Below is the text of an RFE/RL interview with Van Krikorian, chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America and a member of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission.
Harry Tamrazian: From the initial media reports on the latest meeting of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission in Istanbul one can assume that the meeting had some concrete results. Can you share with us the results of the Istanbul meeting?
Van Krikorian: After the announcement of the formation of the commission, people said some things in the media, which were problematic and inconsistent with the understandings that we had regarding our work. The first thing that we did, just in a very gentlemanly way, was to go over them, talk about them and clarify what people had actually said and what there were quoted as saying. We tried to get to know one another better in that regard.
Second, we spent most of our time talking to people in Turkey from different parts of society, from media. I think probably there wasn't that much media coverage, because we specifically talked to a lot of journalists off the record. It was not our goal to negotiate in the media or discuss things in the media, but to meet with them as journalists and get their opinions.
We met with academics, we met with diplomats and political figures and we discussed their different perceptions on a variety of questions ranging from the obvious genocide issue to other issues and there are lot of other issues actually, dividing Armenians and Turks. We started to get a range of opinions from people about what should be done to promote reconciliation between Armenians and Turks and what they think the issues are that divide us.
Third, we discussed the proposal from the International Center for Transitional Justice to provide a seminar and to assist us in the work that we have undertaken.
Forth, we spent some time talking about physiological issues that exist just for Armenians, just for Turks and for others that are neither Armenians nor Turks and the interactions of those three different points. We decided to have some people, put some time and effort into examining those issues defining what they are and also see if we can come up with some proposals on how to deal with them. We also began to discuss how we would go about making our recommendations or prepare our recommendations to the concerned governments, which is another important part of what we are going to be doing as a commission.
Q: But despite the positive developments that you have cited, the Turkish government did not ease its policy on the issue of genocide. For example on October 2 the Turkish government summoned the Vatican's ambassador to Ankara, Luigi Conti, to the foreign ministry and orally conveyed its disappointment over the Pope's remarks, made in a joint statement with the head of the Armenian Church during a visit to Armenia last month.
A: I explain it in at least two ways. First, we are not dealing with the Turkish government and the same way that Turkish government reacted to the Vatican, I can say the organization of which I am the chairman, the Armenian Assembly hasn't reacted in any other way except to commend the Pope, commend the Armenian Church for having the Pope make that statement, for inviting the Pope to Armenia and at the same time continuing all of our work internationally and especially in the United States to have the Armenian Genocide reaffirmed and recognized and the consequences of it dealt with.
The commission is something separate than that. What we are doing is, while we agree that none of us are constrained in our other capacities from doing whatever we want, we are working on the areas where things might make a difference.
Second, I would expect the progress that we make would be incremental. I would note that we are glad to speak in private meetings with prominent Turks about the Armenian Genocide. I would expect that that trend will continue, and the more we can get discussion of that issue to be uncensored, to be open, to be something that Turks and their society understand has to be dealt with, the better.
Do I expect the Turkish government to change its policy about the Armenian genocide and all of a sudden acknowledge it on account of our commission after a couple of months work? No, absolutely not. Am I pleased that the Turkish government is allowing this process of mutually searching for answers on how to deal with the issues that divide us to go ahead? Yes. Am I pleased that we are able to talk with elite members of civil society in Turkey about these issues directly? Yes.
I am very pleased about that and I think I know that represents progress, because some time ago that would have been impossible, it would have been absolutely impossible to do at the level at which we are doing it. The last point I will make is that among the people we met there were those who would say yes we should acknowledge, Turks who would say yes we should acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. There were also people who fervently believed the opposite- fervently- and those are people that we have to deal with as well not just the liberals in their society.
Q: There were some concerns in the Armenian media that the commission could be an effective tool for Turkey to prevent further recognition of the Armenian Genocide in Western parliaments. In fact one of the Turkish members of TARC has made a statement in the Azeri press that the main goal of the commission is to prevent the recognition of the Armenian Genocide in the European and US legislatures.
A: That was the kind of statement that we dealt with quite directly in private. In public we made a statement about the different quotations that have come out after the first meeting some of which were not helpful clearly to our shared goal.
Q: So did you discuss this issue in your second meeting in Istanbul and was there an agreement or some kind of consensus on how you would deal with these issues in the future?
A: Absolutely, absolutely. With regard to what people say as commission members we are very clear and we adopted some media principles. We agreed to the ground rules on what people should and should not be saying about the commission's work. That is in their individual capacities as commissioners. In their non-commission capacities there were no restraints on what people say.
Q: There was also some criticism in the Armenian media, in Diaspora media, that the mission of the commission was rather vague. It seems to me that your second meeting was more specific on the mission of this commission. Am I right? And also did you discuss the possibility of reopening the Turkish-Armenian border?
A: Yes you are right. With regard to specific goals we are getting there. The first thing that needs to be done is to identify the issues that divide us. What do Armenians want from Turks and what do Turks want from Armenians? How can we deal with these issues? The deeper we go the more complicated a lot of the issues become. One of the things that our commission is trying to do is to promote diplomatic relations between the two countries. So that the kinds of issues that we are discussing and trying to come up with creative solutions can also be discussed on a government to government level; issues of treatment of the Armenian presence in Turkey, historically, cultural issues, business issues.
The consequences of the Genocide are critical to deal with. We do talk about the consequences of the genocide. The issues of lack of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey are obviously an issue we have to deal with. The issue of border closing is an issue that we have to deal with. The issue of visas, Turkey imposed a different visa regime on Armenians from Armenia going to Turkey, is one that we have to talk about and we do talk about. Those fall within the categories of issues that divide Armenians and Turks and there are more. There are lots of opportunities and also problems in those areas that need to be explored. What this commission will accomplish if it is successful is to open up those issues to structural discussions, not polemical, not propagandistic, but serious discussion and to have some recommendations.
Q: When you say the commission is discussing the consequences of genocide does it mean that the issues related to compensating genocide victims are also being discussed?
A: We can say all issues [are being discussed], all issues of the Armenian Genocide, all issues of removing Armenians from their homeland, - which is not just a psychological problem it is also a legal problem. It is a deep problem. Andranik's [Mihranian] father came from Mush his mother came from Kars. My father's family came from Chimiskese my mother's family came from Shapinkarahisar. For us, that's our homeland. We love Armenia, but for us that is our homeland too. We need to explore that with our Turkish colleagues, we need to explore that with the Turkish society, we need to explore that with the Turkish decision-makers.
Q: There were some concerns that the Armenian side had no adequate representation in the commission. There were suggestions to broaden the level of representation, including political parties in TARC. The commission was criticized for heavily relying on members of former ruling elite. Were these issues addressed during the Istanbul meeting?
A: The ground rules for establishing the membership was the following: Each side was responsible to choose its own members. We have no control over whom they choose they have no control over whom we choose. I want to be very clear that there was no agreement that the initial ratio would be 6 to 4. They came with six people and we were working fine with four people. But we do want to increase our number - that is not something that we have to agree on with them. They were even more sensitive to the fact that people might misunderstand the six to four ratio. In [the upcoming meeting in] New York we will participate with an increased number. We also talked very much about how to broaden the base and if we need to bring other Armenians within our framework and other Turks within our framework how we could do that. We also spent a fare amount of time talking about how to encourage other Armenians and other Turks independent of us to start talking directly to one another. It is something that we want to encourage. We don't want people to think as though this commission is the exclusive means of forwarding Armenian-Turkish relations. Our intention is to encourage other people also to do that.
Q: Can we say that in New York there will be more Armenian members and that the new Armenian members of the commission will represent some parliamentary party in Armenia or a Diaspora party? Can you be more specific?
Today no. We have a lot of people who wanted to be on this commission from different parts of the world, from different backgrounds. We made a ranking and discussed who would fit where. I am quite sure that in New York we will have increased by one or two but at the same time I can't say who they are going to be, because we are still having the discussion with the people.
Q: I am not asking you to reveal the names. My question is whether these people will represent major parliamentary parties?
A: I think the answer to that is no. I can say no definitively because nobody is representing a party. Alik Arzumanian is not representing any party. I will say that we consider people from major political parties represented in the parliament but as individuals not as party members. We made some rankings and I don't want to embarrass anyone. We will not exclude any Armenian. We don't draw differences between any Armenians. I think that virtually everyone who expressed an interest could contribute. I really believe that there is no such thing as somebody being better Armenian or better candidate.
Q: What is the reason for changing the venue of the next meeting. As we know now TARC has decided to move the next meeting from Yerevan to New York?
A: We agreed that we will meet in Yerevan but we didn't agree that the next meeting would be in Yerevan. We are looking forward to going to Yerevan. The proposal from the International Center for Transitional Justice which is based in New York, was so important to our work that we decided that our next meeting should be in New York to start the work with that group. In Armenia, in Yerevan we are going to be engaging in the same type of activity that we engaged in Turkey that is to meet with a broad base of people who have comments positive or negative about our goal and about us. I have no question that we will hear from supporters and critics alike. But I can say definitively that we had not agreed as a commission to hold the next meeting in Yerevan. We have a significant Armenian Diaspora in New York and we also have Turkish-Americans in New York and they have a role to play in all of this as well. One of the other thing that we agreed to is that on November 2 in Washington both Mr. Samberk and I will be addressing the annual meeting of the Assembly of Turkish-American associations which I think is a great opportunity for both of us and especially for me because it is an opportunity for an Armenian to go and talk about the Armenian prospective on the issues that divide us, to talk about the Armenian Genocide and the need to deal with it and to engage with what has become a significant voice in this debate that is Turkish-Americans.
Q: We know now that the commission will soon have its secretariat and TARC website. It seems to me that you are going to have a permanent functioning structure? Tell us more about that.
A: I think your assumption is correct. We will probably have a permanent functioning structure. We had substantial discussions about where the secretariat should be and we have received different proposals on it, whether we should have secretariat in Yerevan and Istanbul, whether we should have a secretariat in North America, whether we should have a secretariat in Europe. I think I probably just violated one of our rules in terms of discussing in public things that are discussed in private and have not been decided on and I hope that my fellow commissioners will forgive me for that. We are still having the discussion on where the secretariat ought to be.