President Obama’s recent visit to Turkey gave it a big boost. But a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement was in the works even before Obama was elected U.S. president. Now, Baku is upset that Ankara and Yerevan are about to make a deal sidelining Azeris’ main concern: restoring sovereignty over Nagorno Karabakh and its surrounding Azeri regions occupied by Armenian forces since early 1990s. Gone with the wind all those days when both Turks and Azeris used to say they were “one nation with two states”?
Ankara and Yerevan intensified their negotiations in August 2007 when their diplomats started to regularly meet in Geneva to discuss the details of establishing “good, neighborly” relations. Once the “technical preparation” was almost complete, President Abdullah Gul’s visit to Yerevan in September last year to attend a Turkish-Armenian soccer match and, later, the meeting between Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, at the recent Economic Forum in Davos, signaled the political will of the two sides to proceed.
Diplomats have confirmed to the Turkish media that Baku was not only fully informed about the progress and details of those talks, but even “in agreement” with the way Ankara has been approaching the rapprochement issue.
Dozens of rounds of talks between the Turkish and Azerbaijani presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers preceded this climax in the Turkish-Armenian thaw. Cengiz Candar, a Turkish journalist who accompanied President Gul to Tehran on March 11, reports that Gul and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, met in the Iranian capital specifically to discuss the issue.
Turkish leaders seem to be surprised by the outrage with which President Aliyev, other Azerbaijani officials, and the Azerbaijani media have responded to the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. Some Turkish analysts maintain that Baku’s “demonstrative dismay” is meant primarily for internal consumption, while others speculate that the intention is to make clear to Moscow, Yerevan’s main supporter, Baku’s readiness to include it in all political processes in the southern Caucasus.
Whatever the reason for Baku’s anger, the Turkish leadership seems to have concluded that having no diplomatic relations with one of its neighbors and keeping its border closed have not produced, and will not produce, any positive movement on three key issues that have frozen the status quo for nearly 17 years.
The first of those is Yerevan’s insistence that the mass killings of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 should be recognized as “genocide.”
The second is Ankara’s demand that Yerevan clearly recognize the current Turkish-Armenian border, and refrain in future from referring to eastern Turkey as “western Armenia.”
And the third is concluding an agreement between Baku and Yerevan on Nagorno-Karabakh and other Azerbaijani territories occupied by Armenian forces.
Referring to serious disputes on all these three points, Turkey “acknowledged” Armenia’s independence in 1991 but declined to extend formal diplomatic recognition. And following the occupation of Azerbaijani territories by Armenian forces, Ankara closed its borders with Armenia in 1993.
For the past 15 or more years, Yerevan has been demanding the opening of the border and the establishment of diplomatic relations “without any precondition.” Ankara, on the other hand, has made both those demands contingent on the resolution of the three main disputed issues. Endless and exhausting talks have been held between all parties involved: Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the “Minsk Group,” consisting of Russia, the United States, and France, to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
But those talks yielded no concrete results. What an irony of history that now a Turkish government with an Islamic background and an Armenian government led by a former nationalist fighter from Nagorno-Karabakh are close to a breakthrough in what was long enough considered a “frozen conflict.”
With technical details reportedly worked out and political will evident in both Ankara and Yerevan, the next few weeks may bring breaking news about the beginning of a historical rapprochement between Turks and Armenians. There are also reports that the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict may be “very close to a settlement,” although the players in each of these two distinct but intertwined dramas apparently don’t want to wait for the other game to be played out first.
The public, however, still doesn’t know much about what the agreements would produce, either with regard to the “genocide,” or the recognition of the Turkish-Armenian border, or how the Armenian-Azerbaijani territorial dispute will be resolved. “Having good relations with Armenia is very good,” said Tulin Kanik, a student of political sciences from Ankara. “But what will happen with their claims on eastern Turkey or with the districts of Azerbaijan still occupied by Armenian forces?”
That both Ankara and Yerevan look confident indicates that people on both sides of Mount Ararat will probably soon hear something they can not only live, but also be happy with. Both Erdogan and Sarkisian know that they have to present their respective populations with a win-win deal. And they also know that, however enthusiastic and supportive the West may be or Russia may become, their own constituencies must accept that deal if they want to survive as national leaders.
(First published on RFE/RL’s website)