Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia continue to take steps toward resolving their problems through diplomatic channels. High-level meetings coinciding with international gatherings have become an ordinary development, showing the confidence and progress gained so far.
Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian visited Turkey on November 24 to discuss the details of Armenia’s assumption of the rotating presidency of the Organization of Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC). During his trip to the BSEC’s permanent secretariat in Istanbul, Nalbandian also had dinner with his Turkish counterpart Ali Babacan. The two ministers discussed the progress in Turkish-Armenian talks, which had been taking place at lower levels since the historic meeting between the presidents of the two nations in Yerevan and the trilateral meeting between the foreign ministers of Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in New York in September (Anadolu Ajansi, November 24).
Nalbandian emphasized that there were no major obstacles to the normalization of bilateral relations and called for “opening a new page.” He repeated the Armenian position that diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia should be resumed without any preconditions and that Turkey should open the border. Babacan emphasized that Turkey sought a permanent solution with Armenia. He noted the importance of settling the Karabakh dispute and called for accelerating the Armenian-Azeri dialogue (Milliyet, November 25; Today’s Zaman, November 30).
Nalbandian was asked by Turkish journalists, “What makes you so optimistic, despite the fact that the parties are maintaining their positions?” He responded by saying that negotiations were continuing on a “constructive, sincere, and open” basis. He noted that the momentum for solution was there and the parties should take advantage of it (Zaman, November 25). Reflecting the same spirit, Babacan said that all three parties should make the best use of the window of opportunity made possible by the trilateral dialogue. “If the window is closed, it may be difficult to reopen it,” said Babacan (Hurriyet, November 26).
The intention to normalize relations is definitely there, but why did Babacan emphasize the need for urgency? On the Armenian side, there is definitely a desire to end the severe economic problems caused by negative relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. It hopes to settle bilateral disputes and open the country to the outside. Nonetheless, Sarkisian’s approach in favor of a diplomatic solution has increasingly come under criticism by nationalist forces at home and from the Armenian diaspora (EDM, November 25). Failure to deliver acceptable solutions might alienate those elements supporting dialogue.
On the Turkish side, uncertainty about the incoming American administration’s policy on the Armenian issue create an urgency to address the problem. If Turkey can resolve the bilateral problems through diplomatic dialogue with Armenia, it could successfully undermine the Armenian diaspora’s efforts to influence the Obama administration against the Turkish interpretation of the Armenian genocide (Radikal, November 25).
Nalbandian and Babacan decided to maintain high-level meetings between the foreign ministers with the participation of Azerbaijan whenever possible. Commending Turkish President Abdullah Gul for his “wise” decision to visit Armenia in September, Nalbandian announced that Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian would travel to Turkey in October 2009 to attend the next soccer game between the national teams of the two countries (Hurriyet, November 25). Diplomatic sources also disclosed that Nalbandian had invited Babacan to attend the next BSEC ministerial meeting scheduled to be held in Yerevan in April 2009. Although the Turkish side has not officially accepted the invitation, observers expect Babacan to attend this meeting (Zaman, November 27).
A new occasion for holding talks between Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia might be provided by another international gathering later this week. The foreign ministers of Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan will be attending the forthcoming Ministerial Council meeting of the OSCE in Helsinki on December 4 and 5.
The involvement of Azerbaijan is becoming increasingly crucial for Turkey’s own rapprochement with Armenia (Anadolu Ajansi, November 25). For Ankara, having Azerbaijan on board is crucial because it seeks to obtain approval from Baku for Turkey’s normalization with Armenia, such as opening the border or establishing diplomatic relations. For Armenia, maintaining this dialogue is necessary to resolve its bilateral disputes with Azerbaijan, which remain a major obstacle to comprehensive peace in the region. Thus, Turkey is working to normalize its relations with Armenia on the one hand and mediate between Azerbaijan and Armenia on the other.
On December 1 Babacan is on an official visit to Baku at the invitation of his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov to discuss bilateral relations as well as the details of his meeting with Nalbandian. Babacan is expected to explore the possibility of arranging a three-way meeting in Helsinki. Before departing for Baku, Babacan told reporters that the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan would meet with the co-chairs of the Minsk group in Helsinki, following which he would meet his counterparts individually. He did not, however, announce a tripartite meeting yet (Ihlas Haber Ajansi, November 30).
The Babacan and Mammadyarov meeting focused on energy cooperation, regional developments, the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform (CSCP), the opening of Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, and Azerbaijan’s problems with Armenia. They discussed Karabakh issue in detail, and Mammadyarov clarified Baku’s policy on this dispute. During the joint press briefing following the meeting, Babacan reemphasized the urgency of solving the Karabakh problem now, and underlined the connections between solving Azerbaijan-Armenian problems and Turkish-Armenian problems. Although diplomatic observers had expected Babacan to discuss trilateral consultations in Helsinki, no such meeting was announced (www.ntvmsnbc.com; Cihan Haber Ajansi, December 1).
As the noted Turkey analyst Cengiz Candar observed, the OSCE meeting would bring together not only the three countries but also other players that had attempted to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan. If the Helsinki talks could achieve progress in the Karabakh issue, it could pave the way for concrete steps toward normalization between Ankara and Yerevan in 2009 (Radikal, November 25).
Turkey has also used this diplomatic traffic to begin setting in motion the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform (CSCP) that would bring together Turkey, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. Since proposing the organization in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war, Turkey has conducted several meeting
s with the respective parties to ensure their participation. Babacan told reporters that representatives from the five countries would convene for the first time during the OSCE meeting in Helsinki. The members of the group will use the opportunity to specify the goals, principles, and mechanisms of the CSCP (Cihan Haber Ajansi, November 30).