact a relationship.” Erdogan even intervened in Armenia’s internal affairs by advising Armenia’s President on how he should relate to his own people: “Armenia should not allow its policies to be taken hostage by the Armenian Diaspora.”
Adding more insult to injury, it was revealed just before the signing ceremony that Davutoglu’s after-signing statement included a reference to pre-conditions. This was an overbearing over-reach which was like pouring salt on the open wounds of Armenia’s assaulted pride. This brazen, in-your-face poke in Sarkisian’s eye was too much even for Armenia’s timid government. Nalbandian correctly backed off from signing. For three hours, Mrs. Clinton wooed and cajoled Nalbandian into surrendering to a compromise. Then she gave him a ride in her car to the signing ceremony, where neither side delivered closing remarks.
As the ink was drying on the paper, the expressions on the faces made clear who won and who lost. The smiles of satisfaction and grins of glee on the faces of the diplomats standing behind the signing desk showed no sympathy for the discomfort of their poor Armenian colleague—whose face, in stark contrast, appeared to express a mixture of chagrin, stress, sadness, and perhaps anger that he was struggling to suppress. Nalbandian looked like a beaten man, signing under political duress. Davutoglu’s beaming smile, meanwhile, reflected triumphant happiness over the near-maximum success of his government’s skillful and pushy diplomacy.
And it is to this haughty and unrepentant republican government, successor to the imperial government that carried out the destruction and robbery of the Armenian people, that Armenia’s government wanted to be “the first to extend a hand.” Instead of “enough strength,” Yerevan is showing too much weakness. Yerevan is groveling on the world stage while Ankara is imposing pre-conditions and conditions that are the diplomatic equivalent of raping Armenia again and shoving her government’s face into the mud. It’s a national disgrace.
The Legacy of Today’s Policy
Yet Armenia’s rulers seem determined to go ahead with ratification—like a train speeding down a mountain toward the edge of a cliff. During the negotiations that led Armenia to this historic precipice, if only President Sarkisian had acted more in the spirit of the man I met in happier days in May 1994. Now, after the fateful signing, it will be more difficult to advance the position that, whereas Yerevan has remained true to its long-standing policy of welcoming normal relations and open borders without any preconditions from Armenia’s side, Turkey’s side is imposing preconditions and conditions that insult the memory of over a million victims of the Genocide, preconditions that will undermine in the future the independent existence of impoverished little Armenia, and that, consequently, it is Turkey—big, powerful, wealthy—that can afford more flexibility.
In the end, Serzh Sarkisian, Edward Nalbandian, Tigran Sargsyan, Artur Baghdasaryan, Heghine Bisharyan, Arsen Ghazarian, Galust Sahakyan, Edward Sharmazanov, Vasgen Manukyan, other members of the National Assembly, and all other Armenians who favor the Protocols, should think of how they will appear in history. Will they be remembered as strong or weak? As smart or foolish? As proud or pathetic? As patriots or profiteers? Will their children and grandchildren be proud or ashamed of their names? The President in particular needs to ask himself what his own legacy will be in 5, 10, 50, or 100 years. Will Serzh Sarkisian be praised by future generations of Armenians, or will he be cursed?
Editor’s Note: Levon Marashlian is professor of history at Glendale Community College