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Will Serzh Sarkisian's Biggest Gamble Pay Off?

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Turkish President Abdullah Gul during the two countries' World Cup football match.
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Turkish President Abdullah Gul during the two countries' World Cup football match.
A little less than three years ago, Serzh Sarkisian, then Armenian defense minister, nailed his foreign-policy colors to the mast by publishing in the "Wall Street Journal" a commentary calling for Turkey and Armenia to establish diplomatic and good-neighborly relations with no preconditions on either side.

At the time, the prospect of doing so appeared little short of utopian, given the lingering enmity and mutual suspicion that have imbued public sentiment in both countries for the past nine decades. Indeed, just weeks after Sarkisian's op-ed appeared, Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who had campaigned fearlessly for reconciliation between the two countries, was shot dead in Istanbul.

Now, thanks in large part to Sarkisian's personal commitment and with the support of the United States, the two countries are tantalizingly close to attaining that goal.

Shortly after his disputed election as president in February 2008, Sarkisian began pursuing his vision in earnest. In June 2008, he said he was ready to accept in principle a Turkish proposal to form a commission of Armenian and Turkish historians that would examine the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, which Armenia has long insisted Ankara should publicly acknowledge constituted a policy of genocide. (Such a commission was initially proposed in 2005 by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to then-Armenian President Robert Kocharian, who rejected it.) But Sarkisian made clear through a spokesman that the commission should be created only after Turkey agrees unconditionally to establish diplomatic relations and open its border with Armenia.

At Sarkisian's invitation, Turkish President Abdullah Gul travelled to Yerevan in September 2008 to attend a soccer match between the two countries' national teams. In late April, the Armenian and Turkish foreign ministries released a statement saying they had agreed, with Switzerland acting as mediator, on a "road map" setting out steps to be taken to normalize relations.

And in late August, two draft protocols on establishing formal diplomatic ties were unveiled for public discussion. The first affirms the shared desire of the two countries to establish good neighborly relations and their "willingness to chart a new pattern and course for their relations on the basis of common interests, goodwill, and in pursuit of peace, harmony, and mutual understanding."

It further confirms their mutual recognition of the existing border between the two countries, and the shared decision to open it. Turkey closed the border in the early summer of 1993 after Armenian forces occupied several districts of Azerbaijan bordering the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

The second protocol outlines three sets of measures to be undertaken to develop bilateral relations. The first of these is the opening of the border within two months of ratification of the protocols by the two countries' parliaments. The second encompasses regular consultations between the two countries' foreign ministries; a "dialogue on the historical dimension" (meaning the creation of Gul's proposed joint commission to research the 1915 killings); and developing transport, communications, and energy infrastructure and networks. The third is the creation of an intergovernmental commission plus sub-commissions to monitor the timely implementation of those proposed steps.

Bid For Support

The draft protocols occasioned a firestorm of criticism in Yerevan from opposition parties across the political spectrum that argued against either abjuring in perpetuum any claims on Turkish territory, or not pegging the establishment of bilateral ties to a formal Turkish acknowledgement of and apology for the 1915 killings, or both.

Sarkisian did his best to ignore that criticism, undertaking instead a tour of cities in France, the United States, Lebanon, and Russia that have sizeable Armenian émigré populations in a not-very-successful bid to win diaspora support for the rapprochement.

Finally, on October 11, the two countries' foreign ministers signed the twin protocols in Zurich after a delay of several hours occasioned by objections by both sides to the wording of the statement the other intended to make following the signing. That last-minute glitch only served to underscore the tenuous and precarious nature of the undertaking.

Scarcely was the ink dry on the two signatures when Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan implicitly pegged ratification of the protocols by the Turkish National Assembly to a withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani territory.

"We want all conflicts to be resolved and we want all borders to be opened at the same time," Erdogan said in a televised speech. "[But] as long as Armenia does not withdraw from the occupied territories in Azerbaijan, Turkey cannot take up a positive position.... If problems between Azerbaijan and Armenia are resolved, the public would more easily accept Turkish-Armenian relations. Approval in the Turkish National Assembly would be so much easier," he said. The Turkish parliament vote is reportedly scheduled for October 21.

The Azerbaijan Factor

Sarkisian downplayed Erdogan's comments, suggesting they were intended primarily to mollify Baku. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry had issued a statement on October 11 saying that normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia prior to the desired withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani territory "directly contradicts Azerbaijan's national interests and casts a shadow on the brotherly relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan."

But Sarkisian reasoned that "if the Turks are not going to ratify the protocols, then why did they sign them in the first place? Maybe they thought that we might not display sufficient will and take a step back. Maybe."

"In any case, the ball is in the Turkish court today, and we have enough patience to await further developments," Sarkisian continued. "If the Turks ratify the protocols, if they stick to the agreed timetable, we will continue the process. If not, we will not be bound by anything and will do what we have announced."

Galust Sahakian, who heads the parliament faction of Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), said on October 12 that Armenia's National Assembly will start debating the protocols only after they are approved by its Turkish counterpart. "If Turkey makes any reservations, our parliament will not even include [the issue] on its agenda," said Sahakian.

HHK Deputy Chairman Razmik Zohrabian took an even tougher stance, hinting that the Armenian side may well annul the agreements if they do not come into force "before next spring." "If the process drags on, then we could declare the signed document null and void in accordance with international law," Zohrabian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service.

Zohrabian added that Sarkisian and Gul would discuss the timeframe for ratification over dinner on October 13 before watching the return Armenia-Turkey soccer match in Bursa. But in comments after that meeting, neither president mentioned a date for ratification.

If it does come to a parliament vote, Sarkisian's HHK controls 61 seats in the 131-mandate parliament; its coalition allies Prosperous Armenia (BH) and Law-Based State have 25 and eight mandates respectively. Both those parties have signaled their support for the establishment of formal relations with Turkey.

Sarkisian has long had the reputation of being a passionate gambler. It is too earlier to say whether he may have overplayed his hand in this case.