By Emil Danielyan
The controversial Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) held what some of its members say was a “very positive” meeting in Istanbul late last week amid some indications that the Turkish government is considering lifting its decade-long economic blockade of Armenia.
According to Armenian members of the U.S.-sponsored panel of retired government officials, political experts and scholars, the TARC reaffirmed its support for the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border.
“The TARC wants the border to be open,” one of them, Van Krikorian, told RFE/RL over the weekend. “And we want to continue to increase various-level contacts between the two countries.”
The low-key meeting came just two days after talks in Spain on June 3 between the Armenian and Turkish foreign ministers — the first high-level contact between official Yerevan and the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A statement by the Armenian Foreign Ministry said Vartan Oskanian and Abdullah Gul agreed that improved bilateral ties “will reflect positively on the establishment of stability and security in the region.” But it did not specify whether Ankara remains adamant in linking their normalization to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh.
One well-placed Armenian source told RFE/RL that Ankara is facing growing domestic calls and U.S. pressure to open the border and might eventually agree to do that without establishing diplomatic relations with Yerevan. “They now treat the two as separate issues,” the source claimed.
A senior Turkish member of the private Turkish-Armenian Business Council, Noyan Soyak, was quoted in the Armenian media as saying that the border, sealed at the height of the Karabakh war in 1993, could soon be reopened for travel and commerce.
Krikorian, for his part, said that prospects for a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement have brightened in recent months. “We really see opportunities to normalize the relations,” he said. “Mutual understanding between the two countries is developing.”
Another Armenian member of the TARC, retired diplomat David Hovannisian, agreed, saying that the existing situation bodes well for the resumption of cross-border commerce. “The TARC was very happy that the foreign ministers met,” he said.
Both men would not say if the ten-member commission had any role in the holding of the Gul-Oskanian meeting. The TARC was apparently involved in arranging such contacts in the past.
Improving the historically strained Turkish-Armenian relations is a major goal of U.S. policy on the region. A recent report by the U.S. State Department said Washington “continues to press the Government of Turkey at every appropriate opportunity” to lift the blockade. It said Secretary of State Colin Powell raised the issue during a visit to Ankara in April.
The TARC’s creation two years ago was seen as part of a broader U.S. effort to promote Turkish-Armenian dialogue. The panel chaired by David Phillips, a U.S. scholar and State Department adviser, is treated with suspicion in Armenia and its Diaspora where some political groups claim that the initiative is used by the Turks to scuttle international recognition of the 1915 Armenian Genocide.
The genocide issue has been discussed by the commission, prompting serious disagreements between its four Armenian and six Turkish members. Those led to a one-year suspension of its activities in late 2001. The two sides overcame the deadlock after jointly requesting an independent analysis of the bloody events. The study, conducted by the New York-based the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) this January, concluded that the mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire constitute a genocide.
It was the second TARC meeting held this year. Krikorian revealed that it followed the resignation of three of its Turkish members: former top diplomats Gunduz Aktan and Ozdem Sanberk as well as Sadi Ergudenc, a retired army general. They were replaced by two senior scholars, Sule Kut of Bilgi University and Ahmet Evin of Sabanci University in Istanbul. The Turkish side did not officially announce any motives for the reshuffle.
Krikorian also said that the TARC’s activities will now be coordinated by two U.S. facilitators, Phillips and Joseph Montville. A former diplomat, Montville runs a program on preventive diplomacy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a leading Washington-based think tank. He is also known as the author of the concept of “track two diplomacy,” which attaches great importance to direct contacts between civil society representatives in the resolution of inter-state disputes.
As part of its work, the TARC has indirectly promoted meetings and joint projects between Turkish and Armenian politicians, public figures, journalists and non-governmental organizations. The contacts appear to have been financed, at least partly, by the U.S. government.
In Krikorian’s words, the TARC members agreed in Istanbul to “intensify track two efforts at normalizing the Turkish-Armenian relations.”