An initiative to promote a thaw in Armenian-Turkish relations appears to have fallen flat. The leaders of the two countries recently exchanged unprecedented diplomatic notes that explored rapprochement possibilities. But the letters did not achieve the desired effect of easing decades of mutual animosity.
The inability of Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to meet on the sidelines of a Council of Europe summit in Warsaw in mid-May signaled the collapse of the rapprochement initiative.
Erdogan reportedly refused to meet Kocharian because of the latter's renewed calls during the summit for international recognition of the 1915-1923 slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide. Turkey vehemently denies that the mass killings constituted a genocide, insisting that Ottoman Armenians died in much smaller numbers and mainly as a result of civil strife.
Erdogan responded angrily to Kocharian's statements at the summit. "Turkey cannot accept such baseless allegations," he told a separate news conference in the Polish capital.
Armenia scoffed at the criticism of Turkish leaders, with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian saying that policy makers in Ankara "naively" thought that Kocharian himself would request a meeting with Erdogan. Oskanian additionally accused the Turkish leadership of insincerity, alleging that Ankara never had any intention of altering its policy position.
"As a result of wrong Turkish calculations, the more or less favorable atmosphere created by the exchange of letters was spoiled," Oskanian told Armenian state television on May 20. "We took a step backward in Turkish-Armenian relations because of the Turks."
Erdogan wrote to Kocharian in April suggesting that the two countries, which have no diplomatic relations, set up a commission of historians that would look into the 1915 events and determine whether they were indeed a genocide. The unusual move came ahead of the April 24 worldwide ceremonies commemorating the 90th anniversary of the start of mass killings and deportations. It was welcomed by the United States and some European leaders.
But Kocharian effectively rejected the idea, contending that the Armenian genocide was already an established fact. At the same time, he called for the creation of an Armenian-Turkish inter-governmental commission that would discuss all issues of mutual concern, including the genocide controversy.
In response to Kocharian's offer, Turkish officials suggested that the two contending proposals could be combined. "On the one hand, political relations could be established," Erdogan said in a newspaper interview on April 29. "On the other hand, the work (on the historical archives) could continue."
As leaders of the two countries engaged in political maneuvering in late April and early May, speculation mounted that Kocharian and Erdogan might hold their first-ever face-to-face meeting during the Warsaw summit May 16-17. As it turned out, however, the parties did not even come close to achieving a breakthrough in Warsaw.
The Turkish prime minister also called on Armenia to halt efforts to secure international recognition for the 1915-23 events as genocide. The Turkish daily Zaman reported on May 31 that Ankara plans no further diplomatic initiatives on the Armenian front.
The Armenian leadership, for its part, insists that the two nations must establish diplomatic relations, and that Ankara must lift the embargo against Armenia, before the two governments can tackle contentious issues.
As Armenia and Turkey explored the rapprochement, the United States remained diplomatically inactive, according to an Armenian source privy to Turkish-Armenian dealings. US officials reportedly didn't offer to broker direct discussions between Kocharian and Erdogan in Warsaw, dashing all hopes for such a meeting.
"The Bush administration has a long list of priorities when it comes to Turkey, and I'm afraid that Armenian issues are the bottom of that list," David Phillips, a renowned scholar who chaired the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC), said in a recent interview. TARC was a US-sponsored panel of retired diplomats and pundits that operated between 2001-2004 to promote reconciliation.
Perhaps TARC's important accomplishment during was a study jointly commissioned by its Turkish and Armenian members from the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), a New York-based human rights organization. The ICTJ concluded in a 2003 report that the massacres of Ottoman Armenians technically fit the definition of genocide set by a 1948 UN convention. However, the ICTJ report also stressed that the 1948 Convention's provisions did not allow "retroactive application" to events that occurred prior to the treaty's adoption. Thus, Armenians could not use the convention to claim any material compensation from modern-day Turkey.
At present, Turkey is facing strong pressure from the European Union as Ankara prepares to open accession talks with the bloc in October. France, for example, wants the genocide issue to be on the agenda of those talks, with President Jacques Chirac repeatedly urging Turkey to address its contentious past. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The issue is also used by opponents of Turkish membership in the EU. Germany's opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which is well placed to defeat incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats in upcoming parliamentary elections, has sponsored a Bundestag resolution calling on Ankara to "take historic responsibility" for the 1915 massacres.