On May 16 Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Moscow and met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, as part of Ankara’s ongoing efforts to normalize its relations with Armenia. Reportedly Putin and Erdogan discussed finding a sustainable solution to the Karabakh issue as well as bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey.
It appears that the process of Turkish-Armenian normalization might be hijacked by nationalist rhetoric and the strategic interests of the various international actors. While Erdogan attempted to secure Russian support for Ankara’s policy of rapprochement with Armenia, the Turkish authorities continue to link Turkish-Armenian relations to the problems within the Armenian-Azerbaijan bilateral relationship.
A closer examination of the rhetoric used by both Turkey and Armenia during the current normalization process, reveals that neither side has addressed the "dark side" of their histories, which serves as an obstacle to finding any lasting solution. Turkey insists that the Karabakh issue must be considered as a component in this normalization, since Ankara wants to prevent Armenia raising its "genocide" claim -further complicating the process. In this sense, Turkish officials emphasize that 40,000 Armenian citizens currently illegally work in Turkey, in order to show that the state does not harbor any hostility toward Armenians. Indeed, Erdogan further stated that the illegal migrant Armenians working in Turkey could be repatriated, however he did not consider such policies to be humane (Milliyet, May 15).
Turkish political observers believe that the government’s position on linking Karabakh with the normalization process might lead to eventual stalemate. Moreover, they criticize Erdogan for reminding Yerevan about the sensitive issue of illegal Armenian workers (Radikal, May 12; Taraf, May 18). However, Erdogan’s controversial remarks were well received domestically by Turkish nationalists.
Armenia has actively tried to separate the Karabakh issue from its policies toward Turkey, in order to avoid any Turkish effort to utilize the "dark side of Armenian history" against Armenia. The meeting between Erdogan and Putin exposed stark differences between Turkey and Russia in their approaches toward finding a solution over Karabakh. Turkey wants the international community, especially the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), to be more active in finding a solution to the Karabakh issue (Milliyet, May 12).
It appears that Turkey and the U.S. as well as the European countries within the Minsk Group may be in broad agreement. Bernard Fassier, the co-chairman of the Minsk Group arrived in Ankara on May 18 for a series of meetings. Fassier also recently held talks in Azerbaijan and Armenia, and will meet with the undersecretary of the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs Ertugrul Apakan, during his visit to Ankara to discuss the latest developments in the progress of the talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Fassier’s visit to Ankara underscores that Turkey advocates the normalization of its relationship with Armenia and the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia are separate, but parallel processes (Anadolu Ajansi, May 16).
However, by contrast the Russian position clearly differs from that of Turkey. After his talks with Erdogan, Putin stated at the press conference: "our view in this issue is that the parties (Azerbaijan and Armenia) should find a solution that both sides agree on, and the states within the Minsk Group can only help easing the process, and if necessary they may be the guarantor for the agreement" (www.cnnturk.com, May 17) .
In Moscow, Erdogan made it clear that Turkey will not re-open its border with Armenia unless Yerevan agrees to find a solution with Baku on Karabakh (Hurriyet, May 18). The Armenian government argues that Karabakh and the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations are separate issues. The Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandyan, stated: "we expect Turkey to take further steps toward normalizing our relations. Now it is time for Turkey to take these steps. I hope that Azerbaijan will show the necessary political desire to solve the Karabakh problem" (Taraf, May 18).
At this important stage in the process, it appears that by referring to a bilateral agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Putin wants to avoid any international pressure on Russia over the process. However, by requesting that Turkey should take further steps, Yerevan -perhaps with Russian guidance- might be attempting to portray Turkey as being responsible for stalling the peace process.