ISTANBUL, Turkey — As April 24 approaches, Armenians and Turks will once again be watching U.S. President Barack Obama to see how he describes this day of remembrance for the 1915 mass killings and deportations of Ottoman Armenians.
Last year, he chose to call the events by their Armenian term, Meds Yegherns or “great catastrophe.” For many Armenians, who insist that the only appropriate term is genocide, this was not enough. But, for many Turks it was too much.
Unfortunately, this annual focus on what the U.S. president will say is misplaced. It is not a question for the U.S. president. It’s the Turks and Armenians who need to agree.
There was hope in 2009 that the two sides could do just that, especially after Turkey and Armenia unveiled bilateral protocols, signed on Oct. 10, to establish diplomatic relations, and recognize and open their mutual border. But the normalization process stalled after October, and there is little chance the texts will be ratified in the two countries’ parliaments soon.
Based on the protocols, Turkey and Armenia would have established a committee on the historical dimension “including an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives.”
For Turks this would have been a way to stave off the international recognition of genocide, as few countries would move to label it as such, knowing the inter-state commission was looking into it. For Armenians such a commission is generally perceived as a fundamental violation of their national identity. They don’t accept that “the genocide fact” is up for discussion.
Still, for Armenia the protocols offered something tangible: the opening of its border with Turkey which had been closed since 1993 when Armenian forces occupied districts of Azerbaijan surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet this is precisely where the deal is stuck now: in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The hope was that an open border could gradually help encourage a solution to the conflict, buttressing the ongoing talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan brokered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Growing contacts could lead to economic development and greater regional stability and a more balanced Turkish engagement in the South Caucasus.
Azerbaijan, however, does not see it that way. In spring 2009, the leadership in Azerbaijan's capital Baku began to appeal not only to the Turkish prime minister but also to the Turkish opposition to keep the border shut until its occupied territories were liberated.
It threatened Turkey’s preferential price for its Shah Deniz natural gas supplies and chances of greater volume to feed the planned Nabucco transit pipeline to Europe. In January of this year, for the first time, Azerbaijan provided significant amounts of gas to Russia. Popular mood against Turkey hardened in Baku with official support and even puppets of Turkey’s leaders being burned in some protests.
The Turkish government decided that it could not ignore Azeri pressure and with difficult negotiations going on concerning constitutional reform, it does not want to pick a fight over border opening with the nationalist opposition in parliament. There is little chance that the twin protocols can move until after the next round of Turkish elections in 2011, or until Azerbaijan and Armenia sign the long-awaited agreement on basic principles on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution.
Armenian President Serzh Sarkissian is also under pressure. Even though a quick ratification in Armenia would firmly put the ball in Turkey’s court and give Yerevan credit internationally, domestic opposition is strong.
The decade of confidence-building that preceded the Turkey-Armenian protocol signing could now be lost unless there is progress soon. The best step now would be for Ankara and Yerevan to temporarily put aside the most difficult aspects of the protocols and move ahead with the less controversial parts. Despite current troubles, they could proceed with the establishment of diplomatic ties and recognition of their mutual border. These need no parliamentary approval, are purely about bilateral relations and are not linked to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Turkey and Armenia have a mounting number of bilateral issues to address requiring simple consular services. There are up to 40,000 Armenian citizens living in Turkey, tens of thousands of Armenian tourists visit the Turkish Riviera every year and countless Turkish truck drivers and small businesses operating in Armenia.
There are easy opportunities to develop many other cross-border activities. But currently none of them can get effective support from their home country while abroad.
For such basic practical matters, Obama’s speech is really a distraction. Even in the current difficult diplomatic climate, the leaders of Turkey and Armenia can and should take these initial steps to ensure their people can build up a prosperous future and help them come to terms with their shared traumatic history.
Sabine Freizer is Crisis Group's Europe Program Director.