Pitfalls and Possibilities: Armenian-Turkish Relations Explored

BIG PINES, CA–The past, present, and future of Armenian-Turkish relations were the focus of a three day seminar on March 20-22 that brought some 70 young Armenian Americans to the Armenian Youth Federation’s campgrounds in Big Pines, California.

The seminar covered a broad range of issues related to the current push to normalize ties between the two countries, including the history of the Ottoman Empire as well as the political and economic realities surrounding the troubled relations between Armenia and Turkey today.

“We wanted to present the current status of Armenian-Turkish relations and where it is going or should be going,” said Shahan Boghikian, whose educational committee organized the seminar. “If and when relations are normalized, it is our generation, both in Turkey and Armenia, that will start the socialization process between the two peoples.”

The various discussions sought to build a framework of understanding that will help a new generation of youth actively influence Armenian and Turkish societies, according to Boghikian. He also noted that the weekend’s theme was Agos, the Armenian word for pathway. A Mutual Understanding of History The bridge building role of a new generation of Armenian activists was the focus of the seminar’s first presentation, which traced the development of Armenian-Turkish relations from the early days of the Ottoman Empire to the Armenian Genocide.

“The entire history of Armenian-Turkish relations amounts to about a thousand years of shared experiences,” explained Professor Garabet Moumjian who delivered the presentation. These historic issues, however, have been dealt with only marginally on both sides, with Turkey banning any discussion of the Armenian Genocide.

This, along with decades of animosity toward Turkey’s denial, has made it difficult for the budding of a positive and progressive movement toward normalizing relations, he explained. While he acknowledged that good neighborly relations are necessary for survival in an increasingly globalized world, Momujian noted that as much as this is important for Armenia’s, it is more important for Turks.

Moumjian said that because the larger part of Turkish society has been in denial for the past 94 years it has forgotten about an indigenous people that lived with them for nearly a millennium. “They have to deal with it with a real effort to know the past, and study it as opposed to forcefully forgetting it,” he said.

Armenia’s Legal Rights

A crucial aspect of that past is the fact that the Ottoman Government and its secular successor have stripped the Armenian people of their legal and historic rights to live on their ancestral homeland free and secure to exercise their right to self determination. Furthermore, a nearly incalculable amount of real property both in terms of land property and possessions were lost during the Armenian Genocide. Any relations between Armenia and Turkey must be founded on a mutual acceptance of this reality, according to the weekend’s second speaker, Steven Dedeyan, who is a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s Western USA Central Committee.

“As with any crime, in order to help ensure that it will not be recommitted, there has to be a remedy for the crime,” he said, adding that the Genocide has been a “sore on the body politic of the Armenian nation,” carried on for almost a century because the issue has not been resolved. As a result, the Armenian nation today has very legitimate claims against the government of Turkey, explained Dedeyan, discussing the Armenian nation’s legal and political rights under international law and specifically the Treaty of Sevres.

According to Article 89 of the Treaty of Sevres, Turkey and Armenia had agreed to submit to the arbitration of the US President and accept his decision to establish the Armenian-Turkish frontier “in the Vilayets of Erzerum, Trebizond, Van and Bitlis.” Article 90. Meanwhile, stipulated that both parties agreed to renounce “all rights and title over the territory so transferred” once Wilson’s stamp was set on the document.

Both articles stood as stand alone provisions within the treaty, with the full force of international law, whether or not the treaty was ratified. On November 22, 1920, US President Woodrow Wilson affixed his official seal on the his arbitral award issued pursuant to two articles, determining the Armenian-Turkish border.

“That action effectively and legally transferred the historic Armenian territories of Erzerum, Trebizond, Van and Bitlis under Turkish occupation to the first Republic of Armenia,” Dedeyan said. Because article 89 and 90 are still legally binding on Turkey, the “current border between between Armenia and Turkey is illegal; it’s a de facto border,” Dedeyan said. “This is the crux of the dispute between Armenia as well as the Armenian Diaspora as heirs to this legacy and Turkey today.”

“The legal border and frontier of Armenia and Turkey can only be governed and determined by treaties and here is where the problem arises for the Turks,” he added. “This is why they have no official relationship to Armenia.”

Since Armenia rarely discusses this issue it has left Turkey in the drivers seat as it consistently hinges the normalization of its relations with Armenia on signing a treaty that recognizes the current de-facto frontier between the two countries.

“This is a problem, Dedeyan explained. “If we sign such a treaty with Turkey, we will be giving up our political and legal rights,” he said. “The border that currently exists has no legal basis today.”

In essence, the Turkish government is using economic and military pressure today to force the Republic of Armenia to get what it cannot achieve given the current status of the treaties. This makes scrutiny of recent dialogue between Ankara and Yerevan all the more important. Under these circumstances, if Wilsonian Armenia is to be lost, it will have been the Republic of Armenia that gave it away and in the process, the diasporan heirs will have had their opportunity for justice undercut. For Dedeyan, it’s vital that this generation of activists work to ensure that the reconciliation between Armenia’s and Turks be rooted in the restoration of Armenia’s legal rights.

“Armenia cannot survive as an independent state with these current borders, let alone compete with Turkey, or in the world in general, on an equal economic footing,” he stressed.

Economic Inequality

The success of any relationship building measure requires a certain degree of equity, but that is currently devoid in the ongoing normalization process, noted Aram Kaloustian, the third presenter of the day and a member of the ARF’s Western US Central Committee. Armenia, under blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan since 1993, has a far smaller and weaker economy than Turkey whose economy is ranked as the 15th largest economy in the world. Kaloustian presented the possible impacts on Armenia’s economy that open borders with Turkey would bring.

Citing a 2007 AIPRG conference on this issue held in Yerevan, Kaloustian said that analysts have predicted that an unbound frontier will allow the establishment of transport networks and energy links from Turkey through the Caucasus to Central Asia. The end of the blockade, he added, will also open up Armenia’s economy for Turkish business and vice versa.

But Armenia’s economy may be at a serious disadvantage in this scenario, Kaloustian noted, explaining that it is still in its infancy and ill-equipped to compete against its Turkish counterparts. “On the short term, the biggest factor that will be affected is the cost of transporting goods in and out of Armenia,” he said, underscoring how the Russian-Georgian war last August closed off Armenia’s main access point to the world, costing the country millions in lost trade.

Kaloustian noted that while the cost of shipping goods into and out of Armenia will drastically drop and certain sectors of the economy would benefit, these benefits would not be felt by the majority of the Armenia’s in the republic. If the Sarkisian Administration fails to address key concerns regarding economic corruption in Armenia, any benefits of the open border would overwhelmingly only be enjoyed by few within the republic.

“Armenia’s economy is small and concentrated in the hands of few. This puts Armenia at an unequal footing to compete with Turkey,” explained Kaloustian.

This is a reflection of the fact that Armenia does not have the laws in place to protect its national economy from being monopolized by Turkish corporations according to the previously cited AIPRG conference report. Highlighting the lack of preparedness in Armenia for an open boarder, one need only look at the energy sector of Armenia’s economy. When the Armenia-Turkey border opens, in the short run, Armenia will become an energy producer, exporting electricity from its hydroelectric plants to Turkey’s eastern provinces, which have remained largely underdeveloped since the Armenian Genocide.

“Unfortunately, the Armenian energy sector is primarily owned by foreign companies,” Kaloustian pointed out.


The average Armenian will not see the benefit of the border opening and it will have a limited impact in securing a short term relief from Armenia’s deepening economic recession. In this light, it becomes readily apparent that there may be a significant danger of trading away Armenia’s rights to lands necessary for its long-term stability and economic prosperity in return for short term reduction of costs and opportunities in a limited number of sectors, the benefits of which would unlikely be felt by the majority of Armenian citizens.

According to Kaloustian, the lifting of the blockade may also lead to a upsurge in development in the occupied provinces, where impoverished and oppressed Kurds currently make up the majority. Investment has already slowly begun to trickle into places like Garin and Van, transforming them into prominent centers of manufacturing.

“The richer and more developed these regions become, the more difficult it will be to transfer the land back to Armenia,” Kaloustian warned, noting how more and more generations of non-Armenia’s will settle on those lands once it becomes comfortable to live there.

A Contemporary Issue

The seminar ended with an open forum moderated by the weekend’s director Aram Madelian, who opened the floor for participants to discuss the topics presented. Debate over the implications of normalizing relations with Turkey and possible new avenues of activism toward attaining justice for the Armenian Genocide took center stage.

During the back and forth, some participants criticized the Armenian government’s handling of its rapprochement with Turkey; others expressed concerned with how open borders with Turkey would impact their lives here in America.

“What’s important for us to realize is that the matters discussed during this seminar are not issues to be relegated to the past, but causes for contemporary concern that must be addressed by us as a community, said Vache Thomassian, the chairman of the AYF, during the closing discussion. “Whether we live in Armenia, Europe, or the United States, the decisions made in Yerevan and Ankara in the coming months will affect us all for generations to come.”


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