It seems from the latest ANC-sponsored forum on Turkish-Armenian relations [held in Watertown on March 26] that the ARF is resigned to the fact that a document will be signed between the governments of Armenia and Turkey to start “normalization” of relationships. Unfortunately, the content of this document is not something that Armenians, either at home or in the diaspora, have been or will be privy to up until the last possible moment.
The sudden surge in the rapprochement efforts between the governments of Armenia and Turkey is a direct result of the most sophisticated efforts to date by the Turkish government to hinder efforts directed towards the affirmation of the Armenian Genocide by the United States government and elsewhere. Instead of sinking into a defensive posture as it has over the past few decades, the Turkish government has gone on the offensive, and in doing so has taken the lead and dictated the course of action. Hedging its bets on a democratic win in the U.S. presidential elections, the Turkish government laid out the groundwork for a much more potent and sophisticated TARC-style effort well ahead of the elections. Learning its lessons from the failures of TARC, the Turkish government decided to engage the Armenian government directly, killing two birds with one stone. On the one hand, it addressed one of the keys reasons for TARC’s failure, lack of involvement on part of the Armenian government, and on the other hand, it put the Armenian Diaspora, the driving force behind the recognition efforts, in a very complicated situation. As a bonus, they got to exploit one of their favorite tactics of late, driving a wedge between the diaspora and homeland Armenians. This tactical/diplomatic master plan was rewarded by a “football/soccer diplomacy” coup de grâce served by none other than the government of the Republic of Armenia.
On a side note, the originator of the term “football/soccer diplomacy” most likely based it on the Sino-American ping-pong rapprochement efforts of the 70’s, albeit clumsily and with minimal research. China and America were both large and powerful players on the international scene. Armenia, on the other hand, is a young, thinly populated and impoverished quasi state that is heavily burdened by corruption, lack of natural resources, and a non-existent industrial sector, which relies primarily on a service based economy, tourism, aid from other governments and world monetary institutions (both of which come with strings attached), and remittances from Armenians living and working abroad to stay afloat. Armenia holds some strategic advantages, mostly resultant from its geographic location; but this card has yet to be played, and when played, done so poorly. On the other hand, Turkey is a relatively vast and largely populated nation with the second largest standing army in NATO and one of the 20 largest economies in the world, boasting centuries of experience in diplomacy, warfare, and the subjugation of weaker neighbors. Turkey is hell bent on establishing itself as a regional power, aiming to shed its image as a minion of the United States, hence the motivation to block the U.S. troops’ transit routes to Iraq in 2003 and onward. Turkey has been dealing with a number of significant issues on the international stage, namely its EU ascension aspirations, relationships with Cyprus, Greece, Israel (who must stop playing the Armenian Genocide card every time it wants to settle a score with Turkey), Syria, Iran, and Russia, and the Kurdish problem (which is becoming a multi-pronged problem with the establishment of the Autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region and its cozy relationships with Israel), all of which are of much greater significance than the opening of borders and normalization of relationships with a poor and landlocked state. Therefore, to compare dialogue efforts between a small and weak state with its powerful neighbor, which has tried to annihilate the said small state in not too distant a past, to the Sino-American dialogue of the 70’s is irresponsible and flat out dangerous. Despite all the recent rapprochement dialogue, Turkey still is the first enemy and abettor of the second enemy of Armenia (anyone remember the repeated one nation two states declarations?), which has and continues to pose an existential threat towards Armenia and Armenians. Efforts to minimize this by any party, especially the Armenian government, are naive at best and treasonous at worst.
The other aspect of Turkey’s sophisticated denial effort is its recent relative openness to the leftist segment of its society, who is interested in addressing the “Great Catastrophe” that befell the Armenians at the turn of the 20th century. The government has learned the value of maintaining a pressure valve for external consumption, hoping to present an open-minded Turkey to the world, one that is capable of dealing with the dark corners of its history. While the actions of this segment of the Turkish population are lauded, they represent the state of mind of a small fraction of the country’s population. The recent apology campaign, which only offers a vague apology for an unspecified event and laments the complicity of the signatories by way of their long silence, was signed by less than five hundredth of one percent of the country’s population. While charges have been brought against the originators of this campaign and others who have spoken out on this issue recently, these charges are mostly for internal consumption and are not aimed at quashing the opposition voice. On the flip side, a number of other apology campaigns have sprung up demanding an apology from Armenians that have garnered a larger number of signatories so far. So, despite all these efforts, a deep seated fear and hatred against the non-Turkic segment of the Turkish society, be it Armenian, Jewish, or Kurdish, is still alive and well and requires only a small stimulus to rear its head. The large-scale anti-Semitic demonstrations in Turkey and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s public meltdown in Davos, in response to the most recent Israeli incursion into Gaza, are a case in point.
It is imperative that Armenia maintains normal relations with all its neighbors; however, given the tumultuous history of the region, this is much easier said than done. Turkey committed its biggest mistake in modern Turkish-Armenian relationships by closing its border to Armenia in 1993, effectively losing its leverage on the Armenian economy and as a result on the country’s political landscape. This mistake forced Armenia to adjust to an economic reality, where Turkey was relegated to a marginal direct role. While Armenia adjusted to this reality, it lost a golden opportunity, albeit in the form of a forcible protectionism (much like Turkey of the 80’s—without the coup d’états), to establish a sound macroeconomic foundation for growth, mainly due to absence of the requisite vision and commitment to establish an economically viable state and the pervasive corruption and get-rich-now attitude of the ruling class. The privatization and usurpation of Soviet Armenia’s assets along with a host of other less than honorable behavior made overnight oligarchs out of a handful of everyday thugs, who in turn divided the control of key national commodities amongst themselves, and seated sons, uncles, cousins, and other underlings in the National Assembly and other governmental positions to control the political landscape as well. Some went on to form political parties, assume the role of king maker, further crowding the already crowded field of political parties that revolve around a person and his ambitions regardless of the presence of a cogent ideology (or any ideology for that matter) or school of thought.
Out of nowhere, the economic advantages of opening the Turkish border has become a key driver of this rapprochement effort, despite the fact that the government of Armenia has failed to commission a single in-depth study into the feasibility and benefits of the opening of the border. A handful of studies, sponsored by entities with their own axes to grind, have been aimed at this question, yet the conflicting results of these studies further beckon an in-depth and independent analysis of this issue for the sake of the Armenian nation. What has the government of Armenia done to address trade, regulatory, and logistic issues associated with the opening of the border? What steps has the government of Armenia taken to help establish industries that can compete in an open market? What products does Armenia have to offer to Turkey besides cognac, beer, juices, cigarettes, jams, and fruits, all of which are readily available in Turkey via internal production and import? At the current rate, the opening will result in the flooding in of Turkish products in Armenia, bypassing the pre-existing clandestine trade route through Georgia; Turkish ownership of the few remaining businesses and commodities that are not owned by Russia; and total foreign control of the local economy from grains to fuel and other necessities, resulting in the ultimate subjugation of Armenia to the economic and political will of foreign entities, specifically a state with Armenian blood on its hands.
Suggestions have been made that this sense of urgency was felt in Armenia after the Russo-Georgian war, when the Russian bombing of a single bridge halted the import of essential grain destined for Armenia for weeks during one of its rounds of negotiation over nuclear fuel rod prices with Armenia. If Armenia’s strategic partner can openly engage in such a blackmail campaign, what would stop Turkey from closing the border, if and when Armenia takes a step that is slightly out of step with Turkish interests? This is all the more interesting, given the deafening public silence out of Russia on this issue, and given its near-whole ownership of anything that is bolted to a wall in Armenia.
Borders should be opened and relations should be normalized, but only after the government of Armenia has done its homework to create an equitable environment where Armenian citizens can stand to gain. The current setting will only help further enrich the band of oligarchs that control the lifeline of the country’s economy and the political elite that they support, and result in the inflow of Turkish money and influence into our political system.
Furthermore, given the bloody history between the two nations, the preconditions set by Turkey for normalization of relationships (no land claim, no genocide recognition, return of Artsakh to Azerbaijan), a transparent process for normalization must be established where input by Armenian citizens and the diaspora are taken into account. The Turkish government has not publicly backed down from its three preconditions; neither has it elaborated on the proposal to form a joint historical commission to “study the events of 1915.” On the other hand, Armenia’s Foreign Ministry has done a lousy job of alleviating the fears and misconceptions in the Armenian world, despite the less than convincing comments by Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian displaying his surprise on comments from the Turkish side vis-a-vis the genocide. To top it all off, Turkey has apparently prepared a road map for the Artsakh conflict. So, one can see that given Turkey’s history and the issues facing Armenia and the diaspora, a secret deal could only smell of rat.
This brings us down to the most important factor, the Armenian people. The euphoria associated with Armenia’s independence has subsided, and the joy of the liberation of Artsakh has all but disappeared. It seems that people are frozen in a state of apathy and have yet to grasp or do not care to grasp the significance of living in or having an independent (albeit quasi) Armenia after hundreds of years of subjugation to the rule of conquerors. The audible longing to return to the old Soviet system, especially among the older Armenian population, is a longing for more stables times. Many among this segment of the populace are more interested in the stability that came with the Soviet system despite its drawbacks, especially since they gave their fair share to the system during their more productive years, and were not in the mood to establish a new country in their silver years. The intelligent youth, full of energy and promise, has only the current environment to learn from. All they are exposed to is: corruption, whether involving high-level government entities or low-level bribes and quid pro quos for people to make ends meet; a boring and outdated educational system; the absence of a work ethic and professionalism; limited prospects for a productive life; and most importantly, the absence of any value system and/or a greater aim worth fighting for and an abject dearth of vision to help build a prosperous and progressive nation for all. On the flip side, the majority of the diaspora is content with spending a few weeks hanging out in the many cafes in Yerevan or cool off around Lake Sevan and similar places. The better off ones can enjoy their few weeks in their little apartments off of Northern Avenue, which turns into a ghost town the rest of the year. They also fulfill their annual “duty” by making a donation to the Armenia Fund, or help with little projects here and there. These, while worthwhile, are but a few scattered and uncoordinated droplets aimed to fill a canyon. A number of Diasporan Armenians got burnt out trying to take a positive step, while others found ways to deal with the system in Armenia to get something going. Unfortunately, no one is really interested in doing anything more than that, nor is anyone willing to think about much more. How is the Armenian mind to wrap itself around the concept of self-governance? Who will they blame when things don’t work out? There will be no usurper or conqueror to be blamed. Armenians have not produced leaders for so long, that it seems they have forgotten how to do so, and even if they did, they would not know what to expect from them and how to act around them. They expect their leaders to be corrupt and motivated by self-interest and greed, so they get nothing more than that in their leadership. This arrangement gives them a scapegoat to blame and an excuse to sit on the periphery and complain about the system and the leadership without doing much at all.
In conclusion, it seems that Turkey is anxious to make the “normalization” announcement, regardless of Armenia’s hesitations, either before or during President Barack Obama’s visit to Turkey. Timing is of the essence here, especially given the amount of effort and resources that the Turkish government has invested in this plot. What Armenia needs is a well thought-out plan to emerge as a sustainable and sovereign nation. Given the neighborhood that Armenia is in, this will only be possible through sovereign access to open waters and reliance on its own resources. What it does not need are gimmicks, shady deals, and corrupt leadership. Everyone knows what Turkey is up to; what people do not know is where the Armenian leadership stands.
It is at times like these that one wishes that the ARF would live up to its illustrious revolutionary history. They returned to change Armenia in 1991, yet it seems it was Armenia that changed them. Now, they are resigned to worrying about when the ax will drop, instead of stopping it.