BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
Neither Armenia’s previous nor current leaders have had the adequate experience to run a country. This is true in both domestic and foreign policies. In order to rectify this undesirable situation, some have suggested finding the pertinent experts who would advise Armenia’s leaders.
Regrettably, all such efforts have failed for the simple reason that before the experts could be helpful; the leaders have to be willing to listen to their advice. My long experience in dealing with Armenia’s leaders has shown that they think they know everything and have no need to learn from anyone. This is one reason why the Republic of Armenia has been mismanaged for 30 years. It is understandable that a leader does not have to be knowledgeable about every issue. That is why he or she has advisors. But when the advisors know even less than their leader, as is the case in Armenia, the situation becomes hopeless.
I have written this lengthy introduction to make the point that in addition to not knowing much and not listening to advice, Armenia’s leaders refuse to learn from their past mistakes which is the reason why they repeat them.
One such example is the current discussion in Armenia and Turkey about the possible opening of the Armenian-Turkish border, closed by Turkey since 1993. Last week, Armenia’s Foreign Minister Ara Aivazyan told the members of Parliament: “There is no longer a reason [for Turkey] to close the border with Armenia. For long years, Turkey blockaded Armenia’s border, demanding a change in the status quo of the Artsakh conflict. The status quo has been changed through the use of force.” The Foreign Minister assured the Parliament that currently no activities have been initiated in that regard.
The Armenian Foreign Minister’s statement comes on the heels of recent expressions by the President and Foreign Minister of Turkey of their willingness to open the border with Armenia, should the latter meet certain conditions. In the past, Turkey’s reason for closing the border was Armenia’s refusal to free “Azerbaijan’s occupied territories.” Therefore, one would think that now that Azerbaijan has forcefully occupied most of these territories, the problem is solved and Turkey will open the border. However, let us remember that Turkey had two additional conditions to open Armenia’s border:
1. Armenia must abandon its pursuit of the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide;
2. Armenia must recognize Turkey’s current borders and not make any territorial demands.
We all recall that back in 2009 after Armenia and Turkey signed the Protocols to open their mutual border, Turkey made the additional demands from Armenia. When Armenia refused to accept these new conditions, Turkey decided not to ratify the Armenia-Turkey Protocols, after coming under intense pressure from Azerbaijan.
At the time, there was a major outcry from the Diaspora and many within Armenia that the Protocols were not in Armenia’s interests. Nevertheless, President Serzh Sargsyan persisted in his misguided approach, until Turkey gave up on the Protocols, inadvertently saving Armenia’s interests.
The other major harmful effect of the Protocols was that it undermined the pledge that Pres. Barack Obama had made to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide on April 24, 2009.
The Protocols were a clever Turkish ploy to derail the acknowledgment of Armenian Genocide by the President of the United States. The Turkish leaders, with the collaboration of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, repeatedly told Pres. Obama not issue a statement recognizing the Armenian Genocide at a time when Armenia and Turkey were engaged in serious negotiations on normalizing their relations. They succeeded in convincing Pres. Obama that using the term Armenian Genocide would disrupt these negotiations. As a result, instead of keeping his campaign pledge to recognize the Armenian Genocide, Pres. Obama stated on April 24, 2009: “I also strongly support the efforts by Turkey and Armenia to normalize their bilateral relations. Under Swiss auspices, the two governments have agreed on a framework and roadmap for normalization. I commend this progress, and urge them to fulfill its promise.”
It is true that Pres. Obama failed to keep his campaign promise, but Armenia’s leaders are the ones who gave him the perfect excuse to hide behind the charade of the Protocols. Consequently, Armenians lost both the acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide by the President of the United States and the opening of the border.
Regrettably, the same scenario is about to repeat again this year. President Joe Biden made a campaign promise to recognize the Armenian Genocide. It should be much easier for him to take such a step now, since both the House of Representatives (almost unanimously) and the U.S. Senate (unanimously) acknowledged the Armenian Genocide in 2019. While it is not certain that Pres. Biden will keep his promise, we should not give him the excuse not to do so.
If the past is any indication, this is the exact ploy that Turkey is plotting now. We know that the Biden Administration has a much harsher position vis-à-vis Pres. Erdogan and Turkey. There are several disputes between the United States and Turkey that will be difficult to overcome. Knowing this well, Pres. Erdogan has started in recent weeks to take steps to reconcile with Israel, Greece and Saudi Arabia in order to ingratiate himself to Pres. Biden. Pres. Erdogan’s suggestion to open the border with Armenia is a part of this overall Turkish strategy.
In the aftermath of the disastrous Artsakh War, Armenia’s leaders cannot afford to make more miscalculations. While most of Artsakh and its surrounding territories are already lost, I hope the Armenian Government does not make the mistake of providing an excuse for the Biden Administration not to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. Even more importantly, Armenia’s leaders should not take the unthinkable step of pledging not to pursue the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide and acknowledge the current borders of Turkey. Such an acceptance would damage Armenia’s interests forever. How could Armenia agree to such Turkish suggestions in the aftermath of the vicious role played by Turkey in the recent Artsakh War, which resulted in the killing and maiming of thousands of Armenian soldiers and the occupation of Armenian territories? The wounds are too fresh to contemplate any attempt to normalize relations with Turkey.
Armenia’s inexperienced leaders can find themselves in an untenable situation if Turkey decides unilaterally to open its border, while Armenia refuses to do so; giving Turkey accolades and making Armenia seem obstructionist in the eyes of the international community. Armenia’s situation will be further complicated should Turkey open its border, whereas the Armenian Government just banned the import of Turkish products for six months or longer. Should the border open and Armenia allow the import of Turkish products, the Armenian market would be flooded with cheaper Turkish products, adversely affecting local manufacturers. One possible solution would be for Armenia, instead of outright banning Turkish imports, to place such an exorbitant tariff on them, making them practically unsaleable in the country. By avoiding the ban, Armenia would not look bad in the eyes of the world, while generating much needed revenue for the Armenian Government, should anyone import Turkish goods.
In the meantime, Armenia should put its own conditions on Turkey before agreeing to open its border, such as Turkish recognition of the Armenian Genocide and compensation for the Armenian losses. Such a move would contradict the positions of both Pres. Serzh Sarkisian and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan who have expressed their readiness to have Armenia ratify the ill-fated Protocols and open the border with Turkey, without any preconditions!