Armenia and Turkey Make Progress on Delicate Task of Restoring Relations

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 31

After months of intensive negotiations, Armenia and Turkey appear to be heading toward a full normalization of their historically strained relations that could redraw the region’s geopolitical map. Such a possibility has become even more likely after the latest flurry of face-to-face contacts between Turkish and Armenian leaders.

The foreign ministers of the two neighboring states have met frequently in recent months to try to build on an unprecedented Turkish-Armenian rapprochement that began shortly after Serzh Sarkisian became Armenia’s new president in April 2008. His Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, underscored the seriousness of the process in September when he paid a historic visit to Yerevan, where together he and Sarkisian watched the first match ever held between the Armenian and Turkish national soccer teams.

Both sides have since sought to keep up the momentum in bilateral contacts. "I won’t be surprised if a resolution happens this year," Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ali Babacan told CNN-Turk television ahead of the January 29 meeting in Davos, Switzerland, between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Sarkisian. The latter described the talks held on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum as "very useful" (RFE/RL Armenia Report, January 30).
The Armenian leader and his foreign minister, Eduard Nalbandian, held follow-up talks with Babacan at the 45th Munich Security Conference just over a week later. "I think that we are moving down the right path," Sarkisian said during a panel discussion there with several other international dignitaries, including Babacan. "If things continue like this, I think that we will be able to talk about a different kind of [Turkish-Armenian] relations in the second half of this year" (Armenian Public Television, February 8). Nalbandian sounded equally optimistic. "We are moving forward and drawing closer to the normalization of relations," he told journalists in Munich (Armenian Second TV Channel, February 7).

Babacan likewise indicated further progress toward the establishment of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey and the reopening of their border, which was closed by Ankara in 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan (Anatolia News Agency, February 7). The Turkish minister proceeded to Baku where he met Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on February 9. Turkish-Armenian rapprochement was reportedly on the agenda of their talks. Azerbaijani policy makers and pundits have been alarmed by a possible lifting of the Turkish economic blockade of Armenia, because they believe that would strengthen Yerevan’s position in the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

A settlement of the conflict acceptable to Azerbaijan has long been the main Turkish precondition for improving relations with Armenia. According to some sources privy to Turkish-Armenian dealings, Ankara is now ready to drop that precondition if Yerevan agrees to joint academic research of the 1915-1918 mass killing and deportation of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. In a 2005 letter to Armenian President Robert Kocharyan, Erdogan suggested that such a study be conducted by a commission of Turkish and Armenian historians. Kocharyan rejected the idea as a Turkish ploy designed to scuttle broader international recognition of what many historians consider the first genocide of the 20th century; but his successor, Sarkisian, has indicated that he is not against the idea in principle, prompting concern from nationalist elements in his coalition government.

The apparent change in Turkish policy toward Armenia has been facilitated by renewed hopes for a near-term solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Aliyev and Sarkisian met in Zurich on January 28 for the second time in three months for what the Armenian presidential press service called "constructive and positive" talks that began in the presence of U.S., Russian, and French mediators co-chairing the OSCE’s so-called Minsk Group. The co-chairs are due to visit Baku and Yerevan again this month to try to narrow the conflicting parties’ differences over the basic principles of a proposed Nagorno-Karabakh settlement. The mediating powers hope to broker a framework peace accord by next summer. Turkish newspapers, citing unnamed Turkish officials, disclosed last week some details of what they called Nagorno-Karabakh-related understandings already reached by the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

Ankara’s apparent readiness to end its long-standing linkage between Nagorno-Karabakh peace and improved Turkish-Armenian relations may well have been precipitated by the prospect of the new U.S. administration officially recognizing the 1915 slaughter of more than a million Ottoman Armenians as genocide. President Barack Obama, as well as Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, repeatedly called for such recognition during the U.S. presidential race. Influential Armenian lobbying groups in Washington led by pro-Armenian lawmakers stepped up their pressure on the Obama administration to honor these campaign pledges last week by introducing a new draft genocide resolution in both houses of the U.S. Congress.

The administration of former President George W. Bush went to great lengths to block the passage of a similar resolution by the House of Representatives in late 2007. Whether the Obama administration will exert similar pressure on Congress is still an open question. Turkish leaders have already warned that genocide recognition by the United States would roll back the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations. Nalbandian disagreed with this assessment at a January 21 news conference (Azg, January 22), suggesting the Armenian government was not concerned about the Turkish threats. The Armenian lobby in the United States has rarely acted on Yerevan’s objections, and it is even less likely to do so at this delicate juncture.