Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Armenian President Meets His World of Protest

Looks like my previous post's title, "A World of Protest", was quite prophetic as soon after an around the world tour of diasporan cities was announced for President Sargsyan. While it was billed as a "listening tour" to get the ideas of the unhappy diaspora about the protocols, there was never any indication he actually meant to take the ideas into account, merely hear them and then reassure them why those fears are unfounded. The diaspora wanted its strong opposition heard though, and so protests broke out at every stop (and in a few places he wasn't visiting). First up was Paris, where protesters blocked the President's attempt to lay flowers at the Komitas genocide monument along the Seine. The numbers I heard was approximately 300, which is not a large amount at all based on the Armenian population of Paris, but it was a vocal minority for sure which got its message across. The trip got off to a bad start as Parisian policemen roughed up the demonstrators in shocking youtube videos, dragging them away from the statue to a holding area. The president eventually got to lay his flowers, to boos and jeers from the held-off crowd.

His next stop was New York, where the local ARF and AYF staged their second protest after having protested Foreign Minister Nalbandian a week earlier. The number of protesters at this one I heard quoted for this one was about 800, give or take, with people coming from other east coast cities as well. Luckily it was not violent, though apparently there was at one point a surge towards the hotel doors by a group of protesters when they discovered Serzh had sneaked in the back door. As a small delegation of AYF leaders led by Sossi Essajanian pled with the hotel authorities to be allowed to deliver a letter to the President unsuccessfully, a meeting with invited leaders of diasporan organizations was held upstairs. All comments were off the record, but it is known that many of the groups such as the Diocese, Armenian Assembly, and Knights of Vartan had already pledged their support to the protocols and so made speeches saying as much. It sounds like there was some healthy debate which took place, but of course I wasn't there so it's impossible to say what happened. Representatives of the ARF made speeches which apparently very cogently yet respectfully summed up their opposition to the protocols, but one opponent went much further. Chairman of the Armenian National Committee Ken Hachikian made a venom-tipped speech which was almost immediately circulated throughout the community. The speech, which in my opinion comes off as pretty arrogant grandstanding, lays into not just President Sargsyan but makes thinly veiled jabs at diasporan organizations who support the protocols like rival lobby group the Armenian Assembly. He ended with a grand threat saying the President was making a grave mistake, and that he better back away now "before you bring great harm to our country, to our people, and to your presidency."

Next up was Los Angeles, a city with such a large Armenian community that it was a given that huge protests would meet him there. The protest organizers reported that over 12,000 people picketed outside President Sargsyan's Beverly Hills hotel, though I saw lower numbers as well. Whatever the case anger simmered and apparently a gala reception held for privately invited guests that evening was said to have been poorly attended. A band of AYF members took a cue from the Paris protesters and tied themselves to the Montebello genocide monument for two days to keep the President from laying flowers there as well. Sargsyan eventually skipped this part of his visit to avoid a repeat of the scene in Paris. Even after he was gone the AYF did not give up by holding a hunger strike outside the Armenian consulate for most of the next week until the protocols were signed. They kept the world updated with a constant stream of photos and videos of their activities, a sign of how more and more sophisticated such activities have been able to become. Apparently there was a large protest in the next trip's stop of Beirut, but news of what was exactly going on was far less forthcoming probably due to a less 'netroots' and internet sophistication in that part of the world. A picture of a bloodied protester did make the rounds, indicative of some clashes which occurred with police.

The last location, Rostov-on-Don in Russia, seemed to be quiet as no real news came out of it. I'm sure net sophistication is even less there though so it is hard to tell how much of the lack of news is due to a lack of protest and how much is due to word just not getting out. Either way, if there were truly large protests something would have been said so it is safe to assume not much happened there. From there Sargsyan visited the capital of Moldova to meet with President Aliyev of Azerbaijan for a meeting on Karabakh. While Karabakh being solved is not a precondition for opening the border, it is an important part of the agreement since Turkey is concerned about Azerbaijan's great discomfort with the protocols. Interestingly, the western representatives said the meeting was constructive and that the parties are getting closer, while Azerbaijan angrily declared the meeting made absolutely no progress and that Armenia was not being a constructive partner. If I may analyze what this means, I think the west is content with Armenia's proposed concessions while Azerbaijan is not being forthcoming with making enough of its own. If anything is going to solve the Karabakh conflict, it will be world pressure related to recent geopolitical considerations in the region and a continued push from the west in conjunction with work on these protocols.

Yesterday was the big day when Foreign Ministers Nalbandian and Davutoglu would sign the protocols. Major representatives of the US, Russia, France, the EU, and Switzerland met at Zurich University for the signing but not everything went according to plan. The Turkish side hoped to reassure Azerbaijan in a speech made after the signing that Armenia would withdraw from Karabakh before the protocols went into effect. This of course went against the promise that relations would start without preconditions and therefore the Armenian delegation refused to show up. Later Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that both sides had problems with each others' speeches but a close reading of the events of the day make it clear that it was Turkey who had to send Armenia a revised statement, which apparently was still not agreeable and so they just agreed to not make any speeches. Three hours later, Clinton drove Foreign Minister Nalbandian to the signing ceremony which lasted 10 minutes. That is only the beginning though, as now the protocols go to the parliaments for passage and the ball is in Turkey's court. Just this morning, Prime Minister Erdogan made the statement which they probably wanted to make at the signing ceremony but were prevent from doing, that "as long as Armenia does not withdraw from occupied territories in Azerbaijan, Turkey cannot take up a positive position." It will be interesting to see where things go from here, because Armenia already has a furious diaspora on its hands which will only be inflamed further by this statement. Turkey will not have an easy sell at home as many Turks do not see an opening of the border with Armenia as necessary for the country, not to mention Azerbaijan, who it is surely trying to reassure by making this statement. I tend to think that the main ideas of how to proceed next are roughly planned out, so it is possible that both sides have roughly agreed on the next step and this was just a message for Azeri consumption, but you never know. The signing drama shows that everything is unpredictable and can fall apart at any second. Let's just hope that all this work will be worth it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A World of Protest

I'm writing after a weekend of protest, which is to be sure followed by more in the weeks to come. As it stands, we are less than a month from Soccer Diplomacy II, the expected return visit of President Sargsyan to Turkey for a football game after the Turkish President visited Armenia for one last year. In the past year, while many have dreaded what this means for Armenia all along, more and more people- mainly diasporans- have grown worried as negotiations seemed to stall and even backtrack. This seems to be because as Azerbaijan became vocally angry at Turkey, Turkey changed its conciliatory tone with Armenia and take a hard line on what preconditions would need to be met by Armenia before this can go forward. These conditions included a solution to the complicated Karabakh conflict, which Armenia rightfully saw as a dagger right at the heart of Armenia-Turkey negotiations since talks have been stalled for over a decade on that front with no movement in sight. On August 31, after months of silence (outwardly at least) Turkey and Armenia suddenly announced they had agreed on protocols which would serve as a guide for the negotiations and would be agreed upon in six weeks, coincidentally (or not) the exact amount of time before the football game and Sargsyan's visit to Turkey. From there, both parliaments will have to ratify the protocols to bring them into effect- something which should be relatively easy for Sargsyan at least as his Republican party dominates the parliament. In Turkey there is a viable number of opposition forces in the parliaent, who of course are making their opposition to the protocols known, but whether Gul and Erdogan will have the political capital to push this through (along with planned reforms aimed at the Kurdish regions of Turkey) remains to be seen.
As the battle lines have been drawn in their respective countries, they too have been thrown in the Armenian diaspora. In the past few days the Armenian Assembly, AGBU, and Diocese have officially released a joint statement supporting the negotiation process with the stated hope and expectation that the issues important to Armenia will not be ignored or discounted during it. The Armenian National Committee and ARF-Tashnag, however, stated its opposition to the protocols from the very first day of it being announced and held a protest rally on Saturday outside the office of the Armenian Representation to the UN. More such protests are planned against Armenian representative offices in California over the coming weeks. A hungry strike was also instituted by members of the party itself in Armenia. A press release by the ANCA states their concerns, including their belief that Armenia is being forced to make serious concessions to Turkey in exchange for opening the border, vital to Armenia's economic survival in the coming years. They also fear one of those concessions is creating a subcommittee on discussion the Armenian Genocide issue, which they believe means it will be finally swept under the rug on an official level, making it impossible to pass another bill of recognition anywhere in the world ever again. They also decry Armenia recognizing its official border with Turkey, in their opinion ceding away land captured during the genocide, along with the potential ceding of "buffer zone" territory in Karabakh due to vague references to the conflict in the protocols.
The lines are drawn, the governments seem set on making this happen, the west is set on making this happen, but the diaspora has always been known as a major force within Armenia. What will they do if this goes through? Will they have enough leverage to enact some sort of genocide, or eventually will this be swept away in the wave of changes occurring halfway around the world from them?

If I might share my personal opinion on this matter, it is hard to say who is right. Both have valid points, though what seems to be at work is the age old confrontation between idealism and pragmatism. It seems to me that the Tashnag side is taking things a bit too far in their doomsday speculation as to what the protocols will lead to, which in the opinions I hear from them is along the lines of Armenia offering up its independence on the altar of good relations with Turkey. The cynic in me wants to say Armenia offered up its independence long ago, to Russia, but on the flip side does not an open border with Turkey give Armenia more freedom from Russia (and Georgia)? While Armenia must be careful not to be overwhelmed by Turkish goods and influence coming from that open border (which is already happening with a closed one), one has to realize that it is inevitable to a degree, a small country surrounded by superpowers cannot be fully independent and Armenia has been in that position for centuries.
Next issue is Armenia's recognition of its border. According to the Tashnag side this means ceding away claims for good to land that was largely Armenian-populated during the genocide. This is a revival of the "Greater Armenia" notion in which Armenia is entitled to large swaths of land in eastern Turkey which is now almost completely populated by Kurds. This is a longstanding issue amongst members as the diaspora, and one which is hard for me to figure out. While yes, it might feel good to not relinquish the Armenian unilateral claim to those lands, but where does that get it? If Armenia and Turkey continue to have no political relations, that means they will never negotiate any sort of deal. Seizing land without a negotiations would take an act of war, meaning the only practical way of returning that claimed land would be through Armenia making war on Turkey, which I think everyone sees as complete folly regardless of their views. In my opinion, officially recognizing the current borders of the nation of Armenia doesn't mean that perhaps, somewhere long down the line, some deals could be made over small portions of land such as Ani, or at least a sort of joint sharing plan which would make Armenia a shareholder in Ani's future, but that is only if the groundwork is laid by these protocols. Unfortunately as hard as it is to hear, those Wilsonian maps of Greater Armenia will never happen, at least not in this century, that is something you can be sure of, so is this concession which needs to be made in exchange for some things from Turkey really that hard of one to swallon? I recognize many of you will answer yes, to which I will ask if you are aware that Armenia has recognized its current borders officially since joining the UN in 1992? And that every foreign minister, prime minister, and president who has been asked about the issue since I've been following news has each said unequivocally that Armenia recognizes its current borders and has no claims on Turkey? This is nothing new, let us at least get something in return by formalizing what Armenia has long said for nothing.
Finally, the Tashnag fear is that by signing these protocols Armenia is complicit in helping Turkey deny the genocide. As long as the Armenian Genocide memorial remains in Yerevan no one can rightfully say that. Yes, it will make passing resolutions in the diaspora more difficult, but I suppose it all depends on whether you think Turkey recognizes the need to come to terms in some way with this past, which I can assure you will haunt it for years to come whether or not protocols are signed. Turkey needs a face-saving vehicle to do any sort of recognition, as the republic's very foundations are built upon the genocide and the denial of it for 90 years. It will not be easy, but I believe (whether we like it or not) Turkey will either come to terms with its past in some way through negotiations or not at all, as it is quite clear that we cannot force it into doing anything- as international recognition only makes Turks more angry and more set against denying it. And in the end, who is it that we want to recognize the genocide, the whole world (yes), but really it is Turkey.

I am the first to admit, there is a lot of doubt and uncertainty involved in these protocols. There are so many different opinions and voices on what these vaguely-worded protocols mean, and perhaps that is by design. There are very few set statements because Armenia, Turkey, (and Azerbaijan)'s complicated pasts and present will not go away with the stroke of a pen in a couple weeks or a "yes" by their parliaments. Perhaps this situation is too complicated to ever be solved, perhaps Turkey and Azerbaijan and the west are all playing a game in which they are trying to lure Armenia into a trap to devour it. Whatever anyone says, they aren't wrong because all this remains to be seen. We need to enter with trepidation, but we must do so because this is something which needs to be tried. There is no way around it. Since this is all a complicated dance, we have heard a lot of conflicting views from the parties themselves as there are numerous constituencies which need to be appeased. This won't be easy, but nor do I think we are being practical if we just see this as an elaborate ruse to trick Armenia and destroy it. It isn't wrong to oppose these protocols but it is wrong to let your imagination wander to the extremes of this debate. What I have not heard from the Tashnag side is that: if not these protocols, then what? What is next for Armenia? Possibly another Russian war in Georgia, leaving Armenia completely cut off from the rest of the world? Another 20 years of a stifling blockade which international pressure clearly cannot make Turkey break? Will such agreements really reverse all gains in Karabakh in seconds, and will not making any agreements really contribute to keeping Karabakh secure? There are numerous questions to ponder, likely too many questions for most casual observers of Armenia to consider and so the simple slogans and labels become a refuge, but this is something which must be attempted. Because if not this, what is next for Armenia?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Now We're Getting Somewhere, Aren't We?

I'm sorry for being away from the blog so much, but the constant state of flux Armenian international relations has been in this past year is at least partly to blame (and the fact Google Blogs is now blocked at work, where I do most of my analysis!) You see, in the run up to football diplomacy, it was easy and fun to speculate the various potential outcomes and meanings of what that truly unprecedented event was all about. News was always braking and the story took numerous twists and turns. Not long after though, the entire thing went dormant, appearing to the outside as if this diplomacy was like a shooting star which had burned too bright too soon. In actuality though, the business of bringing two age old enemies into agreement on issues is not an easy one or something you want to do out in the light of day with all sorts of radicals waiting to cut you down at every step, so the negotiations certainly continued but completely behind the scenes. In fact we saw nothing at all until suddenly, two days before April 24, a "roadmap" of an ambiguous nature was announced. We all know what happened next with Obama not keeping his pledge to say the g-word (though what we don't know if what went on, once again, behind the scenes, which I believe was deep and in the direction of solving this issue one day). After the roadmap was announced, everything went silent again with most Armenians (diasporans at least) bewildered and confused at what they were seeing from Armenia. The major complaint was that Armenia handed Turkey the ability to knock the genocide off the agenda for another year in exchange for... well for nothing apparent. Meanwhile Azerbaijan ratcheted up the heat calling on Turkey to cancel all contact with Armenia until Karabakh was solved, going to the extent of threatening it. Turkish officials indeed went to Azerbaijan to smooth things over, reassuring Azerbaijan nothing would come between them and that Armenia would be made to pay numerous concessions before anything moved forward.
Where are we today? Well everything is not as it seems because suddenly talks between Turkey and Armenia are being talked about again as if that never happened. The blow-up now appears to have been a face-saver for Azerbaijan to look like it was going to make gains as well from what otherwise would be a blow to it, as it is easy to see how rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia could be interpreted as a lose-lose situation for Azerbaijan vis-a-vis Karabakh. What has kept me from writing about any of this is the fact that the true nature of all these discussions are still hidden and it is almost impossible to know at any time how much we see is just a carefully choreographed dance between the countries (in my opinion most of it!) and what is not artificial. Most Armenians don't seem to know what to think about this, because it seems every major political party in Armenia supports the talks in theory- though of course the Dashnaks have pulled out of the government in protest of the April 22nd statement and Heritage Party found and MP Raffi Hovannisian resigned his seat in Parliament just yesterday as a response to the negotiations. As I said though, despite these moves these parties still seem to support the talks in principle, just not aspects of them as they exist today. For me, it is almost impossible to analyze what is going on because it is impossible to know what the final agreement will look like. On August 31st Turkey and Armenia formally committed to the process and said negotiations will last 6 weeks. This clearly looks extremely artificial because coincidentally football diplomacy part II is scheduled for exactly 6 weeks from now when Sargsyan is scheduled to go to a match in Turkey. To get some heat off from an angry public in the wake of football diplomacy I with little to show for it, Sargsyan said he would not go to Turkey unless the border was open or close to being opened. For most of 2009 however it looked like chances of the border being opened had become even more remote since Football Diplomacy I, not close, meaning Sargsyan would either have to break his word and go or would not be going. The President of Turkey does not make a landmark visit to Armenia for no reason though, so clearly there must have been something more to this whole thing all along. And here it is, 6 weeks to go until the match and suddenly it is announced major issues will be worked over in 6 weeks. At that point it will be up to the countries respective parliaments to pass the agreement and things should pick up from there.
Or will they? Sargsyan certainly has the power in parliament to get the agreement passed if he wants, but the question is whether Gul and Erdogan can. This fall they also will be working to make Kurdish reforms passed through parliament, which will certainly take a lot of political capital to get through. Some are of the opinion that the Armenian issue might need to be sacrificed for the sake of the Kurdish issue at the moment, but that remains to be seen. Just to prove that the wonders never cease, Today's Zaman is just reporting that Azerbaijan may also open borders with Armenia. What?! Wasn't that the country making a huge anti-Armenian fuss just a few months ago? Well of course it was, but if one attributes the real reason for Turkish-Armenian relations to it being used as an alternative transit route instead of unstable Georgia, it doesn't really do much good if travel isn't open between Azerbaijan and Armenia as well, as proposed pipelines begin there. What's interesting about this article is that it says open borders are possible if Armenia surrenders 5 regions it captured in the Karabakh war. The article implies, via an Azeri Foreign Ministry statement, that Azerbaijan is agreeable to moving forward with relations without the immediate release of Lachin and Kelbajar regions as well, leaving them until future negotiations. These two regions are the major bone of contention as if they were given up Azerbaijan would have easy access to cutting Karabakh from Armenia in the future. If true, this would be a huge leap forward towards thawing this conflict in the region.
When it comes to peace negotiations, it also bears mentioning that the whipping boy of my previous entry, Minsk Group co-chair in charge of Karabakh negotiations Matthew Bryza, will be replaced by Ambassador Robert Bradtke. Bryza might not be going far though as the long-running rumor is that he will become the US's new ambassador to Azerbaijan, meaning he will still very much be involved with this situation. In short, it is very hard to know where everything is going. After a mostly frozen years suddenly negotiations are appearing to race ahead publicly, though in fact it seems most of this was likely agreed upon at least as early as April in private. It took until shortly before the game to be the right time to start talking about it in public though as clearly this is not a popular move with many in Turkey or Armenia or the diaspora. Armenia is certainly taking a big risk and it must be extremely careful. Personally, I am trying to feel confident that we won't look back on all this as some major blunder which resulted in Armenia being taken advantage of, and I feel like in the end it won't and cannot be so, though anything is possible. Much is still left to be said and worked out publicly, so perhaps I will have a lot more to write about in the coming weeks. Until then let us all pray for a safe and peaceful process to sound agreements which are beneficial to all.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

But What Do We Have to Show for It?

It's time to write again. I know it has been a long while, far longer than I ever expected to go without updates, but that's exactly what happened. In my opinion there wasn't news churning out on the Karabakh/Armenia-related front for most of the winter, at least not like the unprecedented things a blog writer like me on the subject was spoiled with this fall. It seemed like any development during the winter was the same-old abstract rather than concrete in nature type developments. I hate that kind of speculation, which seems to never end with Armenian relations. I've already put up with it for over a decade re: the Karabakh stalemate. I've been old enough to follow this news since the beginning of the Kocharian era, in which an attempt to solve Karabakh helped bring down President LTP. We then had various false alarm potential resolutions, such as the Key West accords where Azerbaijan allegedly agreed to a settlement but then quickly changed its mind before it could be formalized. There have been numerous talks between Azeri and Armenian foreign ministers and presidents since then, each one built up beforehand as possibly "the one" which will finally bring about the long-awaited conclusion to this never ending story, only to have it fizzle out with no concrete results time and time. I personally have become so desensitized to the proclamations of US Minsk Group co-chair Matthew Bryza that I won't listen to anything he says anymore. He's the boy who cried wolf (or peace?) on steroids, having gotten hopes up an almost unfathomable amount of times only to have them amount to nothing. This is what I mean by the speculative nature of watching Armenian foreign developments, sure I could talk about for paragraphs whether Karabakh peace is a year away, or whether war is guaranteed by 2012, or that the status quo will last at least another 20 years. At this point any of those options seem equally possible so I don't have the motivation any more to follow or think about any of these options, in the same way that Bryza has said peace might be at hand so many times that I will refuse to believe or think about any of it.

I shouldn't be too hard on Bryza though. What he is tasked with helping resolve is an almost impossible job, and we have no idea what he knows from inside the talks compared to what is known outside- and furthermore whether all his hopeful talk has a deeper reason behind it than just pathetic optimism. After all, it seems the Azeris are downright angry with him, with their foreign ministry making the very undiplomatic assertion that Bryza lies about progress in the talks to impress his bosses Obama and Clinton. In the past couple days they've also decided to hate the French co-chair and are trying to get him replaced because some French MP visited Karabakh. On top of that talk is being floated as Turkey being let in as a fourth Minsk co-chair, so who knows what is even going on over there. With all the Armenian-Turkish secret talks of the recent past, I know that whatever we see is like the tip of an inceberg- to utilize a delightfully overused cliche. So much more is unknown, such as the parties true motivations, the reasons behind Turkey's sudden decision to insert preconditions to relations with Armenia after pursuing soccer diplomacy which was always understood to be without such preconditions, and so on. With the Russian/European gas wars heating up in the region, it is clear that Turkey wants relations opened with Armenia and that such efforts will likely continue, there has been what amounts to a frantic pressing of the breaks by Turkey after Azerbaijan threatened to charge Turkey a higher price for gas. The only thing which has come out of the secret talks, publically at least, is a last-minute April 22 announcement by Turkey that a roadmap was agreed upon towards relations by it and Armenia. The timing was more than suspicious, as it gave Obama exactly what he needed to refrain from recognizing the Armenian Genocide as he had promised in his campaign, in the name of not messing with this new roadmap. It was obviously orchestrated by America and Turkey for this very reason, leaving Armenia nothing to show for it and President Sargsyan looking as if he was played for a fool by the world. The diaspora is being left more and more isolated while it seems like Turkey and Azerbaijan are ganging up on Armenia when only months ago Azerbaijan was freaking out that it was being abandoned. Yet I am not ready to claim all is how it appears- though I frankly have no idea how it appears. I think all parties realize that the precondition of Armenian forces totally abandoning Karabakh before Turkey will begin relations with Armenia is a total non-starter, and in my opinion actually detrimental to maintaining peace in the region as it would leave a vacuum to be filled by God knows what. Is Turkey playing along with some Azeri game for now but will only go so far? Or are they playing to audiences at home in Turkey- the military and shadowy extra-governmental forces still control for now? See, I could do this forever, but I won't because there's no use and no real conclusions can come from it. Only time can tell, and October will be the determining month- maybe. That is when Sargsyan is scheduled to reciprocate the soccer diplomacy to watch the game in Turkey, and he recently said he'd only go through an open- or about to open- border. While last fall talk was that the border could be open by early '09, it seems even Serzh is now hedging his bets by allowing for the fact that even if the border isn't quite open he'll still probably go. As we've learned though that doesn't mean anything will come from it, depressing.

A parting thought, what should Armenian politicians do now? I agree with an editorial in the recent edition of the Armenian Reporter. They should put an end to this preconditions dance by saying they will not go any further in negotiations until preconditions are dropped again. Why should Erdogan be allowed to trash Armenia whether he goes, mainly Azerbaijan, by making demands of Armenia as part of the peace talks when the whole reason the talks were able to start was because there were no demands. It's patently absurd, unless there is some secret coordination between Armenia and Turkey all along. In fact the Reporter things Armenia should not go any farther talking with Turkey until they open the border, only then can Armenia restart negotiations in good faith. Whatever happens, it seems all sides are in for a bumpy ride and once again the optimism of soccer diplomacy, the optimism after Hrant Dink's death, the optimism after optimism about settling Karabakh, has given away to the uncomfortable reality which is the South Caucausus.