An Interview with Antranig Kasbarian
Below is an interview with the ARF Eastern U.S. Central Committee chairperson Dr. Antranig Kasbarian on the recent developments in Turkey-Armenia relations and the exit of the ARF from Armenia’s governing coalition.
Armenian Weekly—The ARF’s withdrawal from the ruling coalition isn’t a total surprise; there had been rumors to this effect for some time now. Can you provide more specific details on how things evolved up to the final decision made on April 26, 2009?
Antranig Kasbarian—It’s no secret that the ARF had been uncomfortable as a member of the ruling coalition. Indeed, at times the party nearly walked out—most recently last fall, when the Armenian government gave signs of becoming more pliable on the status of Karabagh. During the most recent phase, relations became strained starting in April, when the government began to ignore our warnings and displayed an evasive approach to our requests for information on the progress of bilateral discussions. Finally, the Armeno-Turkish “road map” announced on April 22, followed by President Barack Obama’s disappointing statement—openly reinforcing that very road map—made it clear that Armenia’s fundamental interests are being subverted. In such a situation, we could no longer justify neither to ourselves nor to others staying in such a government.
A.W.—Recently, during a visit to Washington, Armenia’s Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian stated that previous methods have failed and it is time to test “new styles and approaches.” What are your comments on that?
A.K.—At face value, Mr. Nalbandian’s comments seem progressive, even innovative. But beneath the fancy slogans, we see actually a retreat in the conduct of Armenia’s diplomacy: Time and again, Turkey has demonstrated a bold, flexible, and pro-active approach that has paid dividends. And Armenia’s approach, by contrast, has often been passive and timid, to the point of servility. The most recent example stings like a slap in our face: Within hours of Obama’s statement, Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul wrote to Obama, protesting that his statement was biased, especially in its failure to mention the “Armenian massacres of Turks” in 1915! As disgusting as it may sound, Gul’s letter actually is a brilliant stroke of pro-active diplomacy—taking a statement fundamentally favorable to Turkey and, rather than being satisfied with it, actually attacking it for not being strong enough. Armenia, by contrast, has been silent—unless you count today’s [April 29] belated interview given for domestic consumption, where Mr. Nalbandian applauded Obama’s statement, especially for using the term “Meds Yeghern.” Here, I think the Foreign Minister is missing the point entirely, and it’s troubling that his positions directly contradict the statements made by many diasporan organizations. By accepting Obama’s words, he is pointing toward defeatism.
A.W.—What can realistically be expected of Armenian-Turkish relations? How would Armenia benefit from it?
A.K.—Of course this is the looming question—and a very difficult one at that. Armenia continues to seek “normalization without preconditions,” i.e. opening the borders and establishing diplomatic relations before having to give up anything. The problem is that Turkey doesn’t need or want such normalization. Rather, it wants to score diplomatic points in front of the European Union, which it desperately seeks to join, as well as the U.S., which is also interested in such rapprochement. This, I believe, is Turkey’s immediate goal from a diplomatic standpoint. At the same time, it seeks advantage on three substantive issues, specifically: 1) cessation/relaxation of the drive towards genocide recognition; 2) explicit recognition of its current borders in which Armenia relinquishes any land claims; 3) a chance to exercise leverage in the ongoing Karabagh negotiations with Azerbaijan.
Unless Armenia shows some pliancy on these issues, Turkey has little incentive to normalize its relations. Knowing that Armenia’s chief aim is to open the borders, Turkey has pressured Armenia towards pliancy—to the point of defeatism. So how are things progressing? Quite nicely for the Turkish side, I would think: If these negotiations succeed, Turkey will likely gain as noted above; if they don’t, Turkey will still gain favor with the West—the U.S. especially—simply by engaging in dialogue that appears constructive. In this light, the longer these discussions carry on, whether they bear fruit or not, the easier it will be for Turkey to delay and derail genocide acknowledgment, under the cover of “we’re already working together to solve our problems.”
The Armenian side, meanwhile, starts from a much weaker position. To begin, it is under obvious pressure to open its borders with Turkey as an alternative to Georgia—the latter having become risky and unreliable due to its struggle with Russia. But this is not all: The current Armenian authorities are also under pressure from the West. Last year’s election fiasco has left President Serge Sarkisian’s regime scrambling to bolster its legitimacy—both domestically and especially abroad, where the U.S. and others have used the fraudulent elections to exercise leverage. They periodically chastise Yerevan for its record on democracy and human rights, threatening to withhold much needed development assistance. Well, now President Sarkisian has figured out a way to make the U.S. forget these problems: Make nice with Turkey and you get a free pass on domestic problems. But while this may take pressure off Sarkisian temporarily, such a “friendly” approach may not correspond to our national interests. Quite the contrary, in fact.
A.W.—What next? As an opposition party, what will be the task of the ARF? Can we foresee any drastic changes?
A.K.—Certainly there will be changes—important ones, we hope. But I wouldn’t expect a sudden or drastic shift, mainly because the ARF is in a cautious phase right now. We are feeling out the political landscape, looking for those social strata and potential forces we can work with. This will necessarily take time. Also, while the ARF is no stranger to opposition politics, it is in a more difficult situation now than in the 1990’s under Levon Ter-Petrosian. Back then, the party faced a regime that openly disdained it, and yet the ARF went to the wall for principles it believed in. In the process, the ARF also paid a heavy price that set us back several years due to the banning of the party. Today’s ARF leadership is wary of returning to such extreme and marginal conditions. If there is a way to fashion a constructive opposition stance, I believe the ARF will do so. But we must be careful in distinguishing between “constructive” and “soft” because, I believe today more than ever, Armenia needs a strong opposition—one that is principled, bold, and effective, keeping the authorities honest and curtailing their excesses in both the national and social realms. I’m also eager to see the ARF revitalize its social agenda—which often diverges from that of the authorities—and become outspoken for human and civil rights. In recent years, this approach sometimes became muted or suppressed for the sake of larger goals we thought we shared with the administration. Now that the national visions have diverged, perhaps it is time to take off the gloves, as it were, and rededicate ourselves to the field of social justice—a difficult field to be sure, but one that is an important part of who we are. It will be an interesting ride in the coming months.