Armenia’s Entangled European Ties


Edmond Azadian

Edmond Azadian

By Edmond Y. Azadian

Armenians feel a natural affinity with Europe. They feel that culturally and through history, Armenia has a virtual place in Europe. But that feeling — more often than not — is shaken by realpolitik, as European countries pursue their perceived political interests, ignoring Armenia.

By the same token, many Armenians take for granted that Georgia, being the only Christian nation in the South Caucasus, must be Armenia’s natural ally. But recent history has demonstrated time and again that Tbilisi coordinates its policies and economic interests with its Muslim neighbors Ankara and Baku, at Armenia’s expense.

Some recent developments in Europe made Armenia’s political planners painfully aware that often Armenia is a diplomatic orphan at best.

Those developments center on two major issues: the verdict of the European Court of Human Rights, which struck down a Swiss court’s guilty verdict brought against Dogu Perinçek for his denial of the Armenian Genocide, as well as the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) proposal about Nagorno Karabagh.

Armenia is being snubbed by Europe because of its fragile political stranding and because of its ties with Russia; Moscow seldom compensates Armenia in the arena of world politics for this close alliance.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on October 15 that a Turkish politician, Dogu Perinçek, should not have been prosecuted for denying that the mass killing of the Armenians by Ottoman Turkey in 1915 was a genocide. In a landmark free speech ruling, the ECHR judges ruled by a vote of 10 to 7 that Perinçek, the chairman of the Turkish Workers’ Party, should never have been convicted of racial discrimination by a Swiss court for saying that the “Armenian Genocide is a great international lie.”

This was a devastating blow to the Armenian case, which rendered nil the efforts of international lawyers Geoffrey Robertson and Amal Clooney. It also dampened the significance of the European Parliament’s motion earlier this year that the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turkey was a genocide.

On the other hand, it was a victory for Turkey, which was being criticized by the international community for its penal code article 301 (insulting Turkishness) restricting freedom of speech.

Armenian lawmakers tried to find some saving graces in the ECHR verdict by arguing that the court did not deny the veracity of the Genocide itself, yet dwelt only on the legal aspect of freedom of speech.

But unfortunately, the impact of the ruling will be far reaching. In a smart move, the court made a clear distinction with Holocaust denial, whose specific history meant its denial would always be “seen as a form of incitement to racial hatred” in certain countries. Thus, it blocked the argument that Holocaust denial should be considered a crime and the denial of the Armenian Genocide only as an issue of freedom of speech. This is the nature of European justice.

Further impact will still be forthcoming because it is a moot issue if Switzerland will maintain its laws or revise them to conform to the ruling of the European Court. Moving further one step, the ruling will provide ammunition to French legislators who were opposed to the law in France similar to the Swiss law. Following flip-flop position of President Nicolas Sarkozy, the incoming French president, François Hollande, had pledged iron-clad provisions to the criminalization of the Armenian Genocide denial. That pledge is still on the back burner in the French parliament and may be impacted severely by the ECHR ruling.

The other slap on the face for Armenia came when PACE decided to meddle in the issue of Nagorno Karabagh. Indeed, a three-page document was prepared by a former British parliamentarian and approved by PACE’s political Affairs Committee on November 4, calling for a peaceful settlement of the conflict starting “with the withdrawal of Armenian armed forces and irregular armed forces from Nagorno Karabagh and other occupied territories of Azerbaijan” and “the establishment of full sovereignty of Azerbaijan in these territories.”

If the proposal is not stopped in its tracks, it may end up on the agenda of the plenary session of PACE in January 2016.

It seems that Azerbaijan’s caviar diplomacy is sometimes more successful than Armenia’s more penurious diplomacy. There are always calls for better Armenian representation in Europe.

In this particular case, former British Parliamentarian Robert Walter had a checkered past, as described by Armenia’s Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian. Walter has been accused of having close ties with the Azerbaijani government. He has repeatedly defended Baku’s dismal human rights record, which has frequently been criticized by Western rights groups.

Walter is married to a Turkish woman and recently became a Turkish citizen. His new Turkish ID was personally delivered by Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu — very much like Matthew Bryza, who caused so much damage to the Karabagh process as the co-chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OCSE) Minsk Group and later as the US ambassador to Azerbaijan. Bryza’s true colors were revealed when news came out that his elaborate wedding to his Turkish wife was financed by the Azerbaijan government.

Unfortunately, Armenia does not possess similar resources and has to rely on traditional diplomacy rather than cash or caviar, in order to present its case to the world.

In the case of the PACE debacle, the reaction was prompt and constructive in a rare scenario of cooperation when two co-chairs of OSCE expressed opposition.

“PACE and other [international organizations] should consult OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs before issuing reports on resolutions on Nagorno Karabagh,” US Ambassador James Warlick tweeted on November 6.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov concurred, stating, “We — Russia, the US and France — are firmly against attempts to take this subject to other international platforms that do not deal with the conflict’s settlement, instead of a consistent businesslike and patient dialogue on the Nagorno Karabagh settlement. At least, nobody has given them such a task on behalf of the international community.”

As we can see, Europe has been using a stick and carrot policy vis-à-vis Armenia, on the one hand recognizing the Genocide and on the other, undermining its Karabagh position. Right now, a European delegation is in Armenia to work out a legal framework of economic cooperation.

Armenia has to navigate through these contradictory political positions to find its own place within the international community.

Foreign Minister Lavrov’s unscheduled visit to Armenia a few days ago has been taken as a reassuring signal and at the same time, has indicated that some behind-the-scenes movement is in the offing, to force Armenia to make some territorial concessions in Karabagh, in return for Russian guarantees, including stationing of Russian peace-keeping forces on the contact line. Also, a complicating issue is Russia’s decision to install an air defense system in Armenia. But it is ironic that the more Russia increases its military assets in Armenia, the more vulnerable the latter becomes, not necessarily stronger, because the move serves as a legitimate target for the opposing side.

International political order is such that every time there is a positive movement or statement, Armenia’s foreign policy planners have to look also behind the statements for a hidden agenda. Earlier this month, US Ambassador to Armenia Richard Mills stated that Armenia’s relations with Russia and the West were not mutually exclusive. A promising sign if taken at face value.

But at this moment, Armenia has a huge task ahead of it, sorting out its entangled relations with Europe.