The 24th September 2005, saw the first ever conference on Turkish soil dedicated to the First World War massacre of the Armenian population resident within the Ottoman Empire. The meeting – which was held at the Bilgi University in Istanbul, and was initially programmed for the previous May, before the decision of an administrative tribunal caused it to be cancelled – represented an important moment of reflection within Turkish society. In spite of the tense atmosphere, and in spite of the criticisms to which they were subjected, the organizers showed the courage to bring to the forefront of public debate an issue which, after almost a century, is still considered a taboo subject for Turkish society, and which constitutes a real obstacle to Turkish membership of the EU. This was made clear when the European Parliament, just a few days before the official discussions concerning Turkish entry into the EU, voted in favour of beginning the negotiation process (365 votes for, 181 against, with 125 abstaining), specifying as a necessary condition, however, Turkish recognition of the Armenian genocide.
Even if, in October 2005, the Council of Europe began negotiations without there having been such a recognition, the principled opposition of certain countries succeeded in influencing the discussion process. Particularly strong was the decision of the French National Assembly, encouraged by the decisive action of Armenian pressure groups within the country, to approve, on the 10th October 2006, a bill which would make denial of the genocide a criminal offence. It is clear then, beyond any historical or moral importance that might be attached to the recognition of genocide, that it is in Ankara’s political and economic interests to ensure that this issue is, once and for all, consigned to history.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, indeed, Turkey has once again begun to play a key role in the Caucasus – a region that is of fundamental importance to Turkish interests above all in economic terms, given the natural petrol resources of this area and the potential for new markets that it offers. Since the early nineties, Turkey has maintained a close relationship with the Republic of Azerbaijan and with Georgia, which illustrates a recognition of the importance if this area and its new pipelines for the transport of oil and gas. With respect to Armenia, however, there have been no diplomatic relations throughout the nineties to the present day, both for historical reasons, and because of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan for the control of the Nagorno-Karabach region.
The importance that Europe attributes to the Caucasus region further increases Turkey’s need to normalize relations with Armenia. Through the so-called Action Plans – programs which establish objectives and guidelines for cooperation between the EU and the countries which fall within the bounds of its ‘neighborhood policies’ – the Union hopes to strengthen its relations with three republics of the southern Caucasus. In 2003 a special representative for the southern Caucasus was nominated by the European Parliament, with the task of providing assistance to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in the realization of necessary political and economic reforms, and of working towards reducing conflicts in the area. The aim was to increase the role of the European Union in the region and to make its actions more visible.
2003 was therefore a turning point for the EU with respect to its policies in the southern Caucasus. The European Union has requested each of the three nations of the region to commit themselves to improving their own democratic structures, and ensuring the respect of human rights, if they are to benefit fully from the action plans which have been put in place. It has been decided, therefore, to apply the principle of ‘conditionality’, which links the degree of collaboration to the merits that each country acquires over the course of the reform process, in areas such as political dialogue, economic and social development, justice, and energy. In 2004, furthermore, it was agreed that the countries of the region will be able to benefit from structures other than the Action Plans, that is, financing plans which form part of the European ‘proximity policies’, which from 2007 onwards will bring about a noticeable extension of the current programs, ‘Tacis’ and ‘Meda’.
Through a process of close monitoring, of which the results are published in the annual Country Reports, the EU has followed, and continues to follow with great interest, the political and institutional evolution of the area. In the case of Armenia, the basis for increased cooperation with the European Union is outlined by the EU-Armenia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), signed in 1996 and in force since 1999, and in April 2004, the Armenian government approved a decree which gave the agreement executive status. The country has thus given proof of its intention to follow a policy of cooperation with the Union, and yet there have nevertheless been issues which have complicated the partnership process. Armenia has in fact been censured on a number of occasions for negligence towards human rights issues, and for its failure to develop an authentic democratic system, both by the Council of Europe and by OSCE, an institution of which, furthermore, it is a member. In particular, attention has been drawn to repeated electoral irregularities, and to the continual restrictions placed on the freedom of the press. Equally, there has been no lack of criticism on the economic front, and corruption remains a serious issue which threatens the development of the economy and of society as a whole. The principle problem which concerns Armenia on the international stage, however, is the contention of the Nagorno-Karabakh region with Azerbaijan. For the European Union, the resolution of this disagreement is an essential prerequisite for the development of its partnership with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and yet, at present, any kind of solution seems to be a long way away. And Turkey, it seems, together with the European Union, has the potential to play an important role in the resolution of the crisis.
Nevertheless, the European Commission’s 2006 Progress Report on Turkey highlights how, in the area of community trade policies, Armenia is still excluded from Turkey’s General System of Preferences. In the same way, the report also emphasizes the fact that Ankara still has its borders closed to Erevan, leading to serious economic repercussions for Armenia. Equally, in terms of internal, domestic policies the report notes serious setbacks in the reform process, as demonstrated by the condemning of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink to six months imprisonment, later suspended, based in article 301 of the new Penal Code, and the accusation of his having insulted the Turkish nation over the course of a series of articles on Armenian identity. The murder of the same journalist at the beginning of this year has been a further cause of concern for the international community regarding Turkey’s capacity to bring the reform towards the full and definitive development of democracy to a fruitful conclusion.
It is vital for both Turkey and Armenia to begin the process of reconciliation to heal a rupture which, even if deep, deserves now to be definitively confined to history. Without such a reconciliation, both countries run the risk of compromising their own future democratic, political and economic development.
Translation by Liz Longden