French President Nicolas Sarkozy, on a brief trip to the Caucasus, urged Turkey on Thursday to recognize the 1915 massacre of Armenians as genocide, threatening to pass a law in France that would make denying this a crime.
Visiting a genocide memorial and museum in Yerevan, Armenia, with Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan, Sarkozy challenged Turkey — which is seeking membership of the European Union — to face up to its past.
“The Armenian genocide is a historical reality. Collective denial is even worse than individual denial,” Sarkozy told reporters.
“Turkey, which is a great country, would honor itself to revisit its history like other great countries in the world have done.”
Armenia was the first stop on a two-day trip to the region by Sarkozy, who is keen to raise his profile on the international stage before an April presidential election. He visits Azerbaijan and Georgia on Friday.
France is opposed to Turkey’s bid for EU membership and his comments on the sensitive subject are likely to be viewed as unwelcome meddling by Ankara.
Turkey denies the deaths of Armenians in 1915 was genocide. It says both Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks died in large numbers as the Ottoman empire collapsed.
Sarkozy suggested that the French parliament might consider a law making denial of the deaths of Armenians as genocide a crime, similar to the French law against Holocaust denial.
While in the region, Sarkozy will try to encourage Sarksyan and the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, to resolve a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly Armenian-populated enclave in Azerbaijan.
France plays a leading role in the Minsk Group of countries from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is trying to resolve the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenian-backed forces wrested Nagorno-Karabakh from Azeri control after the Soviet Union collapsed. When the conflict ended in a ceasefire in 1994, 30,000 people had been killed and about 1 million had been driven from their homes.
During a three-hour visit to Georgia, Sarkozy will also urge Georgia to improve relations with Russia, reviving memories of his mediating role when the two countries went to war in 2008.
Sarkozy’s success in brokering a ceasefire in that conflict guarantees a warm welcome in the capital Tbilisi, where he will meet President Mikheil Saakashvili and address a crowd in the central Freedom Square.
Sarkozy will urge Saakashvili to look beyond the countries’ differences, including over how they interpret the ceasefire terms, and rebuild trust in relations with Moscow.
Each side accuses the other of acting provocatively and sabotaging relations. Moscow has angered Tbilisi and the West by recognising Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions as independent states.
In Moscow on Thursday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met Abkhazia’s new president and signed legislation ratifying treaties that enable Russia to operate military bases in the two separatist regions for at least 49 years.
It was not clear whether Sarkozy would discuss Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization which Georgia, as a member, could block. Moscow hopes to complete its entry to the 153-member trading body this year.
Sarkozy mediated the 2008 ceasefire on behalf of the European Union as France held the bloc’s presidency at the time.
That ended the war over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but Georgia says Russia has violated the terms by not withdrawing troops to the positions they held before the war.
TV images of Sarkozy addressing jubilant crowds will do him no harm as he tries to improve his poor ratings before the two-round election on April 22 and May 6. An opinion poll on Tuesday put Socialist Francois Hollande well in the lead.
Sarkozy will also promote business during his visit to the region but officials gave no details of any planned contracts.
French oil group Total said last month it had made a major gas discovery at Azerbaijan’s Absheron block in the Caspian Sea. French companies could also be in the running to help extend the Baku metro, or subway.
Sarkozy has also added fuel to a perennial debate between Turkey and France over Armenians’ genocide claims, suggesting that everyone should call tragic events of Armenians at the hands of Ottomans by its own name – genocide.
Sarkozy told an Armenian news agency in an interview published on Wednesday that friendship between France and Armenia is rooted in history but it was tempered in the what he called the “genocide tragedy,” when France became a refuge for dozens of thousands of Armenians who have survived the massacre.
Sarkozy is also “proud that France was the first country to have officially recognized the genocide by law.”
Most Armenians term as genocide a series of tragic events during a war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire that played out in East Anatolia. France has been determined to push Turkey to acknowledge that the Armenian allegations are true. Turkey, in turn, has proposed that a committee of historians, not politicians, should decide what transpired in 1915.
The French Parliament recognized the so-called Armenian genocide in 2001, which resulted in short-lived tension between France and Turkey. In 2006 the French National Assembly adopted a bill proposing a punishment for anyone who denies the Armenian genocide. The bill was dropped this summer before coming to Senate.
Sarkozy also expressed his deep regret over a deadlock in Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process and said said the protocols on establishing diplomatic relations and normalization of ties between Turkey and Armenia aroused many hopes.
He recalled that Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan exhibited wisdom and foresight saying the next day after one of meetings in Paris with him that Armenia is ready to ratify the protocols when Turkey is ready for it. He hoped that the process will resume soon.
Speaking about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Sarkozy said the time has come for both Armenians and Azerbaijanis to make a risky choice for peace, as there is no bigger danger than the preservation of status-quo which gives birth to illusions, provokes revenge and moves off all the prospects for peace.
“No other country, but France, can imagine what Nagorno Karabakh means for Armenia,” Sarkozy said, adding that however, 17 years after the war, which had caused so many deaths and sufferings, the time has come to resolve the conflict and find the way to reconciliation. “I’ll also deliver this message to President Aliyev in Baku, where I am leaving after my visit to Armenia,” he added.
Sarkozy said the Armenians and Azerbaijanis themselves should find the path to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict first of all. “We can help, escort but we can never establish peace instead of you,” he stressed.
06 October 2011, Thursday / TODAYSZAMAN.COM,