Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 142

On July 24, the presidents of Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan formally inaugurated the Turkish section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad, which will eventually provide the first ever rail link between the three countries. Speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony, Turkish President Abdullah Gul declared, in an unmistakable reference to Armenia, that “this project is open to all countries in the region who wish to contribute to good, neighborly relations, peace and prosperity” (NTV, CNNTurk, July 24).

Armenia and Turkey do not have any official diplomatic relations and the border between the two countries has been closed since 1993, following the war in Nagorno Karabakh between ethnic Armenians and the Azeri government in Baku. In recent years, hopes of an improvement in relations between Turkey and Armenia have been frustrated by continuing differences over the status of Nagorno Karabakh and—more intractably—the treatment of ethnic Armenians during the final years of the Ottoman Empire, culminating in 1915-16 in the massacre and deportation of virtually the entire Armenian population of Anatolia.

As a result, Ankara has consistently excluded Armenia from its plans to make Turkey into an energy and transportation hub. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (BTE) natural gas pipeline both pointedly circumvent Armenia. The 76 kilometer (48 mile) Turkish section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad is currently expected to be completed in late 2010 or early 2011 at a total cost of $241 million. The initial target is for the railroad to carry 1.5 million passengers and 6.5 million tons of freight in the first year after it comes into service (Today’s Zaman, July 25).

In addition to connecting Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, Ankara hopes that the railroad will form another link in a rail network that will eventually connect, via Turkey, China and Central Asia to western Europe. The Marmaray Project to bore a rail tunnel under the Bosporus and connect the Asian and European shores of Istanbul is currently scheduled for completion in 2011.

Armenia opposed the building of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad, pointing out that there is already a railway running from Tbilisi to Kars via the Armenian town of Gyumri, although it has been out of use since the closure of the Turkish-Armenian border in 1993.

It is currently unclear what concessions Gul envisaged when he apparently made Armenian participation in the new rail project conditional on Yerevan making a contribution to “good, neighborly relations, peace and prosperity.” For the moment at least, the respective positions of Turkey and Armenia on issues such as Nagorno Karabakh and the massacres and deportations of ethnic Armenians in the late Ottoman Empire appear so far apart as to be irreconcilable. Even if the two countries could reach some form of understanding over the latter, a solution to the problem of Nagorno Karabakh is beyond Turkey’s control as it depends on an agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There is currently no indication that one is imminent.

Nevertheless, there have recently been signs of a slight thaw between Turkey and Armenia. Even though the border between the two countries remains closed, there are now regular flights between Turkey and Armenia by both the privately-owned Turkish Atlas Jet and the Armenian state-owned carrier Armavia.

On July 18, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan appeared to confirm rumors in the Turkish media that diplomats from Turkey and Armenia had met in Switzerland for several days of informal talks about ways of improving ties. “Such talks are held from time to time,” said Babacan. “We have problems about current issues and disagreements about the events of 1915. It is essential that these problems are handled through dialogue” (Today’s Zaman, July 19).

The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) also issued a statement admitting that in recent years there had been occasional informal contacts between Turkey and Armenia and noting that Turkey had been one of the first countries to recognize Armenia when it declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. “Meetings between members of the foreign ministries of the two countries are part of these contacts. We believe that no different meaning should be attributed to these meetings,” said the MFA statement (Today’s Zaman, July 19).

A previous series of informal discussions in 2005 failed to produce any result. In recent years, hopes of an improvement in relations have been complicated by events such as the motion brought before the U.S. Congress in fall 2007 calling on the United States to recognize what happened to the Armenians in 1915 as a genocide and the racist murder in Istanbul in January 2007 of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

But, even if diplomats from Turkey and Armenia remain reluctant to be seen meeting with each other, the two countries will come together in the most public of ways later this year. On September 6, the Turkish and Armenian national soccer teams are due to meet in Yerevan in the first ever match between the countries after they were both drawn in the same group in the qualifying stages for the 2010 soccer World Cup in South Africa. Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan has already invited Gul to Yerevan to watch the match. Gul has yet to reply to the invitation. Given the often extreme mutual antagonism between nationalists in both countries, traveling to Yerevan would require Gul to display both personal and political courage; as it would for Sarksyan to attend the return match in Istanbul. But there is also little doubt that, even if it did not produce any immediate results, such “soccer diplomacy” could contribute to a further easing of tensions and perhaps lay the foundations for an eventual reconciliation.