By Emil Danielyan
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian reaffirmed on Saturday his conciliatory stance on Amenia’s relations with Turkey, saying that Yerevan should leave it to the worldwide Armenian Diaspora to pursue international recognition of the 1915 genocide. He also deplored Armenian efforts to thwart Turkey’s membership in the European Union.
The highly sensitive issue was a major theme of his latest speech at an anti-government rally in Yerevan, with Ter-Petrosian responding to government claims that his views on Turkish-Armenian relations are “pro-Turkish.”
Echoing long-standing claims by Armenian nationalist groups, President Robert Kocharian said in a newspaper interview last week that his predecessor is “ready to forget the genocide and turn Armenia into an appendage of Turkey.” State television and other media controlled by Kocharian, for their part, have cited Turkish press commentaries saying that Ter-Petrosian’s return to power would be welcomed by Armenia’s historical foe.
“Speaking about my being pro-Turkish are individuals who had sheepishly served Turks during a lengthy period of their adult life,” Ter-Petrosian shot back in a blistering reminder of the fact that Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian had held senior positions in the Communist hierarchy of Nagorno-Karabakh at a time when it was ruled by Azerbaijan.
Ter-Petrosian stressed that three generations of his family “fought against the Turks in one way or another,” recalling in particular their participation in a 1915 siege of several Armenian villages on the Turkish Mediterranean coast by Ottoman troops.
“My grandfather took part in the heroic battle of Musa Dagh; my seven-year-old father carried food and water to [Armenian] positions; while my mother was born in a cave in those days,” he told the crowd. “If French warships had not accidentally passed by the Musa Dagh coast, then I would not have existed and, to the delight of Robert Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian, spoken from this podium today.”
“In 1966, at the age of 21, during a demonstration held on the occasion of the genocide anniversary I was arrested [by the Soviet KGB] and kept in a Yerevan jail for about a week at a time when Kocharian and Sarkisian had not even heard about the word genocide,” he said.
Ter-Petrosian said he continues to believe that genocide recognition should not have been included on Armenia’s foreign policy agenda after his resignation in 1998. “It is time to understand by setting ultimatums and cornering Turkey nobody can force it to recognize the Armenian genocide,” he said. “I have no doubts that Turkey will sooner or later recognize the Armenian genocide, but that will take place not before a normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations but after the creation of an atmosphere of neighborhood, cooperation and trust between our countries.”
Ter-Petrosian at the same time rejected as “unacceptable and offensive” Turkey’s calls for the creation of a Turkish-Armenian commission of historians that would be tasked with determining whether the mass killings of Ottoman Armenians constituted a genocide. He also criticized Ankara for its furious reaction to genocide resolutions adopted by various countries of the world under pressure from their Armenian communities.
“Turkey must not confuse Armenia with the Diaspora and must not resent the latter’s behavior because the Diaspora is a consequence of the genocide,” he said. “Had it not committed a genocide, there would have been no Diaspora.”
Armenia’s first post-Communist government headed by Ter-Petrosian avoided raising the genocide issue in its dealings with Turkey throughout its tenure from 1990-1998. The Kocharian administration has likewise stood for an unconditional normalization of bilateral ties. However, it has declared genocide recognition a major foreign policy goal and welcomed relevant lobbying efforts by the Diaspora. The policy change was underscored by Kocharian’s 1998 speech at the UN General Assembly in which he urged Turkey to come to terms with one of the darkest episodes of its past.
Ter-Petrosian dismissed such actions as mere gimmicks that have only antagonized the Turks and made the memory of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians killed in 1915-1918 an “object of immoral haggling” in the international arena. He claimed that Yerevan’s policy and Diaspora lobbying in Europe enable EU governments opposed to Turkey’s entry to the bloc to “exploit the genocide issue.”
“Isn’t it clear that Armenia can neither facilitate, nor impede Turkey’s membership in the European Union?” he said. “So why on earth do we send letters to Brussels demanding that the EU does not start membership talks with Turkey or set genocide recognition as a precondition?”
“Isn’t it obvious that Turkey’s membership in the EU is beneficial for Armenia in the economic, political and security terms?” he added. “What is more dangerous: an EU member Turkey or a Turkey rejected by the West and oriented to the East?
“Or what is more preferable? An Armenia isolated from the West or an Armenia bordering the EU? Our country’s foreign policy should have clearly answered these questions a long time ago.”
The Kocharian administration says that Armenia supports, in principle, Turkey’s accession to the EU but believes that should happen only after Ankara drops its preconditions for normalizing relations with Yerevan. “Armenia does not regard Turkey's potential membership in the EU as a threat to national security,” Prime Minister Sarkisian wrote in a December 2006 article in “The Wall Street Journal.” “Quite the contrary. We hope it will mean that Turkey will change, and be in a better position to face both its history and future.”
In an interview with Reuters news agency last July, Sarkisian accused the EU of turning a blind eye to Turkey’s long-standing economic blockade of Armenia. "Europeans are shy over these issues. They love to talk about human rights, about democratic values but it's much easier to talk rather than to implement anything," he complained.
Armenian lobbying groups in Europe take a harder line, saying that genocide recognition should be a precondition for Turkey’s EU membership. One of them, the Brussels-based European Armenian Federation, plans to stage an anti-Turkish demonstration in the Belgian capital on Friday. The EU’s governing Council is scheduled to meet on that day to discuss stalled accession talks with Ankara.