Turkey and Armenia Move Closer to a Deal on Formal Diplomatic Relations

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 27

Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan

In light of recent events surrounding Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s harsh denunciation of Israeli policies in Gaza, one of the emerging concerns of Turkish diplomats is that there may be "a possible attempt in the U.S. Congress to recognize the events of 1915 as ‘Armenian genocide.’" These diplomats fear that the bill could pass easily if the pro-Israel lobby in Washington withdraws its support for Turkey (Hurriyet Daily News, February 8).

In response, the Turkish side has developed a stance that was first outlined by Erdogan: "Some people argue that Turkey’s stance against Israel will bring a burden on Turkey’s interests. Turkey is a powerful country that should not act on the basis of what others would say. Instead, they should consider what Turkey would say" (Star, February 4). Relied on greatly in recent weeks, this statement has almost become Erdogan’s motto on the issue.

Knowing that Erdogan, like any other Turkish politician, is the type of politician who always portrays Turkey as a powerful country in his speeches addressed to domestic audiences, one may assume that Erdogan is making such bold statements for propaganda purposes before the upcoming election on March 29. However, these recent statements do not seem to be merely propaganda. In fact, as the possibility of an Armenian genocide resolution increases each day, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan and Suat Kiniklioglu, who serves both as the spokesman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the AK Party Deputy Chairman for External Affairs, have recently made similar statements echoing Erdogan’s tone.

For instance, when reminded that the pro-Israel lobby is upset about the Davos crisis, Foreign Minister Babacan sent a rather bold message to the pro-Israel lobby, stating that "without Turkey’s support it is not easy for Israel to maintain its existence in the region" (Yeni Safak, January 29). A few days later, Babacan softened his tone to acknowledge that Turkey’s harsh stance on Gaza did indeed irritate a certain pro-Israel lobby but underlined Turkeys’ unchanged position: "Turkey has nothing to fear in history. We offered to set up a commission of historians, but Armenia did not accept this. We still insist on this proposal" (Today’s Zaman, February 3).

However, Turkey’s tone toward a possible resolution in the U.S Congress recognizing the 1915 events as "genocide" has recently become tougher again. On February 9 Babacan stated that "it is not a right approach that the third countries get involved in issues that are being discussed between Turkey and Armenia. Third parties should not harm the process by interfering in the process" (Yeni Safak, February 9).

It appears that the Turkish side has good reason to worry about an intervention from the U.S. Congress. After the Davos crisis, AKP deputies Suat Kiniklioglu and Cuneyt Yuskel visited Washington to test the waters regarding the position of the pro-Israel lobby and discussed a possible resolution of the issue. It was reported that both deputies later returned to Turkey with a rather pessimistic impression: "[The] [p]ro-Israel lobby will stay neutral if a genocide resolution is brought to the Congress; in case a resolution passed, Turkey should not hold Israel responsible as such a policy would make the Congress upset; and in order to prevent such genocide resolution, Turkey should open its Armenian border" (Zaman, February 9).

In fact, Suat Kiniklioglu said that the "Armenian lobby is working hard to bring the resolution to the attention of Congress for a vote." Kiniklioglu admitted that he thought that, for now, it "is likely that such resolution will be brought to the Congress." However, Kiniklioglu warned against the passage of such a resolution:

Turkey and Armenia are very close to a deal to open embassies in Ankara and Yerevan and it is very likely that the Turkey-Armenia border will be opened soon if the third parties do not harm the process. And more importantly, Azerbaijan is cooperating with Turkey in this process. Thus, the U.S. Congress should not get involved in this process by accepting such a resolution. It would not only harm the Turkey-Armenian dialog but it would also harm Turkish-American strategic relations at every level and every stages of the mutual relations; including cooperation in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and other places and issues (interview with Jamestown, February 9).

In light of the rather pessimistic feedback from Washington, during a meeting between Foreign Minister Babacan and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the 45th Munich Security Conference last week, Babacan explained Turkey’s concerns about the Armenian genocide issue (Radikal, February 10). In addition to the meeting with Biden, Babacan also met with Armenian President Serj Sarkisyan and Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian during the conference.

After his meeting with Biden, Babacan travelled to Baku accompanied by Azerbaijan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Elmar Mammedyarov. On his way to meet Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Babacan explained the series of recent developments to Turkish reporters, noting that "Turkey-Armenia and Azerbaijan-Armenia relations are similar to two trains that are running from opposite directions to meet at one station and the process is not a slow one" (Radikal, February 10).

According to a Turkish journalist who traveled to Baku with Babacan, an outline agreement was reached between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Karabakh after several meetings at the presidential and foreign minister levels. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)’s Minsk Group, created in 1992 to encourage a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the conflict over Karabakh, has visited Baku and Yerevan in recent few months. According to reports, the Minsk Group has facilitated a tentative agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia concerning the return of seven towns in Karabakh that were seized by Armenia in 1991-1993 and remain under the control of Armenia. These provinces may be handed back to Azerbaijan within a designated period, and Azerbaijani refugees will be allowed to return their homes. The status of Karabakh will be discussed later, but for now Karabakh will be handed over to an interim government, and new corridors will be opened between Armenia and Karabakh, according to this draft agreement (Sabah, February 10).

President Sarkisyan also underlined that Turkey and Armenia are close to a possible deal to initiate formal relations in the second half of 2009 (Hurriyet, February 10). Despite all these positive developments, the possibility of U.S. involvement in the process by recognizing the "genocide" of 1915 remains a high risk that could ultimately undermine the success of these negotiations. It will be a test for the new Obama administration as to whether it will act accordingly by allowing these negotiations to continue their present course, or whether it will permit the passage of a new genocide resolution – a resolution that would likely destroy much of the progress made between Turkey and Armenia in recent months.