BY VARTAN OSKANIAN
Turkish-Armenian relations have to be viewed on two levels: process and content.
It’s probably natural to think that to achieve progress in content, a process must take place. But not in the case of Turkish-Armenian relations. For Turkey, the process itself has always been an end, not a means. On the one hand, Turks clearly realize their conditions — that Armenia abandon international efforts at genocide recognition, explicitly abandon territorial claims of Turkey, and concede on the Nagorno Karabakh issue, even partially — would be unacceptable for Armenia.
On the other hand, since Turkey is under pressure by the international community on border opening and on genocide recognition, they want to demonstrate that there is a process underway with Armenia, and that the main issues on the agenda — territorial claims and genocide – are under discussion. Thus they can call on the world not to interfere and not to harm a possible resolution that will eventually lead to the opening of the border and establishment of diplomatic relations.
While there were intensive Turkish-Armenian negotiations during the previous Armenian administration, the Armenian side, by insisting on the confidentiality of the talks, never offered the Turks a chance to exploit either the fact of the negotiations, that is, the process, nor their content. I believe the main shortcoming of Armenia’s current policy on relations with Turkey is that the negotiations — both the process and the content – have been made public.
Today, Turkish diplomacy has succeeded in formulating its blunt preconditions in such a way as to make them palatable to the international community. The precondition of abandoning genocide recognition has assumed the form of an offer to set up a joint commission of historians. The territorial issues have taken the form of reciprocal recognition of borders through establishment of diplomatic relations.
It’s already inarguable that both the issue of the joint commission and diplomatic relations are on the Turkish-Armenian negotiation agenda, and agreement in principle has been reached on these issues. This is what the world was told on April 22 with an announcement on the existence of a “Roadmap.”
But so long as that document’s content is not public, the Turkish side can successfully present the agreement on diplomatic relations and on a joint commission as evidence of the Armenian side’s consent to jointly study historical issues and on abandonment of any Armenian territorial claims.
Moreover, even if diplomatic formulations on these two issues in the document are acceptable for the Armenian side, Turkey will still exploit the document and interpret it as the Armenian side’s agreement on a commission of historians and standing back from territorial claims.
Today, it is obvious that Armenia has been involved in a process that it no longer controls and on which it has no leverage. By publicly announcing the existence of the Roadmap without any indication about its content, Armenia has ended its role in the negotiations, and left the process, its interpretation, and its future evolution to the Turks.
The date of the announcement is a topic unto itself. But whether such a statement on the eve of April 24 was pure coincidence, or whether it was done intentionally at someone’s proposal or perhaps insistence, and with expectations of something in exchange, in both cases, it is neither comprehensible nor acceptable.
Unfortunately, recent official comments from Turkey and from Armenia make clear that the date of the announcement was imposed on Armenia. By yielding, Armenia has given credence to the Turkish theory that the issue of genocide recognition is the Diaspora’s issue, not Armenia’s, thus forging a dangerous chasm between Armenia and the Diaspora.
The use of the term “Roadmap” is also difficult to understand. By using such a term, we invite unavoidable parallels with the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is one of the most intractable in the world, unsolved since 1948. Naturally the international community will picture a similarly complex problem, the solution of which will require endless steps and a long time. However, the Turkish-Armenian problem is very simple. Turkey has unjustly closed the border, and it should open it without preconditions.
The most concerning problem regarding this process is that it is being coupled to the Karabakh conflict. It’s true that Karabakh is not part of the official Turkish-Armenian bilateral agenda. Nor could it be; otherwise it would have been obvious that this is a Turkish precondition and the negotiations would have been senseless from the beginning. The Karabakh problem was not a part of the negotiations in the past either. At that time, however, the Turks could not attach the issue publicly and conditionally to the Turkish- Armenian negotiations, because there was no public track to which they could link Karabakh.
Today, the Karabakh issue has become a parallel process, linked to Armenian-Turkish relations, where Turks have become an equal player with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Today, as a result of Armenia’s policy, the Turks have gained the right to discuss Karabakh both bilaterally and regionally, without taking into consideration the Armenian factor. On the Turkey-Russia agenda, the Turkey-US agenda, too, Karabakh now is one of the main issues. This was not possible in the past. Turkey now somehow has assumed the right to initiate a regional meeting with the participation of Turkey, the US, Russia, Switzerland, Armenia and Azerbaijan, where, according to the Turkish foreign minister not only regional issues, and Armenia-Turkey relations, but also Karabakh will be discussed.
Today, Turkey can behave as it wishes. It already has the Armenian side’s public consent on the key bilateral issues, and now it can determine, based on its own preference, discretion and convenience when and under what conditions to open the border. Turkey has two options: either to wait for some progress on the Karabakh resolution and a return of some territories, something that will please the Azerbaijani side, and then open the border; or, it will open the border only when it has guarantees from the US, Russia and Europe, that the Karabakh problem will be resolved within the principle of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.
For that, the necessary legal foundation has been provided. The declaration signed by Armenia, in November, in Moscow, states that the resolution of the Karabakh conflict must be based on the decisions and resolutions of international organizations. This provision has already been used by Russian President Dimitri Medvedev during his joint press conference with the Azeri president, during the latter’s latest Moscow visit.
As difficult as the current situation has been made due to our own missteps, there are no irreversible processes in diplomacy. It’s important to acknowledge the complexity of the situation and take steps to correct it.
First of all, the issue of the border opening has to be transformed. It is true that Turkey is the one who has closed the border, and Armenia has always declared it is ready to normalize relations without preconditions. However, since Turkey has turned the border opening issue into a bargaining chip in a process that has become dangerous for us, the Armenian side has to state that after Turkey agrees to open the border, the Armenian side itself must determine whether to open the border from its side. By doing so, Armenia will regain its leverage in a process that hasn’t yet reached its conclusion.
Secondly, the Armenian side must make clear that if the border is not open by a clear and near deadline, then it will withdraw from the negotiations. Since Armenia’s president has already indicated that the Armenian side is willing to wait until October, it is essential that Armenia make clear that the president will only go to Turkey to watch the football match in October if the border is already open and the railway already functioning.
And finally, since the process has become public in a way that does not serve our best interests, Armenia has to make the Roadmap and all documents derived from it public, as soon as possible. It is also important that the Armenian side publicly offers its own interpretations of each of the diplomatically formulated statements in the document. Only by doing so, will it be possible to stop Turkey from exploiting the process and the content of these negotiations in a way that is harmful for us.