Armenia Debates Landmark Deal With Turkey

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 174

An ARF rally, September 2009

Yerevan’s fence-mending agreements with Ankara, which are expected to be signed by October 14, have generated lively and bitter debates among Armenia’s leading political groups. Although many of them have voiced misgivings about key parts of the deal, President Serzh Sargsyan should have no trouble in securing its mandatory ratification by the Armenian parliament. Nor is Sargsyan likely to face serious short-term threats to his rule emanating from Turkish-Armenian rapprochement.

The most vocal critics of the process, notably the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, also known as the Dashnak Party), lack either the strength or desire to fight for regime change in the country. Their concerns about the two Turkish-Armenian draft protocols publicized on August 31 revolve around three issues. The most important is the planned creation of a Turkish-Armenian panel of historians that will examine the mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Critics allege that Ankara might exploit the existence of such a body in order to dissuade other countries from recognizing the massacres as genocide.

ARF leaders and other government opponents, such as the former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, also strongly object to another provision that commits Armenia to explicitly recognizing its existing border with Turkey. They say the clause is unacceptable because it precludes future Armenian territorial claims to formerly Armenian-populated areas in what is now eastern Turkey. They have also speculated that Sargsyan may have pledged to make more concessions to Azerbaijan in return for Ankara’s agreement to make no reference to the Karabakh conflict in either protocol.

Sargsyan sought to address these concerns as he met with the leaders of 52 Armenian parties mostly loyal to his administration on September 17. "I also recognize the risks, and have concerns," he said, opening the five-hour meeting behind closed doors. However, Sargsyan insisted that his conciliatory tone in developing relations with Turkey is worth this risk, since it shows that "a nation which endured the cataclysm of genocide" is genuinely committed to making peace with its longtime foe." He stressed that diplomatic relations between the two neighboring states and an open border would only be the beginning of a long reconciliation process (Statement by the Armenian presidential press service, September 17).

Many participants in the discussion were reportedly unconvinced by these arguments. "At one point, there was disappointment on Sargsyan’s face," one unnamed party leader told the Yerevan newspaper Iravunk de Facto. "Sargsyan looked like a different person after the meeting," claimed Aram Karapetian of the New Times Party, one of the opposition parties that did not boycott the meeting (RFE/RL Armenia Report, September 17).

According to Armen Rustamian, an ARF leader who represented the nationalist party at the meeting, the president made clear that the controversial protocols cannot be amended in any way prior to signing the inter-governmental agreement. The ARF drafted and circulated several amendments to the documents (stemming from its objections) on September 15, as dozens of its activists staged a protest outside the main government and foreign ministry buildings in Yerevan against the government’s Turkish policy (Yerkir-Media TV, September 15).

Hrant Markarian, another Dashnak leader, told Radio Free Europe the following day that Sargsyan might fall from power if he signs the deal in its existing form. The warning seemed hollow, since unlike the other opposition forces, the ARF is not demanding the Armenian president’s resignation, despite its harsh criticism of his Turkish policy. Moreover, the influential party known for its hard line on Turkey holds only 16 seats in Armenia’s 131-member National Assembly and is not in any position to block the agreement. It can only rely on the backing of the opposition Heritage party, which controls seven seats. The parliament’s pro-presidential majority has already voiced its unconditional support for the Turkish-Armenian agreements.

The Armenian National Congress (HAK), the country’s leading opposition force not represented in the assembly, has adopted a surprisingly subtle position on the matter. Jamestown witnessed the HAK’s leader, Levon Ter-Petrosian addressing thousands of supporters in Yerevan on September 18. He once again accused Sargsyan of being "fooled" by the Turkish government last spring, but he stopped short of denouncing the draft protocols. The former Armenian president stood by the HAK’s September 1 statement, which described the protocols as a step forward, while rejecting the planned Turkish-Armenian genocide study. "Who needs this belated hysteria now that it is almost impossible to influence the process?" he said, scoffing at the ARF uproar.

Ter-Petrosian himself championed better relations with Turkey, for which he was vilified by the ARF and other nationalist groups during his 1991-1998 presidency. His more cautious stance on the latest developments in the Turkish-Armenian dialogue underscores the changed fortunes of Sargsyan. The latter has remained defensive over a Turkish-Armenian statement issued on the eve of the April 24 remembrance of the tragic events of 1915. The statement, which announced a "roadmap" to normalizing bilateral ties, made it easier for U.S. President Barack Obama to ignore his pre-election pledges to describe the massacres as genocide. Many in Armenia and its worldwide diaspora accused Sargsyan of willingly sacrificing U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide and gaining nothing in return.

The August 31 publication of the Turkish-Armenian agreements, which set concrete time frames for the re-opening of the Turkish-Armenian border without preconditions, can now be held up by Sargsyan as a diplomatic success, even if Ankara stalls or blocks its ratification by the Turkish parliament. In the latter case, Yerevan would be able to portray itself as the more constructive party in the Western-backed dialogue and avoid making any unpopular concessions resented by the Armenian opposition. Both the United States and the European Union have stressed the importance of a speedy implementation of these agreements.

Yerevan was unusually quick to criticize Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for reportedly reiterating that Turkey will not lift the 16-year economic sanctions on Armenia until agreeing to a Karabakh settlement acceptable to Azerbaijan. In a late-night September 18 statement, Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian warned that Erdogan risks wrecking both the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement and the Karabakh peace process.