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David L. Phillips

Turkey, Armenia, and the Azerbaijan delay

By David L. Phillips
May 24, 2009
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THE RECENT announcement normalizing Turkish-Armenian relations is a potentially historic breakthrough. However, the lack of progress in implementing the "framework agreement" raises questions about Turkey's intentions and resolve. Turkey's prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, is buckling to domestic opposition and objections from Azerbaijan. Moreover, the announcement of the normalization "road map" on the eve of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day looks like a cynical effort to dissuade President Obama from characterizing the events of 1915-1923 as genocide.

The central dispute between Turkey and Armenia involves the occupation of territories in Azerbaijan, as well as divergent historical narratives. While some Turks refer to suffering at the end of the Ottoman Empire as a "shared tragedy," Armenians and others call it "genocide." After the Soviet Union's demise and Armenia's independence, Armenian forces sought to safeguard the ethnic-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. In so doing, they displaced about 800,000 Azerbaijanis and occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijan.

The Obama administration is committed to good relations with Turkey and Armenia. Both are US allies and help counter global extremism. Turkey's cooperation is critical to US efforts in Afghanistan, redeploying troops from Iraq, and constraining Iran's nuclear development. The Armenian-American community ensures that US-Armenia ties are permanent and strong.

US mediation was indispensable to the agreement on normalization and recognition, which Turkish and Armenian officials initialed April 2. The accord establishes a binational commission, a series of subcommissions, and specifies a timetable for implementation. The agreement does not, however, take effect until both countries sign it. Getting from initials to implementation is far from guaranteed.

After meeting with Turkish officials on April 7 in Istanbul, Obama concluded that resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh was not a formal precondition for normalization and recognition. But as a practical matter it is a deal-breaker. Armenian and Azerbaijani negotiators agree on "basic ideas" for resolving Nagorno-Karabakh's status, but work is still needed before the parties approve the proposal.

Turkey's interests cannot be held hostage by Azerbaijan. The United States should reaffirm Obama's understanding: there is no link between normalizing Turkish-Armenian relations and negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Just as there should be no linkage between normalization and the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, there must be no linkage between normalization and genocide recognition.

From 2001-2004, I chaired the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission, which sought a legal analysis on "The applicability of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide to events that occurred in the early 20th century."

The analysis determined that international law prohibits the retroactive application of treaties.

The analysis also defined the crime of genocide: (i) the perpetrator killed one or more persons; (ii) such person or persons belonged to a particular national, racial, or religious group; (iii) the perpetrator intended to destroy in whole or in part that group, as such; and, (iv) the conduct took place in the context of a manifest pattern of similar conduct directed against the group. Of the criteria, "intent" is the only one in dispute. The analysis determined that Ottoman figures who ordered the deportation knew the consequence of their actions and therefore possessed the requisite genocidal intent.

The finding is not legally binding, but it did give something to both peoples that can aid the goal of reconciliation.

The commission emphasized open discussion between Turks and Armenians. So-called track two activities - contact, communication, and cooperation - help foster mutual understanding, co-mingle interests, and build trust. To this end, Western governments should establish a fund for collaborative activities. Civil society cooperation can consolidate an official agreement; it can also serve as a safety net if talks founder.

Track two is not, however, a substitute for official diplomacy. The Obama administration must stay engaged to help Turkey and Armenia formalize the agreement. Standing with the proponents of reconciliation puts the United States on the right side of history.

David L. Phillips is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a visiting scholar at Columbia University.

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