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Turkey ‘Nearly Opened Armenian Border In 2003’

By Emil Danielyan
Turkey came within an inch of opening its border with Armenia in the summer of 2003 but backed off after U.S. pressure on Ankara “all but disappeared,” a renowned scholar privy to Turkish-American dealings writes in his latest book.

David Phillips, the chairman of the now defunct Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC), says the Turks refused to normalize relations with Armenia even after the administration of President George W. Bush effectively blocked yet another congressional resolution recognizing the 1915 Armenian genocide.

“I hoped that Ankara would quietly open its border sometime during the dead of summer, when everyone was on holiday and not paying attention,” he reveals in the book presented to the U.S. Council of Foreign Relations this week.

Phillips, who advised the U.S. State Department on conflict resolution at the time, based his optimism on a series of meetings between top U.S. and Turkish officials that began with Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to Ankara on April 2, 2003. According to a State Department report obtained by RFE/RL shortly afterward, Powell pressed the newly installed government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to open the Turkish-Armenian border without any preconditions.

Phillips writes that Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul faced equally strong pressure when he held talks in Washington in late July 2003 with Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush’s chief national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice. “At every meeting Gul was reminded that the issue of genocide recognition [by the U.S. Congress] was not going away. He was told that real progress was the best way of deflecting pressure,” he says.

“Most important, administration officials emphasized that Turkey’s national interests would be served by opening its border with Armenia. Normal travel and trade would stimulate Turkey’s economy and enhance Turkey’s standing in the region.”

The United States had long been pushing for improved relations between the two historical foes, considering that important for shoring up stability in the South Caucasus and securing its interests in the region. The State Department report, which was submitted to Congress by Powell’s deputy Richard Armitage, argued that an open border would mean “a reduction in transportation costs to and from Armenia, an increase in Turkish-Armenian trade and an improved overall economic environment in Armenia and eastern Turkey.”

The lifting of the blockade, imposed by Ankara in 1993 out of solidarity with Turkic Azerbaijan, has also been sought by Turkish business circles and local authorities in Turkey’s economically underdeveloped eastern regions. “The city is dying,” one of TARC’s Turkish members, Ustun Erguder, is quoted as telling Phillips after visiting Kars, a town near the Armenian border, in 2003.

Phillips reveals that in its efforts to convince the Turks the Bush administration went so far as to block a congressional resolution commemorating the 50th anniversary of America’s signing of the UN Genocide Convention. The bill referred to the near extermination of Ottoman Turkey’s Armenian population as genocide. “Cheney worked the phones and was assured by [House of Representatives speaker] Dennis Hastert that [the resolution] H.R. 193 would be kept from the House floor,” he says.

Hastert had already incurred the ire of the influential U.S.-Armenian community in October 2000 when he thwarted the almost certain passage of a similar genocide bill under pressure from then President Bill Clinton. Armenia’s President Robert Kocharian, it is claimed in the book, was furious when he received Stephen Sestanovich, an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, in Yerevan in November 2000.

“Kocharian was in a foul mood and railed against Clinton’s betrayal. He was so cantankerous that participants in the meeting thought Kocharian was still suffering the aftereffects from his oral surgery. The president had just returned from a visit to his dentist in Paris.”

Successive Turkish cabinets made the border opening conditional on a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that would restore Azerbaijan’s control over the Armenian-populated disputed territory. But the Erdogan government signaled a softening of this policy when it began accentuating other preconditions such as an end to the Armenian campaign for international recognition of the genocide and an unequivocal recognition by Yerevan of Turkey’s borders.

Phillips says Gul was assured by U.S. officials that “Armenia has never claimed any Turkish territory.” Kocharian had made that clear in a February 2001 interview with prominent Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand. The interview, as it turns out, was arranged by Phillips and “helped mollify concerns about Armenia’s intentions.”

The opening of the border was also advocated by all ten members of TARC, including two retired Turkish diplomats with a hard line on the genocide issue. Phillips says that when they met in July 2003 “the question was not whether the border would be opened but when.”

So why did it remain closed? The TARC facilitator suggests several reasons, the first and foremost of them being an apparent shift in the Bush administration’s regional priorities. He explains that as the security situation in Iraq deteriorated in the summer of 2003 Washington turned to the Turks for support and could no longer keep them under strong pressure.

“With the Bush administration preoccupied by Iraq, U.S. pressure on Ankara to open the Turkish-Armenian border all but disappeared,” Phillips says. “By the time Gul and [Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan] Oskanian met in New York on September 23, Gul knew he had the upper hand.”

Ankara would not even agree to a partial opening of the frontier for diplomatic passport holders and third-country nationals.

"I have no grounds to state at this point that the opening of the border is imminent," Oskanian declared in Yerevan on October 6, 2003.

Also, it appears that Azerbaijan’s strong opposition to the border opening remained a serious factor in Turkish foreign policy-making despite Erdogan’s overtures to Yerevan. The problem was further compounded by then Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev’s fatal illness. Phillips says another Turkish member of TARC, former Foreign Minister Ilter Turkmen, told him in August 2003 that “Ankara would never act with Heydar Aliev on his deathbed.”

Phillips also lays the blame on the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), one of the three parties represented in Kocharian’s government. “At a critical point in Ankara’s deliberations, the Dashnak Party launched a nonsensical campaign to keep the border closed,” he says, citing statements to that effect made by its leaders in July 2003. Some Armenian members of TARC likewise believe that those statements were exploited by the Turkish government.

Dashnaktsutyun leaders have claimed all long that cross-border trade would be highly detrimental because Armenian manufacturers would have trouble competing with cheap Turkish goods. They also say that a full normalization of bilateral ties is impossible without Turkey’s recognition of the genocide. Kocharian and the two other coalition parties, however, believe that an open border would be good for the struggling Armenian economy.

The Dashnaktsutyun stance also seems to contradicts the position of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), the pan-Armenian nationalist party’s lobbying arm in the U.S. The ANCA has for years denounced the Turkish blockade to lobby for U.S. economic assistance to Armenia and sanctions against Azerbaijan.

The closed border symbolizes the failure of the U.S. efforts so far to promote a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement that led to TARC’s inception in July 2001. In his book, Phillips complains that the commission, sponsored by the State Department, did not always receive sufficient support from Washington, saying the reconciliation process suffered “when the U.S. government neglected our efforts because its priorities lay elsewhere.”

“Honest self-criticism leads me to believe that we relied too much on U.S. officials to support our efforts,” he concludes.

(AP-Photolur photo: Recep Tayyip Erdogan.)