The recent decision by the US House of Representatives International Relations Committee to adopt a resolution recognizing accusations that the Ottoman Turks conducted genocide against Armenians in 1915 has aggravated already tense relations between Ankara and Yerevan.
In recent years, the leaders of Armenia and Turkey have taken cautious steps towards improved bilateral relations. However, the Armenian genocide issue has remained a major obstacle to the normalization of ties. The genocide resolution, which could face a vote of the full US House of Representatives as soon as Tuesday, marks a serious setback for the normalization process.
Both countries have pursued differing normalization strategies. These divergent strategies were reflected in the dialog of the Armenian President Robert Kocharian and then-Turkish president Suleyman Demirel during their meeting in June 1998. Kocharian has sought to rectify past wrongs. "There exists in our relations considerable strain caused by history," said Kocharian, referring to the Armenian genocide claims. "We cannot get anywhere by trying to forget this. We can overcome this situation only by discussing the past." Meanwhile, Demirel has concentrated on the future. "Drawing enmity from the past would create big problem," the Turkish leader said. "Let us look to the future rather than the past".
A similar exchange took place at the UN Millennium Summit in September. In his address, Kocharian said that "Turkey's continuing denial of the genocide of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire has only been intensifying our aspirations for historical justice." Kocharian expressed confidence that "a constructive dialogue with Turkey will allow us to jointly pave the way toward cooperation and good neighborly relations between our two peoples." Turkish President Akhmet Necdet Sezer in his speech to the summit expressed "great regret" that Kocharian had broached the issue, saying the "assessment of history should be left to historians."
The passage of the genocide resolution by the US House of Representatives International Relations Committee on October 3 angered the entire Turkish political class. Reacting strongly to the news, the Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit described the resolution as a "sad and ugly incident." Foreign Minister Ismail Cem also referred to the Committee hearings as a "tasteless development."
The Armenian government has enthusiastically backed the US House Committee's decision. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian congratulated US legislators for endorsing the genocide resolution. He announced that the "recognition of the genocide" would ease relations between Turkey and Armenia.
"That sounds quite odd, doesn't it?" sarcastically retorted Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper. To be sure, a Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs' statement issued immediately after the House Committee's vote claimed that the resolution's approval "would have a negative impact on normalizing relations between Turkey and Armenia and on peace initiatives in the Caucasus."
It would seem that at the moment there are two approaches in Turkey on how Ankara should respond to the resolution: one calls for a tough response, the other is more conciliatory.
"Turkey can make Armenia suffer if it wants to," wrote in the Hurrieyt's column Oktay Eksi. He said Turkish airspace should be closed to all planes destined for Armenia. Eksi also suggested that by enforcing stricter checks Turkey could prevent the transportation of goods from Turkey to Armenia via Iran or Georgia. "Turkey can officially declare", writes he, "that it will respond with hostility to Armenia's hostile behavior, until Armenia declares it is abandoning its anti-Turkish policies."
Among those sounding a more conciliatory note was former Turkish diplomat Sukru Elekdag. Writing in the Milliyet daily, Elekdag argues for the opening up all Ottoman archives, as well as the convocation of an international scholarly conference. "Both Turkey and Armenia will suffer from an escalation of tension.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was a Regional Exchange Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, 1995; Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1988-1997; and Kiev correspondent for the Paris-based weekly Russkaya mysl, 1998-2000. He was a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University in New York from January/August 2000.