A historic accord to open sealed borders

Oct.15 : Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accomplished a unique feat, with help from his Armenian counterpart Serge Sarkisian and Europe and the United States, in engineering an agreement with his neighbour burying the nearly century-old feud on whether the killing of Armenians towards the end of the Ottoman Empire amounted to genocide. Historical memories run deep, and the commemoration of a tragic event had become a matter of faith and nationalism for Armenians and their powerful diaspora of 1,5 million in the United States. Turkish analysts are hailing the accord, signed in Switzerland, as an event of the century, but it is the most significant development since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

In 1993 Armenian troops went to the aid of ethnic Armenians in the Azerbaijani enclave of Nagorno Karabach. Turkey closed its border with Armenia in solidarity with Azerbaijan and set two conditions: withdraw the worldwide campaign on declaring the tragedy of 1915 as genocide and withdraw troops around the enclave. Armenia has therefore had to live with closed borders on two sides, using Georgia as a transit route. It also became over-dependent on Russian goodwill to survive.

Enter Mr Erdogan and his assertive good-neighbourly policy, recognising that the ambitious wider role he envisages for his country required a friendly neighbourhood. He encouraged a new push to resolve the fractious division of Cyprus into Greek and Turkish Cypriots, made overtures to the restive Kurds in the eastern region of Turkey and set about meeting criteria for membership of the European Union. In fact, making peace with Armenia was also an EU condition for membership.

There were last-minute hitches before the signing of the agreement, with a posse of high-level personages, including US secretary of state and the Russian and French foreign minister and the EU envoy Javier Solana, choreographing the event. Apparently, the US objected to a Turkish post-signing statement, the solution being that neither side would make such a statement. In essence, the agreement envisages the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries and the opening of the shared border in two months. The genocide issue has been set aside by the appointment of a joint commission of historians while the Nagarno Karabakh issue will continue to be mediated by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Armenia’s President Sarkisian, on his part, has shown courage in accepting the deal although he was under intense Western pressure, particularly after his crackdown on opposition supporters protesting against the allegedly rigged presidential election in 2008. His laconic comment on the agreement was: "There is no alternative to the establishment of relations with Turkey without any precondition, It is the dictate of the time". In fact, opposition to the treaty led to protests from the diaspora from Beirut to Los Angeles and at home. One party withdrew from the ruling coalition.

Mr Erdogan, who blotted his copybook recently by slapping a $2.5 billion fine on a media mogul’s empire being critical of his Government for alleged unpaid taxes, has shown yet again that he is an astute politician who has his eye on the larger picture. Turks have traditionally viewed themselves as a regional superpower, but the Prime Minister’s contribution has been to translate this vision into a coherent and consistent policy of wooing neighbours the earlier ostentatiously secular military-dominated regimes fought shy of. The Islamic orientation of the ruling Justice and Development Party has, of course, helped, but Mr Erdogan was quick to grasp the central fact that relying on the United States and Nato was good but had its limits. Although Turkey’s prospect of membership of the EU seems bleak in the short term, the Prime Minister has used the membership issue to loosen the grip of the powerful military establishment by employing EU guidelines.

In view of ethnic Turkish links to at least some of the Central European countries, Ankara has always viewed the region, particularly after the break-up of the Soviet Union, as a natural area of influence. Normalisation of relations with Armenia would give it a new opening to the region. If Russia considers its "near abroad" as an area of privileged interest, Turkey feels that the ethic and linguistic linkages do provide the platform for maintaining special relations. For Armenia, the opening of the border with Turkey will come as a godsend in term of economic and trade relations and access to the considerable Turkish market and level of development.

President Sarkisian discovered for himself during his recent tour of countries with a large Armenian diaspora that descendants of the victims of those killed towards the end of the Ottoman Empire have neither forgiven Turks nor forgotten the tragedy. A website has already opened (KEGAHART.com) seeking support under the rubric: "We condemn the Turkish-Armenian Agreement".

And one Armenian has reacted to the signing of the accord with the comment: "The point is that the issue of the genocide is a natural demand, which should not be made an axis of state policy".

The agreement needs parliamentary approval in the two countries although both are expected to complete it on time. But the actual opening of the border will be the biggest symbol of change, if it does not get entangled in violent nationalist protests in Armenia. Obviously, Armenia has had to make greater concessions even though they relate to addressing issues of psychology that have blended into the Armenian psyche. It is danger time for President Sarkisian till the border opening. Once trade starts and people visit each other, the benefits will dull the pain of historical memories.

S. Nihal Singh

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