By Emil Danielyan and Ruzanna Khachatrian
President Serzh Sarkisian appealed to Turkey on Wednesday with a fresh initiative to normalize its historically strained relations with Armenia.
“The time has come for a fresh effort to break this deadlock, a situation that helps no one and hurts many,” he said in an op-ed article published by “The Wall Street Journal.” “As president of Armenia, I take this opportunity to propose a fresh start – a new phase of dialogue with the government and people of Turkey, with the goal of normalizing relations and opening our common border.”
Sarkisian noted that Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul was one of the first foreign leaders to congratulate him on his victory in Armenia’s recent presidential election. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan sent similar messages to their newly appointed Armenian counterparts in April. They both said Ankara wants to engage in dialogue with Yerevan to address problems hampering the normalization of Turkish-Armenian ties.
It remains unclear, however, whether Turkey is ready to drop its preconditions for establishing diplomatic relations and opening its border with Armenia. One of those preconditions is an end to the Armenian campaign for international recognition of the 1915 massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide. The Erdogan government has suggested that the issue be dealt with by a commission of Turkish and Armenian historians, rather than foreign governments and parliaments.
Signaling a policy change, Sarkisian said last month Yerevan will not object to the creation of such a commission if Ankara agrees to unconditionally normalize bilateral ties. The move was condemned by the Armenian opposition and prompted concern from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), a junior partner in the governing coalition. Dashnaktsutyun leaders say Sarkisian has clarified that the would-be commission should study “details of the genocide,” rather that determine whether the mass killings constituted a genocide.
In his article, Sarkisian appeared to further backpedal on his June statement and revert to his predecessor Robert Kocharian’s belief that the genocide issue should be tackled by a Turkish-Armenian inter-governmental body. “Establishing normal political relations would enable us to create a commission to comprehensively discuss all of the complex issues affecting Armenia and Turkey,” he wrote. “We cannot expect tangible progress without such structured relations. Only through them can we create an effective dialogue touching upon even the most contentious historical issues.”
Sarkisian also reaffirmed his invitation to Gul to arrive in Yerevan on September and watch a World Cup qualifier match between the Armenian and Turkish national football teams. “Whatever our differences, there are certain cultural, humanitarian and sports links that our peoples share, even with a closed border,” he said. “This is why I sincerely believe that the ordinary people of Armenia and Turkey will welcome such a gesture and will cheer the day that our borders open.”
Meanwhile, a leading Dashnaktsutyun member on Wednesday played down the significance of Sarkisian’s invitation but did not exclude that his party could organize demonstrations to protest against Gul’s possible arrival in Armenia. “It is natural that Armenian society can not receive a high-ranking Turkish official as calmly as it would receive the president of, say, the Czech Republic or France,” Aghvan Vartanian told RFE/RL.
In a statement on Tuesday, Dashnaktsutyun’s leadership reaffirmed its strong opposition to the idea of a Turkish-Armenian commission of historians. Vartanian insisted that it was not a warning addressed to Sarkisian.
“Let us not look for subtexts,” said the former labor minister. “It’s just that this issue has been a subject of discussions in the last 10-15 days as a result of that statement by the president of the republic.”