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'Genocide' Question Still Haunts Armenia-Turkey Relations

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian
Signaling a major policy shift, President Serzh Sarkisian has confirmed he is ready to accept, in principle, Turkey's proposal to form a commission of Armenian and Turkish historians that would examine the 1915-18 mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

Sarkisian on June 26 made clear through a spokesman, however, that such a commission should be created only after Turkey agrees unconditionally to establish diplomatic relations and open its border with Armenia. But on June 30, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), one of four parties represented in the coalition government, joined other opposition parties in criticizing Sarkisian's support for the Turkish proposal.

The proposal for a joint commission was formally made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a 2005 letter to then-Armenian President Robert Kocharian. Erdogan suggested that the proposed commission determine whether the massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire constituted genocide and said his government would accept any conclusion it reached.

In a written reply, Kocharian effectively rejected the idea and came up with a counterproposal to set up a Turkish-Armenian intergovernmental commission that would deal with this and other issues of mutual concern. Other Armenian officials, backed by local and diaspora scholars, dismissed Erdogan's move as a Turkish ploy designed to scuttle international recognition of the Armenian "genocide." They also said that by agreeing to the proposed study, the Armenian side would signal a willingness to consider doubts regarding the genocide question.

"We are not against the creation of such a commission, but only if the border between our countries is opened," Sarkisian declared during a visit to Moscow last week. His press secretary, Samvel Farmanian, reaffirmed this in a statement issued on June 26. "We are not against any study of even obvious facts and widely accepted realities," Farmanian said. "Agreeing to a study does not mean casting doubt on the veracity of facts. However, the creation of such a commission would be logical only after the establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of the border between our countries. Otherwise, it could become a tool for dragging out and exploiting existing problems."

Armenia's leading opposition groups, including the Popular Movement headed former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, were quick to condemn Sarkisian's comments, saying that by accepting Ankara's proposal in principle, he called into question the very fact of what many historians regard as the first genocide of the 20th century. Farmanian rejected that argument. "It is strange that the genocide issue is being exploited by individuals who had done everything in the past to condemn that tragic page of our history to oblivion," he said in a jibe at the more conciliatory line that Ter-Petrossian adopted vis-a-vis Turkey.

The opposition concerns have since been echoed by the HHD, which has for decades been known for its hard line on Armenia's relations with Turkey. The party's official position is that Turkey must not only admit to the genocide, but also compensate the descendants of victims and cede large swathes of its formerly Armenian-populated territory to Armenia. Successive Armenian governments have stressed, however, that Armenia has no formal territorial claims on Turkey. "Genocide recognition by Turkey will not lead to legal consequences for territorial claims," Kocharian stated in a 2001 interview with a Turkish TV station.

"We have received the necessary explanation and clarification from the president," Giro Manoyan, a spokesman for the HHD's governing bureau, told RFE/RL. "Also, the president's spokesman and the foreign minister have publicly clarified that the president's consent pertains to another kind of commission." In Manoyan's words, Sarkisian believes the would-be commission should not determine whether or not a genocide occurred in 1915-18 and should instead research "various details of the genocide." "In any case, our approach is that there was no need to make such statements and create this confusion in the first place," he said.

Manoyan also expressed his party's unease about Sarkisian's stated intention to invite Turkish President Abdullah Gul to the first-ever game between the national soccer teams of Armenia and Turkey, which will be played in Yerevan in early September. "I think that if the president of Turkey visits Yerevan, at least one part of our society will express its attitude," he said.

On July 1, the daily "Taregir" offered an alternative explanation for Sarkisian's affirmation of support for the establishment of a Turkish-Armenian commission of historians. "As is known, Moscow has always been jealous about the [prospect of a] normalization of relations between Yerevan and Ankara," says the paper. "The Kremlin has always managed to torpedo all initiatives aimed reopening the Turkish-Armenian border, fearing the loss of its influence in Armenia.

However, there have been suggestions lately that Russian capital, which is increasingly establishing itself in Armenia, is keen to use our country as a launch pad for occupying the vast Turkish market. That is, Moscow is not against an open border, provided that border is under its control. So maybe Sarkisian's proposal should be viewed in that context."