ARMENIAN POLICY ON TURKEY: DOMESTIC POLICY SHIFTS
By: Lennart Lehmann
Dialogue With The Islamic World
May 12 2010
The governing coalition in Armenia has suspended talks with Ankara over
a normalisation of bilateral relations. It is primarily the Armenian
diaspora that has threatened to withdraw all support from Yerevan if
demands on Turkey are moderated in any way. Lennart Lehmann reports
Some elements of the international media recently rejoiced at the news
that the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II,
had attended a congress of international religious leaders in the
Azerbaijani capital, Baku, where he also met the Azeri president,
Ilham Aliyev. Talks also apparently touched on the Nagorno-Karabakh
conflict. The visit was hailed as "historic" by some commentators.
Garegin’s visit also included a three-way summit with the patriarch
of the Russian-Orthodox Church, Kirill, and the mufti of Azerbaijan,
Allashukur Pashazade, to plead for a solution to the Karabakh
question. Just two days previously, the government in Yerevan had
suspended talks with Turkey; one of its reasons for doing so was the
conflict over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Two conflicts obstruct reconciliation
Observers say that the main problem is that Ankara has linked
ratification of a number of protocols to a solution to the Karabakh
conflict – a stance that demands concessions from Yerevan.
Turkey views itself as a close, long-time ally of Azerbaijan, which
has been waging a bitter conflict with Armenia over the autonomous
Nagorno-Karabakh region for over 20 years. Moreover, the Azeris and
the Turks are ethnically related to each other.
Another obstacle to progress is that Yerevan is still waiting for
Ankara to admit that the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915
was genocide. But although there has been some movement on this issue
in recent times, Ankara still refuses to acknowledge that genocide
took place. Negotiations have hit deadlock over this particular matter.
The domestic policy factor
There are, however, internal policy factors, which President Serge
Sarkisian may have brought into play in his decision to suspend talks
with Turkey. Since the mayoral elections of May 2009, the opposition
Armenian National Congress (ANC), an alliance of 18 parties also
including former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, has been stepping up
its challenge of Sarkisian’s political legitimacy.
Its tactic is to highlight controversial events that took place in
Armenia in 2008 and the government’s foreign policy rapprochement
with Turkey to stir up emotions among the people and to create bad
feeling towards the president.
In March 2008, 10 demonstrators were killed by police in Yerevan during
public rallies against Sarkisian’s election victory. Numerous people
are still in prison since taking part in these protests. Human rights
groups are demanding the release of what they describe as "political
prisoners". The powers that be in Yerevan have reacted badly to
oppositional resistance, and have applied systematic pressure to
elements they consider to be subversive.
Last year, Amnesty International drew attention to the harassment of
journalists reporting on opposition activities. As one university
lecturer told Qantara.de: "The directors of the state university
threatened to sack me if I took part in any events organised by
Foreign policy influence
At the same time, the three major geopolitical players in the Caucasus
– the EU, the USA and Russia – are demanding that Yerevan approaches
Azerbaijan and Turkey in a bid to solve the prolonged conflict over
the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
Nevertheless, says David Petrosian, political analyst and journalist
at the Noyan Tapan news agency, all three rely on Serge Sarkisian:
"In doing so they are propping up a regime of dubious legitimacy. At
the same time, they are increasing Sarkisian’s dependence on the
international community. That reduces any room he might have to
negotiate with Ankara and Baku."
"The ANC," says David Petrosian, "enjoys no support from the West,
because its position is not anti-Russian."
Although the country’s economy would definitely stand to gain if the
border with Turkey was reopened, there are also groups in Armenia
that profit from the nation’s current isolation.
"Civil servants, the military establishment and businesspeople who
share the same political views encounter no difficulties on account
of the closed border," writes Armen Grigorian, an Armenian national
working at the Central Asian Caucasus Institute in Washington. "On
the contrary, economic advantages in exchange for political loyalty
create opportunities to make a quick buck. And as for the military, for
the time being it benefits more from the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh
Political pressure from the diaspora
Another important factor is the Armenian diaspora. Most Armenians in
Western Europe and the USA are descendants of the survivors of the
1915 genocide. They are unyielding in their insistence that Turkey
admits to the massacre and issues an apology.
The Armenian national budget is extremely dependent on lobby work
and financial aid from Armenians living abroad. Diaspora groups have
repeatedly threatened Yerevan with the withdrawal of all support
should demands for an unambiguous admission of guilt from Turkey be
"The more Sarkisian responds to the demands of Washington, Moscow and
Brussels, the more he moves himself into domestic policy isolation
and shores up the opposition," says David Petrosian in analysis.
The Armenian president seemed to realise this in the run-up to official
remembrance ceremonies to mark the 95th anniversary of the Armenian
genocide. Now, instead of forging ahead with the Ankara reconciliation
dialogue, he is again focusing efforts on securing his own power base