Parliamentary debate in Armenia on diplomatic normalization with Turkey opened on October 1 with an emotional opposition attack on the government for supposedly selling out Yerevan's interests. Despite the political maneuvering, the Armenian legislature is widely expected to ratify protocols that open the way for a rapprochement.
The 400-seat gallery at the National Assembly was packed to capacity, with deputies, diplomats, analysts and various public figures on hand to witness the seven hours of give-and-take by MPs on the merits of the protocols. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. It is not yet clear how long parliamentary debate will last.
An August 31 agreement between Armenia and Turkey envisaged six weeks for public debate before the protocols were signed by the two countries' presidents, and then passed on to their respective parliaments for ratification "within a reasonable timeframe."
Little doubt exists that Armenia's parliament -- controlled by the government coalition triumvirate (Republican Party of Armenia, Prosperous Armenia Party and Country of Law Party) -- will vote for ratification. President Serzh Sargsyan, currently on a tour of Diaspora communities to discuss the reconciliation plan, has already agreed to sign the protocols on October 10.
While vociferous, parliamentary opposition to the protocols is minimal. The Heritage Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (ARF), which both oppose the documents, hold only 23 seats in the legislature. The governing coalition, by comparison, controls 94 seats. A senior ARF-Dashnaktsutiun member, Vahan Hovhannisian, admitted to EurasiaNet that "the forces are too unequal" to stop the documents' ratification.
Many opposition politicians affiliated with parties that do not have parliamentary representation, as well as representatives of some non-governmental organizations, have suggested the protocols contain wording that is potentially disadvantageous for Armenia.
To buttress their concerns, critics point to protocol provisions covering the mutual recognition of the Turkish-Armenian state border, territorial integrity and the reaffirmation of border stability and the creation of a subcommittee to study archives and historic documents. The provisions, as seen by some government critics, can do serious damage to Armenia's long-term diplomatic goals. For instance, critics say the protocols can potentially formalize the inclusion of former Armenian cities within Turkish borders, de-legitimize Nagorno-Karabakh's independence bid and call into question the appropriateness of classifying the 1915 Ottoman Turkish slaughter of ethnic Armenians as genocide.
President Sargsyan has charged that such criticism only confuses the public. "Where did you see preconditions in the publicized protocols?" Sargsyan asked at a September 30 meeting with the 1,700-member Public Council, an informal advisory group. "If it were so, it would have been written in the document that it is signed with preconditions."
"Compromises" were necessary, he continued, but "many points" in the protocols also "are in Armenia's interests."
ARF parliamentarian Armen Rustamian countered during the October 1 parliamentary debate that Sargsyan appeared to have been outmaneuvered by Turkish negotiators. "The preconditions are not put in exact words," Rustamian claimed. "When one wants to poison somebody, they do not write 'poison' on the cup."
Fellow ARF member Hovhannisian, a former deputy parliamentary secretary, added that the protocols are the "result of dilettante and cynical diplomacy" that has "disgraced" Armenia's foreign policy.
Taking aim at the ARF's nationalist image, Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) parliamentarian Vardan Ayvazian, a staunch supporter of the Sargsyan administration, called on fellow deputies "not to pretend to be more patriotic than the Republicans," and to take greater care in reading the protocols.
The protocols, he said, "are going to ensure normal relations [with Turkey] and a new economic path for our country."
"We are for this process started by the president and we will take that path [of economic opportunities]," stated fellow RPA MP Eduard Sharmazanov, who also acts as the party's spokesperson. The ARF's Hovhannisian dryly rejoined that that "path will be a very short one."
One political analyst who attended the debates, Gagik Harutyunian, director of the Noravank Foundation, argued that the Armenian parliament "should wait for the decision of the Turkish parliament" before ratifying the documents. Making the first move, he contends, "would be wrong."
Other analysts, however, believe that Armenia should settle for what it has gotten from Turkey. One of the pragmatists, Ruben Melkonian, a Turkish expert in Yerevan, said the protocols are "the best documents at the moment."
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.