By Emil Danielyan
Armenia would make the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border easier by explicitly recognizing Turkey’s territorial integrity, a renowned U.S. scholar who has helped to promote dialogue between the two estranged neighbors said on Monday.
David Phillips, who chaired the U.S.-sponsored Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC), also accused the administration of President George W. Bush of mishandling long-running U.S. efforts to improve relations between Ankara and Yerevan.
“The Armenian government has to state clearly and unequivocally that it makes no territorial claim on Turkey,” Phillips told RFE/RL in an interview. “If that message were sent … it would create conditions for Turkey to move forward in a much more positive way.”
Armenia’s government has never officially challenged the validity of the existing Turkish-Armenian border. In a 2001 interview with Turkish television, President Robert Kocharian argued that even Turkey’s recognition of the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire could not give Yerevan the legal basis to laid claim to Turkish territory.
Phillips admitted that an Armenian government statement explicitly recognizing the border would not necessarily lead Turkey to lift the blockade which it imposed in 1993 out of solidarity with Azerbaijan.
“The Turks have a habit of always shifting the goalposts on this issue. There are a package of concerns that they raise,” he said, pointing to other Turkish preconditions such as a pro-Azerbaijani solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and an end to the decades-long Armenian campaign for international recognition of the 1915 genocide.
“I pointed out to them at every opportunity that there is no possibility for Armenians to abandon their efforts at international recognition of the genocide,” Phillips added, referring to his visit earlier this month to Turkey during which he met with government officials and public figures.
Turkey’s ruling establishment fears that genocide recognition could give rise to Armenian demands for territorial and financial reparations. Some political groups in Armenia and its worldwide Diaspora, notably the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), keep that possibility open.
Phillips argued that official assurances from Yerevan would make it more difficult for Ankara to justify the embargo. “If that were the case I think you would see, in the context of Turkey’s EU accession, a great deal of encouragement being brought to bear in Ankara towards Turkish officials so that the border might be opened,” he said.
TARC, including all of its six Turkish members, urged Turkey’s governments to reopen the border throughout its existence from 2001-2004. In his recently published book that details TARC’s largely confidential activities, Phillips writes that the Turkish government nearly reopened the border in the summer of 2003 but backed off after U.S. pressure on Ankara “all but disappeared” due to a deteriorating situation in Iraq.
The scholar, who holds a senior position at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, was on Monday highly skeptical about chances of renewed American pressure on Ankara.
“From the first day that it came into office, the Bush administration has been inadequate in the way it has pursued Armenian issues,” he said. “It always allowed other events to supersede. September 11 and the war in Iraq were events that Turkey manipulated to deflect any pressure from Washington or other governments.”
“Even up to the present, the Bush administration has a long list of priorities when it comes to Turkey and I’m afraid that Armenian issues are the bottom of that list,” he added.
Phillips claimed that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not even reminded of the need to normalize relations with Armenia when he visited Washington late last year. “When President Bush had his lunch with Prime Minister Erdogan in Washington last time around, it was hoped that he would raise the matter directly with the prime minister,” he said. “But apparently it slipped his mind.”
Phillips also reaffirmed his criticism of the Armenian government’s failure to publicly support TARC. His book, titled “Unsilencing the Past,” charges that President Robert Kocharian’s administration had promised to endorse the U.S.-backed initiative only to back down in the face of strong criticism of TARC voiced by Dashnaktsutyun and other nationalist groups.
“I think it’s important to note that even after TARC was announced and the government failed to abide by its commitment, they still supported TARC’s efforts privately,” Phillips revealed. “The fact that they didn’t have the courage to speak publicly in support of TARC didn’t mitigate their private support for the effort.”
Phillips stood by his view that TARC’s work was a success as it laid the groundwork for regular contacts between Armenian and Turkish non-governmental organizations which he said will continue for years to come. He said he also found an unprecedented interest in Armenian issues in Turkey during his recent trip.
“When we started this work five years ago, you couldn’t raise Armenian issues in any circles of Turkey and get any Turk to respond,” the former TARC moderator explained. “Now it’s a constant topic of conversations not only among civil society groups but among Turkish officials.
“There is a recognition in Turkey about the need to address the past. There is also an enormous amount of conversation about the need to open the Armenia border. I hope that Mr. Erdogan’s government will have the vision and courage to take that step.”