YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–In a new book titled "Unsilencing the Past," former chair of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC)–David Phillips offers his perspective on the activities of the controversial organization–and its relationship with high-ranking government officials and political organizations in Armenia and abroad.
The 170-page publication delves into the history behind the creation of the panel–which was largely the brainchild of the US government. According to the book–Phillips was approached by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman in 2000 with the idea of creating an Armenian-Turkish joint commission. At the time of their meeting–Phillips held senior positions at the Council on Foreign Relations–the American University in Washington and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. He also served as an advisor to the State Department on issues of democracy and regional stability.
Additionally–Phillips had in the past worked to help bridge the Greek and Kurdish communities with their Turkish neighbors. The United States’s approach–labeled "Track-Two diplomacy," held that various sections of civil societies can facilitate the resolution of long-running ethnic disputes through meetings in which root causes are dissected and analyzed. According to Phillips–Grossman believed that the Track-Two efforts–as applied in Turkey and Cyprus–could be used to resolve the Turkish-Armenian conflict–"one of the world’s most intractable problems."
Once the work began–the State Department–as noted by Phillips–covered only "some of TARC’s direct costs" and "never interfered in [his] work." That work was effectively catalyzed by Armenian threats to veto the choice of Istanbul as the venue for the December 1999 summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe–in protest of Turkey’s refusal to normalize relations with Armenia. Phillips contends that the threats were used by the authorities in Yerevan to provoke stronger US pressure on Ankara. He also states that Van Krikorian–the then chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America who would later become a key member of TARC–was asked to "undertake discussions with the State Department," circumventing Armenia’s ambassador to Washington.
Once the foundation was laid–senior State Department officials approached the Armenian and Turkish governmen’s several months later with a formal offer–which according to Phillips–was welcomed by both sides. Discord–however–resulted in October 2000–when President Clinton blocked a congressional resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide.
The process regained momentum soon after–when the sides agreed to meet in Vienna in early 2001. The idea–according to Phillips–was backed by Armenian officials. "I had met with [Foreign Minister Vartan] Oskanian on several occasions to brief him," he writes. "At every turn–he endorsed the initiative. Robert Kocharian also directly communicated his support for TARC."
The first official reaction from the Armenian government offered support to the newly developed group. "Armenia has always had a positive attitude towards public contacts and dialogue between the two peoples–which allow for the exchange of opinions and discussions on the existing problems," a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman’stated.
However–according to Phillips–when pressure was exerted by a number of Armenian groups–most notably the Armenian Revolutionary Federation–the Armenian government decided to reverse its stance. "Instead of publicly endorsing the initiative–which Oskanian had committed to do–the Armenian government got nervous about being associated with TARC," the book reads.
Armenian critics of TARC argued that it has no popular mandate to deal with the issue and accused the Armenian members of the commission of participating in a Turkey-US conspiracy to derail international recognition of the genocide. Given this sentiment–Phillips asserts that the Armenian commissioners insisted during the process that then government of Turkey needs to come to terms with its past. The commissioners and were also "incensed" with commen’s made by TARC member Gunduz Aktan–whose aggressive denials of the genocide nearly disrupted initial efforts to form the commission.
"Do you know how we feel when you try to embarrass us by introducing resolutions in parliamen’s around the world? Our feelings are hurt," Aktan is quoted in the book as telling his Armenian counterparts at the Vienna meeting in 2001.
"How do you think we feel?" former Armenian foreign minister Alexander Arzoumanian is said to have replied. "We are the ones who were genocided."
"The Armenia’s saw TARC as a vehicle for approaching Turkish elites and initiating a dialogue about the genocide. Even if the Turks are sympathetic to the suffering of Armenia’s–they were not prepared to have TARC acknowledge the genocide," Phillips explains.
This problem–Phillips notes–is rooted in the "selective memory" of the modern Turkish state founded by Mustafa Kemal in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide. "Turks refuse to acknowledge the genocide because acknowledgement contradicts their noble self-image?In addition–the government of Turkey fears that the campaign is laying the legal groundwork for reparations or territorial claims."
Turkey’s persistent denials of the genocide prevented TARC from conducting meaningful work. Meeting in New York in November 2003–the organization agreed to ask the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ)–a New York-based human rights organization–to conduct a study on the applicability of the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide to the mass killings and deportations of Armenia’s in Ottoman Turkey.
Shortly afterward–two of the Turkish commissioners bypassed their colleagues by instructing the ICTJ to "refrain from studying the subject matter." The Armenian members responded with an angry statement stating that "TARC is not going to proceed."
"I insinuated that Ankara was responsible for scuttling the initiative. Just mentioning the Genocide Convention stirred anxiety in the Turkish Foreign Ministry," Phillips writes. He then appealed to US officials to help salvage the endeavor.
Despite the dispute–TARC decided to go ahead with the ICTJ study when its members converged on the Turkish resort town of Bodrum in July 2002. According to Phillips–Van Krikorian and Aktan appeared before an ICTJ panel in September 2002 to present the Armenian and Turkish interpretations of what happened in 1915. Aktan–in Phillips’s words–promised to "destroy" ICTJ researchers with his legal argumen’s but appeared "nervous" after making his case.
He had reason to be edgy. On February 4–2003–the ICTJ submitted to TARC a detailed analysis which concluded that the slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Ottoman Armenia’s includes "all the elemen’s of the crime of genocide as defined by the [UN] Convention." The study at the same time found that the Armenia’s can not use the Convention to make "legal financial or territorial claims arising out of the Events."
"In a private conversation with Van–Oskanian ?offered congratulations’ and said it was a great accomplishment," Phillips says. "However–he refused to publicly embrace the ICTJ analysis." Armenian political groups and public figures also barely reacted to it.
Phillips’s discontent with the Armenian government’s repudiation of his work found an outlet in his article on Armenia that appeared in "The Wall Street Journal" last April. It slammed Kocharian’s regime as "corrupt and inept" and welcomed opposition attempts to topple the Armenian president. In his book–Phillips bluntly accuses Kocharian of "stealing" the 2003 presidential election from opposition leader Stepan Demirchian.
TARC–meanwhile–held several more meetings before announcing the end of its mission in Moscow on April 14–2004 and submitting a list of policy recommendations to the Turkish and Armenian governmen’s. The first and foremost of them was an unconditional opening of the Turkish-Armenian border. However–Ankara seems unlikely to drop its preconditions for lifting Armenia’s economic blockade in the foreseeable future.
Although the initiative failed–Phillips believes "TARC broke the ice and helped catalyze a wide array of civil society Track Two activities," he concludes. "It was also a lightning rod for criticism–thereby enabling other civil society initiatives to proceed ?under the radar.’ Though people-to-people contacts cannot solve core political problems–they can help prepare the ground for negotiations."