Serge Sarkisian on Armenian-Turkish Relations: 'We Wanted to Break Through Centuries of Hostility'

Part 2: 'We Don't Tie the Opening of the Border to Recognition of the Genocide'

Mt. Ararat, Armenia's national symbol, is actually located in Turkey: "A time will come when Mount Ararat is no longer a symbol of the separation between our peoples." Zoom
Thomas Heinloth

Mt. Ararat, Armenia's national symbol, is actually located in Turkey: "A time will come when Mount Ararat is no longer a symbol of the separation between our peoples."

SPIEGEL: You can see Mount Ararat, Armenia's national symbol, from the windows of your residence. Today, the mountain is inaccessible, on the other side of the Turkish border. Turkey fears demands for land and compensation. Do you want Mount Ararat back?

Sarkisian: No one can take Mount Ararat from us; we keep it in our hearts. Wherever Armenians live in the world today, you will find a picture of Mount Ararat in their homes. And I feel certain that a time will come when Mount Ararat is no longer a symbol of the separation between our peoples, but an emblem of understanding. But let me make this clear: Never has a representative of Armenia made territorial demands. Turkey alleges this -- perhaps out of its own bad conscience?

SPIEGEL: Your borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed, while Iran and Georgia make difficult neighbors. Isn't it more important to break out of this isolation than to fight endlessly with Turkey over the genocide?

Sarkisian: We don't tie the opening of the border to recognition of the genocide. It isn't our fault if the rapprochement fails.

SPIEGEL: Turkey wants to make the opening of the border dependent on progress on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia fought a war over this region, which was claimed by Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but where the majority of inhabitants are Christian Armenians.

Sarkisian: Turkey wants continuous concessions from our side. But that is not possible. The most important matter is implementing the right of Nagorno-Karabakh's population to self-determination. In my opinion, if Azerbaijan would recognize Nagorno-Karabakh's independence, the question could be resolved in a matter of hours. Unfortunately, Azerbaijan appears to want to solve the problem through force. The Azerbaijanis still believe they can annex Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. That would mean, though, that within a very short period of time it would become impossible for Armenians to remain in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Why were the states in the former Yugoslavia able to obtain independence? Should Karabakh be denied the same rights -- simply because Azerbaijan has raw materials like oil and natural gas at its disposal, as well as Turkey as its patron? We don't think that is fair.

SPIEGEL: Would Armenia agree to extensive autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan, the way it was under the Soviet Union?

Sarkisian: Of course not. Giving Karabakh back to Azerbaijan would lead to the expulsions of the Armenian population within a very short period. Nagorno-Karabakh was never part of independent Azerbaijan. The region wasn't associated with Azerbaijan until a 1923 decision by the Communist Party's Caucasian Bureau, under pressure from Stalin. If Karabakh were to become part of Azerbaijan, one would have to, at the very least, restore the Soviet Union. I don't think anyone seriously wants that.

SPIEGEL: Turkey has been pursuing European Union membership for decades. Is membership a goal for Armenia too?

Sarkisian: Europe's values are attractive for us. That's the reason we're currently reforming our administration, following the European model, of course. We know very well we must solve problems if we want to become a full-fledged member of a system. How long that process takes depends on us -- but also on the EU.

SPIEGEL: Your country shares a border with Iran. How do you assess the global community's conflict with Tehran?

Sarkisian: We're watching with concern. Iran is one of only two land routes that connect us to the outside world. Everyone in Armenia knows that if Iran hadn't kept the border open during the war, there would have been supply shortages for our citizens. The situation was similar during the Five-Day War (South Ossetia war) in 2008, when rail connections through Georgia were disrupted. We're building a pipeline and a rail line together with Iran.

Interview conducted by Benjamin Bidder in Yerevan, Armenia. Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein.

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About Serge Sarkisian
Serge Sarkisian, 55, has served as president of Armenia since April 2008. The genocide of his people was one of the first to be committed in the 20th century. The crimes were perpetrated on Turkish soil, but Turkey's leaders continue to deny the scope of the acts that took place under the Ottoman Emipire today. In Germany, which was an Ottoman ally during World War I, still hasn't officialy recognized the crimes that took place as genocide.

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