The Hairenik and Armenian Weeklies this week conducted an interview with ARF Eastern U.S. Central Committee chairperson Antranig Kasbarian on the recent developments in Turkey-Armenia relations. Below is the full-transcript of the interview.
Armenian Weekly—How do you explain the recent developments in Turkey-Armenia relations?
Antranig Kasbarian—For many years since its independence, Armenia has faced pressure—primarily from the West—to “get on with it,” that is, to develop good neighborly relations with its traditional enemies, Turkey and Azerbaijan. In the development of such relations, there has always been a price tag attached: Turkey wants certain well-known concessions in return for opening the border, Azerbaijan wants other well-known concessions in return for lifting its blockade, and so on. But while Armenia has faced pressure to accept these terms, it has managed, for the most part, to avoid doing so. This is partly due to Armenia’s own diplomatic maneuvers. But above all, it is due to the geopolitics of the Caucasus region and beyond. Whenever the West sought to extract concessions, Russia loomed large as a counterbalance, often neutralizing diplomatic and other offensives that would have seriously weakened Armenia.
Unfortunately for Armenia, today Russia isn’t playing the same role it did previously. Relations with the U.S. have begun to thaw and Russia seeks to neutralize Georgia as a factor in the Caucasus, while at the same time wooing Turkey to develop greater economic and security cooperation with Moscow. As a result, Russia hasn’t always countered the pressure placed upon Armenia. In fact, at times it has reinforced it. This development helps explain the rapid rise of “football diplomacy” and its ilk during the past year.
This forms the backdrop to recent developments, in which Armenia has sought an opening of the border with Turkey, for which Turkey appears to have placed three conditions: a) creating a joint mechanism to re-evaluate Armeno-Turkish history, which naturally includes the Genocide issue; b) gain Armenia’s formal acknowledgement of its borders, thereby upholding the dispossession of Western Armenia; and c) use the border opening as leverage in promoting a Karabagh settlement that is to Azerbaijan’s liking. So far, it appears that Turkey is winning the battle, as it has used this process to temporarily sideline Armenian Genocide recognition here in the U.S., while gradually gaining Armenia’s consent to concessions that may irreparably harm the Armenian Cause as well as Armenia’s own national security.
A.W.—There is constant talk about the great economic benefits of opening the border with Turkey. What are your thoughts on that matter?
A.K.—We often hear that Armenia is a landlocked country with few reliable neighbors, and how open borders will stimulate Armenia’s economy. These are truisms, but they lack any serious research as to how Armenia stands to be affected. Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Davit Lokyan, a member of the ARF Bureau and formerly Armenia’s minister of agriculture, who headed a committee that researched this matter and found the contrary: Armenia’s economy, without significant advance planning, was likely to suffer as a result of the border opening. He gave a variety of reasons for this, but the main reason was that Turkey is simply better prepared for this eventuality—subsidizing large sectors of its economy, particularly agriculture, that would likely end up competing with Armenia. This finding leads me to worry that beneath the slogans, Armenia’s government hasn’t done its homework.
A.W.—There is wide consensus that the protocols are damaging to the Armenian cause. Is Armenia between a rock and a hard place?
A.K.—Of course they are damaging. Look, no one expects Armenia to engage in suicidal confrontations with Turkey, but this degree of silence is simply unexplainable. Armenians worldwide do expect their government to affirm and stand by the historical realities, especially at a time when we’re being pressured to give them up. And it’s not just a matter of morals; clearly, Turkey is placing various preconditions upon Armenia, seeking to probe and exploit its weaknesses. Where is the corresponding pushback? I don’t see it. Armenia’s diplomacy has been alarmingly passive and compliant.
A.W.—A few days after the protocols were made public, news surfaced that Turkey is going to launch a new lobbying initiative in the west, which also includes lobbying against Armenian Genocide recognition…
A.K.—I see this as a logical move on Turkey’s part: When your moves aren’t being contested, why not ask for more? Turkey sees that Armenia’s behaving passively, so it periodically makes moves that are provocative, basically to see how far it can go. We’ve seen other, similar acts in recent months: Recall Ankara’s official protest to Obama on April 24, immediately following his statement that failed to properly acknowledge the genocide. Turkey should have been delighted with Obama’s statement, but no, they weren’t taking any chances. They went and protested the statement for not having gone far enough! Apparently, Obama angered them because he failed to make mention of those Turks who had been massacred by Armenians in 1915! Outrageous as this appears, such a move is a bold stroke of diplomacy—always asking for more than you have. Armenia has taken the opposite position, always seemingly contented with whatever meager provisions are offered it.
A.W.—The Turkish government continues to reiterate that the protocols will only be implemented when Azerbaijan’s concerns are addressed. What do you make of this position?
A.K.—Of course, such moves jeopardize the whole process. To begin, Turkey’s statements reflect its ultimate lack of good faith in this whole process. Of course, this jeopardizes the whole process. If Ankara were truly interested in improving bilateral ties, it would keep its side-discussions with Azerbaijan quiet. Ankara knows how sensitive this issue is for Armenia. The fate of Karabagh is not only symbolic, but holds the key to Armenia’s national security. The fact that Turkey constantly brings these into public discussion means that it isn’t fully serious about the rapprochement process and that, frankly speaking, Turkey can do without normalization. In evaluating the rhetoric, one gets the sense that Armenia wants this agreement more than Turkey does. The Turks can take it or leave it, if it’s not to their liking. If I were an Armenian policymaker, I would cringe at this state of affairs, where we’re negotiating but everyone knows that we’re dying to make this deal. In negotiating situations, that is the “kiss of death.”
A.W.—Will the waves of protest in Armenia and the diaspora be able to stop these protocols from being implemented?
A.K.—This is the $64,000 question! All I can say is this: For months, we’ve heard that the Armenian government is under enormous pressure to come to terms with Turkey. If such pressure comes from above, where is the corresponding pressure from below? If there is none from below, then it’s natural to expect Yerevan to soften or retreat in some way. The only way to keep our authorities honest and accountable is to pressure them: They must feel somehow that they will take a hit if they make this move. We can’t simply try to educate our authorities, explaining repeatedly why such protocols are dangerous. We need to make them take notice. This means making noise, and it also means making bold, unprecedented decisions. For example, I welcome the tentative noises coming from Yerevan, where people wonder what might happen if the ARF, Armenian National Congress, Heritage Party, and others possibly come together to combat these moves by the government. That, in my view, will create a stir and certainly will be cause for concern by the authorities. Let’s not forget that President Sarkisian faced a severe challenge to his legitimacy only 18 months ago, and is very sensitive to the shifting tides of public opinion.
A.W.—Many Armenian Americans are concerned about the protocols and they reject them. However, some feel uneasy about demonstrating in front of the Armenian Mission on Sept. 19. To ease those concerns, can you elaborate more on the specific purpose of the demonstration? Against whom is the protest being held? And why was this specific venue chosen?
A.K.—Let me be clear: This is not about some ordinary disagreement. These protocols represent an advanced stage, perhaps the final stage, in Turkey’s effort to bury our national demands—the Armenian Cause, most broadly. When fundamental issues are now put on the block (i.e. creating committees that could question the genocide’s incontrovertible nature, i.e. affirming Turkey’s current borders which are based on genocide and dispossession), the time for niceties has passed. In our view, the Armenian government has crossed a major line here. The authorities, not the ARF, should be the ones worried about proprieties at this stage.
On a more practical note, let me say this: We are facing a momentous stage in our national history, and there may be only weeks until these protocols are up for signing. Our valuable time should be spent in convincing our own government—through all means necessary—that this move would betray Armenia’s fundamental interests. We don’t have time to convince the Turks, the Swiss, the Americans, whose interests lie somewhere else. Our only hope is to convince our own government and public. If we fail to do all that we can, and find later that the worst has been realized, how will we react then? Will we say, “It’s really terrible what has happened, but at least we behaved politely with our authorities”? No. At a time when the knife has reached the bone, we must be guided by our larger principles. It’s imperative that we stand up for what is right. Yes, even by publicly confronting our own government. This is not sacrilege. Rather, it’s a reflection of how far Armenia has strayed, how much its policies and positions have deteriorated.