HARBINGERS OF ARMENIAN-TURKISH NORMALIZATION?
Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 19
Armenia is looking warily at the initiative for a South Caucasus regional stability pact, recently launched by Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan (see the Monitor, January 18; the Fortnight in Review, January 21). Foreign Affairs Ministry chief spokesman Ara Papian and Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian stated on January 19 and 21, respectively, that normalization of Turkish-Armenian bilateral relations constitutes a prerequisite to Armenia’s participation in any regional pact. Yerevan defines normalization as requiring Turkey to reopen its border with Armenia and establish diplomatic relations with the neighboring country (Snark, Noyan-Tapan, January 20, 22, 24).
Turkey had been among the first countries to recognize Armenia’s independence, but the hopes for normal relations dwindled in 1993 when Armenian forces seized Azerbaijani territories beyond Karabakh, prompting Turkey to retaliate by closing its border with Armenia. That measure has, in effect, blockaded the most promising direction of Armenia’s foreign trade, with dire economic consequences for Armenia.
In time, Turkey’s position hardened into requiring Armenia to come to an understanding with Azerbaijan over Karabakh as a condition for reopening the Turkish-Armenian border. Yerevan, for its part, continually criticizes that linkage as one which holds Turkish-Armenian normalization “hostage” to the Karabakh dispute and allows Azerbaijan to frustrate that normalization. When President Levon Ter-Petrosian argued that the reopening of the border was economically so vital to Armenia as to warrant a compromise over Karabakh, he was deposed from office in 1998 by the military and security forces, who installed Robert Kocharian as president. Kocharian, however, has recently adopted Ter-Petrosian’s view that Armenia’s economic recovery depends on normalizing relations with Turkey. Partly for that reason, Kocharian is being opposed by Armenia’s military hardliners (see the Fortnight in Review, December 3, 1999; the Monitor, November 24, December 17, 1999, January 10).
Turkish President Suleyman Demirel’s proposal for a regional pact implies a degree of flexibility on the issue of reopening the border. It also entails greater leeway for initiatives by Turkish local authorities and business circles in developing contacts with Armenia. The Turkish provincial governor and the municipality of Kars, near the Armenian border, hosted last week a delegation of Armenian officials representing the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the city of Gyumri and county of Shirak. The meeting produced a decision to reopen the East Gate border crossing once a week for local trade. The local authorities decided to set up a bilateral coordinating committee and launched a proposal to other jurisdictions on either side of the border to join this initiative.
In a move which might until now have seemed unthinkable, Gyumri and Kars signed a town-twinning agreement. A delegation from the largest Turkish cities in eastern Anatolia–Erzurum, Kars and Ardahan–is expected to visit Armenia in a month’s time. Yerevan calls for more ambitious, immediate steps, such as reopening the railroad connections from Kars to Armenia and from Armenia to Baku (Snark, Noyan-Tapan, January 18, 22, 24; Turan, January 22; Turkish Daily News, Anatolia news agency, NTV (Ankara), January 17, 19, 21, 24).
The government of Azerbaijan considers that the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border should follow, not precede, an Armenian-Azerbaijani agreement on resolving the Karabakh dispute, or should at least be contingent on the withdrawal of Karabakh-Armenian forces from the six districts they occupy in Azerbaijan proper. As long as Armenians hold those territories beyond Karabakh, Baku’s negotiating hand on Karabakh remains weak. Baku’s main counterleverage so far has been derived from Turkey’s position, which demands the withdrawal of Armenian troops as a condition to reopening the Turkish-Armenian border. Baku believes that premature concessions by Ankara would make Yerevan even more intractable in the negotiations over Karabakh.
Asked by Baku with some urgency to clarify its position, Ankara seems to indicate that a gradual, possibly piecemeal reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border is being considered as part of a “normalization process.” Turkey appears to share at least to an extent the U.S. position, which holds that economic links would offer Armenia an incentive to become more flexible, both in the negotiations with Azerbaijan and on regionwide cooperation initiatives, such as the proposed stability pact (ANS, Turan, AzadInform, Anatolia news agency, NTV (Ankara), January 21-22, 24).
This approach might hold some chance of breaking the vicious circle in which Armenia’s participation in regionwide pacts depends on normalization with Turkey, while that normalization in turn depends on settling the Karabakh conflict. Progress on those parallel tracks might, in a follow-up stage, make it possible to tackle the ultimate obstacle to a South Caucasus Stability Pact and to stability itself–to wit, the presence of Russian troops in Armenia. Yerevan appears unwilling to address that issue now, but the removal of Russian troops from Armenia–as well as from Georgia–is a fundamental requirement of regional security.
In a related move, Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian made an unprecedented overture by paying a visit to Israel–the first to that country by an Armenian head of state. The four-day, unofficial trip included meetings with President Ezer Weizman, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat. The significance of the visit is apparent from Kocharian’s remarks that Armenia’s relationships with Iran and Syria should be balanced by establishing links with Israel. The president argued as well that Turkey’s, Georgia’s and Azerbaijan’s active relations with Israel contribute to Armenia’s isolation in the South Caucasus, underscoring the need for Yerevan to initiate a policy of “complementarity” in its own national interest. Kocharian and Oskanian were careful to emphasize that their initiative is not directed against Iran’s and Syria’s interests. Those remarks reflect Kocharian’s attempt to wean Armenia away from reliance on Russia and rogue states; the self-justifying undertone of those remarks, however, reflects just as much the president’s difficult internal situation with his military and pro-Russian rivals (Noyan-Tapan, Azg, Snark, Respublika Armeniya, January 20-24).
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