By Richard Giragosian
In the wake of the suspension of official Armenian-Turkish diplomacy, the normalization process between the two countries now remains limited to civil society exchanges and “track two” efforts that seek to “sustain the momentum” until the two sides can diplomatically reengage.
Since the suspension of the normalization process, recent statements by Turkish leaders have only exacerbated the negative impact from political posturing and rhetoric, thereby inflaming public opinion and demonstrating the absence of political will necessary to recommit to the normalization process. And given the Turkish failure to fulfill the diplomatic protocols signed with Armenia, the outlook for the normalization process seems less a realistic new year’s wish and more like wishful thinking.
Ironically, one of the most recent developments in the troubled course of Armenian-Turkish normalization came neither in Yerevan nor in Ankara, but in Paris, with a debate in the lower house of the French parliament of legislation that would criminalize “genocide denial.” Over the short term at least, the measure diminished any real opportunity for a resumption of Armenian-Turkish diplomacy.
Despite the adoption of the legislation by the lower house of the French parliament, the measure still awaits consideration by the Senate before being enacted as law. Notably, a similar bill was adopted by the lower house in 2006, but was later rejected by the Senate in a vote that was deferred for several years. And although the Sarkozy Administration is intent on pushing for quick consideration of the legislation, neither the timing nor the outcome of the pending Senate vote seems assured.
The French parliamentary debate has significantly raised tension in the already difficult bilateral French-Turkish relationship, as Turkey recalled its ambassador to France in a strong display of its displeasure with Paris. Within the broader context, the French parliamentary consideration of the measure was largely driven by three main factors.
First, in light of the difficulty facing French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s bid for reelection in 2012, the significance of the issue stems from the political importance of the early 500,000-strong politically well-organized French-Armenian community and can be seen as an attempt to curry their support.
Following this domestic political logic, it is also likely that the Sarkozy government will not pursue passage of the legislation in the Senate as eagerly as it did during the vote in the lower chamber, seeing more political gain from either parliamentary difficulty or delay, arguing for support from the French-Armenian community closer to next year’s election.
In this way, President Sarkozy may more effectively mobilize French-Armenian voters and leverage their grassroots organizational strength, arguing that their support is crucial for him to continue to defend their interests. Otherwise, any quick and easy adoption of the legislation by the Senate may actually weaken his sustained appeal amid a return to apathy among the French-Armenian community well before the mid-2012 presidential election.
Second, this issue offers the French government a politically convenient way to embarrass and damage the Turkish government, especially given the deeper tension between the French and Turkish leaders. From this perspective, the Sarkozy government’s backing and push for this legislation are less about the Armenian genocide issue per se, but represents a convenient way to embarrass the Turkish leadership and damage the Turkish bid to join the European Union.
And third, the bill itself represents much more than the Armenian genocide issue, but allows France to exert and enhance its political prestige and leadership on a global scale, adopting more of a moral position as a European leader, especially in the wake of the emergence of the “Arab Spring” and the apparent French-British victory in Libya.
Thus, although the passage of the bill does represent an important tactical victory for the French-Armenian community and only enhances pressure on Turkey to sincerely address the Armenian genocide, it has only hardened Turkish intransigence on the normalization process over the short-term.
Yet Turkey’s “over-reaction” to the French legislation only makes the issue more significant and further demonstrates the Turkish government’s failure to understand the difference between official Armenian government policy and the parallel, but quite separate international campaign of international genocide recognition conducted by the Armenian Diaspora.
At the same time, the over-reaction of the Turkish government, as seen by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s uncharacteristically emotional outburst accusing French lawmakers of seeking to “dishonor” his country, for example, is particularly counter-productive, given the domestic political context of the debate and since the legislation should not be that unexpected in light of the statements of French President Sarkozy in support of its passage when he visited Yerevan in October 2011 and due to the fact that the bill largely reaffirms France’s official recognition of the Armenian genocide.
Against this backdrop of developments in Paris, the issue of Armenian-Turkish normalization was reportedly raised on the sidelines of the December 2011 summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vilnius, Lithuania. According to some reports, members of the Swiss delegation approached Armenian and Turkish delegates and offered to restart Swiss-mediated talks between Yerevan and Ankara.
This Swiss offer of renewed mediation between Armenia and Turkey was initially welcomed by both sides, although Turkish officials reportedly back tracked later, fueling speculation that the Turkish foreign ministry’s initially positive response was merely a tactical attempt to preemptively derail or at least dissuade the French parliament from adopting the legislation.
The Swiss offer to restart mediation between Armenia and Turkey may reflect the recognition of a diplomatic opening or opportunity, but it can also be seen as a move to strengthen the Swiss position as a candidate to assume the OSCE chairmanship in 2014.
Yet over the longer term, there is more of a degree of optimism to justify more than simply wishful thinking. But the key to such renewed optimism stems not from any third country, but depends on strategic calculations in Ankara. More specifically, the Turkish side may actually consider returning to the stalled normalization process sooner than expected, for two main reasons.
First, just as the launch of the Swiss-mediated secret diplomatic talks between Armenia and Turkey were based on a Turkish reassessment of its strategic national interests, the scale and scope of challenges facing Turkish foreign policy today may trigger yet another reappraisal.
Such a reappraisal of Turkish foreign policy stems from the daunting and complex longer term obstacles facing Turkey, as evident in recent developments in neighboring Syria, over the Iranian nuclear program and from the heated confrontation between Turkey and Israel, for only some examples.
In this context, the lack of any clear or immediate success in Turkish foreign policy may actually result in a policy of reengagement with Armenia, with normalization offering a more immediate gain, without the long-term investment and political capital required in overcoming the more complex challenges to Turkey in charting a course in dealing with the Syrian, Iranian and Israeli issues, for example.
Yet any such return to the normalization process will not be that easy and not without its own unresolved challenges, inferring a more sophisticated Turkish policy of sincerely engaging Armenia, facing the genocide issue more honestly and openly, and recognizing the fact that the Nagorno Karabakh conflict is no longer a direct precondition to normalizing relations with Armenia. But given the “win-win” nature of Armenian-Turkish normalization, Ankara may be able to garner a key foreign policy achievement that has so far eluded Turkey.
A second factor that may drive a sudden restart of normalization stems from the lesson from the recent French parliamentary vote. That lesson, although not yet fully a “lesson learned” for Turkey, is that it was actually the Turkish over-reaction to the French parliament that damaged Turkey much more than the vote itself. If the Turkish reaction was more realistic and subdued, for example, the issue itself would not be as sensitive within France (and within the European context) and would most likely even be less of a domestic political issue within Turkey itself.
Nevertheless, the restart of the normalization process would now require a determination by the Turkish government to treat the Armenian issue, and all of its inherent implications, in a demonstrably more sincere manner.
Only then could a second round of engagement work, especially as much of the international community sees the normalization issue quite differently than many in Ankara, as expectations remain firmly on Turkey only, with Armenia largely perceived as being consistently committed to normalizing relations. Thus, the normalization issue now stands as both a test but also as an opportunity for Turkey, but one largely for Turkey to either seize or miss alone.
9 January 2012
Richard Giragosian is the director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent think tank in Yerevan, Armenia