Analysis

April 2009

Summary: After months of tortuous diplomacy, Turkey and Armenia have put the final touches to a deal that would establish diplomatic ties and re-open their borders. The agreement is poised to end decades of mutual hostility, to blunt Russian influence, and to help foster economic prosperity and democracy in the Southern Caucasus. It has been forged against a backdrop of mushrooming civil society initiatives aimed at overcoming decades of prejudice and deepening friendship between Turks and Armenians of all stripes. But stiff opposition from Azerbaijan, which is mobilizing Turkish public opinion against this move, could yet weaken Turkey’s resolve and wreck a historic opportunity for peace in the region.

Turkey and Armenia
by Amberin Zaman*
ANKARA — The latest round of Swissbrokered negotiations between Turkey and Armenia took a big leap forward when Abdullah Gül, Turkey’s president, became the first-ever Turkish leader to visit Armenia last September for the World Cup pre-qualifier match pitting Turkey against Armenia. Gül’s decision to take the plunge while facing howls of treason from Turkish ultra-nationalists marked a dramatic shift in Turkey’s traditional stance of linking ties with Armenia to resolution of the NagornoKarabakh conflict. In 1993, Turkey sealed its border with Armenia in sympathy with their Azeri cousins after Armenia occupied large chunks of Azerbaijan including the mainly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in the 1990s. Landlocked and poor, Armenia has been hurt by the embargo but not enough to cede ground on Karabakh. Frozen ties with Turkey has propelled Armenia further into Russia’s arms. The new thinking in Ankara is that peace with Armenia will give it the sort of clout that could push the Armenians into burying the hatchet with Azerbaijan. There are also other dividends: Friendship with Armenia will rob Turkey’s detractors within the European Union of ammunition with which to block Turkish membership; it will also make it less likely that a long-touted Congressional “genocide” resolution of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 will be passed. Moreover, it will enhance Turkey’s regional influence and provide it with easy access to markets in former Soviet Central Asia and give its impoverished eastern provinces bordering Armenia a sorely
*

needed economic boost. But strategic imperatives alone should not be dictating rapprochement. Most credible historians agree that Turkey’s once thriving Armenian population was brutally uprooted from their ancestral lands and decimated by Ottoman forces by the hundreds of thousands in an ethnic cleansing campaign masterminded by nationalist forces known as the Ittihadists during World War I. The fact that Armenian nationalist militia sided with invading Russian forces against the Ottomans does not mitigate the pain inflicted on Armenian civilians, many of them women and children. Helping the young Republic of Armenia, where some 60 percent of the population is said to have Anatolian roots would go a long way in healing the wounds of the past. The Obama factor U.S. President Barack Obama’s campaign pledge to recognize the 1915 atrocities as genocide has added a renewed sense of urgency to Turkish efforts to mend fences with Armenia. During his recent visit to Turkey, Obama refrained from using the term “genocide.” Even so, he asserted before the press that he had not changed his views on the fate of the Ottoman Armenians. In other words, he still believes that it was genocide. In an address to the Turkish Parliament, he urged Turkey to face up to its past. Turkish lawmakers listened in stony silence. Yet, the U.S. leader also praised Turkey and Armenia for their efforts to cement peace. The United States should not overshadow the talks which

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Amberin Zaman is the Turkey correspondent for The Economist and writes a weekly column for the Turkish daily Taraf. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).

Analysis

“could bear fruit very soon” declared Obama, raising hopes in Turkey that he will refrain from uttering the G-word on April 24, which marks the anniversary of the mass killings. This would help ward-off another crisis in Turkish-U.S. relations and allow Ankara to cement the agreement with Armenia in the coming weeks. But can it? Enter Azerbaijan Until recently it seemed that Azerbaijan, (with lots of nudging from the United States) had come on board on the grounds that a Turkish-Armenian deal would serve its interests in a Karabakh settlement. Yet, in the days leading up to Obama’s April 6th visit, an array of Azeri officials began muttering about the grievous consequences that might entail should Turkey re-open its border with Armenia. Among these were veiled threats to boycott the proposed Nabucco project, a project that would pump Azeri and Turkmen gas via Turkey to Western markets and divert its vast energy resources to Moscow instead. Meanwhile, Azeri lobbyists have been stirring up nationalist passions in the Turkish media, claiming that if Turkey were to re-open the border the Armenians’ next step would be to make territorial claims on eastern Anatolia. Never mind that the establishment of diplomatic ties between countries implies overt recognition of their mutual borders. A sure sign of Baku’s displeasure came when Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president, failed to show up at an Alliance of Civilizations summit held, April 6-7 in Istanbul, on the sidelines of President Obama’s visit. This prompted Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s prime minister, to declare that there was no question of re-opening the border with Armenia until there was progress on Karabakh. Eduard Nalbandian, Armenia’s foreign minister, reacted in turn by refusing to also attend the Alliance of Civilizations summit. It took last minute cajoling from Washington to make him change his mind. At the Alliance of Civilizations summit, Nalbandian and his Turkish counterpart, Ali Babacan, met with Obama, who also rang Aliyev to calm his nerves. Erdoğan’s brinksmanship game Armenia’s frustration is understandable. The text of the agreement reached with Turkey makes no mention of Karabakh, and calls for the opening of borders some two months after the establishment of diplomatic relations, and that of joint commissions. These would include a historical commission that would “examine” the events of 1915. Erdoğan’s remarks suggest that under pressure from Azerbaijan and its allies within his own party he is throwing Karabakh back into the mix. Erdoğan’s local rivals, notably the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the far-Right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), have jumped into the fray accus-

ing the government of selling out “our Azeri brothers.” The results of nationwide municipal elections haven’t helped either. Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) saw its share of the popular vote slide to 39 percent from the thumping 47 percent that it received in the 2007 parliamentary polls. The question now is whether Erdoğan is truly backtracking or whether his nationalist bluster is part of a strategy aimed at getting Armenia to make some concessions on Karabakh before signing off with Yerevan; concessions that likely include Armenian withdrawal from a few Azeri villages outside Karabakh proper. Turkish officials are hoping that Serzh Sargysan, Armenia’s president, will deliver such a pledge when he meets with Aliyev during an EU meeting on May 6. Sargysan is already facing criticism from Armenian nationalists for making peace with Turkey at the expense of genocide recognition. The same accusations are being levelled by hawks within the Armenian diaspora. Any concessions on Karabakh could go beyond undermining Sargysan’s legitimacy. Some go as far as to suggest that it might even cost him his life. (There is fierce opposition to peace with Turkey from some members of the powerful gun-toting Karabakh war veterans lobby.) Such claims may be exaggerated, but having declared its willingness to establish formal ties with Turkey without any preconditions there seems little else Armenia can do. Besides, the Karabakh negotiations are being brokered (admittedly with little effect) by the Minsk group, co-chaired by Russia, France, and the United States. Turkey’s veiled suggestions that the Minsk process is dead has only served to irritate Washington. Sustainable peace can only be achieved with Russia’s blessings. Either way, the longer Turkey sends mixed signals the more likely it is that the nationalist opposition be it in Armenia, Azerbaijan, or Turkey, will grow louder and eventually triumph. Erdoğan’s stated policy of “zero problems” with Turkey’s neighbors will prove empty, while the threat of renewed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan will loom anew. An historic opportunity for regional peace will have been squandered. The challenge facing the Obama administration is to keep up pressure on all sides, reminding them that the alternative is falling deeper into the clutches of a more assertive Russia.
About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.

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