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Armenia/Turkey: Reconciliation Effort Runs Into Trouble

A U.S.-backed initiative to improve relations between Armenia and Turkey is in tatters following a dispute between participants representing the two estranged nations. RFE/RL correspondent Emil Danielyan reports from the Armenian capital, Yerevan.

Yerevan, 21 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The controversial Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) appears to have collapsed less than six months after it was set up with the behind-the-scenes backing of the U.S. State Department.

There have been no visible efforts to revive the commission since its four Armenian members accused their six Turkish counterparts of reneging on an earlier agreement to seek an independent judgment on whether the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire constituted genocide.

The Armenian members said in a statement last month that the commission "is not going to proceed" because the Turks "unilaterally" told a New York-based human rights organization not to conduct the study. The study was supposed to determine whether the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide is applicable to the Armenian massacres.

The decision to request such an analysis from the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) was taken at a TARC meeting in New York in late November. It was touted as an important element of the reconciliation effort.

Former Armenian Foreign Minister Alexander Arzoumanian explains the decision to withdraw from the commission:

"Mutual trust and respect for agreements is vital for the success of any joint undertaking and the Turkish-Armenian commission in particular. Since these principles have been violated [by the Turkish side], we Armenian members found it expedient to stop our participation for the time being."

The Turkish participants have so far stopped short of explicitly denying Armenia's claims. One of them, scholar Ustun Erguder, says they are not against an international study on this, the thorniest issue in Turkish-Armenian relations.

Erguder, who is director of the Istanbul Policy Center at Sabanci University, blames the row on a lack of communication between the two sides:

"I think there were some misunderstandings, and I don't think we ever intended to do that."

Another Turkish member of TARC, retired diplomat Gunduz Aktan, charged in a recent newspaper article that the initiative has all but failed because "the Armenians are not yet ready for such a peace process." Aktan made no mention of the planned genocide study.

Differing interpretations of the bloody events of 1915 are at the heart of a deep divide separating the two neighbors. In many historical accounts, some 1.5 million people were massacred and starved to death in a systematic campaign to exterminate the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. Modern-day Turkey denies the massacres were genocide and puts the Armenian death toll at 300,000. Ankara maintains that Ottoman Armenians were repressed because of their cooperation with advancing Russian troops during World War I.

TARC's 10 members -- among them two former foreign ministers -- had initially tried to facilitate the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations without debating the validity of each other's position on this sensitive issue. The appeal to the ICTJ in New York was the first practical step.

The Armenian members of TARC believe reconciliation is impossible without addressing this issue. They suggest the Turkish members may have been pressured by their government into withdrawing their consent to the genocide study.

Meanwhile, both sides maintain the TARC initiative is still alive. Erguder says:

"The feelings of my colleagues are that we would like to see it exist. But that may be a wish, I don't know. The time will show. I personally hope that it could be salvaged. I think it could be salvaged."

David Phillips, a U.S. scholar and State Department adviser who has moderated TARC meetings, says he has "some plans" to resurrect the commission. Details are not known, but it appears doubtful that anything can save the commission from utter collapse at this point.

The Armenian Assembly of America, a Washington-based organization that is a strong backer of the reconciliation drive, believes the dialogue should continue even if TARC finally falls apart. Arpi Vartanian is director of the assembly's Yerevan office.

"This does not alter or negate the importance of the need for both the Turks and Armenians to discuss the issues that are important for both of them. That work still must go forward. In what form, in what way, by whom, that remains to be seen."

While the commission has enjoyed public support in Turkey, its activities have been highly controversial in Armenia and among the large Armenian diaspora. Critics say its de facto failure vindicates their belief that the Turkish government is using the initiative only to keep Western countries from passing resolutions recognizing the Armenian genocide.

They argue that Ankara still links establishment of diplomatic relations with Yerevan to the restoration of Azerbaijan's sovereignty over the Armenian-controlled region of Nagorno-Karabakh.