Turkey and Armenia Relations Continue to Warm as Deal to Reopen Border Inches Forward

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 59

Turkish President Abdullah Gul (left) meets with Armenian President Serj Sarkisyan in Yerevan in 2008

On March 17, Congressmen Adam Schiff, George Radanovich and Congressional Armenian Caucus Co-Chairmen Frank Pallone and Mark Kirk introduced a resolution to the U.S. House of Representatives co-sponsored by over 70 House colleagues to recognize the Armenian "genocide" of 1915. The resolution is identical to the one introduced in both the House and Senate in the 110th Congress, which was adopted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee (www.anca.org, March 17). The timing of the legislation is especially critical, since President Obama will visit Turkey on April 6-7. Obama promised his American-Armenian supporters during his presidential election campaign that he would recognize the 1915 "genocide," yet his trip to Ankara will seek to improve U.S. relations with Turkey after the difficulties experienced in recent years.

Moreover, this comes at a time when Turkey and Armenia have finally found a way to talk directly, which could yield positive results after the "soccer match diplomacy" that began when Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul visited Armenia to watch the Turkish and Armenian national soccer teams play (Cihan Haber Ajansi, September 5, 2008). Since then, Turkish and Armenian diplomats have agreed on a successful strategy to improve their bilateral relations. In fact, political observers expect that the rapprochement might precipitate the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border, as early as April (EDM, February 10).

The debate surrounding Turkey’s border policy was sparked after Republican People’s Party (CHP) parliamentarian Sukru Electag claimed that "some Justice and Development Party (AKP) parliamentarians during their visit to Washington in February 2009 stated that the AKP will open the border after the local election in March 29" (Sabah, March 15). Despite the denials by AKP deputies regarding these claims, following a recent visit to Washington one AKP deputy said, "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" (EDM, February 10). In addition, the Chairman of the CHP, Deniz Baykal complained about the AKP’s methods in seeking to solve the Armenian problem. Baykal has accused the AKP of failing to consult the CHP "we learn the latest developments from the U.S. officials" (Radikal, March 17).

Diplomatic traffic between Washington, Ankara, and Yerevan has reportedly prepared the way for positive developments ahead of Obama’s visit to Turkey. Ankara has intensified its diplomacy with Yerevan in order to improve relations with Armenia before Obama’s arrival (Cumhuriyet, March 11). It seems that Washington has also been involved in this process and that it has produced positive results. Armenia’s President Serj Sarkisyan and the U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton recently held a telephone conversation in which they discussed developments between Turkey and Armenia (Milliyet, March 18). Yet, it appears that the supporters of the "genocide" resolution do not share the concerns of the U.S. State Department. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated that Obama’s visit does not change the fact that "there was an Armenian genocide, and there are those of us in Congress who will continue to make that point" (Reuters, March 17).

The trend towards greater economic cooperation has complemented these political developments. For instance, indirect trade between Turkey and Armenia has increased from $30 million in 1997 to approximately $130 million in 2005 (www.tabdc.org, March 13, 2005). Turkish and Armenian businessmen have been actively searching for alternative ways to develop better relations and in 2008 Turkish and Armenian cheese makers jointly produced a new brand (Milliyet, May 24, 2008). Furthermore, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan revealed that 40,000 Armenian citizens live and work in Turkey illegally and he has authorized their continued residence (CNNTurkey, January 28). The Armenian Energy Ministry also revealed that it has updated its infrastructure facilitating electricity sales to Turkey based on an agreement that was signed during Gul’s visit to Yerevan last September. Armenia will initially sell 1.5 billion kwh of its electricity and this will be increased in the future to 3.5 billion kwh (Cumhuriyet, March 17).

Arguably, Turkey and Armenia have never had such close relations. Thus, Turkey does not want this process jeopardized by the U.S. Congress. Ambassador Ahmet Davutoglu, chief adviser to Prime Minister Erdogan, said he was confident that the U.S. administration would not allow the Armenian genocide issue to derail the positive climate in Turkish-U.S. and Turkish-Armenian relations. "All of these things could be debated from a historical perspective, but it should not hijack the strategic vision of Turkish-American relations or Turkish-Armenian relations" (Today’s Zaman, March 21).

Turkey has one clear objective, despite these constructive developments: convincing Azerbaijan about its steps towards Armenia. It appears that in every move made by Ankara it informs Baku about its initiatives. For instance, five days after Gul’s visit to Yerevan, he went to Baku to discuss his visit to Armenia (Hurriyet, September 10, 2008). Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ali Babacan and his Azeri counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov, liaise closely on the subject (EDM, February 10). However, it remains to be seen whether the Azeris will actually accept Turkey’s policy shift towards Armenia.

Turkey’s rapprochement with Armenia will not end the issue of the Armenian genocide claims. Turkish lobbyists have initiated new programs in various universities, aimed at producing academic work to turn the "lost" debate in their favor. Such an approach could engender a lively debate about the issue. However, because of the questionable scholarly attitudes, strategies, and shadowy relations with the Turkish establishment, academics involved in this effort to produce a "scholarly" presentation of the Turkish viewpoint might undermine their cause.