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Armenian-Turkish Relations Depend On People, Not Protocols

Most historical anniversaries are marked by either solemn commemorations or festive celebrations. Others, despite their initial significance, quickly fade from the public mind. The first anniversary of the historic "protocols" between Armenia and Turkey resembles the latter -- with little discussion and even less fanfare in either country.

The October 10, 2009, Armenian-Turkish protocols sought to chart a course toward a "normalization" of relations, but the initial optimism of opening long-closed borders and establishing diplomatic relations has now been proven premature, if not unfounded.

The breakdown of the Armenian-Turkish normalization process was largely due to two factors. First, Turkey made a strategic mistake in underestimating Azerbaijan's vehement opposition to the protocols. For Turkey, the protocols represented an important effort to correct a failed policy, as well as a bid to regain more options for Turkish policy, which had become subservient to Azerbaijan's interests.

Turkish policy in the region had become narrowly defined by the parameters of maintaining closed borders with Armenia and withholding diplomatic relations. Such a policy is not a policy, and it clearly failed to force any concessions from Armenia. Rather, it tended to be counterproductive, serving to unite Armenians and encouraging Armenia to adopt tactical responses to overcome its isolation.

The second factor that abruptly ended the process was the fact that the protocols themselves shifted from being a diplomatic effort to normalize relations with Armenia to become a domestic political issue within Turkey. The protocols became hostage to domestic Turkish politics, taking on a new context of accusation and insinuation, whereby Turkey's ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party was attacked by the opposition for supposedly betraying Turkey's traditional ally, Azerbaijan. Turkish-Azerbaijani relations were transformed from an important element of Turkish foreign policy to an essential component of domestic Turkish politics.

Informal Starts

Nonetheless, beyond the doomed protocols, a process of engagement has emerged between Armenia and Turkey. This engagement has taken place on several tracks, including expanding people-to-people contacts and cooperation between civil-society organizations, as well as more limited efforts in the cultural field.

Civil-society and people-to-people contacts have become quite dynamic, with regular exchanges and visits on both sides of the closed border. Within this context, although Turkey has yet to open the closed physical border, the mental border between Armenia and Turkey has opened, at least partially.

This opening can be seen in this week's (October 14-17) visit to Armenia of over two dozen Turkish civil-society activists and leaders, participating in the so-called Ani Dialogue, featuring several days of events with their Armenian counterparts. Organized by the Istanbul-based Hrant Dink Foundation (named in memory of the slain Turkish-Armenian journalist) and implemented by the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan with the support of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, the Ani Dialogue represents an important form of engagement, despite the lack of formal diplomatic progress.

Moreover, in terms of facing the legacy of the genocide issue, the 1915-16 mass killing of Armenians by Turkish forces, Turkish society has also been moving, albeit too slowly at times. On April 24, when Armenians mark the anniversary of what they believe should be officially recognized as genocide, one of the most significant commemorative events was held not in Armenia, but in Istanbul itself, with Turkish participants.

Mixed Result

But there have also been missed opportunities -- especially in the cultural area, most recently involving the Turkish government's planned reopening of an Armenian church in Van. After many months of expectation and preparation, several thousand people attended a special ceremony marking the restoration of the historical Armenian Holy Cross Church on the island of Aghtamar at Lake Van. Most notably, Armenian priests were able to conduct services in the ancient church for the first time in 95 years.

Yet despite the emotional buildup to the ceremony, the long-awaited event turned out quite differently than expected. In many ways, the ceremony was a disappointment. It was also a missed opportunity. Only about 50 guests were able to attend the service in the small church, and about 1,500 Armenians, including 700 from Istanbul and about 200 from outside Turkey, watched nearby.

But many more were expected. And perhaps many more would have come, but things went wrong. Despite promises by various Turkish officials, the ceremony was held in a church with no cross. The cross itself was not the only problem, but the failure to erect it was seen by Armenians as a test of Turkish sincerity and goodwill. And, unfortunately, the way the event transpired meant the Turkish side failed that test.

The selection of this particular Armenian church by the Turkish officials was no accident. It has a special place in Armenian history, both as a religious symbol and because of its architecture. It was also the subject of an emotional appeal by the late Hrant Dink, who argued in 2005 that the church should be used "to restore our spent souls."

All this suggests that the best hope for real normalization is on the lowest level, people-to-people exchanges instead of state-to-state negotiations. But it also requires a reaffirmation of sincerity and commitment from the Turkish side. Otherwise, the October anniversary of the Armenian-Turkish protocols will remain nothing more than a footnote to a shared history whose interpretation remains anything but shared.

Richard Giragosian is the director of the Yerevan-based Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS). The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL