Historic Step: Armenia-Turkey protocols signed; await ratification

As anticipated by all and dreaded by many in Armenia and abroad, protocols were signed Saturday night in Zurich Switzerland that are expected to establish normalized relations between Turkey and Armenia, while also widely feared as rewriting Armenian history.

The ceremony, scheduled for around 8 p.m. Yerevan time was delayed when the Armenian delegation objected to a statement that the Turkish side wanted to add to the proceedings. It is believed that the statement was intended to link the Nagorno Karabakh settlement to the rapprochement process – a condition the Armenians have objected to from the start of negotiations.

The signing ceremony resumed around 11:15 p.m. Yerevan time (8:15 p.m. in Zurich) at the University of Zurich, and Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Nalbandyan and his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu put their names on documents that have drawn wide support from the international diplomatic community. Making special trips to demonstrate their countries’ support of the signings, on hand were US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

Neither side issued a statement following the signing as had initially been planned, an idea apparently scrapped as a consequence of the dispute that led to the signing delay.

Respected Armenian institutions such as the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenian General Benevolent Union, the Armenian Assembly of America, have urged support of the protocols and have called for objective dialogue on the issues.

On Friday, a group of prominent Diaspora leaders from singer/actor (and current Armenian Ambassador to Switzerland) Charles Aznavour to billionaire businessman Ruben Vardanian of Moscow signed a letter of support saying that by signing the protocols: “The Armenian leaders with the sense of high responsibility for the future of the motherland and coming generations, act today with wisdom and courage for the establishment of the relations between the two countries and the opening of borders without any preconditions.”

But against the support came a lashing from the powerful Armenian National Committee of America saying: "The Obama Administration's attempts to force Armenia into one-sided concessions . . . is short-sighted and will, in the long term, create more problems that it serves."

Also on Friday, multiple thousands in Yerevan streets voiced the disdain of political parties at home and other Diaspora organizations – most sympathetic to Armenia’s oldest party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaksutsyun.

As they have since the protocols were announced August 31, the Dashnaks led the largest anti-government rally seen since February 2008, when oppositionists crowds swelled daily, prior to further events that led to Armenia’s worst violence on March 1, 2008 when 10 were killed and more than 200 injured in street warfare.

Opposition to the protocols has centered on two main concerns believed to be implied in the documents.

First: The establishment of a historical commission to debate events of 1915-18 in Ottoman Turkey is widely feared at home as legitimizing Turkey’s claims that the deaths of up to 1.5 million Armenians has been mischaracterized as “genocide” by the Armenians (and 22 governments that have passed legislation recognizing it), when in fact according to the Turks they, too, suffered at the hands of the Armenians in collateral impact of World War I.

Second: The protocols call for “recognition of territorial integrity” of borders, a condition that has a two-prong impact. One: It could imply that Armenia must concede its “occupation” of land internationally-recognized as belonging to Azerbaijan around the Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh. Two: It could mean that, by recognizing Turkey’s current border it would negate legal claims currently in debate by Genocide survivors who have called for reparation and indeed for compensation for land they say was stolen from their ancestors in the 1915-18 displacement of Armenians from what is now Turkey.

Consistently, and with apparent growing impatience, President Serzh Sargsyan has dismissed the outrage over “pre-conditions” as a misunderstanding at best, and, at worst, a deliberate provocation by his critics to undermine his authority.

In any case, ink on the pages put these protocols into the machine of diplomatic process that is next to see them ratified or rejected by parliaments of both countries. With ratification expected, the result would mean that within two months borders between Armenia-Turkey would be opened for the first time since Turkey closed them in 1993.

Saturday’s signing comes a day before a city-wide celebration is planned in capital Yerevan, marking the 2,791st birthday of the city. In extraordinary fashion, especially considering the impact of the world financial crisis, Yerevan has been cleaned and decorated and prepped for celebration of a day that usually passes with only perfunctory recognition.

The appearance of elaborate neon holiday lights and the creation of a historic fantasy land in Republic Square has led to criticism that the planned celebration is less about honoring Yerevan and more about creating a diversion from the protests that are likely to share the capital’s streets in wake of today’s expected but nonetheless inflammatory development.