By Emil Danielyan
The controversial Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) may still resume its activities despite its virtual collapse last month, according to one of its Turkish members.
Ustun Erguder, who runs a private think tank in Istanbul, told RFE/RL on Friday that he and five other Turkish participants believe that the US-backed initiative “can be salvaged.” He said they did not renege on an earlier agreement to seek an independent judgement on whether the 1915 mass killings of Armenians constituted a genocide.
TARC’s four Armenian members said in a statement on December 11 that the private body “is not going to proceed” because the Turks “unilaterally” told a New York-based human rights organization not to conduct a study on whether the 1948 UN Genocide Convention is applicable to the Armenian massacres.
The decision to request such an analysis from the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) was taken at a TARC meeting in New York in late November. It was seen as an important element of the reconciliation effort launched in July after months of confidential negotiation.
But Erguder, who is director of the Istanbul Policy Center at Sabanci University, effectively denied Armenian claims that the Turkish members unexpectedly scuttled the genocide study.
“I think there were some misunderstandings, and I don’t think we ever intended to do that,” he said in a telephone interview.
“I think the reason [the commission] probably looks dead right now was technicalities. We were pressed for time. If we had more time, we probably could have made the thing live,” he said.
Erguder added that the Turkish and Armenian participants have not had direct contacts since the New York meeting and he does not know what their further plans are. He said the Turkish members, among them three retired top diplomats, remain strongly committed to TARC’s continued existence.
He said: “The feelings of my colleagues and myself are that we would like to see it exist. But that may be just a wish. The time will show. I personally think that it could be salvaged.”
In Erguder’s words, David Phillips, the US scholar and State Department adviser who has moderated TARC meetings, is also making efforts to resurrect the commission. “I believe that he wants this thing to go on and has some plans to salvage it,” he said.
Another Turkish member of the commission, Gunduz Aktan, charged in a recent article in the Turkish daily “Radikal” that the initiative has all but failed because “the Armenians are not yet ready for such a peace process.” Aktan also argued that the two sides should not have dealt with the genocide issue at this stage.
The Armenian members, on the other hand, believe that a normalization of relations between the two peoples is impossible without addressing the painful subject. Their numerous critics in Armenia and the Diaspora insist that Turkish recognition of the 1915 genocide should be the starting point of any dialogue. They believe that TARC’s creation was a Turkish ploy to keep more Western countries from passing resolutions condemning the mass killings as a genocide.
But Erguder strongly disagreed with this argument. “I believe future holds a lot of opportunities for both Armenians and Turks. I think they have shared a very important common history,” he said.
“There might be some debate about that history. A good way of looking at that history is looking at future opportunities of cooperation, opening up borders, economic relations, cultural activities. Once you get this will rolling, you can turn around and look at history in a more detached manner.”
Erguder confirmed that the six Turks sitting on TARC believe that official Ankara should establish diplomatic relations with Yerevan without any precondition. He said this week’s abolition of visa restrictions for Armenian nationals traveling to Turkey was “the first fruits” of their efforts to improve relations between the two neighboring states.
“I think that especially my colleagues, who are former ambassadors, were very influential in getting this. It’s a good step forward,” he said.
However, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit reiterated late on Thursday that the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations depends on the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “If and when Azerbaijan and Armenia solve their problems, if the occupation on Azerbaijan territory is ended, then we will be very glad to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia,” he told a news conference in Washington at the end of his official visit to the United States.
Ecevit also cast doubt on recent allegations by the chief of Turkish army’s general staff, General Huseyin Kivrikoglu, that Armenia has weapons of mass destruction in its military arsenal.