Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sarksyan and Erdoğan: What to do now?

After some “ifs and buts” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will be present in Washington, D.C., for the nuclear security summit and will use the occasion to intensely discuss where to go in the paralyzed “normalization process” with Armenia.

Developments in the global scene should have taught Turkish leaders that the historic dimensions of what happened to Ottoman Armenians in 1915 need proper closure, before the centenary of the Great Armenian Tragedy in 2015. The pursuit of truth by independent scholars will have to go on, and the media will commemorate this event -- among other tragedies in the horrendous 20th century -- with old and new material.
One such example was a detailed documentary aired by German ARD TV. Called “Aghet” (Catastrophe), the 90-minute program contained some new material, also highlighting the passive involvement of German officers (Ottoman allies in World War I) and the open knowledge of Berlin of what took place in Anatolia, as documented in a letter by then-Chancellor of the German Reich Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg on the German ambassador’s proposal to publicly rebuke Germany’s Ottoman allies for the crime. “Our only goal was to keep Turkey on our side until the end of the war, regardless of whether or not Armenians perished.” It is only fair that we know more and more about this dark episode.
But what will be done today is at least as important as knowing more about the past. All the sides involved now act with a knowledge that time is the enemy of the process, particularly in regard to the political “high pressure” in Turkey and a growing concern that political forces in Armenia against “normalization” might replace Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan in the next elections. In the US, Congress has become irritated by what it saw as “Ankara dragging its feet, just to leave the issue to posterity.”
In today’s Turkey, passing the protocols in Parliament is almost impossible, given the difficult circumstances and an overloaded agenda. On the other hand, Yerevan knows that the patience expected of it might strengthen the mindset in Armenia that “Turks are never to be trusted.”
What to do? The recent visits to Yerevan and Baku by Feridun Sinirlioğlu, undersecretary at the Turkish Foreign Ministry, seem to have eased the tension a bit. Yet the real deal will be in Washington, D.C., on what to say and do and how to involve the two leaders in some concrete steps, which seem necessary. The priority might be given to those steps that do not necessitate an approval of the protocols in the parliaments.
A fine set of short-term proposals are to be found in a fresh paper written by Thomas de Waal -- a prominent expert on the Caucasus -- for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He outlines the following points: a) an opening of the Armenia-Turkey border for noncommercial travelers; b) a limited opening of a zone next to the Armenia-Turkey border that contains the medieval Armenian city of Ani, now just inside Turkish territory; c) a Turkish government initiative to invite diaspora Armenians to visit the ancient Armenian heritage sites of Anatolia; and d) the opening of a regular Turkish Airlines route between İstanbul and Yerevan.
De Waal also suggests that the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan is a “potential ‘win-win’ area” in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, noting, “All sides would win if Armenia were to agree to open up communications and rebuild shared infrastructure with Nakhichevan in tandem with the opening of the Armenia-Turkey border.”
I would add that Ankara may encourage respected Turkish universities to invite prominent scholars of the diaspora for a series of regular(ized) conferences in Turkey with independent (not “state sponsored”) Turkish academics to openly discuss (not bargain over) the history.
These conferences may prepare the stage for what de Waal correctly recommends as part of the “long-term strategy” for 2015. He concludes with a call to US President Barack Obama: “The president could deliver a message on April 24, 2010, in which he notes that the centenary commemorations are now five years away and pledges that, if still in office, he will join in those events (perhaps even in Yerevan), but in which he also promises the Turks a little peace until then by affirming his faith in the internal debate in Turkey. Obama could say, ‘We hope to mark this tragic date with our Turkish friends, and not without them’.”
I can only agree. The ARD documentary, revealing “passive German involvement,” and, to a degree, a “shared responsibility,” is also helpful in a sense that Turkey can and must be assisted by its friends to develop a “joint link” to its past.

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