By Emil Danielyan
Armenia’s government endorsed and was directly involved in the creation of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) despite its subsequent statements to the contrary, according to a renowned American scholar who chaired the U.S.-sponsored panel.
In a book that was due to be officially unveiled at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday, David Phillips accuses Yerevan of reneging on its pledge to publicly support the initiative in the face of fierce criticism from nationalist circles at home and in the Armenian Diaspora. He also reveals that the Turkish government nearly scuttled in late 2001 a crucial international study that affirmed the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
The 170-page book, titled “Unsilencing the Past,” provides a detailed account of TARC’s three-year and largely confidential activities that caused a lot of controversy on the Armenian side. Phillips strongly defends the initiative, disclosing information hitherto unknown to the Armenian and Turkish publics.
“I had met with [Foreign Minister Vartan] Oskanian on several occasions to brief him,” he writes. “At every turn, he endorsed the initiative. [President] Robert Kocharian also directly communicated his support for TARC.”
“Instead of publicly endorsing the initiative, which Oskanian had committed to do, the Armenian government got nervous about being associated with TARC,” he adds.
The Armenian government’s first reaction to news of TARC’s creation, announced on July 10, 2001, was rather positive. "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," the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said at the time.
But Yerevan began to change tack amid a mounting uproar from nationalist parties represented in Kocharian’s cabinet, notably the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). Oskanian assured a group of angry historians on July 24, 2001 that "the government of Armenia has absolutely nothing to do with this dialogue" -- a position which the Kocharian administration maintains to this day.
But Dashnaktsutyun leaders remained unconvinced, demanding further explanations at a meeting with Oskanian the next day. They went on to initiate a statement by the pro-presidential factions in the Armenian parliament that denounced TARC as an “artificial” initiative aimed at preventing worldwide recognition of the Armenian genocide. Dashnaktsutyun, which is particularly influential in the Diaspora, believes that genocide recognition must be a precondition for any Turkish-Armenian dialogue.
“Instead of standing by its commitments, the Kocharian government ran for cover,” Phillips notes with bitterness.
That the United States was the driving force behind the effort is confirmed by the book. Phillips says the idea was suggested to him in 2000 by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman, the number three figure in the U.S. State Department under the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Phillips already wore many hats at the time, holding senior positions at the Council on Foreign Relations, the American University in Washington and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. In addition, he advised the State Department on issues of democracy and regional stability.
More importantly, Phillips had decade-long experience in fostering dialogue between Turks and Kurds and promoting similar contacts between the estranged Greek and Turkish communities of Cyprus. Those contacts were practical manifestations of the American concept of Track Two diplomacy. It holds that various sections of civil societies can facilitate the resolution of long-running ethnic disputes through meetings and open discussions of their root causes.
According to Phillips, the U.S.-funded Track Two efforts in Turkey and Cyprus were a success and Grossman thought they could also be applied to the Turkish-Armenian conflict, “one of the world’s most intractable problems.” He insists that the State Department covered only “some of TARC’s direct costs” and “never interfered in my work.”
That work was effectively catalyzed by Armenian threats to veto the choice of Istanbul as the venue for the December 1999 summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in protest against Turkey’s refusal to normalize relations with Armenia. Phillips contends that the threats were used by the authorities in Yerevan to provoke stronger U.S. pressure on Ankara. He says they asked Van Krikorian, the then chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America who would later become a key member of TARC, to “undertake discussions with the State Department,” circumventing Armenia’s ambassador to Washington.
A few months later, senior State Department officials approached the Armenian and Turkish governments with a formal offer of dialogue and eventually received positive replies from both sides, it is claimed in the book. Phillips recounts that the process ground to a halt in October 2000 when President Clinton controversially blocked a resolution in the U.S. Congress recognizing the Armenian genocide. But it resumed in early 2001 with the first meeting in Vienna of what would later be called TARC.
“Having tacitly endorsed the truth and reconciliation process, the Turkish and Armenian governments had a keen interest in the outcome. Both sent ‘unofficial’ representatives to keep an eye on the discussions,” writes Phillips.
The Armenian side was represented by Krikorian, former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzoumanian and David Hovannisian, a Foreign Ministry official who Phillips says was handpicked by Oskanian. The Turks sent two retired top diplomats with close government connections: Ozdem Sanberk and Gunduz Aktan. The latter is notorious for his hard line on the Armenian question.
The group grew bigger by the time it held its next meeting in Geneva on July 9, 2001 to announce TARC’s formation. The Armenians were joined by Andranik Migranian, a prominent Moscow-based pundit, and the Turks by former Foreign Minister Ilter Turkmen, retired army general Sadi Erguvenc, political scientist Ustun Erguder and Vamik Volkan, a Virginia-based professor of psychiatry.
Phillips claims that Oskanian distanced himself from the initiative as soon as Hovannisian informed him about TARC’s establishment from Geneva. “He instructed David to say that he had left the foreign ministry and was participating in his private capacity. At the same time, he told David that he was expected in his office at the ministry on Monday morning. David was visibly shaken when he returned to the meeting.”
In its first statement, TARC pledged to promote “mutual understanding and good will between Turks and Armenians” and strive for improved relations between their states. “The commission will not determine the validity of either position [on the genocide issue],” Turkmen told reporters in Geneva. “Instead, it will explore ways to bridge the gap.”
Armenian critics of TARC argued that it has no popular mandate to deal with the issue and accused the Armenian members of the commission of participating in a Turkish and U.S. conspiracy to derail international recognition of the genocide. But Phillips makes it clear that the Armenian commissioners insisted all along on the need for Turkey to come to terms with its past and were “incensed” with Aktan’s aggressive denials of the genocide which he says nearly disrupted the reconciliation effort even before it was formally launched.
“Do you know how we feel when you try to embarrass us by introducing resolutions in parliaments around the world? Our feelings are hurt,” Aktan is quoted in the book as telling his Armenian counterparts at the Vienna meeting in 2001.
“How do you think we feel?” Arzoumanian is said to have replied. “We are the ones who were genocided.”
“The Armenians saw TARC as a vehicle for approaching Turkish elites and initiating a dialogue about the genocide. Even if the Turks are sympathetic to the suffering of Armenians, they were not prepared to have TARC acknowledge the genocide,” Phillips explains.
That, he continues, is rooted in the “selective memory” of the modern Turkish state founded by Mustafa Kemal in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide. “Turks refuse to acknowledge the genocide because acknowledgement contradicts their noble self-image … In addition, the government of Turkey fears that the campaign is laying the legal groundwork for reparations or territorial claims.”
In an April 2002 interview with RFE/RL, Migranian, described by the TARC chairman as the most hard-line of the Armenian participants, likewise argued that the Turks will not face the darkest period of their Ottoman past without knowing what the consequences of that would be. “As long as these issues remain unresolved the Turkish side will never recognize the genocide,” Migranian said.
The Americans hoped that the prominent Turks and Armenians will first reach agreement on less sensitive issues. But as Phillips reveals, it became obvious that TARC can not make progress without addressing the genocide issue. And the way out of the deadlock, he says, was suggested by none other than Aktan.
Meeting in New York in November 2003, TARC agreed to ask the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), a New York-based human rights organization, to conduct a study on the applicability of the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide to the mass killings and deportations of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
Phillips says the decision was meant to be confidential. “But within minutes of adjourning, Andranik Migranian was on the phone with Radio Free Europe,” he says, adding that the former Russian presidential adviser thus “deeply upset the Turks.”
In fact, RFE/RL, learned about the ICTJ study from the New York meeting’s concluding statement signed by Phillips, not from Migranian. The latter spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service only the next day.
Shortly afterward, Sanberk and Aktan, bypassing their colleagues, wrote to the ICTJ, telling it to “refrain from studying the subject matter.” The Armenian members responded with an angry statement saying that “TARC is not going to proceed.”
“I insinuated that Ankara was responsible for scuttling the initiative. Just mentioning the Genocide Convention stirred anxiety in the Turkish Foreign Ministry,” Phillips writes. He then appealed to U.S. officials to help salvage the endeavor and behind-the-scene talks between Krikorian and Turkmen followed. “Unless TARC found a way to address the genocide, Van was convinced it should be disbanded,” he says.
The commission members decided to go ahead with the ICTJ study when they converged on the Turkish resort town of Bodrum in July 2002. The agreement remained strictly confidential this time around. Few people knew that Krikorian and Aktan appeared before an ICTJ panel in September 2002 to present the Armenian and Turkish interpretations of what happened in 1915. Aktan, in Phillips’s words, promised to “destroy” ICTJ researchers with his legal arguments but appeared “nervous” after making his case.
He had reason to be edgy. On February 4, 2003, the ICTJ submitted to TARC a detailed analysis which concluded that the slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians includes “all the elements of the crime of genocide as defined by the [UN] Convention.” The study at the same time found that the Armenians can not use the Convention to make “legal financial or territorial claims arising out of the Events.”
“In a private conversation with Van, Oskanian ‘offered congratulations’ and said it was a great accomplishment,” Phillips says. “However, he refused to publicly embrace the ICTJ analysis.” Armenian political groups and public figures also barely reacted to it.
Phillips’s discontent with the Armenian government’s repudiation of his work found an outlet in his article on Armenia that appeared in “The Wall Street Journal” last April. It slammed Kocharian’s regime as “corrupt and inept” and welcomed opposition attempts to topple the Armenian president. In his book, Phillips bluntly accuses Kocharian of “stealing” the 2003 presidential election from opposition leader Stepan Demirchian.
TARC, meanwhile, held several more meetings before announcing the end of its mission in Moscow on April 14, 2004 and submitting a list of policy recommendations to the Turkish and Armenian governments. The first and foremost of them was an unconditional opening of the Turkish-Armenian border. However, Ankara seems unlikely to drop its preconditions for lifting Armenia’s economic blockade in the foreseeable future.
So was the whole thing worth the trouble? Phillips believes it was, pointing to “permanent civil society contacts” established parallel to TARC’s activities as part of what the U.S. government calls the Track Two Program on Turkey and the Caucasus.
“TARC broke the ice and helped catalyze a wide array of civil society Track Two activities,” he concludes. “It was also a lightning rod for criticism, thereby enabling other civil society initiatives to proceed ‘under the radar.’ Though people-to-people contacts cannot solve core political problems, they can help prepare the ground for negotiations.”
(Council on Foreign Relations photo: David Phillips)