By Hrach Melkumian and Emil Danielyan
Members of the controversial Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission will start a four-day meeting in Turkey on Wednesday amid continuing uncertainty over the future of the initiative launched exactly one year ago with U.S. government backing.
Prominent scholars and retired top diplomats making up the body will make another attempt to revive their activities which ground to a half last December due to a row over an international study on the 1915 Armenian genocide, the thorniest issue in Turkish-Armenian dealings. They have been unable to break the deadlock as yet.
“We still can not say for certain whether the commission will continue its activities. Things will clear up during the meeting,” David Hovannisian, a retired diplomat and one of the TARC’s four Armenian members, told RFE/RL on Tuesday before leaving for Istanbul.
Hovannisian said at the same time that is he is upbeat about the future of the initiative which has been strongly criticized by many political groups in Armenia and the Diaspora. “I am quite optimistic and…believe that the commission will be able to proceed,” he said.
Still, Hovannisian admitted that the Armenian and Turkish participants continue to be divided over the idea of a third-party genocide study.
An analysis on the applicability of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention to the 1915 massacres was due to be conducted by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), a New York-based human rights organization. Hovannisian and his Armenian colleagues froze the TARC’s activities in December, accusing the Turkish side of unexpectedly asking the ICTJ in early December not to go ahead with the study.
The six Turkish members, however, insist that they did not intend to scuttle the agreement and that one of them had simply “directly communicated” with ICTJ without informing the Armenians.
The latter claim that progress is being held up by serious differences among the Turkish members, some of whom are opposed to any discussion on the Armenian genocide. One of the Armenian members, Moscow-based political analyst Andranik Migranian, called for the removal of some of his Turkish counterparts last April, citing their tough position on the issue.
But according to Hovannisian, the Armenians are not insisting on changes in the TARC’s composition as a condition for resuming their participation in the initiative, despite being upset at public statements by some of their Turkish colleagues denying the genocide. But he said they are standing firm on the need to examine the tragic events of 1915.
There have been active behind-the-scenes attempts to salvage the reconciliation effort for the past six months and little headway has been made so far. Still, one U.S. official informed about the process insisted recently that the December statement by the Armenian commissioners “neither suspended nor ended the TARC’s work.”
One of the ways of breathing a new life into the TARC, which is currently considered by the parties, is to expand the number of its members to make it more representative of the Armenian and Turkish publics. The idea is backed by David Phillips, a U.S. scholar and State Department adviser who has moderated the commission’s meetings. Phillips visited Armenia and Turkey last spring to gauge public opinion in both countries.
The TARC’s one-year activities have faced strong criticism from many Armenian parties and civic groups which view the initiative as a Turkish ploy to undermine their campaign for international recognition of the genocide. They have also argued that Hovannisian, Migranian as well as former foreign minister Alexander Arzoumanian and a senior member of the Armenian Assembly of America, Van Krikorian, lack a mandate to make far-reaching decisions on behalf of the Armenians around the world.
Hovannisian, meanwhile, claimed on Tuesday that the TARC has registered major achievements over the past year. He said that the recent direct diplomatic contacts between Turkey and Armenia were made possible by the commission’s work.