Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded late on Wednesday that President Serzh Sarkisian withdraw and apologize for remarks which he claimed amount to Armenian territorial claims to Turkey.
Official Yerevan was quick to deny that claim and accuse the Turkish government of distorting the essence of statements made by Sarkisian at a July 23 meeting with school students from Armenia and its worldwide Diaspora.
“Sarkisian committed a serious blunder,” Erdogan reportedly said during a visit to Azerbaijan. “He himself confirmed his historical blunder.”
“He must apologize and correct his blunder,” he said at a joint news conference with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev.
Erdogan referred to Sarkisian’s answer to a question asked by one of the Armenian students in the resort town of Tsaghkadzor. The latter wondered whether Armenians will ever be able to reclaim lands in what is now eastern Turkey, which many of them call “Western Armenia.”
The vast mountainous area for centuries formed a large part of ancient Armenian kingdoms before being conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Its indigenous Armenian population was massacred or deported en masse during the 1915 genocide.
“It depends on you and your generation,” Sarkisian replied to the student. “I believe that my generation has fulfilled its task: when it was necessary in the beginning of the 1990s to defend a part of our fatherland – Karabakh – from the enemy, we did it.”
“If you, boys and girls of your generation, spare no effort, if those older and younger than you act the same way, we will have one of the best countries in the world,” he said.
Sarkisian stressed at the same time that a country’s international standing is often “not conditioned by its territory.” “A country should be modern, it should be secure and prosperous, and these are conditions which allow any nation to sit next to the respectable, powerful and reputed nations of the world,” he said.
In Erdogan’s words, Sarkisian thereby told young Armenians to be ready for a future war with Turkey. “What Serzh Sarkisian did is a provocation, an attempt to instill spite and hatred in his country’s youth,” charged the Turkish premier.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned Sarkisian’s remarks in similarly strong terms earlier this week.
Armenia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Shavarsh Kocharian rebutted Ankara’s attacks, saying that the Turks did not read the Armenian leader’s answer in full or are “simply saying what they want to say.”
“In any case, this hysteria is not only artificial but should also make many people draw conclusions,” Kocharian said in a statement.
Successive governments in Ankara have accused Armenia of laying claim to Turkish territory. Yerevan has always denied those accusations, while avoiding an explicit and formal recognition of the existing Turkish-Armenian border.
Such recognition is envisaged by one of the two Turkish-Armenian protocols that were signed in October 2009. The protocols also committed Turkey to establishing diplomatic relations and opening the frontier which it closed in 1993 out of solidarity with Azerbaijan.
Turkish leaders and Erdogan in particular have repeatedly made clear that their ratification by Turkey’s parliament is contingent on a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict acceptable to Azerbaijan. The Sarkisian government rejects this linkage, saying that it contradicts the letter and the spirit of the U.S.-backed agreements.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly pressed Ankara to unconditionally normalize ties with Yerevan when she visited Istanbul earlier this month.