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Remaking history
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 - 05 - 2009

Gamal Nkrumah canvasses the newborn pragmatic relationship between Armenia and Turkey forged with Europe's blessings
It was a highly unusual, and not much publicised, meeting that took place in the Czech capital Prague on the fringe of the European Union-Eastern Partnership summit which was put to the test barely a week after the Czech upper house of parliament passed the European Union's Lisbon treaty. For many European businesses, economic necessity as much as the new political climate is driving expansion into what was former Soviet territory in addition to the developing countries of the African and Asian shores of the Mediterranean.
Armenia and Turkey come under the European Neighbourhood Policy that groups countries aspiring to eventual EU membership or at least they endeavour to achieve EU membership and closer integration with the European economy -- countries like Armenia, Turkey and Egypt. Armenia and Turkey, therefore, are at the heart of Europe's eastern expansion process.
The two countries have been at loggerheads since Armenia's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. While Armenian politicians and business leaders debate the merits of better trade ties with Turkey, Turkish companies have already started making their move on the tiny, albeit strategic, Armenian market. After the Prague summit, both Armenian and Turkish leaders appear to be cautiously optimistic about a brighter, less bellicose future. However, despite growing Turkish economic clout and political influence in the region, Ankara seems to have more trouble seizing opportunities than preventing problems.
Part of the reason for caution is that beneath the surface the two sides remain separated by politics and culture. And, this is where the Europeans stepped in. They, too, are sceptical about Turkish intentions. Their natural inclination is to take the poor, little Armenians' side. Yet, such bias cannot be voiced in public, and certainly not at the Eastern Partnership launched in Prague. The host nation itself is in a political conundrum of its own making.
Outgoing Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek remained in office until 8 May, a day after the Partnership summit in Prague, when the current Czech interim premier Jan Fischer, took over. The star of the show, however, was Czech President Vaclav Klaus who delighted in getting the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Turkish presidents together for a serious tête-à-tête. Armenia's President Serzh Sargsian met with his Azeri and Turkish counterparts Ilham Aliyev and Abdullah Gul respectively on 7 May. Sargsian's meeting with Gul, the first since their initial 6 September 2008 meeting, lasted for well over two hours behind closed doors.
The three presidents later smiled for the cameras and demonstrated a somewhat exaggerated form of camaraderie. The agreement between Armenia and Turkey on a "roadmap" to normalise bilateral relations is a cautionary tale for anyone with an eye for peace and reconciliation, as opposed to confrontation and war. Diplomacy works, but it cannot diffuse every threat. Armenian-Turkish reconciliation is inextricably intertwined with lasting Armenian-Azerbaijani peace.
The Turks insist on such a correlation, the Armenians wonder why. The Azeris, ethnically related to the Turks, do not want to let go of Nagorno-Karabakh -- a mountainous enclave inhabited mainly by Armenians inconveniently located in the heart of Azerbaijan and of course claimed by Azerbaijan as part of its territory. During a bitter war in the 1990s, the Armenians carved out a corridor through Azerbaijan to the mountain community, and now occupy almost a fifth of Azeri territory.
What to do with the 500,000 Azeri refugees who once lived in the region? Yerevan has repeatedly had to rebut Azeri and Turkish accusations that Armenia forcibly annexed the enclave in the early 1990s. "We will not sign a final deal with Armenia unless there is agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ominously warned on the eve of the Prague summit. Still, as never before, there appears to be a dogged determination on the part of both Ankara and Yerevan to bridge the political gap that divides the two neighbours.
Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 in solidarity with Muslim and ethnically Turkish neighbouring Azerbaijan. A fragile ceasefire holds between Armenians and Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenian President Sarkisian noted after the Prague summit that the ball is in Turkey's court. Armenia has expressed its desire to sign a lasting agreement with Turkey paving the way for the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries and the opening of their shared borders. The 19- year border closure between Armenia and Turkey has had tremendous economic costs. And, Armenia appreciates that its economy would receive a boost if economic relations with Turkey were upgraded. Even the Azerbaijanis can be won over.
What is today the independent Republic of Armenia was historically considered eastern Armenia. Western Armenia, a much larger area geographically, is today known as eastern Anatolia, or eastern Turkey. "The 24 April 1915 massacre of the Armenian political and intellectual elite was the culmination of the genocidal policy of the Ottoman Turks," Ambassador Rouben Karapetian told Al-Ahram Weekly.
He warned of a vicious spiral of escalating violence if the low-intensive conflict continues unabated. He stressed that Armenia has excellent political and economic relations with Iran and Arab countries with substantial Armenian communities. Overwhelmingly Christian Armenia has had good political and trade relations with Iran, another regional political heavyweight. Armenian President Sarkisian signed a landmark deal with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last month, and the two are strengthening economic ties. Russia approves, viewing fuel-starved Armenia as a convenient and strategic conduit between oil and gas-rich Iran and Russia, itself one of the world's largest producers of natural gas and petroleum.
Nevertheless, Russia has grave reservations about the EU Eastern Partnership, and Russian officials have signalled that they will raise Moscow's concerns at the Russia-EU summit scheduled for late May in the Russian Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk. "We heard an announcement from Brussels that this is not an attempt to create a new sphere of influence and that it is not a process which is directed against Russia," the forthright Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted recently not mincing his words. "We want to believe in this guarantee but I cannot deny that some comments made by the EU have worried us," Lavrov lamented.
Ambassador Karapetian speaks Arabic fluently, and I thought his most interesting observations not easy to fit into a news story. I was at a loss. What shall I do with this interview? I had no clue that the interview would be put to good use two weeks later when tangible proof would emerge that Turkey and Armenia are inching closer. He was director of the Asia-Pacific and Africa Department at the Armenian Foreign Ministry and was in charge of policy formulation and implementation.
Naturally, he raised the question of the Armenian genocide, stressing what it means to the collective Armenian national psyche. He noted that, "sowing the seeds of hatred" during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire and "a deliberate changing of the ancient vilayat or administrative divisions so as to render the Armenians a minority" wreaked havoc on innocent civilians. "In 1920, the Turks declared war on the newly independent Armenia."
But history is what we make of it. Often it leaves an indelible mark, one of our own choosing. "The negotiations are ongoing and progress has been registered," Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian noted. He decried what he sees as Turkish intransigence on the question of Azerbaijan. "The Turks always put certain preconditions. We consider it vitally important that the borders be opened. The borders were unilaterally closed from the Turkish side" in solidarity with Azerbaijan. "We think we can really get close and resolve this question in the near future," Nalbandian, a former Armenian ambassador to Egypt, was upbeat.
He had a point. Outgoing Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek may have had his mind on other matters, mainly his domestic entanglements, but Prague did provide the venue where Nalbandian met his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu. And, both Nalbandian and President Sargsian met with EU Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Wagner, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French Prime Minister François Fillon and British Foreign Secretary David Milliband.
There was a time, and not so long ago, when Turkish and Armenian leaders would never meet at international forums. Turkey has consistently refused to establish full diplomatic relations with Armenia because of Yerevan's international campaign to have the massacres recognised as genocide. The facts are, however, that the Armenian Diaspora has well-organised and influential lobby groups in both Europe and the United States. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians perished during the demise of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey's predecessor, a charge categorically denied by Turkey. Armenia insists that they were systematically massacred between 1915-17. But then there was Mikoyan, the ethnic Armenian Bolshevik, who butchered many of his own compatriots.
The point is that now the times are different. Just how different was underscored last week at Prague. Armenia is turning to its traditional enemy to forge economic links, and although mistrust remains, Ankara is now more receptive to Armenian overtures. "Turkish diplomacy has succeeded in formulating its blunt preconditions in such a way as to make them palatable to the international community," notes Vartan Oskanian, Armenian foreign minister (1998-2008) and founder of the Civilitas Foundation. He echoed the Armenian president's position. "Preconditions are excluded, they are out of the question."
He knew he had the ear of the Europeans. The partnership was, after all, launched at the joint initiative of Sweden and Poland to improve human rights and the rule of law in six former Soviet republics, including Armenia, and to address trade and visa issues. Can we envisage a time when Armenia would be a fully-fledged EU member before Turkey?
A hypothetical question, but not an improbable one. Armenia is European in orientation, but it is geographically located in a tumultuous region where East meets West, and North touches South. Sandwiched between Turkey and Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan, with Russia a mere stone's throw away, resource- poor Armenia has no choice but to cultivate friendship with all nations of the region.
Most importantly, compromises were made in Prague. "The precondition of abandoning genocide recognition has assumed the form of an offer to set up a joint commission of historians. The territorial issues have taken the form of reciprocal recognition of borders through the establishment of diplomatic relations," Oskanian summed up.


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