By Emil Danielyan
The U.S.-backed Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) said on Wednesday that it has achieved its main objectives and is disbanding to pave the way for broader contacts between the two estranged peoples.
The announcement came after a three-day meeting in Moscow attended by three Turkish and four Armenian members of the private body. One of them, political scientist Andranik Migranian, lives and works in the Russian capital.
“TARC is announcing that its work as a commission is ending,” they said in a statement obtained by RFE/RL. “TARC’s term was to be one year, but the course of events required a longer period to accomplish our goals.
“We feel that advances in civil society contacts are now permanent and will only grow in time. We also feel that beyond our recommendations, official relations can now best be continued and advanced independent of the TARC structure.”
The commission, which was set up in July 2001 with close U.S. State Department involvement, finished its work by approving a set of “recommendations” to the governments of Turkey and Armenia on how to improve their strained relations. Their content was not disclosed.
“The recommendations have a better chance of being implemented if they are presented privately,” one commission source told RFE/RL. He said it will be up to the two governments to decide whether they should be made public.
TARC is likely to have reaffirmed its strong support for the unconditional reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border sealed by Ankara eleven years ago out of solidarity with Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan. The current Turkish government has signaled over the past year its readiness to stop linking that with a pro-Azerbaijani solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Azerbaijan is strongly opposed to the lifting of the Turkish blockade, fearing that it would lose a serious bargaining chip in Karabakh peace talks. Azerbaijani leaders have issued Ankara with a series of warning in recent weeks, with President Ilham Aliev going as far as to claim that an open border between Armenia and Turkey would make a Karabakh settlement impossible.
The Azeri alarm suggests that the Turkish cabinet is seriously considering reopening the frontier for travel and commerce, a move which would please both the United States and the European Union. The U.S. has for years been pressing the Turks to soften their Armenian policy. Visiting Yerevan late last month, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Ankara has been busy dealing with the events in Iraq and Cyprus.
“I hope that as those concerns are ameliorated there will be a return of their attention to reopening the border,” Armitage said.
It is not clear whether TARC recommendations also address the other thorny issue in Turkish-Armenian relations: the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. The commission members have not discussed it in detail since receiving in January 2003 the findings of a third-party study commissioned by them. The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), a New York-based human rights organization, ruled that the slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians fits into the internationally accepted definition of genocide.
TARC also announced plans to hold a big conference on “Turkish-Armenian rapprochement and reconciliation” this fall. “In addition we intend to support a Turkish Armenian consultative group which would meet at least annually to exchange views, review progress, and recommend actions to promote improved relations,” the statement said.
The Moscow meeting was chaired by Joseph Montville, a former U.S. diplomat known as the author of the concept of “track two diplomacy” that calls for direct contacts between civil societies in conflict resolution. David Phillips, an adviser to the U.S. State Department who has coordinated the panel’s activities, was in Yerevan on a brief low-key visit on Sunday. He then proceeded to Ankara.
TARC has faced strong criticism from nationalist groups in Armenia and especially its Diaspora ever since its creation. They say that its activities hamper international recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Migranian and other Armenian members have denied the charge, pointing among other things to the ICTJ study.