Genocide Anniversary Marked by Contradictory Signals from Turkey

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As negotiations between Armenia and Turkey for establishing relations enter a very sensitive and critical stage, one would assume that the two sides would use extreme caution and restraint if they are truly interested in a positive outcome.

While on the Armenian side, reaction to a provocation has been extremely restrained — even cowardly — the Turkish side does not seem to be under similar constraints.

The negotiation process began under President Biden’s advice — if not pressure — to Turkish leaders, but Turkey had to weigh the pros and cons of the initiative. For the Armenian side, the benefits are obvious; lifting of the Turkish-Azerbaijani blockade will open up the outside world for the Armenian market.

For Turkey, on the other hand, successful negotiations will pave a road all the way to Central Asia, where Ankara plans to extend its Pan-Turanic empire, while at the same time, the opening of the border will spur economic activity and prosperity for moribund eastern Turkey, or Western Armenia, now populated primarily by the Kurdish minority.

It remains to be seen if the Turkish government is really interested in the economic recovery of the Kurdish region, which may fuel demands for equal rights, democracy and even independence. There are also “hidden” Armenians among the Kurds, and the cross-fertilization of ideas with Armenians across the border may spark sentiments of irredentism.

As stated above, Ankara has to calibrate its act before getting too far in the process. Thus far, signs indicate that Turkey is a reluctant partner in the process at best, creating one obstacle after another, with nary a reaction or protest from the Armenian government.

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First, both parties had agreed to hold the negotiations with the premise of no preconditions. Then the Turkish side entered a new item on the agenda, relegating the initiative of setting conditions to Azerbaijan. The latter came up with a five-point agenda for a peace treaty to which Yerevan agreed, without adding any preconditions of its own.

As Armenia continues its dual-track negotiations, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has been upping the ante by reintroducing the issue of the Zangezur Corridor through Armenia, which had been considered off the negotiating table.

The worldwide commemoration of the Armenian Genocide revealed some other aspects of official Turkish behavior and intentions.

First came Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu’s shocking gesture in Uruguay and next the reactions of Turkish officials to President Joseph Biden’s commemoration statement.

Turkey had sent its foreign minister for a tour of South America this past week. The date and the country chosen to begin that tour could not be coincidental, as they were selected to send a signal to the world Armenian community. Uruguay was the first nation to recognize the Armenian Genocide, on April 20, 1965.

Mr. Çavusoglu landed in Montevideo on April 23 for the dedication of the new Turkish embassy there, a city that is home to a large Armenian community. As if riding on a main highway named Armenia were not enough, Mr. Çavusoglu had to pass through the main square, also dedicated to Armenia. And then, he faced Armenian demonstrators chanting demands for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. The foreign minister, in a very undiplomatic mood, lost his temper and showed his true face by flashing the hand signal of the Gray Wolves, a neo-fascist terrorist organization in Turkey. Any diplomat with dignity and genuine concern for the outcome of negotiations would have exercised self-control. However, Mr. Çavusoglu’s diplomatic training was not enough to prevent his game face from slipping before the world.

This incident reminds us also of the episode involving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bodyguards in Washington in 2017, when they began beating peaceful demonstrators, ultimately triggering a diplomatic incident with the US.

It is not surprising that a Turkish court sentenced that nation’s most principled citizen, Osman Kavala, to life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole, the very same day as the Çavusoglu incident, with that nation thumbing its nose at the verdict of the European Court of Human Rights which had judged his imprisonment illegal and demanded his immediate release in 2019.

The reaction from Uruguay was swift, appropriate and dignified — much more so than the Armenian government’s reaction, which came only from the chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Relations of the ruling Civil Contract Faction Eduard Aghajanyan, who condemned the behavior of the Turkish diplomat.

“This is a reprehensible act. It in no way contributes to the formation of an atmosphere of mutual understanding and dialogue between the two peoples,” he said. In addition, some analysts did not rule out that this could have been Turkey’s attempt to provoke the Armenian government to jettison negotiation process. There was no reaction from Yerevan’s Foreign Ministry, possibly out of fear that it would rock the boat.

However, the reaction of Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou was more forceful and direct. He stated, “It is unfortunate that the Turkish foreign minister showed the Turkish ultra-nationalist Gray Wolves salute to a group of Armenians in Montevideo. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu’s conduct must be strongly criticized. The Armenian community is hurt and they are right.”

He also noted that advancing ties in commercial matters between his country and Turkey does not mean that they agree with the other side’s domestic or foreign policies. Later, the Turkish ambassador, Huseyin Muftuoglu, was summoned by the Foreign Ministry of Uruguay. Also, the vice president and the president of the parliament spoke at gatherings marking the Genocide and criticized Mr. Çavusoglu.

The Gray Wolves is a terrorist group banned in Austria and France, and has been involved in many terrorist acts, such as the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul and journalists Abdi Ipekçi and Hrant Dink.

Mr. Çavusoglu’s rash act has been balanced with President Erdogan’s equivocal address to the Armenian community in Turkey and through them to the world Armenian community.

For the last few years, Turkey’s president has addressed messages to the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul, with the supposed intention of empathizing with the Armenians, concerning what he termed this year the “painful reality that took place during World War I.” And then, he continued, “I respectfully commemorate the deceased Ottoman Armenians, once again, and convey my sincere condolences to their surviving relatives.”

Next, he blamed the conditions created by the war rather than the Ittihadist government as the perpetrators of the deaths.

Then Mr. Erdogan advised, “Let’s build the future instead of magnifying the suffering.” Little does he know that the suffering is so immense that there is no room for magnifying it.

Turkey’s domestic economic woes and the dimming prospects for his reelection in 2023 have tamed Mr. Erdogan’s hubris in foreign adventures. At this point, he is trying to ingratiate himself with the Biden administration, the responsible party for the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement. Mr. Erdogan has been working overtime to restore relations with the US’s friends and allies in the Middle East, particularly with Egypt and Israel; good relations with Saudi Arabia and UAE have already paid off.

Despite Turkey’s intransigence in keeping Russian S-400 missiles, the US has been softening its stand on allowing it US F-16 fighter planes, and Washington is sending some signals it is willing to redirect gas pipelines through Turkey to Europe rather than through Greece.

In this delicate period, President Biden’s Armenian Genocide message, which for the second time uses the term “genocide,” has not been met with Turkish administration’s fury. There is not even the thought of recalling Turkey’s ambassador from Washington. Instead, Mr. Erdogan, contrary to his usual tenor, has reacted mildly, by stating, “Statements relating to the Armenian claims … are of no effect to us. This is how we see the statement of the US president and we do not even find it worth dwelling on because it is all based on lies and false information.”

Turkey’s minister of defense, Hulusi Akar, reacted in an even milder statement, saying Turkey’s “history is clear.”

Genocide commemorations and the controversies it has generated this year represent only one chapter of the ongoing Armenian-Turkish and Armenian-Azerbaijani negations. There is fear and apprehension in Armenia that the government is giving in too much at this stage, at the very start of the talks.

With the split among the co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, France and the US have become more active in pulling Armenia towards the West and away from Russia. Russia, fearful of letting Armenia slip through its grasp, invited Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan last week to sign a 30-clause agreement, while moving the Karabakh issue and Turkish-Armenian relations into the format of 3+3: Russia, Turkey and Iran vs. Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. In that format, there is no party that can help formulate the Karabakh settlement favorably to Armenian interests. That is why Yerevan is joining the 3+3 format cautiously, on the condition of discussing Karabakh only in the OSCE format.

Unfortunately, regional and international developments are too complicated for Armenia’s foreign policy establishment to handle, while the domestic opposition has been agitating to make the government’s task even more challenging.

Armenia’s population is confused by the actions of an inept ruling party and a boisterous opposition which does not offer a viable political agenda.

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