By Haro Chakmakjian, AFP
Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian is reaching out to historical foe Turkey to normalize ties as the key step toward a political settlement on the ultra-sensitive issue of genocide recognition.
"For Armenia, recognition (of the genocide) by Turkey is not a precondition for normal, good neighborly relations," the Harvard-educated minister told AFP in an interview during a presidential visit to Cyprus.
Nine decades after what the Armenians, backed by many historians, term the genocide of some 1.5 million of their people in the Ottoman empire, Oskanian said both countries needed to "transcend" the horrors of their common past.
"This obstacle (of Turkish recognition) can be removed and memories can be ameliorated by new experiences, by interaction between the Turkish and Armenian people as neighbors," he said.
However, Oskanian scoffed at a proposal from Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan for historians from both sides to form a commission to study the bloody events of 1915-1917, which Ankara refuses to classify as genocide. "Erdogan's suggestion was a smokescreen," he charged, asking how any joint commission could be set up without diplomatic ties between Ankara and Yerevan, capital of Armenia which gained independence from the ex-Soviet Union in 1991. "This is a political issue. You've got to address this issue from a political angle."
Oskanian was also critical of what he called Turkey's new "state policy" of denial even as more countries join the ranks of states that officially recognize the genocide. "As more countries recognize, Turkey becomes -- as the record shows -- more aggressive in its policy of denial ... The Turks have never been this organized at a state level to pursue a policy of denial," he said.
Oskanian pointed to an article in Turkish law which punishes those who refer to the events of 1915 as genocide. Dozens of intellectuals -- among them 2006 Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk -- have been brought to court under an amendment in the penal law that makes it a crime to denigrate Turkish identity or insult state institutions.
The French parliament's adoption of a bill making public denial of the genocide in France punishable by law was "a clear reaction to the aggressive denialist policies of the Turkish government", he said. Oskanian held little hope in Washington exerting pressure on its
Turkish ally on the genocide issue because of its strategic interests, but it "must be more assertive in calling on Turkey to open the border" and normalize ties.
The minister, who himself was born in Syria, denied any gulf between Yerevan and Armenians of the Diaspora, who outnumber their three million compatriots in Armenia and have been at the forefront of a worldwide recognition campaign. "It's the moral obligation of every Armenian in Diaspora and in Armenia to remember and to pursue recognition because we think that will be the minimum compensation after almost 100 years," said the 51-year-old minister.
"Today we pursue recognition in different countries through their parliaments and that can only be pursued by their countries' citizens."
Oskanian tried to allay concerns that recognition could lead to claims for compensation. "Armenia today has on its foreign policy agenda only the issue of genocide recognition. That's what we are after as a nation," he said. But he admitted that the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region inside neighboring Azerbaijan, where the Armenians set up a breakaway state in 1992, posed a major obstacle for ties with Turkey. Ankara's "unequivocal solidarity with Azerbaijan also works against Turkey because it undermines their credibility and weight in the Caucasus ... and their claim to be a bridge between East and West", he charged.
Oskanian dismissed any similarity between Karabakh and a self-declared Turkish Cypriot statelet in north Cyprus, insisting the former emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the latter from a recognized UN member state. He acknowledged that Cyprus, with its division, and Armenia were proving obstacles to Turkey's ambition to join the European Union, but denied the two countries were working against Ankara.
"The purpose of our visit (to Cyprus) was to activate economic ties. We do have common issues we discussed but we never ganged up against anyone," Oskanian said.
On Friday, Armenian President Robert Kocharian, who hails from Karabakh, laid the foundation stone for a genocide monument to be built on the Larnaca seafront of Cyprus, where Armenian refugees from Ottoman Turkey landed.