Armenia and Turkey initial agreement “to open the common border” (updated)

Two protocols allow soccer diplomacy to continue

by Tatul Hakobyan

Published: Friday September 04, 2009

The Armenian-Turkish border crossing at Margara, which Turkey has kept closed since 1993. Tatul Hakobyan / Armenian Reporter.

Yerevan - Armenia and Turkey took a major step toward the establishment of bilateral relations and open borders, initialing two protocols and a timetable for their implementation. The documents were released on August 31, along with a joint announcement by the foreign ministries of Armenia, Turkey, and Switzerland.

The joint statement promised, "political consultations will be completed within six weeks, following which the two Protocols will be signed and submitted to the respective Parliaments for the ratification on each side. Both sides will make their best efforts for the timely progression of the ratification in line with their constitutional and legal procedures."

Under the protocols, the two countries will establish diplomatic relations and Turkey will open the land border with Armenia, which it has kept closed for 16 years. Or, as the "Protocol on Development of Relations between Armenia and Turkey" puts it, the two countries "agree to open the common border within 2 months after the entry into force of this Protocol."

The two countries also confirm their mutual recognition of the existing border.

If the protocols are ratified, an intergovernmental bilateral commission will be established with sub-commissions to address a range of issues, including trade, energy, and transportation. One sub-commission would deal with history.

A history commission

Under the protocol on the development of relations, the sides agree to "implement a dialogue on the historical dimension with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations."

The timetable states, "Armenian, Turkish as well as Swiss and other international experts shall take part" in the sub-commission "on the historical dimension."

Turkey has sought, since 2005, the establishment of a joint commission to determine the veracity of the Armenian Genocide. Armenia's position, expressed in April 2005 by then-President Robert Kocharian – and since confirmed by President Serge Sargsian – was that it would not debate the veracity of the Genocide. Armenia would, however, agree to an intergovernmental commission to discuss a range of issues, including historical issues, after the establishment of diplomatic relations.

The documents released on August 31 do not specify terms of reference for the proposed intergovernmental commission. Turkey is expected to insist that the commission examine whether the events of 1915–23 constituted genocide, and to ask other countries to refrain from acknowledging the Armenian Genocide until the commission's task is done, if it is ever done.

A reliable and well-informed source in Armenia told the Armenian Reporter that the protocols were ready to be unveiled in April; that did not happen because the Turkish side was dissatisfied with some of the wording. At Turkey’s insistence the phrase, “an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives,” was added to the mandate of the sub-commission on the historical dimension, after which Turkey agreed to initial the protocols. Asked by the Armenian Reporter during a news conference on September 2 to comment on this information, Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian responded, “That is a lie,” and said the protocols had been agreed to months earlier.

No mention of Karabakh

The important thing is what the documents do not discuss, said Ruben Safrastyan, director of the Turkish Studies Department of Armenia's National Academy of Sciences. "There is no discussion of Nagorno-Karabakh. That is important. This is a victory for Armenian diplomacy," Mr. Safrastyan told the Armenian Reporter.

Protocols on the establishment of bilateral relations between two countries do not generally discuss conflicts to which both countries are not a party. It is true, however, that Turkey specifically cited the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict when it began its blockade of Armenia in 1993. And since April of this year, Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has repeatedly said that Turkey would not agree to open the border unless Armenian forces withdrew from territories that it considers to be part of Azerbaijan.

Sergei Minasian, deputy director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, likewise finds it significant that there is "not a word about Karabakh" in the documents.

However, during the six-week window provided for "political consultations" before the protocols are to be signed, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are due to meet in Kishinev, the Moldovan capital. The summit will provide an opportunity for the two presidents to announce any developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations.

On the documents' silence about Karabakh, Mr. Minasian said, "There are more important issues for Turkey than Karabakh and Azerbaijan. For Turkey its image is more important. With its policy of dialogue with Armenia, Turkey receives a carte blanche in its relations with other, more important countries, the European Union and the United States."

Mr. Minasian believes that Armenia has won in "soccer diplomacy."

"Armenia was able to drive a wedge in the relations between Baku and Ankara," he said. Referring to Turkish president Abdullah Gül, he added, "Both Gül's visit to Armenia and the dynamics of subsequent Armenian-Turkish relations served as an apt opportunity for Armenia's leadership to gain legitimacy in the outside world and weaken their opponents domestically."

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