By Emil Danielyan, Ruzanna Khachatrian, Artur Terian in Moscow and Harry Tamrazian in Prague
The Armenian government Friday welcomed the creation earlier this week of a “reconciliation commission” composed of former Turkish and Armenian officials. But it reiterated that a full normalization of relations between the two neighboring states will be impossible without Ankara agreeing to establish diplomatic relations with Yerevan. The country’s leading political parties, meanwhile, were more mostly skeptical about the success of the unprecedented initiative.
Agreement on the creation of the commission was reached in Geneva on Monday after months of confidential negotiations. The ten-member private group said it will try to foster cooperation and communication that could lead to direct talks between the governments of Turkey and Armenia. Its members, among them two former foreign ministers and retired diplomats, reportedly enjoy the tacit support of their governments.
The spokeswoman for the Armenian foreign ministry, Dziunik Aghajanian, told RFE/RL that official Yerevan is “not in any way involved” in the initiative but supports it.
“Armenia has always had a positive attitude towards public contacts and dialogue between the two peoples, which allow for the exchange of opinions and discussions on the existing problems,” she said. “But it must also be noted that such meetings can never be a substitute for a dialogue on the state level.”
The reaction of the parties in the Armenian parliament was largely negative, with Tigran Torosian, a deputy speaker of the National Assembly and a leader of the governing Republican Party, saying that “activities of the commission are doomed to failure.” Aghvan Vartanian, the parliamentary leader of the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) described the initiative as a Turkish ploy to “force Armenia into concessions” on the recognition of the 1915 genocide and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
“Whose initiative is this? Who is sponsoring it?” he asked. Both Vartanian and Torosian strongly objected to the presence of former foreign minister Aleksandr Arzumanian among four Armenian members of the reconciliation commission. Arzumanian also leads the opposition Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), a party that governed the country from 1990-98. He declined comment on Friday.
Deputies from the center-right National Democratic Union (AZhM) were among few lawmakers who welcomed the idea of prominent Turks and Armenians supporting cultural exchanges, efforts to improve business and tourism and programs in education and research. “I welcome any contact with the Turkish side, whether it’s official or unofficial,” said the AZhM’s Semyon Baghdasarian.
Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan, refuses to establish diplomatic relations and open its border with Armenia until the latter recognizes Baku’s sovereignty over Karabakh. Ankara has recently set a new precondition for the normalization, demanding that Azerbaijan be granted a land corridor to its Nakhichevan exclave under a future Karabakh peace accord.
Relations between the two neighbors, bitterly divided by their troubled past, further deteriorated late last year following a string of recognitions by several European legislatures of the 1915 genocide of Armenians, vehemently denied by the Turkish government.
Differing interpretations of the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire will be one of the key issues to be tackled by the commission. A former senior Turkish diplomat told “The New York Times” on Monday that it will not determine the validity of the Armenian and Turkish positions. "The intent is not to find what the truth is, but it is to open new horizons for the future and enhance mutual understanding," said Ozdem Sanberk, executive director of a private foundation in Istanbul and a former Turkish ambassador to Britain.
Another Turkish member of the commission, former foreign minister Ilter Turkmen, described its establishment as a “turning point” in the extremely tense relations between the Armenian and Turkish peoples. But speaking to reporters in Istanbul on his return from Geneva, he warned against disproportionately high expectations from the initiative.
"People should be careful in evaluating this process,” he said, according to the “Turkish Daily News” paper. “This is not the first time Turks and Armenians have come together, but it's the first time there's been a structured dialogue. I don't know what this process will result in. We have just started. It was pleasant that the initiative was perceived positively in Turkey.”
One of the four Armenian participants, the Moscow-based political scientist Andranik Migranian, has confirmed reports that the reconciliation effort enjoys the backing of the US State Department. He told RFE/RL on Thursday that the Armenian Assembly of America, whose chairman Van Krikorian is also a commission member, maintains “quite serious contacts” with US officials.
A former advisor to Russian ex-president Boris Yeltsin, Migranian said he was invited into the commission in view of his close Kremlin connections and his influence in Russia’s big Armenian community. He said the participants had met twice in Vienna this year before the Geneva session. Their next meetings will be held in Istanbul and Yerevan, he added.
Meanwhile, the government of Sweden has expressed readiness to join the efforts to facilitate the Turkish-Armenian dialogue. Swedish Ambassador to the Czech Republic Ingmar Karlsson told RFE/RL on Friday that the Swedish-Turkish cooperation center to be opened in Istanbul in September will support the reconciliation process in collaboration with the Turkish Economic and Social Foundation (TESEV), a local think-tank.
The 15-member board of the TESEV includes some of Turkey's best-known scholars and university professors, as well as representatives of the business and media communities. It is run by commission member Sanberk. Last February TESEV organized a conference in Istanbul on peace and stability in the south Caucasus.
A delegation from the Armenian foreign ministry led by Ambassador-at-large David Hovannisian also took part in the conference. Hovannisian is the fourth Armenian member of the reconciliation commission. According to spokeswoman Aghajanian, he did not represent official Yerevan at the Geneva meeting, acting only in his capacity as a professor at Yerevan State University.