On August 31 a joint statement issued by Turkey and Armenia announced that both had agreed to start talks on the establishment of diplomatic ties and the development of bilateral relations. The parties initialed two protocols to regulate these issues, and the consultations on these will be finalized within six weeks before being forwarded to their national parliaments for ratification (www.mfa.gov.tr, August 31). The announcement generated a heated debate on the future of Turkish-Armenian relations as well as its implications for Azerbaijan and the involvement of other international actors.
The content of the protocols show that the parties built on the progress they had achieved by April, which was interrupted by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s intervention to allay the concerns of Azerbaijan. Following intense bilateral contacts, secret diplomacy and pressure from the United States and European countries, Turkey and Armenia announced a roadmap for normalization in April, the contents of which remained undisclosed. Due to mounting domestic opposition and protests from Azerbaijan, Erdogan reiterated unequivocally that the progress of Turkish-Armenian relations would be contingent upon Armenia’s constructive attitude in its dispute with Azerbaijan. To relieve Azeri concerns, Erdogan emphasized that Turkey would not proceed with normalization, without an end to the Armenian occupation of Karabakh (EDM, May 14). Although there were concerns that the normalization process might have come to a premature end, the parties maintained their secret dialogue facilitated by Switzerland (EDM, June 30).
By reiterating their commitment to the peaceful resolution of regional disputes, the parties implicitly recognize the Karabakh issue, but the protocols make no mention of it, nor set it as a precondition for opening the Turkish-Armenian border. In taking this step despite this "missing element," the Turkish government again raised concerns as to whether it might accelerate the rapprochement with Armenia by decoupling it from the Karabakh issue. Consequently, opposition both domestically and in Azerbaijan expressed discomfort with these developments. In response, Erdogan reconnected the two processes politically, by arguing that the ratification of the protocols would depend on the resolution of Karabakh issue, reflecting Ankara’s concern to keep Baku on board (Vatan, September 2).
The leverage Azerbaijan exerts over Turkish foreign policy led to different interpretations from the Turkish press. The nationalist media continued to express their unconditional support for Azerbaijan’s position and criticized the government’s recent initiatives (Ortadogu, September 3)
Many mainstream commentators, however, maintain that returning to the status quo ante might be difficult, and that instead of seeking to restore Karabakh through military means, Baku should focus on diplomatic measures to free the occupied Azeri territories, and in return grant greater autonomy to the area and open a corridor between Armenia and Karabakh (Milliyet, September 3). Although Erdogan might ideally prefer a maximalist position on the return of Karabakh, other actors within the Turkish government also seem to be ready to settle for such an arrangement recognizing the new reality in the region. In fact, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and President Abdullah Gul are interested in seeing the process through and opening the border by the end of the year (Radikal, September 2), despite Erdogan’s occasional nationalistic outbursts.
Other commentators view the rapprochement as a partly American project and believe that both Turkey and Azerbaijan are urged, if not pressured, by the Obama administration to solve their problems with Armenia. They even suggest that the mediation services provided by Swiss diplomats might only represent a cover for American facilitation between the Turkish and Armenian delegations, which is partly shared by the opposition parties, mainly the Republican People’s Party (Milliyet, September 4; Hurriyet, September 2). The pro-government press, in contrast, challenges these arguments and maintains that searching for foreign actors behind such initiatives reflects a problematic attitude on the part of the Turkish opposition. It presents these recent developments as an achievement of the AKP government and treats them as affirmation of Turkey’s expanding role in regional diplomacy (Star, September 4).
Explaining the normalization with reference to the involvement of outside actors inevitably raises questions about the motivations of "outsiders." At this juncture, the role of energy issues is emphasized by the Turkish media. There is a perception that the process is promoted by the West as part of its energy policies. They speculate that Turkish-Armenian normalization is promoted in order that Armenia might emerge as an alternative route to Georgia for the future transportation of Caspian basin resources (Milliyet, September 3).
Such analyses inevitably ignore the issue of the Russian position. There is already a process underway between Azerbaijan and Armenia toward the resolution of the Karabakh dispute, facilitated by Russia and supported by the United States. Although the Russian side claims that it is playing a constructive role, the Turkish media maintains some skepticism toward Moscow’s intentions. There are media reports maintaining that Russian intelligence found out about the secret talks between Ankara and Yerevan and passed this information to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, which led him to distance himself from Turkey in April (Milliyet, September 3). If such reports are correct, they might indicate Russian efforts to sow seeds of distrust between Baku and Ankara, and undermine policies to integrate Yerevan into a Western orbit.
It is unclear whether Aliyev was aware in advance of the signing of the recent protocols, but Ankara apparently made efforts to inform Baku. Indeed, it has been a growing concern for Ankara to comfort Baku about the secret talks with Yerevan, and regain Azeri confidence since the bitter episode in April. A few days before the recent announcement to sign the protocols, Erdogan spoke to Aliyev on the telephone and sent two special envoys to Baku to brief him on the progress in Turkish-Armenian talks (Zaman, August 28). Azerbaijan’s Ambassador in Ankara Zakir Hashimov said that Davutoglu reassured his Azeri counterpart that the border would not be opened before the resolution of the Karabakh issue (Hurriyet Daily News, September 6).
In the days ahead, a new domestic and foreign policy challenge will confront the AKP government, as it seeks to refine the details of the normalization with Armenia. A breakthrough in Azeri-Armenian talks might untie the knot, but it remains to be seen whether the international and regional pressures on Baku and Yerevan will produce such an outcome.