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.