Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 96

Turkey has offered to enter into a “dialogue” with neighboring Armenia that would aim at improving the historically strained relations between the two nations. The diplomatic overtures have prompted a positive response from Armenian leaders, raising fresh hopes for the elimination of a major source of geopolitical tension in the South Caucasus. Ankara, however, has given no official indication so far that it is ready to drop its preconditions for normalizing bilateral ties.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul was one of the first foreign leaders to congratulate Serzh Sarkisian on his highly controversial victory in Armenia’s February 21 presidential election. “I hope your new duty will provide the necessary atmosphere for normalizing ties between the Turkish and Armenian peoples who have proved for centuries that they can live side by side in peace and harmony,” Gul wrote to the new Armenian leader (AP, February 21). Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan sent similar congratulatory letters to their newly appointed Armenian counterparts in late April, both of them stressing the need for a “dialogue.”

According to the Armenian government’s press service, Erdogan also spoke of unspecified “certain steps” that could be taken to normalize Turkish-Armenian relations. “Admittedly we have problems, some of which date back 100 years,” Babacan told reporters in Ankara on April 21, “but the only way of overcoming these problems is through dialogue. Our doors are open to dialogue in this new period” (AP, April 21).

“I would like to reaffirm the Armenian government’s commitment to constructive dialogue and the establishment of normal relations without preconditions,” Armenia’s Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian said in a written reply to Erdogan. Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service on May 1 that he had responded to Babacan’s letter in a similarly “positive way.” “We should not work the way we did in the past, because we failed to solve our problems and to normalize relations. We should work with a new style,” he said without elaborating. Nalbandian found the very fact of a rare exchange of letters between Armenian and Turkish leaders encouraging and expressed the hope that it would be followed by “positive steps.”

Turkey closed its land border with Armenia in 1993, at the height of the Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Nagorno-Karabakh, out of solidarity with Azerbaijan, with which it has a close ethnic and cultural affinity. Successive Turkish governments have since made the reopening of that border and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Yerevan conditional on a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict acceptable to Azerbaijan. They have also demanded a halt to the decades-long Armenian campaign for international recognition of the 1915-1918 mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide. Ankara has reacted particularly furiously (most recently in the fall of 2007) to persistent efforts by Armenian lobbying groups in the United States to push such a resolution through Congress.

Armenia’s leaders, for their part, have rejected any linkage between the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and Turkish-Armenian ties. They have also agitated for genocide recognition, while stressing that they do not regard it as a precondition for improving relations with Turkey. President Sarkisian reaffirmed this policy in a written statement issued ahead of the April 24 annual remembrance of more than one million Ottoman Armenians killed in what many historians consider the first genocide of the 20th century. He made it clear that Yerevan would continue to support the genocide recognition effort spearheaded by the worldwide Armenian diaspora “with multiplied vigor.”

Whether the proposed dialogue is a sign of a softening of the Turkish policy on Armenia or a public relations stunt is not yet clear. The offer seems in stark contrast to the Turkish government’s reported refusal to allow an organization of Turkish and Armenian businessmen lobbying for cross-border commerce between the two countries to open an office in Istanbul. In a May 9 statement, the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council (TABDC) said that it had been ordered by the Turkish Interior Ministry to “cease its activities in Turkey.” The TABDC said the ban was “sending mixed signals regarding the Turkish government’s intentions.” “The rejection letter by the Ministry of Interior in Ankara is all the more surprising as this same government had sought help from the TABDC a few years ago to establish contact with Armenians in Armenia and the Diaspora,” the group’s Turkish co-chairman, Kaan Soyak, complained.

Ankara has stuck to its preconditions despite years of pressure from Washington, which believes that the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations would give a huge boost to regional stability. “I think that there are a lot of people in the upper reaches of the Turkish government who recognize that an open border would change the strategic map here in a very positive way,” US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Matthew Bryza said in October 2007 (RFE/RL, October 24, 2007).

According to David Phillips, an American scholar who chaired a US-sponsored “reconciliation commission” of prominent Turks and Armenians, Ankara came within an inch of opening that border in the summer of 2003. In a book published in 2005, Phillips said the Turks backed off after the U.S. pressure “all but disappeared” with the onset of the war in Iraq. With no such pressure visible at the moment and prospects for a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement remaining uncertain, a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement may still be a long way off.