Turkey and Armenia: Focusing on the possible, not hoping for the best
Turkey and Armenia: Focusing on the possible, not hoping for the best
Turkey-Greece: A Shimmer of Hope in the Eastern Mediterranean
Turkey-Greece: A Shimmer of Hope in the Eastern Mediterranean
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Turkey and Armenia: Focusing on the possible, not hoping for the best

Last week's announcement that the Armenian parliament is suspending its consideration of the twin protocols signed by the Turkish and Armenian presidents in October 2009 is another blow to the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process.        
But it also may be an opportunity to focus on the possible, rather than hope for the best, in improving Turkish-Armenian relations.
The protocols aimed to establish diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia, recognize and open their mutual border and set up a joint historical commission. The last two steps cannot happen in the near future. So it is time for the leadership in Ankara and Yerevan to focus clearly on the first two. In the past 18 months high-level officials from both countries have met an extraordinary number of times. At a minimum, that relationship should now be formalized to benefit average citizens in need of basic consular services.

The Turkey-Armenia border was closed in 1993 when Armenian forces occupied districts of Azerbaijan surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. The hope last October was that an open border could gradually help encourage a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, buttressing the ongoing talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan brokered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Growing contacts could lead to economic development and greater regional stability and a more balanced Turkish engagement in the South Caucasus.

Azerbaijan, however, did not see it that way. In spring 2009, Baku's leadership began to appeal not only to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan but also to the Turkish opposition to keep the border shut until its occupied territories were liberated. It threatened Turkey's preferential price for its Shah Deniz natural gas supplies and chances of greater volume to feed the planned Nabucco transit pipeline to Europe. In January of this year, for the first time, Azerbaijan provided significant amounts of gas to Russia. Popular mood against Turkey hardened in Baku, with official support and even puppets of Turkey's leaders being burned in some protests.

Turkish leaders decided that they could not ignore Azerbaijani pressure and with difficult negotiations going on concerning constitutional reform, they do not want to pick a fight over border opening with nationalists in the parliamentary opposition -- and within their own ruling party. Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan made increasingly unambiguous statements that without progress on settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the border would not open, even though this was the strategy applied by Ankara since 1993 with little conflict resolution effect.

In the past several months Turkey did succeed in contributing to reinvigorating efforts to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group. Armenia and Azerbaijan are closer than ever to signing the agreement on basic principles that they have been considering since 2005. But they have not narrowed their differences on the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh. While there has been some movement on defining an “interim status” for the entity, Armenia insists that it should have the right to self determination including secession from Azerbaijan, while Azerbaijan says that its territorial integrity cannot be violated.

The Armenian government also did little over the past several months to reaffirm its commitment to difficult aspects of the protocols. Rather it tried to distance itself from the establishment of a committee on the historical dimension “including an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives.” For Armenians such a commission is generally perceived as a fundamental violation of their very national identity. They don't accept that “the genocide fact” can be discussed. Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan made this most clear in an April interview to Der Spiegel criticizing the idea of a historical commission as “calling into question the fact of the genocide perpetrated against our people.”

Both the Armenian and Turkish leadership comes out of the past months weakened. Armenian President Sarksyan has been heavily criticized by his opposition for making too many concessions to the Turkish side, believing that the border could open despite Azerbaijan's firm opposition and losing a realistic chance in 2009 that US President Barack Obama would state that he recognized the mass killings and deportations of Ottoman Armenians 1915 as genocide. The Armenian parliamentary decision is a victory for the more hard-line Armenian diaspora and a defeat of Armenian sovereign foreign policy making.

But with the freezing of the protocols, the Turkish leadership also lost a chance to stave off the international recognition of genocide, as few countries would move on recognition knowing that an inter-state body was looking into it. In the run-up to the centennial anniversary of the atrocities, international recognition of genocide is likely to gain pace.

The decade of confidence building that preceded the Turkey-Armenian protocol signing could now too be lost. Instead, the best step right now would be for Ankara and Yerevan to put aside the most difficult aspects of the protocols but move ahead with their less controversial parts. Despite current troubles, they could proceed with the establishment of diplomatic ties and recognition of their mutual border. These need no parliamentary approval, are purely about bilateral relations and are not linked to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkey and Armenia have a mounting number of bilateral issues to address requiring simple consular services. There are up to 40,000 Armenian citizens living in Turkey, tens of thousands of Armenian tourists visit the Turkish Riviera every year and countless Turkish truck drivers and small businesses operate in Armenia. There are easy opportunities to develop many Turkey-Armenia activities even if the border remains closed. But currently none of these can get effective support from their home country.

To address such basic practical matters, Turkey and Armenia should recognize their borders and establish diplomatic relations. Even in the current difficult diplomatic climate, the leaders of Turkey and Armenia can and should take these initial steps to ensure that their people can build up a prosperous future side-by-side and eventually come to terms with their shared traumatic history.

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