Turkish Opposition Remains Skeptical of Government’s “Armenian Opening”

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 169

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian (L) with his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met the leaders of opposition parties as part of his attempt to brief them about recent developments in Turkish foreign policy, and solicit their support for the government’s "Armenian opening." On August 31, Turkey and Armenia announced the details of a roadmap for the normalization of bilateral relations. The parties initialed two protocols regulating the steps to be taken toward the resolution of contentious issues. To allay concerns among domestic opposition parties and in Azerbaijan, the Turkish government emphasized that the final decision would rest with parliament and that Baku’s views would be taken into account during the parliamentary approval process (EDM, September 8).

Since accomplishing the objectives of normalization would require bold steps and political determination on the part of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, this new initiative is denoted as the "Armenian opening," echoing the recent Kurdish opening. Given the necessity of parliamentary approval, the focus of the policy on Armenia has shifted to the domestic political processes.

Davutoglu, at the urging of Prime Minister of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has taken time out from his heavy international diplomatic agenda to win over the opposition parties for the normalization policy. Davutoglu met Deniz Baykal, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), and the leaders of the Democratic Left Party (DSP) and the Felicity Party (SP) Numan Kurtulmus and Masum Turker respectively. However, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli, who has been the most outspoken critic of the Armenian opening, refused to meet him. Earlier, Davutoglu met Parliamentary Speaker Mehmet Ali Sahin, and he is scheduled to have additional meetings with the leaders of parties that received at least 1 percent of the popular vote in the July 2007 parliamentary elections. He also met the opposition leaders in May, following his appointment as foreign minister (Today’s Zaman, September 16).

One common theme emerging from Davutoglu’s contacts is that the opposition leaders unequivocally state that any progress in Turkish-Armenian relations needs to be contingent upon the protection of Azerbaijan’s concerns over Karabakh. In response, Davutoglu sought to reassure them that normalization with Armenia would not come at the expense of harming ties with Azerbaijan, and that Baku was being informed about the progress of Turkish-Armenian talks (Anadolu Ajansi, September 15).

Another common theme is the skepticism of the opposition parties toward the contents and the form of the Armenian opening, especially the involvement of foreign actors. They continue to view the opening as an agenda imposed upon Turkey by external forces, and believe that the main benefactor of the process will be Armenia.

For instance, SP’s Kurtulmus maintained that according to popular perceptions, the process seemed to be driven by Armenia, and that Turkey appeared to be only a passive player. He asked Davutoglu to correct this image. He also expressed his reservations about the committee of historians, and maintained that the committee would be unlikely to reach a decision disproving Armenian genocide claims. Kurtulmus also criticized the government’s recognition of Switzerland as the mediator between Turkey and Armenia, arguing that as a country that punishes the denial of the "Armenian genocide" claims, Switzerland could not be considered as impartial in this issue. DSP’s Turker, also shared similar concerns (Cihan, September 15).

The main opposition leader Baykal raised the most vocal criticisms. During the joint press brief after meeting with Davutoglu, Baykal noted that the CHP considered foreign policy issues as "state policies" that require a national consensus. He added that his party’s decision to meet Davutoglu was meant to make a contribution to state policy, and should not be interpreted as representing "support" for the government’s agenda. He stated his disappointment with the government’s overall approach to this issue, and reiterated his earlier position that the normalization agenda is imposed upon Turkey. "There is a process and a roadmap underway which is beyond the knowledge of the opposition parties. Now, through these contacts, the government is not asking ‘Let us discuss Turkey’s interests, and formulate [the policies] together.’ The government is saying to us. ‘We are given a roadmap. We decided to implement it; come, help us realize this roadmap.’ This is not an effort to formulate a policy. This is an effort to find support for a program that is already formed," Baykal objected (ANKA, September 15).

Baykal also characterized the two protocols as "traps." He argued that although the protocols satisfy Armenian concerns by laying out the details of Turkey’s re-opening of the border, they fall short of meeting Turkish demands regarding Armenia’s recognition of the Kars Treaty on defining the Turkish-Armenian border, or the renunciation of its policy of having its genocide claims recognized worldwide, and ending its occupation of Karabakh. He expressed concern that the protocols offered no safeguards against the possibility that after Turkey opens the border, Armenia might later renege on its promises. Therefore, he demanded that the government must refuse to sign the protocols. Baykal also speculated that the government would sign the protocols with Armenia on October 13 (Hurriyet, September 16).

Both the Turkish and Armenian governments have to tackle domestic opposition, in addition to the dilemmas of overcoming differences of opinion and building trust in the bilateral talks. Indeed, the Turkish-Armenian declarations recognize the challenges of obtaining broad-based social and political support, and give the parties six weeks to engage in domestic discussions before the protocols are forwarded to parliaments for final ratification.

Given the strength of nationalistic sentiments in Turkey, one challenge for the AKP government has been to present the Armenian opening as a "national" policy, rather than a parochial agenda promoted by the AKP, or a project externally imposed upon Turkey. The six-week deadline has provided an impetus for each government to stimulate debate on the issue, but as the Turkish case suggests this deadline is too unrealistic to facilitate any meaningful and genuine democratic deliberation on a dispute mired in historical memories and current geopolitical conflicts. Davutoglu’s meetings further show that a new conflict is looming over the AKP’s foreign policy when the Armenian opening comes before parliament.