By Chris Hennemeyer*
While much is made in some political and media circles of tensions between the cross and the crescent, a quiet rapprochement is occurring between two of the world?s most hostile neighbours, who have long been glaring at one another over the Abrahamic fence. If stubborn domestic opposition can be overcome, the parliaments of Christian Armenia and Muslim Turkey will soon ratify protocols that will re-establish diplomatic relations and re-open their borders.
The bad blood between these countries can hardly be overstated, stemming as it does from centuries of Ottoman abuses, followed by the 1915-16 genocide ? there is no other word for it ? inflicted on Turkey?s Armenian population. According to the International Association of Genocide Scholars, more than a million people perished, and the scars of that crime are carried today by every Armenian, especially in the eight million strong diaspora.
Outnumbering those in the home country by three to one, many Armenians abroad have made victimhood a cornerstone of their identity and are not about to concede anything to the Turks without a fight. As one homegrown Armenian put it to me: ?For us the genocide is part of our make-up, but for them [the exiles] it?s the centre of their being.?
It is for that reason that the president, Serzh Sargsyan, recently made a tour of Armenian communities in Lebanon, France, Russia and the United States. While many, like the noisy protesters who shouted ?traitor? in Paris and Los Angeles, were deaf to his conciliatory message, others were willing to listen to the benefits of a resumption of relations with Turkey. Chief among these are economic, for Armenia is by any reckoning a poor country; per capita GDP is $6,300, about the same as El Salvador?s and less than half that of Botswana.
Further clouding the country?s future is continued rapid migration. Since independence in 1991, the population has dropped from 4 million to at most 2.9 million, and may in fact be closer to 2.5 million. Astonishingly, tens of thousands of Armenians are even to be found working illegally in Turkey. This kind of human haemorrhaging is unsustainable. To make matters worse, with the Turkish border closed, the country?s only legal trade goes through Russia, Georgia and Iran ? hardly the kind of economic links an aspiring western democracy should be forced to have.
While Turkey and Armenia are finally concluding that peace will serve their common interests, in neighbouring Azerbaijan the festering sore of Nagorno-Karabakh threatens to poison the entire process. Karabakh is Azeri territory, but long claimed by Armenia and occupied by Yerevan since 1994, after a bitter war that resulted in at least 20,000 deaths**.
Given the strong ethnic and religious links between Turks and Azeris, it?s not surprising that the latter are appalled by talk of detente and the government has reacted with a worrying combination of panic and pugnacity. Only last week, for example, the Azeri president Ilham Aliyev held ?peace? talks with his Armenian counterpart Sargsyan, but preceded the discussions with a threat to use war to liberate Karabakh.
Commendably, Mr Sargsyan, who himself is originally from Karabakh, has not reacted to these provocations, and the Turks have avoided explicitly tying progress on the issue to ratification of their accords with Armenia. Nonetheless, all parties understand that there will be no permanent stability in the region until Karabakh is resolved.
The US administration has thus far handled the Turkey-Armenia rapprochement dexterously, judiciously applying stick and carrot to encourage both sides. Unfortunately, some of Armenia?s many supporters in the US Congress have been less than helpful, casting doubts on the Turkish deal and insisting that Ankara first recognize the genocide.
Of course, such politicians have long been in the habit of taking their policy cues unquestioningly from some representatives of the Armenian-American community who tend to be long on sentimentality and short on reality. The eternal issue of recovering ?lost Armenian lands? in eastern Turkey may, for example, strike a powerful emotional chord, but it is unlikely that the Armenian flag will soon fly again over Mount Ararat.
Certainly the Armenians are at the very least entitled to a formal mea culpa from the Turkish state for the genocide, and it is probable that will happen within the next decade. However, acknowledging great crimes often takes a great amount of time. It wasn?t until 2008 that the US Congress finally expressed regret for slavery, and what remains of the Herero and Nama people of Namibia are still waiting for compensation from the German government for their virtual extermination at the hands of the Kaiser?s troops more than a century ago.
In the meantime, Armenia has serious, pressing problems to resolve, including corruption, political intolerance, crime, migration and the economy. Re-engaging with its neighbour Turkey will present it with a new set of challenges, but it will also force Armenia to face its future rather than live in its sad, isolated past.
*Chris Hennemeyer is a vice president of Bridging the Divide, a development organisation for underprivileged communities in the Middle East and Africa www.bridging-the-divide.org
**Azad-Hye note: Nagorno – Karabakh came under Azeri control only due to Stalin's arrangement and without asking the view of its Armenian majority population.
Source: “The National, Abu Dhabi, 26 November 2009