Months of confidential diplomatic contacts and exchanges of unusually cordial statements have left Armenia and Turkey on the verge of an historic rapprochement that would have far-reaching ramifications for regional security. This weekend President Abdullah Gul will become the first leader of modern-day Turkey to set foot in Armenia, in what could be a prelude to the normalization of extremely strained relations between the two neighboring states.
Gul was officially invited by his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian, last June to visit Yerevan to watch the first-ever match between Armenia’s and Turkey’s national soccer teams on September 6. The invitation underlined Sarkisian’s positive response to a Turkish offer of “dialogue” that came just days after he took over as Armenia’s new president in early April. Gul was one of the first foreign leaders to congratulate Sarkisian on his hotly disputed victory in the February 19 presidential election. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan sent similar congratulatory messages to their newly appointed Armenian counterparts.
According to the Armenian government, Erdogan spoke of unspecified “certain steps” that could be taken to improve Turkish-Armenian relations. Senior diplomats from the two countries met secretly in Switzerland in early July to discuss those steps. Turkish officials leaked news of the talks to the domestic media following Sarkisian’s April 9 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, in which he made a case for a “fresh start” in bilateral ties. The Armenian president has since repeatedly expressed hope that Gul will make an historic trip to Yerevan. His government decided on August 14 to waive Armenia’s visa regime with Turkey from September 1 to 6 to make it easier for Turkish soccer fans to flock to the Armenian capital for the World Cup qualifying match.
For its part, Armenia’s main opposition alliance led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian postponed a planned September 5 rally to enable the national police to concentrate on ensuring security in and around Yerevan’s Hrazdan stadium (Haykakan Zhamanak, August 30). In contrast, Sarkisian’s overtures to Ankara were openly criticized by his predecessor Robert Kocharian and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, or the Dashnak Party), a nationalist party represented in Armenia’s governing coalition. ARF leaders reaffirmed last week they plan to stage street protests during Gul’s arrival in Yerevan.
Predictably, the United States, which has long been pushing for Turkish-Armenian dialogue, welcomed Sarkisian’s invitation, with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza saying that Gul’s arrival in the Armenian capital could be a “real ground-breaking moment” (RFE/RL Armenia Report, July 18). Citing diplomatic sources in Ankara, the Turkish newspaper Vatan reported on August 30 that Gul had decided to accept the invitation. The report came as a team of Turkish security officials was due in Yerevan to discuss with their Armenian colleagues the tight security measures that would be taken in the event of the trip.
Gul reportedly insisted on August 30 that he had still not decided whether to visit Armenia. Erdogan, however, implied the same day that the visit would take place and that the Turkish leader would be accompanied by Babacan (Hurriyet, September 1). The Turkish Foreign Minister told journalists in Istanbul on August 31 that a Turkish government delegation would fly to Yerevan this week to discuss preparations for Gul’s trip. He said it would also discuss with Armenian officials the idea, which was recently floated by Erdogan, of forming an alliance of the three South Caucasus states as well as Turkey and Russia. Ankara is ready to include Armenia in the proposed Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform despite having no diplomatic relations with Yerevan.
Successive Turkish governments have made the establishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border, which Ankara closed in 1993, conditional on a resolution of the Karabakh conflict acceptable to Azerbaijan. They have also demanded a halt to the decades-long Armenian campaign for international recognition of the 1915-1918 mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide. Both Turkish preconditions have been and will be non-starters for the authorities in Yerevan, who want an unconditional normalization of bilateral relations, a position essentially backed by the United States and the European Union.
Whether the current Turkish leadership is ready to drop these preconditions remains unclear. Sarkisian held out hope for a policy change in Ankara in an interview with the Turkish daily Radikal on August 28. The two governments, he said, “have reached the decision-making phase” in their dialogue. “Those will not be easy decisions,” he said without elaboration. “Those decisions will not be approved by the entire public in Armenia and Turkey; but I am sure the majority of the public will support positive decisions.”
According to Turkish Daily News, Turkish policy toward Armenia was the subject of a heated discussion during a July meeting in Ankara of Turkey’s ambassadors abroad. The paper wrote on July 25 that some of them had called for a rapid normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations, complaining that they were finding it increasingly difficult to justify the preconditions on the international stage and to keep more foreign nations from recognizing the genocide of the Armenians. But other, more hawkish diplomats urged the Erdogan government to stay the course and continue to isolate Armenia. “Turkish policy on Armenia and Armenian claims of genocide will depend on which of the groups in the [Turkish foreign] ministry will be successful in convincing the government,” concluded Turkish Daily News. “The ruling Justice and Development Party would rather opt for the group in favor of reconciliation.”