Armenia has suspended the universally welcomed process of normalizing its relations with Turkey, after months of frustration with Ankara’s linkage between its successful completion and a resolution of the Karabakh conflict acceptable to Azerbaijan. Still, in an announcement made by President, Serzh Sargsyan, on April 22, Yerevan stopped short of formally annulling the October 2009 agreements to establish diplomatic relations between the two neighboring nations and re-open their border. The US, which had helped to broker the two “protocols,” was quick to praise the move, saying that it left the door open to re-start the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement later.
The Turkish-Armenian protocols ran into trouble almost immediately after being signed by the two countries’ foreign ministers in Zurich in the presence of US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and top Russian and European diplomats. Turkish leaders made clear that its parliament would not ratify them before decisive progress in Armenian-Azeri peace talks on Karabakh. The Armenian side rejected this “precondition,” arguing that the protocols make no reference to the Karabakh dispute. The US and the European Union likewise advocated their speedy and unconditional ratification by both sides.
Sargsyan publicly threatened in early December to walk away from the agreements if Ankara failed to ratify them within “a reasonable timeframe.” He reiterated the threat on several occasions in the following months, including during a February 25 brief conversation in Kyiv with the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Sargsyan essentially backed down after a flurry of high-level US-Turkish-Armenian diplomatic activity held on the sidelines of the April 12-13 nuclear security summit in Washington.
In what appeared to be a last-ditch US effort to salvage the process, President Barack Obama held separate talks in Washington with Sargsyan and the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Yet neither those talks, nor a separate meeting in Washington between the Armenian and Turkish leadership broke the impasse, with Erdogan publicly reaffirming Ankara’s Karabakh linkage in the following days. Sargsyan, for his part, denounced the Turkish “language of preconditions” as he addressed Armenian-Americans just hours after negotiating with the Turkish premier (Armenian Public Television, April 12).
Shortly after returning to Yerevan, the Armenian president held consultations with the leaders of his three-party governing coalition and convened a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the future of the normalization process. His further steps became evident when the three parties represented in Armenia’s government issued a joint statement on April 22 saying that the Armenian parliament must not discuss the protocols “until the Turkish side is ready for the continuation of the process without preconditions” (www.news.am).
“We consider the current phase of normalization exhausted,” Sargsyan declared in a televised address to his nation later in the day (available at www.president.am). Still, he stressed that Yerevan has decided to only “suspend the procedure of ratifying the protocols,” rather than scrap the deal altogether, “out of respect” for the US and other foreign powers. “Our partners have urged us to continue the process, rather than to discontinue it,” he said.
“If you pull out, you let the other side off the hook,” Obama told Sargsyan on April 12, according to The Washington Post. Accordingly, US reaction to his speech was very positive. “President Sargsyan’s announcement makes clear that Armenia has not ended the process, but has suspended it until the Turkish side is ready to move forward,” Assistant Secretary of State, Philip Gordon, said in an April 23 statement, adding: “We applaud President Sargsyan’s decision to continue to work towards a vision of peace, stability, and reconciliation.”
“That gives us some reason for optimism that over the long term we can find ways to come back to it and try to push forward the protocols again,” State Department Spokesman, Philip Crowley, said (www.state.gov). Even Davutoglu saw a “positive element” in the Armenian move. “I think the window of opportunity is still open,” the Turkish foreign minister told Hurriyet Daily News on April 23.
Both the current and previous US administrations have regarded an unconditional normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations as a major foreign policy objective that would facilitate a Karabakh settlement and thereby advance Washington’s interests in the region. The Obama administration has been closely involved in the unprecedented Turkish-Armenian détente that began about two years ago and culminated in the signing of the protocols. A formal demise of that process would have been a massive blow to Washington’s long-standing efforts to promote Turkish-Armenian reconciliation.
Armenian ratification of the protocols, formally submitted to the National Assembly in Yerevan, was effectively frozen even before Sargsyan’s announcement. Leaders of the Armenian parliament’s pro-presidential majority made clear that they would be put to a vote only after being ratified by the Turkish side. The official suspension of the ratification process changed little in that regard.
In opting for caution, Sargsyan not only did the US a favor, but clearly sought to preserve substantial political capital which he has earned in Western capitals with his conciliatory line on Turkey. He may have thus retained room for maneuver in further negotiations with Ankara and possibly the Karabakh negotiating process mediated by the US, Russia and France.
However, the largely symbolic decision will hardly placate Sargsyan’s domestic opponents and among the worldwide Armenian diaspora, who have been highly critical of the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. For them, it has brought Armenia no tangible benefits and has only complicated broader international recognition of the World War One-era mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide. They see a direct connection between the normalization process and Obama’s failure to honor a campaign pledge to describe the massacres as genocide once in office.
In his latest statement on the April 24 annual remembrance of more than one million Ottoman Armenians killed in 1915-1918, Obama again declined to use the politically sensitive term with respect to “one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century.” The US president indicated at the same time that he stands by his past remark that “the Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence.”