By Karine Kalantarian and Gayane Danielian
French President Jacques Chirac ended on Sunday a state visit to Armenia during which he urged Turkey to recognize the mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide. He also called on Armenia and Azerbaijan to take the “final step” towards the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Chirac, the first French head of state to set foot on Armenian soil, received a red-carpet reception during his three-day stay in the Armenian capital that included talks with President Robert Kocharian and the inauguration of a central Yerevan square named after France.
Although the two leaders signed no bilateral agreements, officials said the trip cemented a warm relationship binding the Armenian and French governments. “France is our reliable partner in the European and international arenas,” said Kocharian.
According to Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, the unresolved Karabakh conflict topped the agenda of Saturday’s talks between Chirac and Kocharian. The latter singled out the issue at an ensued news conference, praising his French counterpart’s “expert knowledge of this problem.” But neither leader commented on prospects for a near-term solution to the Karabakh dispute.
“I want to believe that the time for peace has come,” Chirac said in a speech earlier on Saturday before thousands of people present at the inauguration of the new “France Square” in downtown Yerevan. “I want to believe in it because I know the price of war. Peace requires one final step. A difficult step, a step which is an act of faith in the future of people.”
Chirac, who has personally arranged Armenian-Azerbaijani summits on Karabakh, went on to urge the conflicting parties to display the “courage to move against the apparent security of the status quo.” “This final step can and must be taken both in Yerevan and Baku,” he said.
The French president also described the Karabakh conflict as the most serious of the challenges facing post-Soviet Armenia. “A challenge which Armenia can and must meet because only a lasting and just peace will allow your people to turn their hopes into reality,” he said in remarks broadcast live by Armenian state television and repeatedly interrupted by rapturous applause.
Chirac, accompanied by Kocharian, clearly enjoyed the limelight, taking more than 20 minutes to mingle with the jubilant crowd waving Armenian and French flags after the inauguration ceremony. The 73-year-old must have won over more Armenian hearts and minds when he indicated at the subsequent news conference that recognition of the Armenian genocide should be a precondition for Turkey’s membership in the European Union.
"Should Turkey recognize the genocide of Armenia to join the European Union? Honestly, I believe so,” Chirac said. "Each country grows by acknowledging its dramas and errors of the past.
“Can one say that Germany, which has deeply acknowledged the Holocaust, has as a result lost credit? It has grown.”
The comments are certain to irk Ankara which denies that the 1915-1918 massacres of Ottoman Armenians constituted genocide and rejects any linkage between this issue and its EU membership bid. France already ignored strong Turkish protest in 2001 by enacting a law that recognizes the genocide.
Chirac’s Armenia itinerary also included a visit to the Tsitsernakabert memorial in Yerevan and the adjacent Armenian Genocide Museum. He wrote a single world in the museum’s guest-book: "Remember."
Turkey’s accession to the EU is strongly opposed by France’s 500,000-strong Armenian community which mainly consists of descendants of genocide survivors.
Kocharian indicated, however, that official Yerevan does not object to Turkish membership in the bloc so long as Turkey agrees to lift its economic blockade of Armenia and address its troubled past. “We are interested in having more stable and democratic countries in our neighborhood,” he said. “In that sense, we don’t see any dangers in that process. Perhaps quite the opposite.”
Later on Saturday, Chirac and Kocharian attended an open-air concert in Yerevan’s main Republic Square by renowned French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour and other French singers. Tens of thousands of people packed the sprawling square to watch the show.
Chirac flew back to Paris the next day after meeting with the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II, in the church’s Echmiadzin headquarters.
(Photolur photo: Chirac and Kocharian attend Aznavour's concert.)