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South Caucasus
Vardan Oskanyan, interview

Armenian FM Vartan Oskanian gives exclusive interview to TNA

Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said that Armenia doesn't see the "genocide issue" as a precondition to normalize relations with Turkey, but called on his Turkish colleagues to remove all their preconditions too. As a successor of the Soviet era, said Oskanian, Armenia recognizes all treaties including the Treaty of Kars, but he claimed the Turks are the ones violating the agreement by keeping the border closed.

Oskanian also pointed to the historical city of Ani as a good step for mutual cooperation and asked Turkey to open the border at least for visitors to the city. Oskanian also told us that Orhan Pamuk's two most recent books are on his desk and he will start reading them soon.

Our appointment with Foreign Minister Oskanian was on the day after our appointment with Yerevan State University students was cancelled by the personal initiative of University Rector Aram Simonyan, so when Oskanian brought up the Armenian press' great interest in our visit, I had to tell him about the cancellation too. Here's what Armenia's top diplomat had to tell us during our interview in his office in the Foreign Ministry building:

OSKANIAN: From what I see in all the newspapers, you've become a star in Yerevan!

TNA: Well I doubt it, because yesterday I was supposed to meet with journalism students at Yerevan State University but the rector cancelled our meeting.


TNA: From what I heard, he finds my opinions a "virus" that I could infect the students with, so he cancelled the meeting.

OSKANIAN: Well, I'm sorry to hear that and certainly that isn't good, and I don't think he made the right decision.


So thank you very much for your kindness in receiving me here for a second time, because back in 2001 I had another chance to interview you. But I can't say that I see much change in Turkish-Armenian relations. What's your view of this?

That's a pity and it's very unfortunate really because we're missing huge opportunities with every passing day. Turkey is classically not raising any option to see those opportunities and unfortunately doesn't want to establish diplomatic relations equally with all three Caucasus nations and play a more constructive role. So that opportunity was missed. The second opportunity has come out as closer cooperation with the European Union. At the same time that Turkey is negotiating its EU accession, today Turkey has the opportunity to play a role as a bridge between the Caucasus and Europe. That opportunity is also is being missed, but the biggest opportunity that we're missing is the interaction between our two peoples. Fifteen years have passed (since Armenia declared its independence in 1991), and no interaction is seen on the border. Our peoples don't know each other well and old memories are being reinforced, our focus today is the wrong focus. We've got to focus on new relations, open borders, establishing diplomatic relations and that's what I mean by saying missed opportunities.

Recently some people in Turkey have said that the government should seek arbitration in an international court on the issue of the events of 1915. What do you think of this?

For us, there's no court case, we'll never talk about this, because we grew up with the real evidence, our parents and our grandparents. That living evidence of this tragedy, survival of genocide, I'm the son of one them. So for Armenians there has never been an issue where we ourselves have to prove this by going to court, that this genocide happened. The question for us is to get a political solution. Because the issue is neither historical nor legal, it's political. And Turkey has politicized this by pursuing a policy of denial at the state level. So the real issue isn't legal but political and it's between the governments of Turkey and Armenia.


Last week after your President Robert Kocharian visited Greek Cyprus, I read your statement to Agence France Press saying that the genocide issue would no longer be an obsession or dominant issue for Turkish-Armenian relations. Could you elaborate on that?

I've always said and will continue to say that. Genocide recognition isn't a precondition. It's an issue that's there and won't go away, it's our moral obligation to pursue recognition. But that shouldn't impede the normalization of our relations. As long as the Armenians don't say that unless Turkey recognizes the genocide we won't normalize our relations, Turkey shouldn't say the reverse, that Armenia should drop the complaint of genocide. Neither side should put any preconditions. We pursue recognition; Turkey is pursuing policies of denialism. I really cannot see the reason why the borders cannot be opened, so that our people would interact. That certainly would create more favorable conditions, so that we can address those issues in a more constructive manner at the government level and create new memories that certainly will create a more constructive manner.

But do you think it's democratic to punish someone who argues against the genocide thesis?

But is it democratic to punish those in Turkey who say the events of 1915 are genocide?


Do you think it's a crime to say this in Turkey?

But the law is there, Orhan Pamuk, Hirant Dink (a famous novelist and an ethnic Armenian writer-editor both charged under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, TCK, for "insulting Turkishness"), and the others. What I'm trying to say here are two things: One, Turkey isn't in any position to criticize the French Parliament's decision (in September, passing a bill criminalizing denial of the genocide allegations), second, the French Parliament's decision is a reaction to the Turkish denialism. It is as simple as that. That has come as a community request, so that the law will be passed. But the French parliamentarians did it in reaction. If you listened to the arguments before the vote, the main issue was your Article 301. I was listening to the debate, and every single speaker said it's because there's Article 301 in Turkey. So it's a reaction. Because the frustration among the Armenian people is the fact that the events 1915 are denied. And every Armenian would say that it's a fact that genocide denial hurts. And it's natural that Armenians will react the way they were reacting. They will go to the parliaments of the countries they're living in and try to past these similar laws, and some parliaments will listen to their citizens and the laws will pass.

Do you think the wording is that important, even though everyone thinks that 1915 was a real tragedy and everyone must be sorry for that?

No, certainly it's, it's important… We've got to call things by their names, you can't just devalue what happened. Because as we speak, there are similar acts that are being committed. That is a whole study, if you say that this is a criminal act, then there would not have been the scholarship on genocide. It's a convention, it has a clear definition and it has become a science.

Even Turkish journalists are very critical of Article 301. If it were changed or eliminated altogether, do you think it would be positive?

You know the positive step will be when Turkish scholars will step out, and once they are all outspoken and have no more fear to call things by their names, we will see it. That will make for more healthy discourse without fear of punishment between Turkish scholars. So there will be more exchanges of ideas, more seminars, more conferences, and Armenians will be invited too. So that taboo will be removed when 301 is removed. I'm not saying that without recognition the Armenians will be satisfied, but we will create the normal conditions. We have to find a democratic environment for this discourse.


Have you read any of Orhan Pamuk's novels?

Well, actually I have "Istanbul: Memories and the City" and "Snow" on my desk so I'm planning to read them soon.

But they haven't been translated into Armenian, so will you be reading them in English?

I think they will be translated soon, but for now I'll be reading them in English.

When we were talking about positive steps to be taken, some in Turkey say that the Armenian Constitution has articles referring to your Declaration of Independence which speaks of "Western Armenia," meaning Turkish territories. And they also bring up how the Armenian Republic has yet to recognize the Treaty of Kars (which defines the Turkish Republic's eastern borders).

The Treaty of Kars is in force as far as I'm concerned. Because Armenia is a successor in recognizing the Soviet treaties. And as long as any treaty hasn't been renounced officially or replaced by a new one, it has been in force. But the problem is that the agreement has been violated so much by the Turkish side. If a legal expert looks at this agreement and the way it's been implemented, I'm not sure if the legal experts would conclude that this is a valid treaty. The violation is from the Turkish side, (because of) having closed its borders with Armenia, and this is a violation of the Treaty of Kars.


And what of the Armenian Constitution referring to the Declaration of Independence?

First of all let's be correct, it's not the Constitution, but the Constitution makes reference to our Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence has one phrase that if we look carefully I don't think it reflects what you think it does. If you read it carefully, word for word, maybe you should look at it. It's a general statement about our past, not necessarily a statement about our future claims.

Earlier this year I visited Akhdamar Island in Van and had the chance to see the perfectly renovated Armenian church there. Do you think the Ani ruins in Kars could also be renovated through a joint initiative? Our culture minister told me they don't have the budget to do this, but that the Armenians wouldn't allocate money either because they have their own economic difficulties, and the Armenian diaspora wouldn't be interested because they have other issues to deal with, meaning their efforts to provoke world parliaments against Turkey.

Tell me if the Turkish government will agree to make Ani a common visiting ground for Armenians and Turks. The money would certainly come from international organizations. That would be an ideal confidence-building measure between Armenia and Turkey, an ideal cooperation between our two peoples. It's a common history. It's on your territory; it's been our historic capital. It can be a common visiting ground for tourists from both sides. I've been suggesting this to the Turkish governments. Open the borders, so that at least we can visit Ani. We can simply start with no Armenians or Turks, but with foreign visitors who carry foreign national passports. Imagine, you have tourists from America coming to Turkey and they can come to Ani, cross the border and go to Armenia and vice versa is possible too. But there's a wall there, an imaginary wall that Turks have erected, and that's very unfortunate. Ani can be a symbol of our cooperation and we call on Turkey to revise its position on this issue, but there's been no response.

If there isn't even agreement among the world's leading historians and experts on the 1915 tragedy, what was wrong with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's call last year to set up a joint committee of historians and experts to deal with the issue together?

I've got to be very honest with you here, we think it's not a genuine proposal, it's a smokescreen for Europeans to think that Turkey has made a positive step. Let me explain why we think it's a smokescreen.

Because of three reasons. One, there's already such a commission like many Turkish scholars, Armenians and foreign scholars have debated the issue, they have discussed the issue and they have declared their position. Those scholars wrote a letter to Prime Minister Erdogan when he issued this invitation and they said: Mr. Prime Minister, that issue has been already studied by different scholars and the conclusions are very clear. It is a genocide, so there's no need for further discussion. And second, with the law within Article 301, you can't be serious about such recommendations. I guess that if your scholars are on the commission, study this topic, they can't accept that it's a genocide. This is what it is. You have 301, that says if you say there's a genocide or even discuss the issue of the events of 1915, you can be punished. It's not compatible. Then today there's a vacuum between the Turkish and Armenian governments, between those two states, because there's no diplomatic relations. The border is even closed. So how do you imagine creating that commission among historians? How will they meet? Where? How will they interact? So there are many problems to be dealt with correctly.

Do you believe that someday a Turkish government will admit that Turks once committed genocide? If not, and if this issue remains a stubborn obstacle freezing Turkish-Armenian relations, do you see any way out in the future?

The way out isn't to set preconditions before each other. This is the way out. The rest will run in its normal course. Turkey is willing to become an EU member so all those laws, limiting society will be eliminated eventually, so the path towards a more healthy discourse will be opened, even to discuss the genocide. So now the task isn't to put forth any preconditions. And it's very unfortunate that many opportunities are being missed. So that we can't normalize our relations.

You've had many face-to-face meetings with our Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, so why do you think no concrete steps have followed?

We started very well with him but then things backtracked because of the preconditions. Karabakh, genocide and the rest of it. Once Turkey understands that its strategic interests are more important than their narrow ethnic interests, I believe things will change. Today unfortunately Turkey is being guided by Azerbaijan's demands, by their Azerbaijani brothers' narrow ethnic interest,s but Turks don't understand that there are broader interests, regional interests that are good for Turkey, good for the region and good for Europe. Turkey uses these opportunities to become a bridge between East and West as it always claimed to be. Between the East and West, between the Caucasus and Europe.

The last time I was here I came across a long line in front of the American Embassy and I learned that every day dozens of families are leaving Armenia. Now, coming back here five years later I asked about the situation, but some people joked that there aren't many people left in Armenia so there aren't any lines. How do you see the future of your country?

I'm very optimistic about Armenia's future and that the future can be achieved much quicker if we have normal ties with Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Would you also like to say some words about Nagorno- Karabakh and why the UN resolutions on it haven't been implemented by your government?

The UN resolutions are absolutely unhelpful. First there's no UN resolution yet and if it happens I believe it will hurt the process. But if you mean the Security Council resolutions, which put obligations on both sides, I believe that Armenia has done much more on behalf of itself, but I can't say the same for the Azerbaijanis.

So do you have any message to the man on the street in Turkey?

We have to change this status quo, we have to normalize our relations without any preconditions.

Nursun Erel - TNA
04 December 2006