Can Turkey and Armenia Walk the Walk?

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ANKARA — When Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, took the plunge on September 6 and became the first ever Turkish leader to set foot in Armenia, few were immune to the significance of the moment. Even Turkey’s determinedly frosty diplomats began to thaw as they observed their president sitting next to his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan (albeit behind bulletproof glass) at the World Cup qualifier football match pitting Turkey against Armenia. There were a few hisses and boos when the Turkish national anthem was played. But overall, the Armenian fans that filled the stadium were on their best behavior (even after Turkey won the match, 2-0).

Gül’s visit followed a bold invitation from Sargsyan to attend the match. The groundbreaking trip has raised expectations that after decades of mutual hostility Turkey and Armenia will bury the hatchet, establish formal ties and re-open their borders. These were sealed by Turkey in sympathy with their Azeri cousins during a nasty ethnic conflict over the mainly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. Hopes of a breakthrough have been heightened by the conflict in Georgia, which has refocused regional minds on the need for peace. Yet, amid all the euphoria, there are worrying signs that this latest and most serious stab at reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia may come to naught.

On the face of things, one might conclude the opposite: After a lengthy post match session in Yerevan, Ali Babacan, Turkey’s foreign minister, met with his Armenian counterpart, Eduard Nalbandian, for a second time in New York on September 26. They were meant to be putting the final tweaks on a series of accords that are to form the basis for diplomatic ties. A day later the two ministers came together, this time with their Azeri colleague, Elmar Mammadyarov. The tripartite talks, held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, follow the twin Turkish initiatives to revive the plodding Karabakh peace process and to establish a regional alliance grouping the three Caucasus states together with Turkey and Russia. Yet, even as the ministers were grinning before the cameras, sources close to the talks voiced gloom over their outcome. Ominously, Turkish authorities are said to have blocked a deal to sell Armenian electricity to Turkey that was signed soon after Gül’s visit. And Turkish officers were glaringly absent from a joint NATO-led exercise that started near Yerevan on September 29. Turkey had participated in a similar exercise that took place in Armenia in 2003.

Is Turkey getting cold feet, or are the Armenians beginning to wobble? Either way, it is too early to write off peace. Unfazed by assorted saboteurs, Messrs. Gül and Sargsyan say they are determined to push ahead with a deal, and there is little reason to doubt their words. Yet, a closer look at the dynamics underlying this process may help explain why friendship between Armenia and Turkey remains such an elusive goal. The latest set of secret negotiations between Turkey and Armenia have been underway for nearly a year. There were good reasons to be hopeful this time round.

For one, Turkey frets that a U.S. Congressional resolution calling the mass slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 “genocide” is far more likely to pass should the Democrats win this November’s U.S. presidential election. This would trigger a fresh wave of anti-American feelings in Turkey, where hostility toward the United States remains strong. This, in turn, would pile pressure on Turkey’s government to end vital military cooperation with the United States on Afghanistan and Iraq. This is a primary reason why the United States is currently leaning so heavily on Turkey and Armenia to end their quarrel. If they were to do so, the U.S. Congressional resolution might be buried for good.

The other reason for Turkey’s newly dovish stance lies in its ambitions to become a bigger regional player. The recent conflict in Georgia offers Turkey an unprecedented chance to bolster its influence and to help solve the Karabakh problem, but only if it mends fences with Armenia, the new thinking goes.

Turkey’s reasoning sounds perfectly plausible. But it may be overplaying its hand as Turkey pushes Armenia to shelve support for its Diaspora campaign, a campaign that calls for international recognition of the genocide, and allows a commission of historians from both countries to probe the events of 1915 instead. Turkish negotiators reportedly wish to link progress in relations (by establishing diplomatic links and opening the border) to the findings of the proposed “historical commission.” In other words, they almost seem to want Armenia to reverse its position that the mass killings of their Ottoman kin amounted to genocide. If so, the talks are doomed.

Unnerved by President Sargsyan’s decision to go along with the historical commission, hawks within the Diaspora are said to be cranking up pressure on Armenia to walk away from the talks. It is unthinkable that any Armenian leader, no matter how desperate they are for an economic lifeline through Turkey, would ever question that genocide occurred. It is more than political suicide. It’s about an ineffable wound that binds Armenians across the globe and gives them a common identity.

Unlike his hawkish predecessor Robert Kocharian, who put genocide recognition at the center of his foreign policy, Sargsyan is staking his political career on reconciliation with Turkey. “Serzh has taken a big and unwise risk,” declared his chief political rival Levon Ter-Petrossian, during a recent interview. Turkey must not shift the burden of its own lack of historical reckoning with the Ottomans’ darker deeds to Sargsyan. Yet, nor should the Diaspora expect Armenia to mortgage its future to the settling of historical scores.

Turkey and Armenia’s leaders should be emboldened by the flurry of warm feelings triggered by Gül’s visit among their respective peoples. And all sides might take heart from the burgeoning debate in Turkey about the events of 1915. In some ways it mirrors the heated and remarkably frank exchanges about the killings that took place in the Ottoman Parliament in 1918. When Volkan Vural, a high profile former Turkish diplomat, suggested recently that Turkey should apologize to the Armenians and offer compensation, even citizenship for those who were expelled, he was repeating calls by his countrymen made nearly a century ago.

Meanwhile, throwing Karabakh back into the mix may prove just as fatal. There is talk about Armenia agreeing to return a speck of land within the Azeri territories that it occupied in addition to Karabakh. Yet, both Azerbaijan and Armenia have made clear that they want to settle their differences within the framework of the ongoing, though admittedly snail-paced, Minsk Group talks led by Russia, France and the United States.

Indeed, Foreign Minister Babacan’s joint talks with his Armenian and Azeri counterparts in New York may have been no more than a photo-op calculated to arm Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, against the opposition in the run-up to the October 15 presidential polls. Once these are out of the way, optimists opine, Turkey will be free to establish formal ties with Armenia. Most pundits agree that there has to be an “all or nothing” deal between Turkey and Armenia. Diplomatic relations alone are not a big enough prize for Armenia. They need to be accompanied by a re-opening of either rail links or land borders. The exchange of goods and people that would ensue is the best guarantee of a sustainable peace, and it would send a ripple effect throughout the South Caucasus.

The United States must intensify pressure on both sides to finalize a deal in the coming weeks. Otherwise, critical momentum may be lost, and the saboteurs may prevail. As President Gül recently warned, a similar opportunity for peace “may not come again for another 15 or 20 years.”

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