Saturday, October 18, 2014

Armenia: Is Armenian Leader Serious About Dumping Turkey Accord?

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Is Armenian Leader Serious About Dumping Turkey Accord?

CRS Issue 755,

When Armenia’s foreign minister visited Turkey in August, it looked like both countries might be thinking about trying to mend their troubled relationship. In an apparent reverse, the Armenian president is now calling time on a historic deal with Ankara drawn up in 2009 but never ratified.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, President Serzh Sargsyan said his government might withdraw from the accords signed in Zurich almost exactly five years earlier.

The president said the Turks had since added a new, wholly unacceptable precondition – that Nagorny Karabakh must first be ceded to Azerbaijan.

Karabakh has been controlled by an Armenian administration since open warfare with Azerbaijani forces ended in a truce in 1994.

“In Armenia and Artsakh [Karabakh], ordinary people often respond to such preconditions by saying, ‘To hell with your ratification!’” he said.

Armenians would never bargain away their lands, he said.

“Under these circumstances, Yerevan is seriously considering whether to recall the Armenian-Turkish protocols from parliament," Sargsyan said.

Turkish-Armenian relations are clouded by two giant issues. First, the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman authorities in 1915. Armenians describe this as genocide, and have lobbied world governments to do the same. Over 20 countries including France, Russia, Sweden and Germany, have officially acknowledged the killings as genocide, but Turkey continues to reject the term.

Second, there is Nagorny Karabakh. Two decades of negotiations have failed to make progress because Yerevan and the Karabakh administration see independence as the end goal, whereas Azerbaijan hopes to regain its lost territories.

As an ally of post-independence Azerbaijan, Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 because of the Karabakh conflict, thus greatly restricting Yerevan’s external trade opportunities.

The 2009 accords would have eased relations between Armenia and Turkey, and reopened the border. They were the result of an unexpected rapprochement begun when the then Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, visited Yerevan for a football match between the two national sides in 2008. The process became known as “football diplomacy”.

Armenia formally ended the ratification process in 2010 after accusing Turkey of seeking to include new conditions.

Speaking to journalists after the president’s UN speech, Armenian foreign minister Eduard Nalbandyan was unable to say whether the president really planned to withdraw from the agreements.

“The president said what he said, and I have nothing to add for the moment,” he said.

In August, Nalbandyan travelled to Ankara for the presidential inauguration of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, previously prime minister. His visit looked like an attempt to build bridges. (See Armenia Sends Official to Erdoğan Inauguration.)

Members of the president’s Republican Party welcomed his comments.

“We witnessed the performance of a strong president, built on clear and indisputable arguments," Republican parliamentarian Karen Avagyan wrote on his Facebook page.

However, Giro Manoyan of opposition Dashnaktsutyun party doubts that the president really means what he says.

"All this means is that the protocols could be dropped from parliament’s agenda,” he told IWPR, adding that if Turkey were to ratify the accords at some point, Armenia could still do so as well.

“The president continues to believe that these protocols should play a positive role for Armenia,” Manoyan said.

Dashnaktsutyun has been critical of any effort to improve relations with Turkey.

Vahram Ter-Matevosyan, a senior academic at the Armenian Institute of Oriental Studies, believes that with so little progress made since the accords were signed in 2009, the president’s speech marks the end of the process.

He warned that the president would need to follow up his statement with actions if he wanted to be taken seriously.

"Over the past five years… Armenia alone has repeatedly raised the issue of ratifying the protocols, whereas Turkey has continued to take the same unchanging approach to the process,” Ter-Matevosyan said.

Political scientist Sergei Minasyan, who is deputy director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, believes there is still a chance the agreements could be revived.

He said the comments served two purposes: to send a warning to Turkey on the highest international stage and to attract political support at home.

“It was simply a warning to Turkey,” he told IWPR, adding that it also served a second purpose – pleasing Armenians both at home and abroad.

“Any tough statement directed at Turkey is perceived as very positive in Armenia and among the diaspora," he explained.

In reality, he said, any future attempt to improve relations with Ankara would have to be “founded on the logic” of the 2009 agreements, which represented “the sole result of mutual concessions made with extraordinary difficulty”.

Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Centre, an independent think tank in Yerevan, regretted what he saw as a missed opportunity for that Sargsyan to use the UN stage to move beyond historical problems and present Armenia in a more rounded, forward-looking way.

"Either this unique opportunity to present Armenia on the world stage was not understood, or it was simply ignored,” Giragosian told IWPR. “It was clearly another missed opportunity to articulate the vision of the Armenian state. More specifically, much of the Armenian president’s address was limited to a focus on the past, with little or no vision for the future. The speech was centred on the Armenian genocide and, as a near-addition at the end, on Nagorny Karabakh…[with] no mention of democracy or development.”
Yekaterina Poghosyan is a reporter for in Armenia.