By Edmond Y. Azadian
“To be or not to be;” To go or not to go — a Shakespearian dilemma hangs over Armenia. Rather, it hangs over President Serge Sargisian’s head.
Last year, under pressure from Russia and the United States, President Sargisian took a bold gamble by inviting Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul to watch a football game between the national teams of the two countries. A mixed atmosphere of euphoria and suspicion was created, with many pundits predicting breakthroughs in the problem-ridden relations of the two countries. One of the major anticipated breakthroughs was to be the lifting of the blockade against Armenia by Turkey, establishment of normal diplomatic relations and opening of the border. The Turkish side was very deliberate in its actions. Ankara left the Armenian side in suspense, guessing until the last 24 hours, whether President Gul would really visit Yerevan. And then, when he eventually flew to Armenia, even his car was driven over Georgian territory in order not to cross over the Armenian-Turkish border.
Since President Gul’s visit to Armenia, a series of events took place, all of them favoring Ankara. Turkey won a tremendous amount of goodwill as a peacemaker in the Caucasus region, which enhanced its chances of winning a rotating seat on the UN Security Council; also a false sense of progress was created to be used by the Obama administration as a smoke screen to justify the non-use of the word “Genocide,” and brownie points were won on the European front.
All these developments impacted Armenia’s foreign policy negatively.
On the domestic front, the ruling coalition broke down, with the resignation of the ARF (Dashnak) party; relations between the two remaining coalition partners were strained.
In the talks that ensued between Armenia and Turkey, at least one agreement was achieved: that of continuing the negotiations without preconditions. But before long, that agreement also collapsed, following a visit by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Baku, where he announced that borders with Armenia would not open until a settlement is reached on the issue of Nagorno Karabagh. Even Matthew Bryza, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, who is the US chair for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), admitted that negotiations had been stalled and the Economist stated that Turkey was the winner in all these diplomatic maneuvers.
President Sargisian finally realized that Armenia had unwittingly given Turkey an advantage in propaganda, without gaining anything in return. He was publicly critical of Turkey’s non-performance, setting his own precondition on going to Turkey on October 14, to watch the football game between the two national teams. He said he would go to Turkey if the borders were open, as had been agreed on originally.
This football diplomacy was to emulate Nixon’s ping-pong diplomacy with China, which marked the beginning of the rapprochement between the two nations, paving the way towards ending the Cold War.
But this time around, no similar outcome was reached because the two parties engaged in the football diplomacy lacked parity in strength.
However, October 14 is around the corner and pressure is building to force President Sargisian to follow through the initiative that he himself had instigated in the first place.
The dilemma is clear — if he goes he is damned and if he refuses to go he is also damned.
It looks like the Armenian side is ensnared by its own initiative. Visiting Turkey will continue enhancing Ankara’s credibility as a peacemaker without any concessions in return. If President Sargisian refuses to go, he will appear to have snubbed Turkey’s goodwill gesture.
Turkish leaders have proven to be very smart in playing diplomatic tricks, to continue ensnaring their intended victims in their trap.
Not too long ago, when the European Union imposed a deadline on Turkey’s pledge to open up its ports to Cypriot ships, Ankara dragged its feet until the last minute, only to announce that it was opening only one port, to be identified later.
It is possible that the Turkish government may play a similar trick on Armenia’s president, allowing him to cross the Armenian-Turkish border and then shutting it down again.
Last April, when President Obama met the foreign ministers of Armenia, Turkey and Switzerland in the latter’s country, he encouraged the rapprochement, as a result of which an unfortunate document was signed between the parties on the eve of the Genocide anniversary.
As a follow-up to that prodding, during his most recent visit of the region, Matthew Bryza stated: “The United States hopes that President Sargisian will visit Turkey in October to continue Yerevan’s fence-mending football diplomacy with Ankara.”
On the other hand, a new dimension is developing in the region’s diplomacy with the recent visit of Prime Minister Putin’s to Ankara, where some important energy contracts were signed. It was announced that Russia had become Turkey’s largest trading partner, with $33 billion in annual trade between the two countries.
With all these financial deals at stake, it is not in Moscow’s best interest to see its only ally in the Caucasus at odds with Turkey.
The pressure from the US and Russia may force President Sargisian to go to Turkey whether he wants to or not. But he can take a position to turn the tables and not allow Turkey to continue reaping rewards out of these diplomatic games, ceding no concession in return. If it turns out that this time around it is still only a football game, without any tangible results, President Sargisian has to announce right then and there his disappointment that against all the goodwill that Armenia has demonstrated, Turkey continues its adamant policy of blockade, pre-conditions and blackmail.
That will blow up the façade of Turkey’s duplicity and bad faith, and Armenia will not lose anything, since Turkey has not been delivering anything, anyway.
By Edmond Y. Azadian