03 May 2010, 09:00

Interview with Tom de Waal "I look optimistically at the problem of normalizing Armenian-Turkish relations, since societies change and people become more open for possible changes"

Tom de Waal

Thomas de Waal, British journalist and writer, former editor of the Caucasus department of the British Institute for War and Peace Reporting, co-founder of the non-government organization GO Group, one of the best-known Western experts on the Caucasus. In an interview to the "Caucasian Knot" he commented on the situation around the ratification of Armenian-Turkish protocols, on the prospects of settling the Nagorno-Karabakh problem and the relations between Azerbaijan and Iran.

-  Six months already passed since Turkish-Armenian Protocols "On the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations Between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey " and "On the Development of Bilateral Relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey" were signed in Zurich (Switzerland). What are the prospects for ratification of the protocols by the Parliaments of two countries? How long could be the process or does it come to a dead-end? What are the chances that the Protocols will not be ratified?

- On April 22 the Armenian side suspended its involvement in the normalization process with Turkey. This was to be expected given the difficult talks the two sides had in Washington during the nuclear summit earlier in April. In fact this outcome was much better than many had feared: the chief concern was that, given the obvious unwillingness of the Turkish side to move forward with ratification, the Armenian president would formally withdraw his signature. And there were hopeful phrases in his speech, including for example "Armenia shall retain her signature under the Protocols, because we desire to maintain the existing momentum for normalizing relations, because we desire peace."
The hope now is that the two sides can return to the process in 2011 after the Turkish elections and find reasons to move forward with ratification. However, a positive outcome is unlikely. The Turkish party of Justice and Development (AKR) links the ratification of the Protocols with a progress in peace negotiations on Karabakh, but I can not see any prospects for a breakthrough there.

- In May 2009 Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkish-Armenian border will not open until Azerbaijan will get back the territory adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh and occupied by the NKR Defense Army. Is the similar blackmail possible in the international relations? How one can explain the decision of Turkey to sign the Armenian-Turkish Protocols in less than six months after such a statement of its Prime Minister?

- Turkey closed its border with Armenia in April 1993 after Armenian forces captured the province of Kelbajar outside Karabakh (The Armenian forces came from both Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh, let us not pretend that fighting was done only by a "NKR Defence Army", Armenia is 30 times bigger than Nagorny Karabakh and Karabakh would not have survived without it). To many international actors, including Turkey, the Kelbajar operation marked the moment when the Armenians were no longer involved in pure self-defence in the Karabakh conflict. And Azerbaijan is Turkey's closest ally amongst its neighbours. Azerbaijan has considerable influence in Turkey and is a major gas importer to Turkey. So the surprise was not that Erdogan would link the normalization process with the Karabakh conflict but that the two sides moved forward in October 2009 without any progress on the Karabakh issue. I attribute this to three factors: a difference in strategy between President Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan with the former being more keen to normalize relations with Armenia, despite the inevitable Azerbaijani reaction; some naivety on the Turkish side with regard to prospects of progress on the Karabakh dispute; mixed messages from the US administration which may have assured the Turks that there was more progress in the Karabakh talks than there actually was.

- On October 1, 2009 in a joint statement of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs Ambassords Yuri Merzlyakov (Russian Federation), Bernard Fassier (France) and Robert Bradtke (U.S.) it was said that peaceful conflict resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh is an independent process and has no connections to other processes. On what grounds does Turkey link the ratification of the Armenian-Turkish protocol to the progress of Nagorno-Karabakh's situation? In the protocols there is nothing about that issue; hence it can hardly become a condition for the ratification. How relevant such presentation of the question, made by Turkey, in terms of international law? Isn't it a blackmail? Armenia could also make a condition for the ratification of the protocols - the recognition of Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Empire by Turkey, but it did not.

- It is simply international and parliamentary policy, rather than a blackmail!

Obviously Armenians do not like this dependence - as far as they are concerned, the Karabakh problem has not been mentioned in the protocols, but that is all. But we know, of course, that everything is interconnected in the region. The Turkish authorities have to take into account their close relations with Azerbaijan - do not forget that, after signing the Protocols, the Azeri tax police started persecuting Turkish business in Baku, - and with their own parliament who are not obliged to automatically ratify the Protocols.

- Is there any chance that one day Turkey will recognize the Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Empire in 1915-17? Under what circumstances could it be possible?

- I don't believe a Turkish government will ever formally recognize the killings and deportations of 1915 as a "genocide." But it can and should change its attitude to what happened and begin to acknowledge that the country has a tragic blank spot, the fate of its missing Ottoman Armenian population. In Turkish society the taboo is being lifted on discussing the issue and we can only hope that the government will catch up with this debate with time. That is a moral imperative for Turkey. Once the Turks finally seriously engage with the "Armenian question" the Armenians can also engage with the issue of the (smaller) numbers of Ottoman Muslims who died during the same period, sometimes at the hands of Armenians. At the moment everyone is in denial about the past. It should also not be forgotten that before the late 19th century there were also many bright pages in Armenian-Turkish relations and many Armenians held privileged positions in the courts of the Sultans. What encourages me in the Armenia-Turkey process is that there are many more grass-roots people-to-people contacts than there are between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There is pressure from below to change things.

I, too, think it would be useful for some Western governments and parliaments, which waste time discussing the genocide of Armenians, to take more time for discussing their own genocide-like policies in the past: for instance the behavour of the British and French colonial regimes in Africa or white Americans with regard to American Indians. This would help Turkey not to feel victim of double standards of the West.

- What is the real, not public role of the Islamic Republic of Iran regarding the situation around the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and, in particular, in respect to the processes of normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey? Is Iran interested in the early solution of these regional problems, or it tries to avoid the strengthening of Turkey at the international scene and peaceful conflict resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh?

- Iran is in a strange position in the Caucasus, having very strong interests in both Armenia and Azerbaijan (and especially the latter with its large Azeri population) but almost no official role there, not being a member of the OSCE or Minsk Group. Iran has also clearly been nervous about Turkey's recent ambitions to play a bigger role in the region. This nervousness has two consequences, - in particular, I hear that Teheran is dissatisfied with the possibility of normalizing relations between Ankara and Armenia.

The nervousness cuts both ways. Azerbaijan is now broadcasting an Azeri-language television channel into southern Azerbaijan1 which denounces the Baku government as an enemy of Islam. Iran will always be nervous that Azerbaijan may try and kindle dissatisfaction among the Azeri population in Iran. But there are very few indications that it is possible: a considerable part of the ruling elite in Iran, including Ayatollah Khamenei, have Azeri roots.

Clearly, Iran needs to have a role in the Caucasus but it needs to behave more constructively as well.

- How do you assess the current situation in the conflict resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh? Does this process has any perspective, and if yes, what are they?

- The talks are deadlocked at the moment and the Armenian side is apparently not even prepared to discuss the latest proposals, while it waits to see how the Armenian-Turkish process plays out. The deadlock increased my suspicion that the leadership in Baku and Yerevan is much more comfortable with negotiations for the sake of negotiations but is not seriously interested in a breakthrough in the talks. I think that Minsk process is more a "conflict management process", rather than a "peace process". In order to make it a serious peace process, a strong pressure with a view to attain success is needed. Such pressure might come from the bottom, but, so far, the societies are not interested in peace and compromise while the semi-authoritarian political systems of Armenia and Azerbaijan do not allow them to think more freely. Or pressure could come from the outside, but I do not see any indications that the conflict is a priority for the international community and that foreign states may stronger insist on settlement.

- Several key UN documents (International Covenant on Human Rights, the UN Charter, the various declarations and resolutions) and other international organizations (OSCE, ILO), proclaims the right of peoples to self-determination as a fundamental principle of international relations. What determines the different approach of the international community to the fate of self-proclaimed territories?  Is the sovereignty of Kosovo, proclaimed by the Kosovo parliament on Feb. 17, 2008 and recognized by nearly 70-th states of the world (including Turkey) more legitimate then sovereignty of Nagorno-Karabakh, where people held the Referendum on Independence (10 December 1991)? Why Nagorno-Karabakh has not yet been recognized by the international community as an independent state, despite the fact that even at the Budapest OSCE summit in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh was already recognized as an independent party of the conflict? Isn't it a consequence of double standards?

- In international affairs, Kosovo is very much the exception and other separatist territories-from Northern Cyprus to Somaliland to Taiwan to Nagorny Karabakh-are the rule. The fact that Kosovo was under a de facto UN administration for several years and had powerful backers in the West was obviously crucial, although some key European states such as Greece and Spain have still not recognized its independence. Kosovo's Western friends have helped it tackle the most difficult issue for any separatist territory, which is the right of the minority, in this case the Serbs. Many Kosovo Serbs are still living in their homes and others have received full compensation for property that they lost. There are many problems with Kosovo as a sovereign status but this fact alone gives it some kind of legitimacy. This obviously is a contrast to other territories such as Cyprus, Abkhazia or Nagorny Karabakh, where all the Azerbaijanis have left and Azerbaijanis did not take part in the referendum on independence.

The Karabakh Armenians were indeed recognized as a party in the conflict and their military leader Samvel Babayan signed the ceasefire document in May 1994, but that is a different issue from it being a full political actor in the dispute. Clearly Karabakh Armenians have their own political institutions but clearly also their economy and army are closely interlinked with those of Armenia. Azerbaijan may at any time play the card of international law and initiate the implementation of the four UN resolutions on Nagorno-Karabakh. But we all know that, from the practical and human viewpoint, they have to deal with Karabakh Armenians. Naturally, Karabakh Armenians have their own political institutions, but, let me repeat, it is obvious that their economy and the army are closely interlinked with the economy and the army of Armenia.

- What are the most important points included in the so-called "updated" version of the "Madrid principles"? Could they become the basis for a real solution? It is not a secret that Azerbaijan admits them with only one very important condition: Nagorno-Karabakh is as an integral part of Azerbaijan, even with the most wide-ranging autonomy. At the same time Armenia also recognizes the basic "Madrid principles", but with its own condition, according to which the Nagorno-Karabakh cannot remain as a part of Azerbaijan. Is it possible to find a compromise between these two diametrically opposite positions?

- The Madrid Principles are confidential and it is hard to know what their updated version is. I hear that there is more clarity on the issue of the eventual referendum on sovereignty and that the Armenian side is not happy with this increased clarity. The essential part of the document was always a certain "constructive ambiguity" in which both sides could claim success and in which Nagorny Karabakh would attain an "interim status" that would give it more international legitimacy than it has now but not full international sovereignty. This kind of constructive ambiguity was helpful in the case of Northern Ireland where all sides genuinely wanted a solution. The problem with Karabakh is that it seems the parties prefer the status quo to the concessions and changes they must make under the Madrid document.

In order for the parties to start real concessions, their dissatisfaction with the existing status quo must be much stronger than at present.

- In case of successful negotiations on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh - in what way the security of people can be ensured in the region within the transitional period? Could any foreign or international military forces serve as the guarantor of the security? If yes, what, under what conditions and for what period? Role of Iran is essential in security issues? Would you expect NATO or international group of peace keepers to play a role to secure people of the region (in this case refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh would have better chance to get back)

- I am worried by the fact that no one appears to be seriously engaged in designing a peace-keeping operation for Nagorny Karabakh. The High-Level Planning Group of the OSCE, situated in Vienna, has a mandate to work on this but only rarely visits the region. It is an important issue because it is here that rivalry between the mediators is most likely to arise: to put it bluntly, Russia is likely to want a place in a peace-keeping force and Azerbaijan is likely to oppose this. I do not expect NATO to play a role in this-that would be too controversial for the Russians - but the European Union may take a lead. The problem is that no one seriously discusses practical details of how the peace-making mission could look like in practice.

- Obviously the negotiations on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh can't take place without the considering the opinion of the Karabakh people. In 2002, in the book "Black Garden" you wrote: "During the peaceful conflict resolution one should respect the power of the people's will ... which led to the separation." And on March 4, 2010, Prime Minister of Nagorno-Karabakh Ara Harutyunyan reiterated that recognition of the right of Karabakh people to self-determination remains a priority issue for the authorities of the unrecognized republic. Will Nagorno-Karabakh take part in the conflict resolution as one of its full-fledged parties (again, that status was confirmed by another of the Budapest OSCE summit in 1994)?

- It is basically a role of conflict resolution that anyone who is shut out of a peace process is likely to become a spoiler or a wrecker. The Karabakh Armenians are not directly represented in the peace process and this helps explain why there are overwhelmingly negative sentiments inside Karabakh towards the Minsk Group negotiations-even though the document under discussion promises to give Karabakh a better and more secure international status than it does at the moment. It is obvious that the Karabakh Armenians need to have a voice in the peace process, the only question is how this can be done. It is evident that there cannot be three parties at the negotiating table: the positions of Yerevan and Stepanakert coincide by about 90 per cent and the Armenian president is himself a Karabakh Armenian. So it may be a case of the Armenian delegation being expanded to include Karabakhis - something which could also take place on the Azerbaijani side. The specific format may be discussed and agreed upon - what is important is that the negotiations must allow more parties to speak and more voices to be heard, although the final decision is still the prerogative of presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
This is an issue not just for Ilham Aliev but also for Serzh Sarkisian.

- Are we the witnesses of the final collapse of Armenian-Turkish conflict regulation, or there is a chance to fix it? What should be done by both sides to make any concessions to go, what pre-conditions should be removed to return the negotiations back on a track? Have the authorities of Turkey and Armenia enough political wisdom and will to overcome that crisis and to ratify the protocols, signed in October, 2009?

- It looks as though the Armenia-Turkey normalization process is suspended until after the elections in Turkey due next year. And even next year there will be problems, as the Turks are now making an explicit connection to Nagorny Karabakh which is not mentioned in the protocols. At least the Armenian side was persuaded not to withdraw its signature and contacts continue. But I see this as a long-term process which will not deliver quick results.

In the long-term perspective, I look optimistically at the problem, since societies change and people become more open for possible changes. But in the short-term perspective we are in a deadlock.

May 13, 2010

  1. Region of compact habitation of Azerbaijanians in the North-West of Iran. Approximately coincides with the boundaries of Iranian provinces Ardabil, East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan and Zenjan. ("Caucasian Knot" editor's note)

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