The Pitfalls and Possibilities of Armeno-Turkish Relations

On June 18, Armenia’s former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian spoke at Fordham University Law School in New York on the ongoing developments in Armenia’s talks with the Turkish government. Below we provide his remarks in their entirety.


Armeno-Turkish Relations: Pitfalls and Possibilities

Vartan Oskanian’s Speech at the Fordham Law School, New York, USA     
Thursday, 18 June 2009 19:30  

I want to thank you for this invitation to speak here today, about a topic that is at the center of Armenia’s foreign policy, Armenia’s international relations, Armenia’s relations with the Diaspora, and of course, also at the center of the Diaspora’s own agenda. That is Armenia-Turkey relations.
In my book “Speaking to be heard” where I have a long introduction about the foreign policy considerations that are reflected in my decade of speeches, one of the points I make is that with any natural change of administration anywhere, in any country, it is natural that there be both continuity and change in a country’s foreign policy.

In the case of Armenia’s policy regarding Turkey, since independence, it can be said that the policies of each succeeding administration have indeed been both the same, and different.

Armenia’s interests dictate that we have normal relations with our neighbors, all of them, including Turkey. And we have tried to achieve that these 17 years. But it is also true that each administration has done so differently, given the imperatives of the day and the philosophies of the individuals in charge.

In Armenian society, too, over time there has been some evolution in thinking about what we want from Armenia-Turkey relations, but again, by and large, the thinking has been consistent – we are ready for normal relations, despite deep and sometimes grave misgivings.

On the Turkish side, I think it’s fair to say that there are four layers of thought, four types of groupings, that we have had to and that we continue to have to reckon with.

The first, the most difficult to contend with, the deepest and most pervasive level is the contingent that feeds and nurtures the xenophobia, paranoia, racism and exclusion. That segment of society that has been raised in a vacuum, with no historical information about their past or ours, that level is at best ignorant of the causes and consequences of a lack of relations between us, or, worse, wants them to stay that way because of a cynical fear of a demonized Armenian neighbor. You and I still hear, too often, the frightening statements by such extremist elements in Turkish society, who, unfortunately, are not a minority, and whose actions are dangerous, especially for Armenians, friends of Armenians, and other minorities living in Turkey.

The second is the Kemalist elite – those who represent the deep state, the military, the old guard who are more interested in protecting Turkey’s honor and image than in confronting history, acknowledging geography, accepting responsibility and appreciating neighbors. The first two Turkish foreign ministers I dealt with were part of this elite. Today, you and I continue to hear ambassadors and other representatives of the Turkish Republic who have made it their mission to distort, deny and dismiss Armenians and Armenia.

Fortunately, there is a third and more promising segment with whom I’ve also dealt, and have come away from our meetings moved and hopeful. These are those members of Turkish society from the press, academia, cultural and other spheres who can best be described as personal and philosophical friends and allies of Hrant Dink, those who acknowledge a responsibility for our open wounds, and are ready to engage in a deep and meaningful dialogue. This is the segment we need to work with, to reciprocate if need to be; because if ever a change is to come in Turkish society, and create a bottom-up pressure on their government for some kind of recognition in the future, it will come from this group.

Finally, there is the fourth group – those in power in Turkey today – more westward looking, more democratic, more pragmatic in foreign policy, more cognizant of Turkey’s potential role in the region. When this government first was elected to office, they clearly articulated an intention to review their policies towards all neighbors, including Armenia. They aimed for zero problems with neighbors and a greater role in the swiftly changing geopolitical dynamic. In my first meeting with then foreign minister Gul, he clearly articulated a desire to distinguish Armenia-Turkey relations from Azerbaijan. But Azerbaijani pressure prevailed and Turkey’s policy did not change.  

At that time, Turkey’s own interests were not what they are today. Accession talks with the EU had not yet begun; Turkey wanted an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan; the Armenian genocide resolution process around the world had not gathered steam; Turkey’s economy was not in crisis mode; and Georgia-Russia tensions were not consequential.

In the end, Turkey did not find the political will to make a move that would anger Azerbaijan. We continued to talk to Turkey’s leaders, however, but we did so quietly, confidentially, in order not to allow Turkey to benefit from the fact that it was talking. Turkey, as I’ve explained, did not have the intention or ability to implement the results that they themselves had said they needed.  

But the world had changed greatly by 2008.  And that, in part, can explain the public daring of the new Armenian administration, who conducted negotiations with Turkey in public, for all to see. My own brief optimism that perhaps there really was something to this high-profile dialogue can also be explained by how the new geopolitical deck of cards is being played.

The world is so different in fact that the necessity of opening the Turkish-Armenian border is something about which both Russia and the US agree. In fact, in the face of Russia-Georgia strains, Turkey can benefit from a new role in the Caucasus. That is why it proposed the Platform for Cooperation and Security in the Caucasus right after the Russia-Georgia war.

But Turkey let this opportunity go by. Just as it missed the chance in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia. Just as in 2004, with the beginning of EU accession talks. So, in 2009, too, although everyone — Russia, Europe, the US, and Turkey and Armenia wanted the border open, Turkey retreated, under pressure from Azerbaijan, saying that only progress in the Nagorno Karabakh settlement process can move the situation forward.  

We are willing to open a border with an intransigent neighbor and that is a compromise. We have extended a hand to cooperate with a government that finances the denial of the genocidal actions of its predecessors and that is a compromise, a serious, grave, potentially consequential security compromise.  But that is the extent of our compromise. We cannot allow that intransigent neighbor who has not used its clout to foster confidence and cooperation in the region, who has not been an honest broker in the Caucasus or in international organizations as far as Armenia is concerned, we cannot, we will not allow that neighbor to negotiate with third countries to push along a resolution on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. That is a security compromise we are not prepared to make. We want a negotiated lasting settlement for the people of Nagorno Karabakh, and we will make the concessions necessary to reach such a settlement, without conceding their security.

Such a settlement for any conflict at any time would depend on several factors: the global and regional interests of the major powers and their present interrelationships, the dominant trends in international relations as manifested in the agendas and decisions of international organizations (such as the

UN and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), the conflicting sides’ own present political and economic situations.

For Armenia and Karabakh, all four of these quickly changing factors are important. But the most pressing among the four parameters identified above is the pressure resulting from the U.S. push for improved relations between Turkey and Armenia. President Barack Obama stuck his neck out to try to promote these relations. He believed this compensated for his not using the term genocide on April 24. April 24 will come around again next year, however, so the pressure has not disappeared. Relations still need to be improved.

But the way in which Turkey has been exploiting the situation that’s been created as a result of Armenia’s good will, means we are going to have to work hard now to make certain that we indeed do not get blamed for this process not having reached the result that everyone wants. And the international community will proceed in one of two ways. Either the international community will understand that Turkey took Armenia, and the US, and Europe, for a ride and is responsible for what is now a more distrustful atmosphere and for a border that remains closed.

Or — and herein lies the danger and the challenge to all of us — the international community will increase pressure on Armenians in the Nagorno Karabakh resolution process because Turkey and Azerbaijan say that only with progress there can something positive be expected on the Armenia-Turkey front. In fact, they have already been saying everything’s ready, we’re ready so let’s pressure them to return some territories so that we can justify opening the border.

So we must put the pressure on in Washington and elsewhere to not allow Turkey to manipulate the situation. Turkey having already benefited will now try to create a situation to satisfy Azerbaijan in order to be able to open the border. The Armenia-Turkey process began with both sides promising that there are no pre-conditions. Now there is a condition and it’s related to a third country, so we must insist that Azerbaijan’s conditions not become a pre-condition in Armenia-Turkey relations, and that the border be opened based on whatever has been agreed bilaterally.


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  1. palu said: