Armenia frustrated as ties with Turkey remain strained

Emil Danielyan: 5/28/04

Eurasianet Organization
May 28 2004

Hopes for a rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey are fading,
underscored by Armenian President Robert Kocharian’s recent decision
not to attend the late June NATO summit in Istanbul. Despite a flurry
of diplomatic activity, Armenian officials say “no considerable
progress” towards normalization has been made over the past year.

For the last decade, Turkey has effectively linked the normalization
of Ankara-Yerevan ties with resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh
conflict. In mid 2003, Turkish officials first hinted that they were
willing to consider decoupling the two issues, while raising the
possibility that the Armenian-Turkish border could be reopened. Turkey
sealed the frontier in 1993 – at the height of the Armenian-Azerbaijani
conflict over Karabakh – as an act of solidarity with Baku. [For
background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Turkey’s effort to open the border prompted an immediate and prolonged
outcry from Azerbaijani officials, prompting Ankara to retreat. [For
background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Baku argued that if
Turkey opened its frontier with Armenia to trade, it would remove
a vital incentive for Yerevan to make concessions in the Karabakh
peace process, which at present is stalemated. [For background see
the Eurasia Insight archive].

Economic experts say an open Armenian-Turkish frontier would
substantially reduce the transportation costs in Armenia’s
export/import operations, and make the country more attractive for
potential foreign investors. According to a 2003 World Bank study,
the border opening alone could boost Armenia’s GDP by 30 percent.

Now, Armenian officials aren’t expecting to see the border reopened
soon. “Unfortunately, the Turks have lacked the will to separate
relations with Armenia from their alliance with Azerbaijan,” one
well-informed source told EurasiaNet. “As long as they stick to
that policy serious progress in Turkish-Armenian relations will
be impossible.”

Armenia expressed its displeasure via the announcement that Kocharian
would skip the NATO summit. The decision was widely applauded in

Just last June, there existed mounting optimism concerning
Armenian-Turkish relations. Turkey itself raised hopes for
normalization when the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan began sending signals about the reopening the border. In a
policy speech, Erdogan made no mention of the Armenian-Azerbaijani
conflict over Karabakh as he spoke about obstacles to normalizing
ties with Armenia. He instead complained about Yerevan’s continuing
campaign for international recognition of the 1915-1922 slaughter of
some 1.5 Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide. Turkey vehemently
denies that the mass killings and deportations constituted genocide.

The change of rhetoric was welcomed by Yerevan and was followed by
three meetings between the Armenian and Turkish foreign ministers in
June, September and December 2003. Armenia’s Vartan Oskanian emerged
from the talks with cautiously optimistic statements. Other Armenian
sources involved in the dialogue claimed that Ankara has decided
in principle to lift the blockade before establishing diplomatic
relations with Yerevan. Ironically, some of them suggested that the
Turkish government might announce the ground-breaking development
during the NATO summit in Istanbul.

In mid-2003, regional and Western observers said Turkey’s shift
on the Armenian border issue could reflect positively on Turkey’s
long-standing bid to join the European Union. Of late, however,
Ankara’s efforts to obtain a date for the start of EU accession talks
have been damaged by strong French opposition.

For the time being, it seems that the status quo in Armenian-Turkish
relations will hold. Indeed, the speaker of the Turkish parliament,
Bulent Arinc, was quoted by the official Anatolia news agency as
telling his Armenian counterpart Artur Baghdasarian in Strasbourg on
May 19 that his country still wants Armenia to take “positive steps
to settle the Karabakh problem” before making any overtures.

But some observers believe that not much should be read into such
statements. According to Van Krikorian, a prominent Armenian-American
activist and a member of the US-sponsored Turkish-Armenian
Reconciliation Commission (TARC), the reopening of the border this
year remains “more than possible.” [For additional information see
the Eurasia Insight archive].

“The technical evaluations are done, the international community
supports it, and both the Turkish and Armenian people, including
opponents, are ready for it,” Krikorian said. “The real question is
on what terms it should occur.”

“Azerbaijan is clearly, and can be, an obstacle to the border opening,
but not an insurmountable obstacle if Turkey continues on its current
path,” he added.

Editor’s Note: Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and
political analyst.