Will the Turkish-Armenian Border Re-Open?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 69

Fence separating Ani, Turkey (right) from Armenia (Enrico Kolina)

Claims relating to the re-opening the Turkish-Armenian border and imminent rapprochement continue to intensify ahead of April 24, the day the Armenian diaspora proclaims as "Genocide Day." The Turkish press has added to mounting speculation of a breakthrough based on a Wall Street Journal article discussing the possible re-opening of the border with Armenia after the signing of a treaty on April 16 (Radikal, April 3; Wall Street Journal, April 2).

On this date, Foreign Minister Ali Babacan is expected to visit Yerevan for the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) summit. On April 8 the Turkish daily Hurriyet stated that given the emotive nature of the issue, either a third-party country or meeting during a multilateral organization summit might be considered more suitable to announce the re-opening of the border. Such a move on Ankara’s part appears unlikely since Turkish officials emphasize that there has been no departure from government policy towards Azerbaijan and the Karabakh issue. Indeed, Prime Minister Erdogan on returning from the G20 summit said it would be impossible to re-open the border, unless Armenia first takes serious steps to resolve the Karabakh conflict (Hurriyet, April 3).

The border issue has been intensified as a consequence of Turkey’s relations with Armenia becoming linked with Ankara’s efforts to build closer ties with Washington. Turkey will attempt to forestall the passage of the "Genocide Bill" submitted to the U.S. Congress on March 17, and dissuade President Obama from using the word "genocide" in his forthcoming speech on April 24, when the White House traditionally issues a statement to mark "Armenian Remembrance Day." Either of these two actions could cause irreparable damage to warming U.S.-Turkish relations.

While there appears to be a window of opportunity following a series of positive developments, Ankara is still cautious on the re-opening the Turkish-Armenian border. Despite its recent success in the local elections, the loss of support for the ruling party has initiated major debates within Turkey. The opposition not only increased its votes, but also gained in confidence. There is growing speculation that Erdogan will make changes in his cabinet (Sabah, March 30). A recent public comment by a government minister regarding the DTP’s victory in Igdir suggested that "They went up against the Armenian border by winning the elections in Igdir," which implied that the Turkish government is divided over this issue (www.nethaber.com, April 9). Although intending to highlight the DTP’s tendency to exploit "identity politics" such statements provide focal points for opposition parties to suggest that the Armenian issue reveals deep fissures inside the ruling AKP.

The nationalist media in turn has turned up the heat on Erdogan by running a series of headlines, highly critical of any changes to government policy on the border issue. "Not in our Interests," typifies the approach and theme of such hostile press coverage. Such negative publicity has also been fuelled by the expression of discontent from Azerbaijan, which appears to be imposing limitations on how far Ankara can press ahead in its efforts to normalize relations with Armenia (Yeni ÇaÄŸ, April 3).

Baku’s open criticism of the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement has in turn highlighted a sense of "betrayal" within the otherwise close relationship existing between Turkey and Azerbaijan. In this context, the refusal of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev to participate in the second forum of the Alliance of Civilizations was another setback for Prime Minister Erdogan, in addition to the ongoing economic crisis, unfavorable results in the local elections and the problems surrounding the appointment of the new NATO Secretary-General. Aliyev’s refusal to participate could be interpreted in Ankara as an objection to "Turkey’s preparations to open its border with Armenia." Turkish diplomats tried unsuccessfully to reverse Aliyev’s decision (Zaman, April 8).

The silence of Armenia throughout this whole episode also created tension. Erdogan’s statements on the Karabakh issue jeopardized Armenia’s Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian’s attendance at the summit. Despite his hesitation, Nalbandian took a later flight to Istanbul to demonstrate Yerevan’s commitment to the ongoing dialogue on reconciliation (Hurriyet, April 8).

Similarly, Ankara wants to see Washington take further positive steps in addressing its concerns on the "Genocide Bill" and will await Obama’s speech on April 24 for signs of improved U.S.-Turkish relations. These factors restrict Erdogan’s scope for further unilateral action on the border issue. In these circumstances, it will prove very difficult for the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations to pave the way for an important change, such as re-opening the border as early as this month. The Turkish government should not be expected to act along these lines, at least not until after the April 24 speech by Obama, allowing it to assess more fully Washington’s position on this issue.