Sargsyan in Berlin: A Balancing Act


President Serzh Sargsyan, left, with German President Joachim Gauck

President Serzh Sargsyan, left, with German President Joachim Gauck

By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to   the Mirror-Spectator

BERLIN — The visit had been planned long in advance, but it could not have come at a more delicate moment. When Armenian President Serge Sargsyan (also written as Sargisian) came to Berlin on April 6 for a two-day visit, the conflict between Nagorno-Karabagh and Azerbaijan was raging and German-Turkish relations were still being shaped by concerns regarding the refugee crisis. The government of Chancellor Angela Merkel managed to walk the tightrope successfully. But not everyone cheered. Some media coverage, like a TV commentary by Arnd Henze, complained that in her joint press conference with Sargsyan, Merkel had provided a “big stage for a war lord,” letting him accuse Azerbaijan of attacking the “peaceloving people” of Karabagh, who were fighting for self-determination, “which all colonized peoples have always fought for.” The journalist criticized Merkel for “leaving the tirade without comment,” and for announcing, only in response to a question from the press, that the Azerbaijan president would visit Berlin in June. The commentator was particularly upset with the official photographs of the handshakes between the Armenian guest with Merkel and with President Joachim Gauck, which were “a present” that Sargsyan might be able to exploit as an endorsement in his country. Others noted that the issue of genocide recognition, just weeks before the April 24 date, could exacerbate frictions with Turkey.

Germany Stresses Diplomacy

Even those critical of the visit had to recognize that Germany maintains its commitment to a negotiated solution to the conflict, and is utilizing its position as rotating chair of the OSCE to exert diplomatic pressure in this direction. On April 2 German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had issued a statement saying he was “very concerned about the military escalation along the Line of Contact … and about the casualties, including among civilians.” He called on both sides “to end hostilities immediately and to respect the ceasefire in full.” He added that “There is no military solution to the conflict” and urged the two sides to “show the necessary political will to return to the negotiations in the framework of the Minsk Group.” Steinmeier spoke by telephone the same day his Armenian counterpart Eduard Nalbandian and Azerbaijan’s foreign minister the following day. Telephone contacts between Berlin and Moscow occurred on the same days and on April 4, TASS issued a statement on the convergence of views between Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Steinmeier in their conversation, a statement which reiterated the German diplomat’s words almost verbatim. When Azerbaijan and Armenia then announced a new ceasefire, Russian President Putin had spoken with his counterparts in the countries as well, demanding they respect the ceasefire and return to negotiations.

Merkel’s public statements reflected the policy of neutrality pursued by the foreign ministry. In her remarks to the press together with Sargsyan, she stressed the “utmost urgency” of efforts to guarantee an “acceptable and lasting ceasefire” and pointed to Germany’s current OSCE Chairmanship as well as its Minsk Group membership, pledging that Steinmeier would play a productive role. Merkel also focused on the economic advantages of regional peace for Armenia’s development. She acknowledged “that a conflict that has been ongoing for 23 years cannot be resolved by one visit or by relaunching efforts to achieve a solution,” but promised her government’s “constructive assistance.”

The economy was a leading issue in the talks. Germany is Armenia’s number one trade partner in the European Union, as Sargsyan was to underline in interviews. However, Berlin is not raising any objections to the decision to join the Eurasian Economic Union. Germany, Merkel said, respects Armenia’s decision. “We do not want an either-or situation,” (perhaps with Ukraine in mind?). She emphasized the need for nurturing good relations within the EU, and also between the EU and Armenia. Merkel noted that her guest had highlighted the significance of the Iran nuclear accord, and its positive repercussions. She expressed interest in and support for the reform process in Armenia. As for relations with Turkey, she said given the Karabagh situation, this was not the best time to launch any new initiatives. Germany, which was among the first countries to recognize Armenian independence, establishing diplomatic relations in January 1992, wants to develop a stable partnership.

During his stay in Germany, Sargsyan gave an extensive interview to Deutsche Welle, which dealt not only with Karabagh but also with such economic issues. He was asked about Armenia’s association with regional organizations: “Armenia has been part of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ program, which implied association prospects with the EU. But you decided in favor of the Eurasian Economic Union. What triggered this decision? Russia’s pressure? Economic calculations? Ukrainian developments?” Sargsyan answered: “I would like to make a correction: We still are a member of the ‘Eastern Partnership.’ The new phase of negotiations began in December of last year. We will sign an agreement with the EU. There was no pressure from the Russian side. We were guided by economic reasons. Russia is our biggest market and our largest trade partner. Russia has offered very favorable conditions for us within the Eurasian Economic Union, by providing a 30-percent discount on its products. My principle is taking decisions which can be realized.”

To Recognize the Genocide or Not

Last year in the centenary commemorations of the genocide, as reported in this newspaper, Germany’s President broke protocol by proclaiming in a speech following a religious ceremony in Berlin’s cathedral, that it was indeed genocide. And the following day, in a remarkable debate the Bundestag (Parliament) repeated the characterization, in all speeches by all parties. Yet, for reasons linked to the refugee crisis, and the agreements between Germany and Turkey to face it, the issue of a joint resolution being finally voted up officially, has remained on the back burner. Leading Armenian groups, like the Central Council of Armenians and the German-Armenian Society, raised the issue again prior to Sargsyan’s visit.

In his meeting with Gauck, Sargsyan said that the whole Armenian nation had received the German president’s statement with gratitude and that he, Sargsyan, was happy to be able to meet the person “who found the right word” to define the genocide. He also emphasized the importance of finalizing recognition but did not belabor the issue. When queried in his interview with Deutsche Welle how, given the stalemate, he now assessed the German position on the genocide, he answered: “Let me start by saying that the German President used very correct and precise words in his speech last year in April in Berlin Cathedral. We are grateful to him. Besides, I hope that the Bundestag will adopt a resolution prior to summer vacations.”

 

(Muriel Mirak-Weissbach can be reached at mirak.weissbach@googlemail.com)