Turkey’s prospective participation in a six-day NATO exercise in Armenia in September, and the informal Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Astana, reignited the debate on the stalled Turkish-Armenian normalization process. The Armenia 2010 exercise will focus on post-earthquake civil emergency drills.
A senior columnist in the daily newspaper, Radikal, Murat Yetkin, first publicized Turkey’s agreement to participate in the exercise and, if the need arose, the Turkish border would be opened to vehicles in order to supply the disaster-hit areas in the scenario. Local administrative sources were examining the condition of the transportation infrastructure, which corresponded with the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, visiting the region, promoted speculation that it might lead to the “border opening” (Radikal, July 14).
According to a subsequent story in Hurriyet, Turkish diplomatic sources confirmed Ankara’s participation, involving three or four personnel, and added that they were also making the necessary preparations to temporarily re-open the Turkish-Armenian border. Such an opening of the border would involve the transfer of NATO equipment into Armenia, through the Dogukapi border crossing in the Turkish city of Kars, where the governor’s office concluded the roads and railways were in good condition, also adding that the crossing could stay open for a month (Hurriyet, July 15).
Turkish media speculated that such cooperation might help to reduce political tension, and this incident may serve as a model to test the ground for the long-delayed opening of the Turkish-Armenian border. However, Armenian diplomatic sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, signaled that they were not planning to request Turkey’s assistance in this matter. They dismissed the Turkish statement as “a public relations stunt aimed at burnishing Turkey’s image” (Radio Free Europe, July 16).
This harsh reaction underscored the extent of the divisions between Turkey and Armenia. After taking various groundbreaking steps in 2009, which culminated in the signing of the protocols in October, Turkey and Armenia failed to sustain the initial momentum. For its part, the Turkish government had to put the rapprochement process on the backburner, faced with resistance from the nationalist domestic opposition and the concerns raised by Azerbaijan. Nonetheless, Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, maintained on many occasions that Turkey remained committed to the spirit of normalization and would seize every opportunity to continue with the process. For Davutoglu, relations with Armenia remain a major challenge to his “zero problems with neighbors” policy. He maintains that the normalization process, though slow, still continues and if Armenia takes constructive steps, it could prove successful.
However, as Turkish leaders previously emphasized on various occasions, without any concrete progress in the Azeri-Armenian dispute, Turkey will not undertake further steps towards the normalization of its diplomatic relations with Armenia, including the re-opening of the border. Therefore, Turkey has urged the Minsk group to refocus on the Karabakh dispute on the one hand, and work to facilitate the resolution of this conflict on the other.
Responding to a question submitted by a Member of Parliament from the Nationalist Action Party during a parliamentary debate, Davutoglu defended the government’s policy, arguing that the Turkish-Armenian process also stimulated efforts to resolve the Azeri-Armenian dispute.
Davutoglu also noted that the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan pertaining to the return of the occupied Azeri regions were underway. He indicated that negotiations have reached the level of discussing the details for the deployment of an international peacekeeping force in zones from which Armenian forces are withdrawn, though he denied rumors that Turkey also submitted a proposal to supply such peacekeeping units (Anadolu Ajansi, July 16).
Moreover, addressing the Karabakh dispute has been of great concern internationally, especially considering the fluctuating tensions in the region due to deadly armed exchanges between Azeri and Armenian forces along the ceasefire line.
Ahead of the informal meeting of the foreign ministers of the OSCE in Astana, expectations were raised that Azerbaijan and Armenia might achieve some progress. Prior to his departure for Astana, Azeri Foreign Minister, Elmar Mammadyarov, said that he was expecting that an Armenian withdrawal from the Kalbajar and Lachin regions, currently under Armenian occupation, would be tabled during the discussions in Astana. Since these issues were previously agreed upon through Russian mediation, he asked the Armenian side to abide by earlier promises. Nonetheless, he complained that Armenia was raising fresh issues, and deviating from the earlier consensus (www.azernews.az, July 16).
Baku argues that only after its demand for the immediate return of occupied territories is met, can it reciprocate on other demands by Armenia, such as the status of the Lachin corridor connecting Karabakh to Armenia. This position has also been supported by Turkey for some time, so that it could reenergize its own normalization process with Armenia. The meeting between Mammadyarov and his Armenian counterpart, Edward Nalbandian, in Astana as well as the efforts by the Minsk group co-chairs, however, failed to meet such expectations. The Minsk group released a statement stressing that “the efforts made so far by the parties to the conflict, were insufficient to overcome existing differences” and expressed “regret over recent developments that have exacerbated tensions in the region (www.azernews.az, July 17).
Following his meeting with Davutoglu, Mammadyarov held a press conference concerning his meeting with Nalbandian. He criticized his Armenian counterpart, arguing that the Armenian side made a last minute move and stepped back from a deal, despite the fact that they had come close to reaching an agreement. He expressed disappointment with the Armenian side, saying they were not interested in any progress (Dogan Haber Ajansi, July 17).
Davutoglu also regretted the failure to reach an agreement. In an apparent show of solidarity with his Azeri counterpart, he referred to the speculation about re-opening the border. He ruled out this possibility for the time being, adding that no one should have such expectations (Cihan Haber Ajansi, July 17). Last week’s developments underscored, once again, the complicated manner in which Turkish-Armenian normalization is mired in the Azeri-Armenian dispute.