Where is the international outrage over the 20-year blockade of Armenia?
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s most recent efforts to improve damaged relations with Turkey ran into a brick wall once again, receiving only a dismissive response from Israel’s former ally. Lieberman stated Israel is ready “to solve any outstanding disputes” with Ankara but was ignored by Turkish officials despite the deteriorating Middle East environment. Meeting with Turkish journalists, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also contributed this week to the diplomatic push to re-establish close ties with Israel’s one-time friend, telling the journalists Israel and Turkey "were 'important and stable' countries in an unstable region” and this regional instability makes reconciliation especially important.
“Turkey and Israel have relations that go a long way,” said Netanyahu. “We need to find ways to restore the relationship that we had, because I think it is important for each of our countries.”
But the appeals of both senior Israeli politicians fell on deaf ears in Ankara. As with past efforts to patch up relations between the two countries, the Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists three outstanding issues must be settled before discussions regarding improvement can even begin.
The first condition is that Israel must apologize for the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. The Mavi Marmara is a Turkish ship that tried to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza in 2010 but was boarded by Israeli naval commandos. Nine people on the ship died in the ensuing fight with the commandos. The second condition is that Israel must compensate the families of those who were killed, while the third concerns Turkey’s demand that Israel lift its blockade of Gaza.
“As long as Israel does not apologise, does not pay compensation and does not lift the embargo on Palestine, it is not possible for Turkish-Israeli ties to improve,” Erdogan said in 2011 when dashing last year’s efforts to renew friendly ties.
Israel has always said it would never apologize for enforcing its legal blockade of Gaza, which is necessary for its security. Also, the people on the Mavi Marmara were the ones who provoked the violence by ignoring Israeli warnings to stay away and then attacked the commandos with iron bars. Besides, Lieberman said in an Israel Radio interview last year that an apology would not make any difference in Israeli-Turkish relations due to the negative stance the Islamist Erdogan government has adopted towards Israel since it came to power in 2002.
“Whoever sees the positions expressed by Turkey [regarding Israel and the Palestinians] in the international community does not have any illusions that an apology will dramatically improve Israel’s ties with Turkey,” said Lieberman.
And an apology, according to Lieberman, may even be dangerous for Israel, since it may signal weakness in a region where weakness is not liked.
“It is forbidden to be weak, and an apology is first and foremost a message of weakness,” said Lieberman.
But it is Turkey’s last demand, that Israel lift its legal blockade of Gaza, which really stands out due to its hypocrisy. Almost unmentioned by the mainstream media during the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident was the fact that while Turkey was bitterly complaining about the Israeli embargo on Gaza, championing the Palestinian cause before the world, it was at the same time blockading landlocked Armenia, an embargo it has maintained since 1993. Turkey closed its border that year with Armenia, a former Soviet republic in the southern Caucasus Mountains, and has refused to reopen it since, a move that has seriously disrupted the development of the small Christian nation’s economy.
The cause of the border closure was the war between neighboring Azerbaijan and the Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, a former Soviet autonomous region within Azerbaijan’s borders. In the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was disintegrating, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Supreme Soviet (parliament) voted to break away from Azerbaijan and join Armenia, a move that saw pogroms break out against Armenians in Azerbaijan and eventually led to their being ethnically cleansed from the Turkic-speaking country. Armenians then retaliated, expelling all Azeris living in Armenia.
“The response of the Soviet and Azeri-Turk authorities was strikingly reminiscent of the traditional Turkic reaction to Armenian aspirations for freedom. The genocide process once more gained pace,” wrote Caroline Cox and John Eibner in their book Ethnic Cleansing In Progress: War In Nagorno Karabagh.
In wanting to join Armenia, the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians believed they were correcting a historic wrong. The new Soviet government first awarded the region to Armenia in 1921, but Stalin cancelled that decision shortly thereafter as part of his divide-and-rule strategy regarding minorities. The future Soviet dictator then gave the territory, which was 95 percent Armenian according to the 1921 Soviet census, to Azerbaijan, setting the stage for the war seven decades later between the two entities.
But what upset Turkey and led to the border closure is that the vastly outnumbered Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, with Armenia’s support, won the war that ended in a ceasefire in May 1994. In the end, the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians not only freed almost all their territory from Azeri control but also captured several districts of Azerbaijan proper. And like Israel, a steadfast Nagorno-Karabakh government refuses to return the captured districts until its security is assured, since these areas had been used to launch attacks against its territory.
Like the Arab states with Israel after 1967, since Azerbaijan’s defeat Turkey has been demanding that the captured Azeri land be returned and states it will maintain the blockade of Armenia until it is. Azerbaijan established its own blockade of Armenia in 1989, leaving Armenia with open borders only with Iran and Georgia. Still, the damage from this Turkic blockade has been severe for Armenia’s economy. Armenian President Serge Sarkisian brought up the blockade last year during a speech to the Council of Europe.
“This unlawful blockade of Armenia must come to an end. Europe cannot and should not tolerate new dividing lines,” Sarkisian said.
To its credit, Armenia has not given in to Azerbaijan’s and Turkey’s bullying. Again, like Israel, the Armenians live in a rough neighborhood and giving back the captured districts without their terms being met would, as Avigdor Lieberman would probably agree, signal a weakness that could be dangerous if not fatal. After all, the Armenians know what the Turks are capable of, having seen a million of their people perish at Turkish hands in 1915 in the first genocide of the last century (Turkey’s demand that Israel apologize for the nine deaths on the Mavi Marmara while refusing to even recognize its responsibility for a million Armenian deaths is also another instance of its diplomatic hypocrisy).
The United States has tried to come up with a solution to Turkey’s blockade of Armenia. U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern has suggested that Turkey open one railroad to Armenia without opening the entire border. The news outlet ArmeniaNow says this is part of the “settlement without a settlement” solution the European Union also supports. There would be no final peace agreement, ArmeniaNow states, “but the borders should be opened for regional energy and transport projects” under this plan. But so far Turkey has refused. It still demands that Armenia first return “occupied” Azeri territory.
Turkey’s stubbornness on this issue, however, is not surprising. It has illegally occupied northern Cyprus for 40 years, stationing troops there and setting up a puppet state that is not recognized by any country. So Ankara’s insistence that “occupied” Azeri land be returned the embargo on Gaza be ended is simply in keeping with the hypocritical thinking that appears to be guiding Turkish foreign policy, especially regarding Israel and Armenia.
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