Armenians First Want Apology, Then Peace

Did Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan grin too enthusiastically while watching his country being beaten by its old enemy, Turkey, at an international football match last week? Sargsyan’s trip to watch the game with his Turkish counterpart Wednesday followed the signing of historic accords to normalize relations and open the border between the two countries after decades of animosity. But his increasingly belligerent critics claim that his courteous applause for Turkey’s superior performance on the pitch was a public relations disaster for a leader who’s staked a lot of political capital on this controversial deal.

Divisions about the agreement are becoming increasingly stark within Armenian society. On the day that the accords were signed, it was business as usual at a popular street market in Yerevan, where locals and tourists browsed the stalls for souvenir replicas of Mount Ararat, T-shirts bearing patriotic slogans and matryoshka dolls of President Dmitry Medvedev and Osama bin Laden, among other trinkets. But questions about the deal immediately invoked conflicting passions.

An antique carpet vendor said he had lost relatives during the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey during World War I, which Armenia wants the Turkish government to recognize as genocide. “How can we become friends when the genocide happened?” he demanded furiously.

Others also insisted that the Turks should seek forgiveness. “They should do what the Germans did for the Jews — apologize,” said a man selling Armenian flags. “First, they should recognize the genocide, and then we will talk. Our wounds still hurt.”

Nationalists have tried to rally support against the deal, but so far their campaign hasn’t inspired mass resistance. Some people, however, are optimistic about the potential for a less-hostile relationship with Turkey. “It’s good for both sides,” said a woman selling handmade puppets. “The border must open, the conflict must be solved. I don’t think we can become friends with the Turks immediately, but gradually it will happen, and this is the start.”

To be sure, decades of anger, suspicion and mistrust still have to be overcome. There may be serious obstacles ahead on the road to reconciliation. “Enemies don’t become friends at once,” another stall merchant pointed out. “First they have to find ways to establish relations with each other, and only then can they come to a mutual understanding.”

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.