Obama, Turkey and Armenia

“Well, my views are on the record and I have not changed those views,” President Obama told a joint news conference with Turkish President Abdullah Gul. “I want to focus not on my views right now, but on the views of the Turkish and Armenian people. If they can move forward and deal with a difficult and tragic history, then I think the entire world should encourage that.”

Obama made the same point when he addressed the Turkish parliament later in the day. “I know there are strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915, and while there has been a good deal of commentary about my views, it is really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past,” he said. “And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open, and constructive.”

While unprecedented for a recent American president to go to Turkey and reaffirm his views on the Armenian Genocide, stopping short of using the “G” word, it is also important to hold the president to task and continue to urge him to honor his campaign promise of properly recognizing the Armenian Genocide.

The problematic parts of Obama’s debut in Turkey are:

In asking Turkey to deal with its history, he placed the same onus on Armenians–the acknowledged victims of the Genocide, which Turkey still continues to deny;
Encouraging Turkey to play a more central role in the resolution the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It was Turkey that closed its borders with Armenia citing the Karabakh conflict and by doing so becoming a de-facto party to the conflict. Obama’s expectation that Turkey should play a pivotal role would hinder any progress made during the conflict resolution process.

At the end of the day, Obama’s message was that normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations must move forward.

On that front, this so-called deal to open the borders has hit a couple of snags.

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev announced that he would not go to Istanbul for the UN Summit of Civilizations in protest over Turkey’s efforts to open its border with Armenia. Despite phone calls from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Gul urging him to change his mind, Aliyev stuck to his guns and will not travel to Turkey.

On Sunday, Armenia’s foreign minister Eduard Nalbandian made one of the more decisive statements on the border opening firmly saying that there should be no preconditions to the process.

This came in response to an announcement Friday by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who said the without a Karabakh resolution there would be no border opening. This, coupled with the continued push by Turkey to establish a historical commission to address the Genocide issue prompted Nalbandian to assert: “It has been said many times and I wish to stress again that the establishment of Armenian-Turkish relations can not put into question the veracity of the Armenian Genocide.”

Were last week’s media reports touting an imminent deal on the border opening premature? It is clear that there are many fundamental problems in advancing Obama’s wish to further Turkish-Armenian dialogue.

In recent weeks, there has been significant discussion in Armenia about this matter, all of which have focused on the Turkish perspective. Not a day has gone by without an “expert” or “political scientist” in Armenia discussing this issue. But none of them has opined or presented a concrete perspective on how Armenia will benefit from this border opening scheme.

Agreements signed hastily to fulfill one or another party’s desires often lead to severe challenges in the future and can weigh down several generations in the process.

Armenia is surrounded by hostile countries–it always has been. In this effort to normalize relations, the Armenian government should be cognizant that making huge concessions will push Armenia into a corner and diminish any upper hand it may have in the region.

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